If satire doesn’t draw blood, what’s the point? For years that was the problem with Saturday Night Live, which tended to make its political caricatures into lovable clods, figures of fun rather than fury. (Things have been more barbed around there lately.) In Britain, there’s a long tradition of going for the jugular rather than the jocular, and Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci wields the scalpel with cutting precision. His Oscar-nominated 2009 comedy In the Loop was a scathing look inside UK politics, and he co-created Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge, an acidly sketched broadcaster whose first TV talk show was canceled when Partridge accidentally fatally shot a guest. More recently, Iannucci created Veep, HBO’s Emmy-winning political satire.
For his latest big-screen project, Iannucci comes close to perfectly balancing comedy and savagery.
In Submission, Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle he deploys in a variety of situations. He plays a creative-writing professor at a second-rank college, and his automatic laugh comes in handy when placating inquisitive students, attending faculty parties with pedantic colleagues, or shrugging off incessant questions about when he’s going to finish his new novel. I swear Tucci delivers it so that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that moment. Acting is a precise craft but also a mysterious alchemy, and when you’ve gotten as good as Tucci has, a seamless performance like this can transform a so-so movie into a pleasure, merely for watching a veteran at the top of his game. The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, a case of sexual boundary-trampling that becomes the crux of the movie.
As we applaud the wave of women making (still far from equitable) inroads into film directing, let’s pause to appreciate a veteran in the field. Primarily a choreographer, songwriter, and performance artist in the early part of her career, Sally Potter began making experimental films in the 1960s. Her cinematic breakthrough was the surprise 1992 arthouse hit Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, with Tilda Swinton as the gender-hopping protagonist. Since then Potter has sometimes hit the mark, as with her hothouse coming-of-age picture Ginger & Rosa, but more often I’ve found her work insufferable. If you’ve seen the relentlessly politically correct Yes, in which all the dialogue is rhyming iambic pentameter, you know the desperate wish for large wads of ear-stuffable cotton.
It’s a pleasure to report that Potter’s newest, The Party, is a nasty little gem.
As the stories of real-life Hollywood Ogres continue to pile up, the perspectives of women who’ve navigated the trenches are especially welcome. Half Magic, Heather Graham’s feature debut as a writer/director, is a witty, agreeably low-key comedy about Finding Yourself that benefits from a keen sense of irony about Tinseltown. Breezy though it may be, there’s also no shortage of righteous rue being flung.
At one point in her stressful week, Marina (Daniela Vega) encounters a stiff wind while walking along a Santiago sidewalk. She stops for a moment, planting her high heels against the ground and leaning forward into the current—and then she just keeps tilting, to a degree not possible in physics, but eminently believable within the emotional framework of the movie draped around her sturdy shoulders. A Fantastic Woman is the Chilean Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film, and if voters are swayed at all by the old-school attractions of underdog characters or indomitable heroines, this terrific movie should win in a walk.
Gloria Grahame might well have been concocted in a lab experiment to create a classic Hollywood star. She had not only the looks and talent, but also the haunted arc of a screen goddess: early success, an Oscar (1952 Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful), a string of marriages, struggles with body image, scandal, and — after a certain age — a vanishing act.
Watch her movies today, and you can still be amazed at the smart, impudent, altogether new presence she conveys in the noir worlds of Crossfire and In a Lonely Place, to say nothing of her disruptive presence as the bad girl of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Your Name. (Funimation, Blu-ray, DVD) Napping Princess (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD) In This Corner of the World (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Japanese animator and filmmaker Makoto Shinkai turns his own young adult novel into Your Name. (Japan, 2016), an animated feature that brings a fresh approach to the classic comic situation of body swapping.
