Monthly Archives: March 2023

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

*. A laboured title but a clever enough idea. Not an original idea — the movie star who gets stuck in a situation where he has to “be” one of his most famous characters in order to survive — but clever enough to make something out of. And by this point in his career Nicolas Cage is perfect for the part, as his roles have pretty much become him playing Nicolas Cage now. So it’s all self-referential and meta and hip. Good for some laughs anyway.
*. Unfortunately, it never graduates from a concept to a real script. Cage plays “Nick” Cage, an actor whose personal and professional life are both on the skids. What’s next up is being a celebrity birthday-party guest at some rich guy’s private Majorcan estate. Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), however, may be a crime lord as well as someone with an obsessive man-crush on his favourite movie star. So Cage is soon working with a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician from the estate/compound, all while trying to stay in character with Javi.

*. It’s a movie that’s mostly played in a minor key but never takes off or really engages. It’s easy to smile along with — and the best part, with Cage and Pascal tripping on LSD while driving has become a joyful meme — but there are no belly laughs. It’s filled with references to Cage’s oeuvre that I mostly pulled a blank on, either because I hadn’t seen them or (more often) because I’d forgotten them completely. A nice pastiche of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was originally worked into the third act but was cut. It’s worth checking out as one of the extras included with the DVD, but I can see why it was left out as it’s too jarring a gear shift from the rest of the action.
*. To be honest, I’m not sure who this movie was for aside from die-hard Cage fans, which is a limited niche. And even for them I don’t think it has a lot to offer. I’d rather watch him going over the top in Mandy or Color Out of Space. Pascal is a rising star with a friendly face, and Cage does his usual Cage thing, but at the end of the day it can’t hold a candle to Three Amigos in the comedy department (only the most obvious reference point) and the action is just a yawn.

Hamlet (1948)

*. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is one of the totemic works of Shakespeare on film. Not just for having England’s Greatest Actor playing the title role but for its commercial success and critical accolades — it was the first British film (and the first non-American film) to win the Best Picture Academy Award, with Olivier also winning for Best Actor. That a Shakespeare movie could actually make money was something that before this time had seemed unlikely. Such prestige pictures were seen as sure-fire box office losers.
*. If it was lionized at the time — Pauline Kael: “Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen” — some of the blush is off the rose. Many now consider this to be the least of Olivier’s big three Shakespeare productions (Henry V and Richard III being the others). I’d probably rank myself among them, for various reasons. Also, the then trendy notion of playing up the Oedipal theme has grown tired, to the point of almost seeming put on by the time of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film and Mel Gibson locking lips with Glenn Close.

*. Even as a teaching supplement to be fed to schoolkids its limitations are stark. Not just because of the radical pruning of the plot, eliminating, most notably, Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely, but for the dumbing-down of the text. They call us drunkards, not clepe us. The ghost wears his visor up, not beaver. “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me” becomes “hinders me” (the meaning of “lets” being pretty much the opposite of what we take it to mean today). The cock is the herald to the morn, not trumpet. “Recks not his own rede” becomes “minds not his own creed.” “Very like” becomes “very likely.” And so on.
*. Were Olivier’s instincts, or motivations, suspect in making these changes? He felt that “one great whacking cut had to be made” to keep the running time manageable, and that’s fair. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version played the full text but clocks in at four hours. Both versions work, but I’m all for letting productions of Shakespeare cut what they want and move at their own pace, a matter of tempo that is not to be slighted. Also, as previously noted, this Hamlet did open up the box office. And finally, at this point Larry Olivier could pretty much do as he pleased with the Bard.

*. Perhaps the most famous change is a pure invention: the opening voiceover that tells us “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” That’s another reading that’s available on the evidence, though it’s since been called into question. Actually, Hamlet stays pretty active throughout the play. It’s also the case, as many critics have pointed out both then and now, that Olivier has so much energy that it’s hard to buy him as a ditherer.
*. Even more to the point, Olivier doesn’t emphasize the parts in the play that highlight Hamlet’s indecision, for example cutting the entire “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech. This makes you wonder why he wanted to foreground this particular reading by suggesting that indecision is the “mole” in Hamlet’s nature.
*. I mentioned the Oedipal angle. This is helped along by the fact that Olivier was 40 when the movie was filmed and Eileen Herlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was only 29. This is weird, but I don’t think it registers that strongly. Olivier had a face that could be young or old on command. The kisses on the mouth, however, even bother Claudius. They’re a bit of a giveaway.

