The Eagle: Absolutely gorgeous nature scenery for this strange tale of a Roman soldier desperate to restore his family honor by finding and fetching the eagle standard of the Ninth Legion, lost in Roman-occupied Britain. Rome is the villain and yet everybody is won over by it and finds its whole honor and conquest and killin’ folk thing sort of endearing by the end; Marcus, our Roman, saves a British slave from death in the arena and then the enslaved Briton Esca is slowly won over by his whole obsessive self-lacerating Roman weirdness. There’s a passage where Marcus has to pretend to be Esca’s slave, except Marcus really will be killed if he breaks character and it’s not clear how much Esca is pretending…. It’s all very emotional, “Romans always have a lot of feelings” as a friend commented on this film, and both of these two men are so flamboyantly bizarre about trusting and sacrificing for one another that this would be a real guilty delight if only, IF ONLY, the two leads were not so wooden. Channing Tatum as Marcus does less acting than most of the trees in this movie.
You Can Count on Me: A rewatch; Laura Linney and a ticless, unselfconscious Mark Ruffalo are a brother and sister at once damaged and bound together by their parents’ death when they were children. I watched this initially because Terry Teachout said it was one of the best portraits of small-town life that he knew. Everybody knows everybody; you can never get out from under them, you see your boss or your mistress at church. The sheriff who told you you’d just become an orphan can spot you in the cafe twenty years later and come chat about your brother’s personal problems. On rewatching what I especially loved was that this film lets its two main characters do genuinely awful, hurtful things, which don’t even disrupt the siblings’ mirrored self-righteousness, and yet still somehow you do love them and want them to find some way to be okay.
I don’t think the titular line is ever actually spoken but it pulses through the whole film: all the promises we make, and in some sense do keep, even though it isn’t the sense we meant. Even though we wanted to keep them in a better way than this.
True Stories: Recommended to me as the best movie about Texas and boy howdy, I see why. Directed by and starring David Byrne of the Talking Heads (!), this 1986 joint has the weird, apocalyptic, parodic edge of Population: 1 or even Shock Treatment, but not lacerating, instead teetering on the edge of twee. It would be queasily, dishonestly wholesome if it weren’t a) so much fun–the surrealist fashion show! “Wild Wild Life”!, and also b) so penetrating, so willing to expose while still giving the benefit of the doubt. The Texans here are Americans, only more so: They all harbor a strange loneliness, a pressure toward love which they can’t help expressing in absurd, barely-communicable ways. Everything from the rise of the personal computer to a platter of pigs in a blanket becomes an optimistic lunge toward relationship with another person. An endless drive alone in your car with the windows up, passing all the blank aluminum-sided warehouses, but full of hope and longing. “Who can say it isn’t beautiful?”
What Keeps You Alive: Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) arrive at Jackie’s childhood home, deep in the woods by the lake, to celebrate their one-year anniversary. From the beginning there are hints of undercurrents in their relationship, uncertainties, which are sharply exposed when an unexpected visitor reveals something Jackie never told Jules about her past. Jules’s reaction also seems off-kilter, and her responses increase the tension as the women’s relationship tilts on its axis. The camera swoops and stalks them like a bird of prey.
And then, 26 minutes in, there’s a genuinely shocking twist. Which I won’t tell you! Go in not knowing! (It’s streaming on US Netflix.)
The rest of the film plays out the implications of this twist, and tbh, here it slowly loses me. Most of the film is highly suspenseful, but the pacing becomes uneven in the back stretch. There’s also an extended psychologizing explanation for one character’s motives, which are basically the least-interesting motives she could have. This bit reminded me of nothing so much as the requisite tweed-clad, pipe-smoking headshrinker who comes in at the end of like Psycho or whichever ’40s-and-onward horror flick to lecture us about abnormality. Don’t care, don’t want!!!
And yet… this movie doesn’t only captivate because of Allen’s cagey-yet-vulnerable performance as Jules, or that shocking twist, or that mobile camera, or the creepy theme song, although these are all great. It’s also a film, like Honeymoon (whose setup it shares) and in a different way Demon, about the terror of marriage: You’ve pledged your future to this person, but what do you really know about her past? How do you know what’s behind her eyes?
And making the central couple gay adds an additional sad, scary level, because of some of the stuff Alan Downs talks about in The Velvet Rage and Niko Maragas hints at here: Gay people, many of whom receive an education in self-hatred, may find in their experience of homophobia a reason for solidarity and mercy–or a covert pressure toward mistrust, anger, and violence. I think I’m not just overreading when I say telling this story with a lesbian couple makes the themes of disclosure and violence even more raw. Anyway, if any of my queer readers do watch this thing, I’d be interested if you have this reaction as well, and specifically what you think of Jules’s reaction in the first scene where she begins to learn about Jackie’s past.
Night Tide: It’s 1961, and Dennis Hopper is falling in love with a lady who may be a killer mermaid! The posters are fantastic, and this film was directed in glorious black and white by Curtis Harrington, who also gave us the excellent Games and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? So I’m sorry to say that this film did not ring that bell for me. There are some great shots of Hopper especially–the camera seems white-hot on him–and a memorable moment where he leaps onto a railing and his huge shadow dances across the shuttered amusement pier. But the dialogue is perfunctory, and both Hopper and his love interest seem to drop each line with a clunk. (There’s also one of those b&w-era Let’s Explain The Psychology scenes :/) The film does have Harrington’s signature attention to music, which weaves jazzily throughout, including, as the opening credits inform us, “Bongos by CHAINO.” …Streaming on Kanopy, so you may be able to watch it with your library card.
Photo of lady who’s probably not a real mermaid via Wikimedia Commons.