Sunset Song (2015, Terence Davies)

Starring the lovely, ever-suffering Agyness Deyn, who recently played Aphrodite, as Chris. It’s more recognizably a Davies movie than The Deep Blue Sea was, because it centers around a piece of shit domineering father (Peter Mullan of War Horse, Children of Men) for the first half, then he’s dead (a la Distant Voices, Still Lives) so we focus on a husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) who might become a piece of shit domineering father – but doesn’t, because he’s shot for cowardice while at war. Opens with Chris’s mom poisoning herself and her young twins because she’s become pregnant again. So it’s basically a domestic horror movie.

Beautiful lighting, and per Davies tradition, some terrific crossfades. I turned on the subtitles half the time to make out the accents… and even then I sometimes have trouble. “I’m going to live on at Blawearie a while and not roup the gear at once. Could you see to that with the factor?”

I’m on M. D’Angelo’s side here, and I’ll add that the juxtaposition mentioned below was already done very well in Distant Voices, Still Lives:

Whatever Gibbons’ novel means to Davies — and it must mean a lot, as he reportedly spent many years struggling to get this film made — it doesn’t come across, except perhaps in the occasional juxtaposition of brutality and joyous group song. A few stray moments of piercing beauty toward the end (which also complicate what had previously seemed like the tediously downbeat trajectory of Chris’ marriage) can’t redeem the unrewarding slog that precedes them.

As far as beautifully shot but disappointing Davies films I watched this year go, I preferred The Deep Blue Sea, and as far as films I watched this month where soldiers get shot for cowardice in World War One, I’ll take Paths of Glory.

Always difficult to adapt poetry to the screen, so including words from the book as narration is nice. “So that was her marriage – not like waking from a dream, but like going into one. And she wasn’t sure, not for days, what things she had dreamt and what actually done.” Previously filmed as a 1971 miniseries, by the same director who shot Testament of Youth, which was also remade last year.

The Mermaid (2016, Stephen Chow)

An extremely silly movie that falls back on the ol’ “villainous developers destroying old beloved thing to build new thing for rich people” plot. In this case, the lead evil developer Liu Xuan (Chao Deng, the albino from Detective Dee) is convinced to halt his project and save the mermaid community after falling for mer-Shan (“Jelly” Lin), but his partners (led by his girlfriend, CJ7‘s Kitty Zhang) double down on the mermaid-killing and Liu has to stop them.

Mermaid attack:

Effects-filled fantasy with interspecies love and a strong environmental message becomes the highest-grossing movie in the country – so this is China’s Avatar. Fun movie, valuable less for its story than its random jokes and fun side characters.

Octopus (Show Lo of Journey to the West):

Framing-story scam artist (Yang Neng):

Rich Guy With Jetpack (Jifeng Zheng):

Police Sketch Artist:

Black Mirror season 2 (2013)

Finally got around to watching the rest of these episodes (though not the Jon Hamm Christmas special) in prep for the upcoming American launch.

Be Right Back

After her cellphone-addict boyfriend Ash dies in a car crash, pregnant Hayley Atwell (Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel movies/shows) signs up for a service that analyzes his voice recordings and social media posts and creates a Siri-like program she can speak with. Then she beta tests the next version, where a folded-up pseudo-flesh Ash (Domhnall Gleeson of About Time, who plays the human in the similar Ex Machina) is shipped to her house. But it turns out the way you behave at home with your spouse can’t be easily predicted by your social media posts, and even though Ash is able to learn, Hayley finds him creepy and finally banishes him to the attic. Director Owen Harris also made Holy Flying Circus.


White Bear

My favorite of the bunch, either because it’s the most horrific or because it costars Michael Smiley as a dystopian game show host. Victoria (TV’s Lenora Crichlow) wakes up confused and amnesiac, is told that most of the world has been consumed by a mysterious screen transmission, and those who haven’t are insanely murdering random citizens – so The Signal meets The Purge. Vic and a couple refugees come across Smiley in the woods, who first appears to be on their side, then is revealed to be one of the killers. After her thrilling escape, all this is revealed to be a complicated piece of theater. Nobody is dead, except the child Vic kidnapped and murdered, for which her punishment is to live in this nightmare, being constantly pursued and terrified, humiliated in front of a live audience, then her mind zapped with the MIB forgetfulness-ray for the next show. Director Carl Tibbetts has worked on Hemlock Grove, did a little-known plague thriller called Retreat with a promising-looking cast.