*. Another interesting note with regard to the casting. This was the first of 22 movies that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in. Cushing is easily identified, as Osric is a substantial part and he plays him very well. Lee, however, is only credited as Spear Carrier and I wasn’t able to pick him out.
*. Olivier didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director. That year it went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think they got it right. What sets the tone here is more the black-and-white photography, which has been compared, perhaps a bit lazily, to expressionism and noir. I guess there are notes of both, but the influence of Welles, especially in the use of deep focus, is more direct. I saw a restored version this time and it really made the high contrast stand out.
*. But mostly it’s a production that just seems kind of a stagey in a cheaper and less artistic way than the canvas and plywood of Olivier’s Henry V. I kept looking at that circular platform and wondering whether medieval castles actually had helipads. I also thought the lack of editing chops showed in some of the scene changes and the amount of time spent looking at the back of the actors’ heads.

*. Also keeping with something Olivier did, I think more effectively, in Henry V are the soliloquies presented as voiceovers. I didn’t think this worked as well here because it made more sense for Hamlet to be talking out loud to himself rather than musing. But perhaps Olivier thought it was a signature move he had to include.
*. Things get off to a rough start. This has to be one of the most disappointing Ghosts in the history of Hamlet productions. It doesn’t hold a candle to Grigori Kozintsev’s spectacular figure. Indeed, it’s just a blur, with the lines read by Olivier but played back at reduced speed.
*. Why, given all that was left out, did they include the pirate battle? It looks kind of silly and feels out of place. But I guess they figured if they were making a movie they had to get something like that in there just to let people know they were watching a movie and not a play.

*. One part that I think really does work well is the play-within-a-play. This stood out for me the first time I saw the movie and I like it even more now. Olivier still doesn’t want to do anything by way of editing but uses a masterful camera movement around the stage that erases the difference between the performance and the audience, letting us watch all the watchers and their intersecting lines of vision. I don’t think the scene has ever been done better.
*. There’s a new wrinkle added in Gertrude drinking the poison cup presumably knowing what’s in it. I’m not sure where she got the idea (if she knew of the plot why didn’t she warn Hamlet in advance?), but I think it works here because the way the play is stripped down there’s more of a focus on her relation to her son.

*. Though heavily cut, it’s still a long journey. 154 minutes. But it holds tempo pretty well and it is a great performance from Olivier. He does seem to be channeling a black-box production at times but it also has some original ideas that Branagh didn’t mind borrowing for his version nearly fifty years later (Hamlet’s jump onto Claudius at the end, and his corpse being carried off).
*. Is it still the most exciting and alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on screen? I don’t think so. Watching it now I could still appreciate it but felt that with all “the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes” Branagh’s film, despite its excess and overreaching, has surpassed it. In any event, given that it’s now 75 years old you can’t really judge it by contemporary standards. At the time it was a gamechanger, and it still plays today not as a historical curiosity but a production with its own distinct presence and vitality.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

