This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, my subchallenges were ten movies for a Criterion based annual challenge, five films from the Scandinavian revival film movement (there will be overlap with the Criterion challenge) and five films produced or directed by Zach Snyder (there will be no overlap with the Criterion challenge.)
As a sidenote, I saw a list of top ten film movements and it seemed odd to include the Scandinavian revival, as by all measures, it was largely based on the work of two directors: Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer. It does remain a movement I’m unfamiliar with, so it seems worth diving into.
Movie #151: Tenet (Blu-Ray)
On this watch, I do appreciate the protagonist’s arc as he makes legitimately difficult decisions when manipulating others while facing a complex existential threat, and the care Christopher Nolan puts into the details of the plans. On the third watch, the interest in Elizabeth Debecki’s arc is justified as I know where the story’s going, and how it fits several themes (the mix of personal and private drama, the careful planning these people put into figuring out where to go next, the significance of an individual, etc.)
Movie #152/ New Movie #108/ Criterion Challenge #1: The Flying Ace (Facebook)
I was surprised to find a video on the Facebook account for a group involved in restoration of obscure silent films (Retrogarden) although the quality and commentary were decent. Ten minutes in is an interesting metaphor of an airplane joystick that provides a context for subsequent exchanges. There’s a theme of ordinary folk wanting to be movie heroes, in a story that is very much of its time (a World War one hero becomes a railroad detective.) There’s a bit of a summer stock quality evident in non-studio silent films but it is enjoyable. The character of Peg is a legitimately impressive movie sidekick.
Movie #153/ New Movie #109/ Zach Snyder Film #1: Dawn of the Dead (Blu-Ray)
A zombie movie with 21st Century production values. It does show what it takes to live through the apocalypse, with people pushed to the limits and slowly figuring out what’s going on. The characters are more complex than you may expect from Snyder or zombie movies, partly because we get an actual sense of the passage of time.
Movie #154/ New Movie #110/ Criterion Challenge #2: JSA Joint Security Area (Arrow Video)
It’s a procedural with a fantastic set-up (an investigation into a shooting on the Korean border) that is a bit of a reverse Chinatown, in that the truth is better than expected even if it is quite politically inconvenient. Has a lot to say about the dehumanizing effects of the border, and how the human spirit can persevere despite that.
Movie #155/ New Movie #111: Shang-Chi (Movie Theater)
It’s a good example of Marvel adapting existing genres to its world, in this case Wuxia martial arts cinema. Simu Liu’s lead probably isn’t one of the five best performances in the film, but it works. It is odd to see the Mandarin as a tragic villain, but Tony Leung sells his whole history, his stints as a crime boss and the years in between.
Movie #156/ New Movie #112: Candyman (2021) (Movie Theater)
It’s much more of a direct sequel than I anticipated, expanding the mythos with a good sense of setting and history. There are some interesting, deliberate choices and it raises some weird questions about how the victims are chosen. There are some great touches, like the mirror murders and the animated flashbacks. It does ultimately have a lot of people take a child’s game way too seriously.
Movie #157/ New Movie #113/ Criterion Challenge #3: Stop Making Sense (DVD)
It may deserve its reputation as the ultimate concert film. It’s a very nicely shot take of a top-tier band at the height of their powers doing a visually interesting concert (directed by future Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme) with some unconventional choices and a magnetic/ oddball lead in David Byrne.
Movie #158/ New Movie #114/ Criterion Challenge #4: Shadows (DVD)
It’s a different sense of 1950s New York than we’d see in most movies of the time. There is an amateurish quality to Cassavettes’ debut, but it feels real and raw, while tackling a very loaded question, when a white guy realizes his girlfriend is mixed-race and offends her family.
Movie #159/ New Movie #115/ Criterion Challenge #5: The Color of Pomegranates (DVD)
I went into the film cold, and saw a movie that was quite visually striking, but just completely outside my frame of reference. It’s about and in the style of an Armenian poet, and definitely has a sense of visual poetry, but it probably requires significant context to make sense. It’s hard to tell when something is a metaphor, and what’s meant to be taken literally. There’s an interesting use of color, where they focus on subtle distinctions between similar colors rather than major contrasts. It’s bold and avant-garde in the best way. I definitely need to see it again, perhaps after learning more about the subject.
Movie #160/ New Movie #116/ Zach Snyder Film #2: Sucker Punch Extended Edition (Blu-Ray)
Sometimes it’s visually interesting and sometimes it seems like cheap CGI. The narrative tricks are somewhat emotionally distancing. The action set pieces are just devoid of stakes because it’s a fantasy within a fantasy, although the club saga is compelling at times. It is obvious that it revels in what it critiques, but it may get reevaluated with Snyder’s new cult following.
Movie #161: Catch Me If You Can (Netflix)
The advertising and Youtube highlights suggest an outrageous and fun movie with some of the all-time great cons, but Spielberg & DiCaprio are able to convey the drama of a scared teenager pretending to be an accomplished adult.
Movie #162/ New Movie #117: The Discovery (Netflix)
One of those films worth exploring just to see why it didn’t work out. It had a good cast, and an interesting concept (the world deals with proof of an afterlife) although it’s quite bleak, which makes sense in a story about lots of suicides. A central problem is that I just don’t buy the American response to proof of an afterlife, which would make sense in a more atheistic nation, but not a country as religious as the US. Jason Segel’s lead is dull and overly restrained.
Movie #163/ Criterion Challenge #6/ New Movie #118: The Swimming Pool/ La Piscene (Movie Theater)
The most interesting question of the film may be how it managed to be a surprising arthouse hit this summer. It’s good, but not considered all that great. It’s not especially influential. The cast isn’t A-list. But I get it. People stuck in New York for the second summer wanted to see beautiful people at parties in the French Riviera. There’s enough mystery and ambiguity about character motivations that it remains rewatchable. Younger filmgoers can identify with the main characters, while older viewers may have fond memories of the time.