The Waldo Moment

Comedian Jamie (Daniel Rigby of the show Jericho) who talks through a cartoon bear called Waldo finds his attack on politicians going viral. Jamie’s more of an insult comic than a politician, but his producers smell a hit and strong-arm him into continuing, even entering Waldo into the campaign, at the expense of his sanity and his relationship with a woman in the race. This isn’t quite dark enough for Black Mirror, so at the end a guy from an unnamed U.S. agency meets them wanting to use Waldo to destabilize global elections. Based on a Nathan Barley sketch, I think. Director Bryn Higgins has a series of historical hospital dramas.

Unstable puppetmaster:

Dignified debate:

Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)

Right in between the fade-out of Cannes Month into my Crime & Punishment Marathon, and the kicking-off of Criterion Month, a bunch of last year’s acclaimed auteur art masterpieces became available, so I watched the new Malick, Cosmos, Francofonia and Anomalisa all in the same week. It’s a lot to take in, so I’m thinking it would be wise to watch all four of them again, but I’m probably not gonna do that right now.

Very mixed reviews from my regular critics. It’s telling that the most positive (3.5 stars) review on Letterboxd comes from David Ehrlich comparing it to the Entourage movie. Mixed reviews from me as well. Especially for the first hour, the minute-to-minute thrill of watching a Malick movie is all there, the expressive camerawork and experimental editing. But in the past we’ve had stories to hang these effects upon, and Malick is getting less narrative with every movie. I wasn’t sure that a soul-searching screenwriter played by an expressionless Christian Bale would be the greatest Malick avatar, and I was right. And I had to watch the ending a second time a week later just to make sure I’d even seen it the first time, thinking maybe I’d fallen asleep, but no, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like an end. After Bale is done talking with his father Brian Dennehy he flashes again on his lost loves Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman (even less fleshed-out than the lost loves of To The Wonder), says “begin,” then two shots of cars rushing down highways. Either you just need to be receptive enough to mood and character to properly feel the thing, or I need a long, enthusiastic, well-researched article explaining what I was supposed to get out of it.

Cate at the beach:

Natalie at the beach:

These feel more like symbols, or apparitions, than characters. But then again, so does Rick: As Bale plays him, he alternates between hedonistic abandon and forlorn wandering; we get little insight into his specific needs or worries.

B. Ebiri’s article is helpful, pointing out connections and influences but ultimately saying the surface-level dreamlike seduction of the thing is the whole point. “You don’t reason your way through a film like this.”

Premiered in Berlin over a year ago, with a bunch of interesting looking movies that never played here but are beginning to come out on video, like Queen of the Desert, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, The Club, Victoria, Endless Night and The Pearl Button.

Cosmos (2015, Andrzej Zulawski)

Two friends, spiky-haired Fuchs and moppy Witold, rent a room from Sabine Azéma (maintaining her manic energy from Wild Grass) and Jean-Francois Balmer (That Day, Chabrol’s Madame Bovary). They share the house with young couple Lena (Victória Guerra of Lines of Wellington) and Lucien (Andy Gillet, Celadon himself) and Azéma’s niece/maid Catherette. Then the boarders are invited on a trip to the country with the family. That’s all that happens – but not really, as most of the characters start out wired, talking nonstop and behaving strangely, and animals and people may or may not be dying, showing up hanging from trees. At the end I thought it was all quite astounding to watch, but wasn’t sure what it all meant.

K. Uhlich:

What does it all mean? Wrong question. And it’s probably absurd to even ask. Better, instead, to fully submit to Žuławski’s last symphony of insanity and paranoia, which ends, cheekily enough, with a gag reel (quite the meta final statement).

C. Huber in Cinema Scope has the best explanation of what is actually happening here:

Attempting to forge order from the chaos of the real world, Witold builds a private cosmos founded on arbitrary associations. Increasingly aware of facing a universe of possibilities, in which every connection can be randomly made, and thus is equally profound and silly … Witold is seized by an existential vertigo … In short, it becomes impossible to distinguish the awesome from the absurd, and Zulawski’s cinema of intensity has been zig-zagging with furious power between those two poles for nearly half a century.

Bonkers and gorgeous-looking, as I’d hope and expect from the late Zulawski (only the second of his films I’ve seen, after Possession), shot by young André Szankowski, who was in demand by the old masters (Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, Oliveira’s Em Século de Energia). Based on a book by Witold Gombrowicz (which does indeed feature a writer lead character named Witold), who has also been adapted by Skolimowski (30 Door Key).