*. I wonder if there’s a bigger name in film history that has pulled as dramatic a vanishing act as that of Leo McCarey. In his heyday he was one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood, respected by his peers and awarded Oscars for both writing and directing.
*. Today I think he’s almost entirely forgotten outside of certain film circles. He thought Make Way for Tomorrow his best work, but today it too is “forgotten” (Peter Bogdanovich) or “nearly forgotten” (Roger Ebert). I think the only people who do know about it, and again we’re within those same certain film circles, are those who know it was the inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Some, maybe a lot, of McCarey’s fall from the heights of fame and critical acclaim has to do with the anti-communist tear he went on in his later years, but I think in the case of this movie it’s more to do with the subject matter, its lack of big stars, and its downbeat ending.
*. Make Way for Tomorrow didn’t do well when it came out and hasn’t gathered much of an audience since. Because let’s face it: who wants to watch a movie about an elderly couple on the verge of being sent into a retirement home? That’s part of the point the movie is making though: that we just want these people to disappear, or at least stay in their bedrooms and not make much of a fuss while we’re entertaining guests.
*. At the same time, you can tell why so many people champion this movie today. A lot of it still packs quite a punch. There are a number of memorable moments that will resonate with anyone who has experienced similar situations. There’s Bark’s sad reflection on hearing the letter from someone in a retirement home that “those places must be terrible.” There’s his rejoinder to the man at the employment office that he didn’t used to be a bookkeeper, he still is one. An impossible sell, at his age. There’s Ma telling her granddaughter that facing facts is easy when you’re young, but as you get older it’s better to pretend. And most of all there’s Ma telling George, aware that he’s sending her away, that he was always her favourite child. It’s a moment like that that makes you feel along with Orson Welles that you’d have to be a stone not to cry at this movie.

*. The thing is, these moments work, at least to my eye, despite the performances and McCarey’s direction. I honestly don’t think Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are very good here. They both seem to be playing the parts in an affected manner, and along with the obvious make-up (Moore was 60 and Bondi only 48) they come off as almost caricaturish old folks, no less so for his occasional grumpiness and her passive aggression. Nor does the supporting cast stand out in any way. Meanwhile, the direction is capable and gives everyone room but doesn’t add very much beyond what I would have expected from any old studio hand. As Peter Bogdanovich admits, it’s not a movie that’s directed with any real sense of style.
*. I didn’t even think the plot made any sense. Why is it that Ma and Pa have to be split up and live 300 miles apart? Why would it be too great a burden on the kids to take both of them in when they’re willing to accept one? Wouldn’t they be easier to manage if they were together as a couple and (at least to some extent) looking after each other?
*. What the performances get right is how difficult Ma and Pa can be. They aren’t all sweetness and light but can both be real pains in the ass. Like Ma ruining the bridge lesson or Pa refusing to say the number 99 and biting his doctor. Even at the end, where I think we’re supposed to be firmly on their side as they enjoy a last night on the town while their kids worry about them had me thinking they were being selfish. It’s a big deal if you’re cooking a roast and someone doesn’t show up on time!
*. As with any morality tale though the point is to force us into making judgments, however much McCarey wants to put his finger on the scale. Especially by having that Biblical injunction to honour your father and mother looming over things. Still, the roast has been ruined and while nobody would be against them having a good time, somebody has to take care of them moving forward. Like a lot of old people in the same boat they want to keep going the way they always have and not face up to facts. As Ma points out, it’s nicer to pretend. But that’s not being responsible to themselves or to others. So you get things like the situation that kicks things off, where they haven’t told the kids that the house has been foreclosed on until it’s too late for them to do anything about it except in emergency mode.
*. Worth seeing, but not a great movie, mostly for being such an uneven ride, jarring between a tough-minded realism and sentimental fluff. Most of the supporting characters, like the car salesman and the band leader, are perhaps unbelievably sympathetic to Ma and Pa, but then they don’t have to live with them and I think that’s the larger point. Family, or love itself, is both a source of strength and support and a trap. In the end, you really can’t win.

Beast (2022)

