A real variety pack today.
Byzantium: Neil Jordan vampire flick about two women, whose relationship you gradually come to understand as the movie progresses, who return to the seaside town where their lives began and unraveled. This did not quite do it for me but those interested in horror tales centered on women might check it out.
Born in Flames: Riot Grrrl foreshadowing classic. Punk, choppy, pointillist tale of women in revolt in a near-future New York City where a socialist government has (SHOCKINGLY) not lived up to its promises. Ends with an act of violence which resonates very, very differently today than it did in 1983. I enjoyed this immensely, largely because of the music and the general ramshackle, hipshot attitude of rebellion.
Tusk: Kevin Smith laughs at the idea that horror fans might find some meaning or poignancy in what we watch. Such a slappable movie, in part because I genuinely would enjoy this ridiculous plot if it were done with ’70s commitment (a la Eaten Alive) rather than contemporary self-referential sneering.
Super Dark Times: A decent if not especially revelatory film about bored, angry teen guys who get in over their heads becomes an even less revelatory film about an actively predatory teen. If you want something with a similar depressive atmosphere but much more to say about purposelessness and male violence–and if you’ve got a very strong stomach–I would recommend Deadgirl.
Another Country: Fictionalized riff on the Cambridge spy ring. The framing story has a journalist coming to visit Not Guy Burgess in Soviet Moscow, to get his explanation of why he spied for the USSR. The central story is about NotGB’s (Rupert Everett) years at Eton, where men were toffs and boys were nervous; or, let’s say, where homosexuality was a harshly-punished oasis of tenderness in a militaristic world.
There’s little within the film itself to set against NGB’s self-justifications, or suggest that his revolt against what he saw led him to embrace something worse unseen. (The plotline of Another Country can’t help but read, to this little black duck, as the same plotline as The Witch, with Eton as hyper-Protestant untrustworthy patriarchy and a literal baby-eating witch as Stalin.) What made it stand out in my memory, and in fact I have thought about it a lot since I saw it, is the use of “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
That’s the hymn you hear the school choir singing, and it’s where the movie’s title comes from. Go and read the history of the hymn, and the reason one verse was never set to music. The story of “I Vow to Thee” is the story of a man identifying fighting for one’s country with spiritual battle in God’s service; and then learning all the ways that isn’t true. There’s one frankly heavyhanded line in Another Country in which a student teases (something like), You think the Soviet Union is a perfect heaven. I think this, plus the movie’s title, make it the story of the defeat of worldly hubris: the defeat of a man who thought he could serve a country totally different from the one in which he’d suffered, and who learned, though he still won’t admit, that no country on this earth is really “another country” to cruelty. That moral would be trite if it didn’t go unspoken; it becomes poignant because it’s adamantly denied.
Summer Hours: Heartfelt film about a family whose matriarch is entering her final years, as her grown children debate the meaning of the art collection she’s acquired and the legacy of her famous uncle. I am pretty instantly invested in movies about nostalgia, about the blurred line between honoring the past and being shackled by it, and I also love films which capture that atmosphere of late summer, lazy and sultry and shadowed by the coming autumn. So I found this very moving.
Titicut Follies: If you want to see this documentary shot in the late ’60s at a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane, you probably already know about it. It is just as harrowing as you would expect; you can probably predict that nakedness would be a tool of power and humiliation, but this film really hammers on questioning (in the psychiatric interview, and in the awful trip to the shower) as a method of abuse. Nor does Wiseman shy away from the horrific acts some of these patients have committed. I was also struck by the way Wiseman weaves singing and music throughout the movie: the traditions of the inmates and staff, and the way they beautify an environment which would seem to resist any attempt at beauty. Depending on where you live, you may be able to watch this long-inaccessible film on your library card.House: This is not the bonkers Japanese horror film also known as Hausu, but rather the 1986 extremely American horror film about the Vietnam War. Veteran and thriller author Roger Cobb (William Katt), bereaved and divorced and struggling with writer’s block, returns to the house where his son disappeared, and discovers that it holds an otherworldly secret. Honestly, I watched this at an emotionally-vulnerable time, but I thought it punched way above its weight class. PTSD (and the fears and stereotypes with which other Americans regarded Vietnam veterans) is simultaneously its own specific thing, and a way of talking about every other kind of harrowing memory, every other way in which the past distorts our ability to hope and connect to others. The seemingly-intact house is the broken family, just like in all those aching Mountain Goats songs, and all its windows open onto a howling void.
Coriolanus: 2011, Ralph Fiennes as the title character, lots of modernizing touches like TV news and sniper fire, but the modernization is done to make the story more vivid and intelligible as a universal story, I think, rather than to make some point about our own time specifically. Fiennes is fantastic, the music is stellar, the modernization is pure pleasure, and since the whole story is about the meanings of self-abasement you know I am there. Loved it.
Creepshow: George Romero and Stephen King collaborate on an ultra-’80s tribute to horror comics, and it is so dumb and so, so fun. The stories are nicely varied but not especially interesting in themselves. I got quite a bit of self-lacerating pleasure out of spotting the role alcohol plays in almost all of these tales, bless you early-’80s Stephen King, bless your pickled heart. But the real joys are the music, the phenomenal incorporation of comic-book imagery into live-action filmmaking, and the sheer glee that radiates from every neon frame of this silly, silly movie.
Still Walking: In many ways this movie resembles Hirokzau Kore-eda’s later After the Storm: A failed artist/writer played by Hiroshi Abe, with a complicated relationship to a young boy and a mother played by Kirin Kiki, attends a family gathering which exposes all his insecurities. There’s even basically the same joke about how Abe is so tall that he keeps bumping into things, it’s a metaphor! And just as in After the Storm, the music is so distracting and trite. I was ambivalent about After the Storm, but I truly loved Still Walking–in spite of that music, and in spite of a brief voiceover which I think was literally completely unnecessary, telling us nothing we couldn’t have guessed from what came before and after.
Victor Morton thought this film lacked a strong “throughline,” and I think I disagree: It’s the story of both the audience and main character Ryota discovering some of the reasons for his family’s unhappiness–some of the ways in which his parents didn’t prepare him well for the life they wanted him to lead–and these revelations change the way he approaches his own life. There are several quietly shocking scenes, and they are all scenes which expose the inner life of the mother (the phenomenal Kiki, funny and horrifying and sad, like camp turned inside-out so only the repression shows): the explanation of why she invites Yoshio every year, the meaning of the Yokohama song, the one-sided conversation about whether her son should have children; the butterfly. Both she and the father (Yoshio Harada; “You don’t know what a man’s work means to him”) will break your heart even as the film slowly reveals the ways in which they’ve “This Be the Verse”‘d their son.
The punctuation shots of the sky are awe-inspiring. Both of the younger women (Yui Natsukawa and “You”) are also delightful, the sister who’s so used to her parents and the wife who is trying so transparently to please her in-laws. (This is also maybe the only movie I’ve ever seen which even tries to explore the ways in which people who remarry after their first spouse dies, and the people who marry them, are judged and humiliated for it.) Still Walking seems to meander for a while, but once the revelations begin, the film grips you without ever descending into showiness or melodrama.