In this story two high school students who have never met, a boy named Taki and a girl named Mitsuha, suddenly wake up in one another’s body and try to fake their way through a day in the life. They have no memory of the experience when they return to their own lives the next day but discover that they’ve lost a day and her friends have stories about their behavior they don’t remember. When it happens again and again, without warning or discernible rhyme or reason, they start leaving messages for one another through their smartphones. Then it stops just as suddenly as it began, but it’s just the beginning of a story that mixes metaphysics and mystery in a poetic story of two people who never meet yet change one another’s lives, even if they can’t remember the connection and only learn of it from notes left behind, an entire conversation that reaches across time and space. Taki uses the paintings that Mitsuha left behind to look for her. There’s a touch of science fiction to what otherwise seems like magic as it shifts into a kind of disaster movie.
The vivid and lush films of Spain’s Julio Medem are as much about his country’s distinctive landscapes and natural wonders as they are about the restless and obsessive characters that wander through his world. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Sex and Lucia (2001) established him as a major international filmmaker, earning strong reviews and American theatrical releases, but they only confirmed what his early films had established: a gift for narrative games and visual puns, and a passionate embrace of fate, fantasy, and the illogical power of love, all woven through criss-crossing stories with recurring images and motifs that intertwine, blur, and transform through time. Now Olive Films presents his first three features, long out of print on DVD, on Blu-ray for the first time along with new DVD editions.
The cows in the title of Spanish director Julio Medem’s debut film Vacas (Spain, 1992) are the silent, implacable witnesses to the feuds and flirtations of two clans between the Carlist Wars of 1875 and the devastating Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In 2017, the Marvel comic book conglomerate took a wackadoodle turn that coughed up two of its most fluid, playful movies yet: the sprightly Spider-Man: Homecoming and the irreverent Thor: Ragnarok. Those films suggested how frisky space might be carved out within the crushing sameness of the superhero formula and the larger universe-building of Marvel’s mega-plotline. And they did it largely with humor. In that sense, Black Panther is something of a course correction. Burdened with establishing a superhero whose distinguishing characteristics are dignity and his royal duties to his people (whatever his problems, Hulk never had to send a balanced-budget bill to congress) and world-building an entire African civilization, Black Panther can’t spend much time on fripperies. This is serious superhero business.
That gravity is the movie’s strength and weakness.
Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).
He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.
The most surprising inclusion among this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees was The Insult(L’insulte), a Lebanese drama. It nabbed a slot over the highly touted German film In the Fade, which earned Diane Kruger the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and edged out critical favorites from Israel (Foxtrot) and Senegal (Felicite). Still, it’s easy to see how The Insult made the list. This is an issue movie that deals very directly—at times extremely bluntly—with the subject of political discord.
Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
Even as an octogenarian, Fred Beckey tried to climb mountains along routes nobody had mastered. We’re not speaking metaphorically here: Beckey—one of America’s most proficient climbers and a fixture in the Pacific Northwest mountaineering scene—continued to lug his gear up precipitous inclines when he was in his late eighties. We learn this in the documentary Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey, a lively portrait of a crank. Late in the film, as Beckey painfully climbs another hillside and a successful ascent looks increasingly unlikely, his friend tries to philosophize. “The main thing is that you get up high,” the friend says, “it doesn’t matter how you get there.” Beckey immediately says, “Yeah it does.” How you interpret Beckey’s response will determine how you feel about him: Either his pursuit of new climbing routes is a measure of his integrity or a symptom of his off-putting monomania. We can make up our own minds about that, because the film, directed by Dave O’Leske, is appreciative without being worshipful.
High on my list of “moviemaking don’ts” is the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Nothing against the song, it’s a true anthem by the Nobel laureate with 1963-penned lyrics that remain applicable to any era. But plop it in a movie and heavy-handedness abounds (go directly to the particularly cringe-worthy moment in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July for confirmation). However, I am suspending my decree for the new documentary, The Final Year. By the time this chronicle of 2016 politics reaches its climax, Dylan’s words (not sung by him, in this case) sound more perceptive than ever.
The Final Year follows the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, with a focus on three main players: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.