*. I thought Beast was a lousy movie, but I could imagine it having a different impact on me if I’d seen it when I saw a lot of other movies like it on TV when I was a kid. Movies where a giant killer animal goes on the rampage. I’m talking B-flicks, or C-flicks, like Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), and Alligator (1980). In Beast, the titular beastie is a male lion whose pride has been wiped out by poachers. Now he’s taking his vengeance on humankind. Including an American doctor (Idris Elba) and his two young daughters who happen to be visiting an old friend (Sharlto Copley) in Africa and find themselves very much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*. If you’ve heard anything about Beast then you know it’s the movie where Idris Elba punches a lion. This he does. And the rest of his MMA training comes in handy too in a final showdown with the King of the Beasts that he miraculously survives. Which is very stupid, but far from the stupidest thing going on here.
*. Things get off to a dumb start with the opening shots of the poachers approaching a pride of lions with their guns drawn, in a packed formation where they’re all standing behind one another. This is not the way a squad of armed men arrange themselves, unless you want the back of your head blown off by the guy behind you. Then, later in the same scene, one of the poachers will get caught in the trap he just set. At which point you realize you’re going to be groaning and shaking your head a lot in the next 90 minutes.
*. In addition to being stupid, the plot is the usual string of clichés. Elba’s doctor carries a sense of guilt in relation to his estranged wife’s death, which his kids also resent him for, so the trials they face will, you guessed it, bring them closer together as a family. There are mountains that cut off any phone or radio communication, so our heroes are on their own except for walky-talkies. One of which goes off just when Elba is trying to be very, very quiet! Everyone acts like a teenager in a slasher film’s idiot plot, wandering off on their own so that they can find themselves in danger and have to narrowly escape the lion . . . again and again and again. It’s not even clear why Elba’s character feels he has to go mano-a-leo at the end. Why not just stay in the church? Because the lion will never leave them alone, is what he tells the kids. OK.
*. The structure of the plot is also utterly predictable. The lion is surely killed in a fiery explosion, but just as surely we know it will come back. And it does. We’re introduced to a “good” pride of lions in the first act that will have a role to play later. Though not much of one, as the ending feels rushed and oddly anticlimactic. It’s like they ran out of money for any more effects and just decided to call it a wrap. Indeed, I’m not even sure what happens, aside from the fact that Elba and his kids survive to tell the tale.
*. There’s not much to say about this one. The CGI lion actually looks pretty good, which is a blessing because without that they would have had nothing. CGI insects, however, remain a real problem. Elba does his manful best to try and sell the worthless script, and his manful best is very good, but it’s only enough to keep his head above water.
*. Like I say, seen on TV ca. 1978-1980, a twelve-year-old version of myself might have been impressed by this. But those days are long gone and movies like this a rightfully endangered species. Unless you’re talking about a bear zonked out on cocaine. That’s how far we’ve come.

The Lion King (1994)

*. Hamlet on the savannah? Yes, and explicitly so. According to co-director Rob Minkoff in an interview in Oprah magazine they wanted to tap into a familiar story as an anchor seeing as this was Disney’s first animated feature that told an original story. At least that’s what I read in Oprah. But wasn’t The Aristocats an original story? I don’t know.
*. In any event, the Hamlet part — a prince’s father is killed by a usurping uncle, setting in motion a revenge plot — is an archetype going back quite a ways. Set’s murder of his brother Osiris, whose son Horus then gets revenge on Set, may be the oldest version. Step-fathers are as wicked as step-mothers in myth and fairy tales.
*. To all of which we might say that there have been Shakespeare adaptations less faithful to their source or inspiration. And the script here was apparently reworked so many times by so many different hands (there are 29 writing credits!) that I’d be surprised if they’d managed much more than what they eventually got in.
*. There are other, looser, connections to Hamlet. Scar spreading a forged process of Mufasa’s death and then sending Simba into exile. Simba being visited by his father’s “ghost.” There was even an alternate ending that had Scar killing Simba and then saying “Goodnight, sweet prince” before dying himself. But that would have been too tragic for kids in the ’90s.

*. In the few animated children’s films I’ve reviewed here I’ve made it clear that I’m not the target demographic for such entertainment so I’m probably not the best judge of it. So I’ll just make some comments on the highs and the lows and leave it at that.
*. It’s short. 88 minutes. For some reason I thought it was going to be longer. But there’s no padding or subplots. Just everything moving along quickly to get where you know it’s going.
*. Some of the music is pretty good. Three of the five nominations for Best Song at the 67th  Academy Awards were from this movie (all of them with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice). This may be a record. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won, and it’s great. The sly courtship going on between Simba and Nala when it plays is also pretty daring for Disney. “I Can’t Wait to Be King” is another good number, which plays through a Fantasia-style jungle romp. The rest of the tunes were just so-so though, with “Hakuna Matata” being particularly uninspired. It should have been a real show-stopper of a hummable number and it’s anything but.