Francofonia (2015, Aleksandr Sokurov)

M. Sicinski:

With its first-person musings and associative image-track, Francofonia’s first half resembles nothing so much as a late Godard video, but the approach and mood is open and accessible even as the subject matter turns highbrow … But most of the remainder of the film is spent dramatizing the wartime cooperation between the Louvre’s Vichy-era chief, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Nazi cultural attaché Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

A complicated movie which I thought about for days afterwards, but I waited long enough before writing anything down that now it’s not fresh in my mind and I’m hesitant to write anything at all. A variety of styles, aspect ratios, color palettes, time periods and strange effects (the film’s soundtrack waveform visible alongside the picture was a new one to me). Some Russian Ark-ian museum cruising with your host Napoleon, who showed off paintings of his own exploits and earned a big laugh at our screening when he gazed at the Mona Lisa saying his usual line, “It’s me.” Even the regular historical drama scenes (Louvre chief meeting his Nazi overseer) don’t go in the directions you’d expect of a historical drama and they culminate in a wondrous bit where each character is told by the narrator how his life will end up.

Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman)

Customer service expert Michael stays at a hotel named after a paranoid delusion in which all people appear to be the same person in different disguises. I didn’t know this until after the movie, but it works anyway because everyone except Michael has the same face and voice (Tom Noonan, paterfamilias of The House of the Devil). Michael is dreamily British-accented but erratic-acting David Thewlis, and life’s the same old drab nightmare for him until he meets someone with a unique voice: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His awkward affair with her lasts one night, after which she becomes Noonan-voiced and Michael leaves her, runs home to his Noonan-family.

Full of small pleasures in dialogue and puppet movement, and larger, weirder wonders (Michael’s subterranean gay-panic dream, Japanese automaton from sex shop, stop-motion recreation of a My Man Godfrey scene). Surely need to watch again – need to watch all Kaufman’s movies again.

Opened in Venice with A Bigger Splash, Francofonia and The Clan, winning what appears to be second place to From Afar. Award shows mostly considered it in animation categories, where it universally lost to Inside Out. Made the top-ten in the Skandies anyway, along with acting and screenplay mentions.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

The superb deployment of puppets and stop-motion animation in the work of Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers highlight the vicissitudes of the macabre and the fantastic. Kaufman and Johnson’s film, although superficially more prosaic, manages to make the banalities of a business trip as chilling as anything in Alice or Street of Crocodiles. Towards the end of Anomalisa, Michael concludes that the real lesson of his visit to Cincinnati is “there’s no lesson at all,” a fitting coda to a movie which refuses to offer its audience glib bromides or anything more than cold comfort.

She’s Funny That Way (2014, Peter Bogdanovich)

A busy comedy, mostly keeps up its charming energy for a bit of throwback fun. Famed theater director Owen Wilson overpays call girl Imogen Poots (Green Room) and tells her to follow her dream, which turns out to be auditioning for his play. Owen’s wife Kathryn Hahn (Parks & Rec politician) stars in the play, pursued by both costar Rhys Ifans (The Boat That Rocked) and playwright Will Forte (MacGruber). Also in play: Forte’s ex, substitute-therapist Jennifer Aniston, and his detective dad George Morfogen. For some reason it’s all framed as a years-later celeb-profile interview with Poots.

Ehrlich on Poots:

Her performance is a reckless tightrope walk of woefully accented genius and it’s very important to me.

Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton)

Dory starts to remember things about her home and family, goes on an adventure, discovering she was born at an aquatic park. The others follow, and all are assisted by a couple whales and an Ed O’Neill octopus.

I told Katy it felt good, but not necessary – Matt Singer nails why:

Like so many of the studio’s previous features, Dory is a story about the unbreakable bonds between parents and children, mismatched partners bonding over the course of a long adventure, and the pleasures of a team working together to achieve a common goal. After 21 years, that formula is still very satisfying. But it also feels more like a formula than ever before.


Piper (2016, Alan Barillaro)

Dory and The Good Dinosaur have started an upsetting trend where the opening short is better than the feature. I’m probably biased because I love birds, and especially love watching sandpipers, but this story of a baby sandpiper learning to deal with the surf is the greatest film of all time. Director Barillaro has been a Pixar animator since A Bug’s Life.