Movie #164: The Death of Stalin (Netflix)
This movie’s growing on me as one of the best and most rewatchable films of the decade. This time I appreciated how close Beria (a legitimately great film villain) came to winning, to being the reformer who changes his reputation post-Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev may very well be Buscemi’s best role, although Jason Issac’s Zhukov is even better, as the alphaest alpha male.
Movie #165/ New Movie #119/ Snyder (Produced) Film #3: Wonder Woman 1984 (Movie Theater)
For whatever reason, it was playing on Regal cinemas one weekend, and with all the action set pieces and grand locations, it’s definitely worth seeing in theaters. There are some obvious blind spots in the narrative (the lack of concern for ordinary people affected by the events) and it seems clear Gal Gadot is not on the level of her costars. Her arc seems a bit weaker, although the film is clearly about something and highlights what makes Wonder Woman special.
Movie #166/ New Movie #120/ Criterion Challenge #6: Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Amazon Prime)
An excellent thriller that gives a good sense of New York at the time, even if it is a little idealized. There’s a lot we don’t know about the characters, but we know what we need to. The storytelling is excellent, with some nice swerves about made-up features of New York City subways like the dead man’s switch and how it is overcome. Walter Matthau is decent as a Subway cop who was not prepared for this kind of situation. Shaw and Balsam are an interesting villain duo; one is a ruthless mastermind, and the other is an ordinary schmoe with insider knowledge.
Movie #167/ New Movie #121/ Criterion Challenge #7/ Scandinavian Revival #1: Summers with Monika (Blu-Ray)
It’s an interesting well-told story of young love and how it curdles. A teenage romance gone bad is quite compelling in Bergman’s hands.
Movie #168/ New Movie #122/ Criterion Challenge #8/ Scandinavian Revival #2: Smiles of a Summer Night (Blu-Ray)
When Ingmar Bergman makes a romantic comedy, it’s not surprising that it goes further than most, with higher stakes, suicide attempts and some weird revelations in addition to the usual manipulations.
Movie #169: Goodfellas (Movie Theater)
It’s the best crime movie by the best crime director. With this rewatch I had a good sense of why crime was so appealing to the blue-collar Henry Hill, and how the crazy stuff they did made sense to them. The excesses of crime are captured better here than in any other film.
Movie #170/ Zach Snyder Film #4: Batman- Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (Blu-Ray)
It’s the extended cut of a film that was already too long. The problem with the first two acts is that Lex Luthor is mainly a generic mad scientist, although Doomsday becomes legitimately impressive towards the end of the film. The central conflict between Batman and Superman is set up pretty well, with two iconic heroes having understandable contrary positions, and the film does pick up when Wonder Woman makes her debut (possibly the best scene in any of the DCEU films so far.)
Movie #171/ New Movie #123: Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Movie Theater)
It’s certainly a step up from the first one, embracing the weirdness of Eddie Brock’s partnership with the symbiote. Woody Harrelson’s Carnage and Naomie Harris’ Shriek are decent Marvel villains. It’s a fast movie as one of the shortest superhero films. The ending may have the loudest applause of any movie I’ve ever seen.
Movie #172/ New Movie #124/ Scandinavian Revival #3/ Criterion Challenge #9: Day of Wrath (DVD)
It’s similar to Dreyer’s best-known project The Passion of Joan of Arc, another ninety-ish minute black and white period piece about a trial and allegations of a religious crime where the penalty is being burned alive, as well as some of Bergman’s work (a stepmother/ stepson relationship that takes a different turn from Smiles of a Summer Night.) It’s quite austere, but that acts as a contrast for Anna’s later joy and passion. It doesn’t go with the cliched direction you may expect from the plot. It’s not about someone wrongly accused, but more about what it’s like to be a flawed person living in a world where these types of allegations destroy lives, a metaphor for Nazi-occupied Denmark. A fantastic beginning to the Scandinavian revival.
Movie #173/ New Movie #125/ Scandinavian Revival #4: The Red Line (DVD)
I tried to go outside Bergman and Dreyer to see if the Scandinavian revival movement extends to other directors. This Finnish one is a black and white period piece about a poor family, depicting a level of poverty rare in film. An expressionistic dream sequence is a highlight. The music and composition seem to be more influenced by early Hollywood. There is humor to it, although tonally it is all over the place, with an ending that just doesn’t seem to match the rest of the film.
Movie #174/ New Movie #126/ Scandinavian Revival #5: Kon-Tiki (Amazon Prime Rental)
Norwegian writer Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove his thesis that Peruvians – back in pre-Colombian times – could have crossed the seas to the Phillipenes, so he set out on a balsa wood raft using technology they would have had. The result was an Academy Award for Best Documentary, which may be one of the most epic wins in an academic pissing match ever. The film is obviously not made in an ideal environment (a 1940s black and white documentary made by people on a boat far from supplies/ experienced filmmakers), but it is quite enjoyable and shows the challenges of the crew, as well as the joys.
Movie # 175/ Zach Snyder Film #5: Watchmen Directors Cut (Blu-Ray)
The original comic is one of my favorite works of fiction ever, and this adaptation is okay. It’s flawed, but it does get some stuff right, especially Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. Visually it seems quite reminiscent of Kubrick. It’s rarely subtle, as the musical choices are quite obvious, and nuances of some great scenes are sanded down. But it does have a clear arc, and it reorients focus on different characters and their struggles as the world is on the verge of nuclear armageddon.