*. Jeremy Irons naturally steals all his scenes as Scar. Because Hollywood villains often have British accents. Why the brother of James Earl Jones would have a British accent is all part of the Disney magic I guess.
*. Is a political critique necessary? I have to admit being a bit taken aback at monarchy and the divine right of kings being so wholeheartedly endorsed. Not only all of nature submits to the authority of Mufasa and Simba, but God himself shines down in a beam of light like God the Father blessing Simba as the Son in which he is well pleased. Meanwhile, the food chain is presented as a medieval great chain of being.
*. Of course we don’t see the lions actually preying on anything but grubs while the hyenas only eat carrion dressed up like deli cuts. Instead, all the animals that lions eat bow down and dance for the kings of the jungle, who they can only pray will be enlightened monarchs. It doesn’t seem very modern. Meaning post-1688 or thereabouts.

*. The animation is very traditional, and I thought a bit dull. The adult lions in particular didn’t strike me as very effectively drawn. Even Scar with his black mane, green eyes, and eponymous marking looks dull compared to Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. And the climactic fight on top of Mount Doom was surprisingly uninspired. They even slowed the action down at one point, which I thought a very poor decision.
*. Apparently it was considered to be less of a prestige project than Pocahontas and some in the animation team didn’t have high hopes for it because, as one declared, “the story wasn’t very good.” But it turned into a gargantuan hit, becoming what was then the second-highest grossing movie of all time. It took a while for Disney to follow up though, waiting until 2019 to release a CGI version that didn’t impress critics as much but still did over a billion in box office.
*. I look at it as being decent kids’ entertainment, marking the peak of what’s been called the Disney Renaissance. Personally, I prefer it to the more “kidult” fare of Pixar, and I think I would have enjoyed it more as a kid too. Its massive success and subsequent cultural prominence is a bit mysterious to me though, unless it can just be ascribed to how hungry the public is for such traditional, inoffensive family fare.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

*. I’ve complained enough about CGI over the years. In Wrath of the Titans the effects, however, aren’t bad. In fact they’re pretty good. But I still think the CGI is a net minus for the film.
*. This may seem paradoxical. In fact it is. Wrath of the Titans is a CGI movie. You would know that going in. But that is my point. The genre of “CGI movie” has become so predictable not only visually (large monsters, armies, cities being destroyed) but in terms of plot that all of the elements are basically interchangeable. What movie am I watching? A CGI movie.
*. The story here has the Olympian gods (or at least the male ones, as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are nowhere to be seen) heading into their Götterdämmerung because people have stopped praying to them and infighting has led to the possible release of the titan Kronos. The hero Perseus is the only one who can save the day by assembling the Spear of Trium out of Zeus’s thunderbolt, Hades’s pitchfork, and Poseidon’s trident.
*. Got it? Good. Even if you went into this cold you’d be up to speed in no time. I could only keep myself amused by plugging the various characters and plot points into an imaginary CGI-movie template constructed out of earlier and later movies. So Zeus (Liam Neeson) is Gandalf, or Odin from the Thor movies. The bitter half-sibling Ares is the Ocean Master. Kronos is Sauron or Thanos. Hades is Voldemort. The Spear of Trium is the One Ring or the Tesseract or the Trident of Atlan.
*. Even the casting is predictable. If you were surprised by Ralph Fiennes (Hades) and Edgar Ramírez (Ares) turning on Zeus then you obviously don’t watch many movies. Hell, Zeus didn’t even remember the previous movie, where he’d signed off saying that Hades was only “biding his time” to take his revenge. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy is back as Davy Jones and you can even tell it’s him. Nighy, that is.
*. You might be expecting, or at least hoping, that Kronos, being the Father of the Gods, would be a bit more interesting. Alas he doesn’t speak in any known language (not that he has much to say anyway) and has even less personality than the Kraken. He’s really just a big steaming pile of magma.
*. The script is full of the usual fustian, with a surprising lack of humour. Here, for example, is Andromeda’s defence of humanity: “We may not be gods. But we do what people say can’t be done, we hope when there isn’t any. Whatever odds we face, we prevail.” Being an actor in a CGI movie can’t be easy. As Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
*. You would have thought they’d have given Toby Kebbell some funny lines, but I was left wondering what Agenor was even doing in this picture. Come to think of it, Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, filling in for Alexa Davalos) doesn’t have much of a role either, beyond showing that girls can kick ass too.
*. A budget of $150 million that took in $300 million box office. Which means it flopped (Clash of the Titans had grossed $500 million two years previously). One benefit of this being that the planned sequel, Revenge of the Titans, was scrapped. So as for now the gods are dead.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

*. Pretty much everything I figured it would be, and a bit less.
*. CGI gods and monsters. The only thought that entered my head while watching it was what effect all this might be having on kids who have been growing up on this fare. My guess is that most of them would be playing video games anyway. Which comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? Or again, maybe something a bit less.
*. The story bears some resemblance to the 1981 original. Zeus (Liam Neeson) calls for the release of the Kraken. Bubo shows up only to be quickly dismissed.
*. Hard to think of anything that stands out. Sam Worthington has nice legs. The effects weren’t bad for 2010 but are starting to show their age now. Especially with the couple of shots meant to play in 3D. The film was hastily converted to 3D after the success of Avatar, which led to director Louis Leterrier disowning it. I suspect he wasn’t that fond of it in the first place.
*. I don’t know why anyone would have thought they needed to do it all again just a couple of years later, but they did, subbing out the Kraken for Kronos. There didn’t seem to be a big demand. The kids were too busy playing on their computers, and I can’t say I blame them.

A Tale of Winter (1992)

*. Félicie has a summer fling on the coast with a handsome fellow named Charles. They go their separate ways but she gives him her address so they can stay in touch. It’s the wrong address. Fives years later it’s winter in Paris and Félicie has a daughter, and a relationship with two different men: her boss the businessman Maxence and an intellectual librarian named Loïc. Neither man can satisfy her because she’s still carrying a torch for Charles. Maxence and Loïc know about each other, and Charles, but hope to land Félicie for themselves. But then she meets Charles on a bus and it looks like they’ll finally be happy together picking right up where they left off five years earlier.
*. If that sounds like a rom-com you wouldn’t be far from the mark. It’s a fantasy, or romance in the Shakespearian sense, meaning a late work from Éric Rohmer that mixes mythic elements into an improbable plot with a happy ending. Of course there’s a nod to Shakespeare in the title and the long passage near the end of the movie where Félicie and Loïc go to see a production of The Winter’s Tale. The full scene is played out where the “statue” of Hermione comes to life, and it moves Félicie to tears. You can then draw further connections for yourself.
*. Félicie has two such quiet moments of epiphany in the film, here and earlier when she stops into the cathedral in Nevers and realizes rather abruptly that she doesn’t love Maxence and has to leave him and return to Paris. What happens to her in these moments? Rohmer isn’t coy, and she does try to explain both experiences, but I don’t know how much we can trust her. Or maybe trust isn’t the right word. The thing is, Félicie is a rom-com heroine and they don’t run deep. She’s the princess in this fairy tale (a.k.a. a winter’s tale) just waiting for her prince to reappear.

*. The plain documentary style and the cast of unfamiliar faces (Charlotte Véry, Frédéric van den Driessche, Michel Voletti, Hervé Furic) fits this brand of magical realism. Though Charles does look like a movie star, or as Félicie’s sister points out, a male model. But then Félicie herself is a hairdresser, and if that sounds like I’m stereotyping I’d respond that Rohmer is doing a good enough job of that himself. Loïc is right that she’s bored with intellectual talk, or talk of faith, as she can only respond with her own New Age musings. What were these guys even thinking in going after her in the first place?
*. In one of the philosophical discussions Loïc tries to engage her in he mentions Pascal’s famous wager. At first I couldn’t understand why Rohmer was bothering bringing this up, but by the end of the movie I thought I’d figured it out. Both Maxence and Loïc have made their own version of the wager. Félicie hasn’t really led them on. She’s told them she can only really love Charles. That’s her version of keeping faith. But they’re betting on him being dead, or at least no longer interested in her. And in a non-romance world that would be a safe bet indeed. But this kind of story works by different rules. Alas, they aren’t the heroes of this rom-com. They’re not villains but just placeholders, or representatives of the “normal” world that have to be rejected.

*. Full credit to Véry, an actor I was unfamiliar with (though when I checked her filmography I guess I saw her not so long ago in Madame Hyde). Or maybe most of the credit goes to Rohmer for not letting us give up on her completely in the early going. Rohmer has always gotten a lot of leeway from critics because he genuinely likes women, which is something that isn’t all that common, at least among male directors.
*. I think we like Félicie mainly because she’s honest, and the men in her life so obviously calculating of their odds. Rejected, or dismissed from the stage, they leave with a shrug. Because, as I’ve said, Félicie plays fair with them, at least most of the time.
*. I’m still not sure how or why she gives Charles the wrong address though. An imp of the perverse? A bit of subconscious sabotage? Meanwhile, a line like “There’s love and love” expresses something that is absolutely true, for men and women, but it’s not very flattering to the guy who’s not being loved the way he’d like. And her complaint that she can “only live with a man I’m madly in love with” really should have had Maxence running for the door. She’s a single mom, not a moody teen. Or a heroine in a rom-com. Except, in this case she is.
*. Roger Ebert: “What pervades Rohmer’s work is a faith in love — or, if not love, then in the right people finding each other for the right reasons. There is sadness in his work but not gloom. His characters are too smart to be surprised by disappointments, and too interested in life to indulge in depression.” It’s not tragedy or comedy then, but romance, which is its own genre. This is a fantasy of wish-fulfillment, but a nice one with a happy ending for the only two people (or maybe three) that matter in the world. And you don’t have to give a thought as to the odds that they’re going to stick together. I’d only give them about a month.

High Life (2018)

*. High Life is the first English-language film by director Claire Denis, and I have to say up front that I think something was lost in translation. The script, which was apparently just an outline with little dialogue, was originally written in French but had to be translated because Denis couldn’t imagine people speaking French in space. So that may explain the sense I had of something not making it all the way through.
*. Beginning with the title. High because we’re in space and Life because the doctor in charge of the mission is trying to make babies up there. But who speaks of space as being “high”? It has no up or down. And when we say “life” do we first think of the nuts and bolts of reproduction? High Life sounds like some stoner comedy, and I’m not sure it wasn’t at some point. (A quick check and it turns out I’m right. High Life was the name of a 2009 American film about junkies robbing an ATM.)
*. That title, by the way, doesn’t appear until 17:36. And there are no other opening credits. Oh, come on.
*. The title is only one bit of the awkwardness that’s felt here though. Nothing about the dialogue feels really natural. And there are moments that are downright weird. What does it mean when Dibs (the doctor, played by Juliette Binoche) is accused of having a “plastic pussy”? Beats me, but then I’m not as hip as I used to be. I wasn’t even sure if something was getting scrambled in the following quote from Denis about what the movie’s theme was: “The film is about sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. Sexuality is about fluids. As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it’s all about fluids – blood, sperm, etc. I thought if I wanted that fluid subtext to work, we had to reduce the sex act to masturbation. I forbade myself any naked scenes. No erect cocks, no gaping pussies. We did it another way – High Life speaks only of desire and of fluids.”

*. So then, desire and fluids it is. Hydraulics, if you will. There’s a story, but as Agata Buzek says in the “making of” featurette included with the DVD, “I don’t think the story is the important thing.” A bunch of death-row inmates is sent into space on what looks like a shipping container to harvest the energy from a black hole. They’re an international, multiethnic bunch, including Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth. Binoche appears to be the captain, but it’s not clear if she isn’t another convict as well, or how she is maintaining her authority.
*. If the black hole is the ship’s main mission, it’s not something Dibs appears interested in at all. Instead, she’s into running some kind of breeding experiment, becoming a “shaman of sperm” while riding some weird kind of furry sex contraption that looks like something David Cronenberg dreamed up. It’s located in what the crew call the “fuck box,” but we know from Sleeper as the Orgasmatron. For some reason it also leaks fluids post-climax. It’s all very weird.
*. Pattinson’s character, named Monte, doesn’t want to play any of these semen games. He wants to remain master of his domain. Like General Jack D. Ripper, he will be with a woman, but withhold his essence. He’s known on board as Mr. Blue Nuts. He’s gone into monk mode. He’s accepted this mission as a no-fap challenge. Do I need to say more? Because I’m running out of ways of describing this sigma edgelord.

*. Stooping to the use of some date-rape drugs, Dibs finally gets a sample from Monte and makes a baby with the use of Mia Goth’s womb. Then the mission sort of goes to hell and everyone dies but Monte and his daughter, Willow. They arrive at the black hole and decide to check it out. The end.
*. It looks good. It moves very slowly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pattinson has to do most of the heavy lifting but he just projects as blank, like he’s on some kind of tranquilizers throughout. I’m still not sure there’s much to him, but I do appreciate his choice of difficult roles. There may be some sort of theme being developed but I can’t figure out what it might be. Is it a feminist film with something to mutter about female bodies and birth? Is it concerned with prison reform? Environmental issues? The garden made me think of Silent Running but apparently Denis saw it as an homage to Solaris.
*. It does have a couple of moments — the sex machine, Mia Goth turning into spaghetti in the first black hole — but they’re not spectacular and the rest of it feels like a long deep-space haul indeed. And the ending just sort of fizzles out. If you’re in the mood for a very quiet change of pace then you might find it hits the spot, but I think the more likely response will be a confused shrug.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

*. There’s a point I’ll start with that comes near the middle of Young Frankenstein, just after “young” Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) has failed to give life to a corpse. His assistants Inga (Teri Garr) and Igor (Marty Feldman) try to console him but he declares that “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes with quiet dignity and grace.” I think even if you haven’t already seen the movie a dozen times you realize right away that this is a set-up, and sure enough Wilder will turn around and begin furiously choking the monster, calling him names (“Son of a bitch bastard!”), and then finally breaking into sobs and wishing himself dead. That’s the joke. But then, as Inga and Igor lead him away, Feldman turns to the camera, rolls his eyes, and says “Quiet dignity and grace.”
*. That’s basically how Young Frankenstein works. It’s obvious, overplayed, and makes up for this by doubling down on both these qualities. It is madcap, slapstick farce dialed up to nine, aimed at the second-lowest common denominator. There’s no way Mel Brooks is going to let you miss a joke, no matter how obvious or old it is (though he thought the “Walk this way” gag was almost too old, even for him). This doubling down is, in turn, part of the joke.

*. I say it’s only dialed up to nine because this is correctly regarded as one of Brooks’ more restrained efforts (“more confident and less breathless” in Roger Ebert’s phrase, calling it his “most disciplined” work). He wanted something that was not quite the Three Stooges, so he walks up to that line and dances on it. To be sure there’s lots of coarseness and crudity, but at least he isn’t making ethnic or gay jokes, which were so much of his stock in trade in other films. You can laugh at the lines about the pair of knockers or the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker,” but by Mel’s standards this ribaldry is pretty tame.
*. I think this is for the best, as send-ups usually work best when they tweak material gently instead of just beating it unconscious. The production here is true to a lot of the spirit of the original Universal Frankensteins, with beautiful black-and-white photography and equipment for the lab that included some of Ken Strickfaden’s original set dressing. The cast is also terrific, in fact so good it gets hard to tell who is stealing the most scenes. Which is what you want to do in a Brooks movie, since you can’t overplay it. So Feldman? Cloris Leachman? Madeline Kahn? Kenneth Mars? Gene Hackman? They’re all in top form.
*. A movie that absolutely belies its age. 1974! I had thought it was from the mid-’80s. But this kind of humour, which either works or it doesn’t, can’t go out of style. If you giggle at Frankenstein having a big dick then . . .
*. Well, it’s a near perfect example of its type of comedy. I still find it kind of charming, but I don’t laugh at it like I did as a kid. I know people though who think it’s the funniest movie ever made. Which I guess it is, if you’re in the mood.