Tag Archives: featured

What Lies Beneath (2000)

I’m constantly being surprised by What Lies Beneath. On first viewing it surprised me that Robert Zemeckis, the Spielberg acolyte behind feel-good romps like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, would direct this self-contained horror flick. Years later, I was surprised to learn that Clark Gregg — Agent Coulson himself — wrote the screenplay. When I revisited Beneath a few months ago, the thing that surprised me was how good it was, how it does a lot with fairly little, how the straightforward nature of the plot obscures nuances that you wouldn’t catch the first time through. And then, of course, I was surprised a final time to learn that I am not in a majority here, that the film received mixed reviews upon release and currently has a dismal 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that the Pantheon of Horror Flicks may not hail What Lies Beneath as a genre masterpiece after all.

Doubtful, of course, that Beneath would ever really slip down the precipice into the Abyss of Forgotten Horror Flicks. It’s got Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, and they and Zemeckis secured their places in film history long before 2000. And no, it’s not an outright masterpiece; it probably does little that Hitchcock didn’t do decades earlier. But one feels the need to defend it all the same, no? If not to reinstall it in the Pantheon or rescue it from the Abyss, perhaps just to feel better about being so endeared to it, as I am. We could touch on the film as a whole or dig into some of those criticisms from the mixed-review crowd…or we could sorta just talk about one single scene.

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Barton Fink (1991)

Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.

…except for Barton Fink.

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Passing (2021)

Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.

The film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), discovering that Clare has been passing for some time. She’s married to an unsuspecting white man (Alexander Skarsgård) prone to a matter-of-fact hatred of non-whites, and their child together was “thankfully” equally so light-skinned as to not give her away. Clare is immediately fascinating to Irene, and Irene’s obsession only grows when her own husband (André Holland) seems to take an interest in Clare as well. The criss-crossing relationships become fraught with ambiguities, true motivations and intentions often shrouded by a social façade that each character carries like a shield.

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:

Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).

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The Sparks Brothers (2021)

I’ve got a snapshot of your Aunt Maureen.

Okay, I don’t, actually. You probably don’t even have an Aunt Maureen. But that line is a real attention-grabber, much like the guys who came up with it, so I figured what the hell. Film criticism is an unsexy business. I’ll take any spice I can get.

Sparks, known by some as the best British band ever to come out of America, seems perennially able to remain interesting without looking like they’re trying to remain interesting. Since their inception in 1971 — that’s 50 years ago, for those who flunked math — the duo have released a whopping 25 studio albums, closing in on 300 original songs. For those who flunked math, that’s, like, a lot.

Comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, their stage presence and obvious visual flair is perhaps as inextricable from Sparks as the actual music. Russell, the singer, fronts the band with hyperactive and often very sweaty antics. Meanwhile Ron, keyboardist and songwriter, sits very still and scowls while his brother goes nuts. Either of the two alone would turn heads, but together they create a contrast that would force a smile on even the most straightlaced of faces.

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Mass (2021)

There’s an intentional obscurity at the start of Mass, the debut feature from writer/director Fran Kranz, that instantly placed it amongst the most intriguing premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We open on a church in a suburban town, meeting the volunteers as they set up a room in the basement for an impending meeting. Much attention is paid to the placement of the table, the positioning of the chairs, the proximity of a tissue box. We meet a social worker, clearly acting in the capacity of a liaison, who asks that the tissue box not be placed in the middle of the table — that would be weird. As long as it’s within reach. This much we can glean about Mass, after a simple Times New Roman title fades in on a black screen over dead silence: we’ll probably need tissues. But we’re not sure why, exactly, and yet we’re gripped all the same. The social worker moves the chairs from their even placement around the table, putting two on one side and two on the other.

Mass is no less interesting once the purpose of this meeting is revealed, but it’s a particularly refreshing opening in an age where most films assume an audience will lose interest if they’re not given all the facts up front. Every glance and seemingly-negligible line of dialogue becomes a potential clue, and it never approaches a feeling of purposeful obscurity or frustration. Before we reach that point we finally put the pieces in place: two sets of parents are meeting six years after a tragic school shooting in which one son killed the other.

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In the Earth (2021)

I respect the hell out of Ben Wheatley for his drive to make new film. A good 90% of what he’s done, for better or worse, is actual original cinema — not an adaptation of a beloved novel, not a bastardization of a classic film, not a superhero flick that takes bits and pieces from comic books and cobbles them together into a weak installment of some neverending box-office-driven franchise. A Field in England and Sightseers are sort of the pinnacle of this criteria for Wheatley, with Field as a particular achievement — weird as hell, quite unlike anything you’ve seen to date, but importantly a cohesive experience that you can mine for deeper meaning and rewatch ad nauseam without feeling like you’ve exhausted it. Field does more with five or six actors and a muddy pasture than most movies do with $250 million, and so the prospect of Wheatley returning to ragtag roots with his latest film In the Earth was a promising one.

This is largely due to his most recent efforts: a workmanlike remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca this past year, in which Armie Hammer wore the same yellow suit in like nine different scenes; High-Rise in 2016, an ultimately joyless adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel; and Free Fire, an original movie which zips along on first watch and positively drags on subsequent viewings. If each of these films was successively bigger — in budget terms, but also in scope — they also felt less and less like the scrappy Wheatley who made A Field in England in 12 days on just £300,000.

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Summer of Soul (2021)

“Everybody wanna know why I sing the blues…” — B.B. King

In the summer of 1969, upwards of 300,000 people gathered for the greatest concert you’ve never heard of. This was the Harlem Cultural Festival, a massive six-weekend celebration of black excellence through music, dance and prayer. The cavalcade of musicians, entertainers and preachers far exceeded anyone’s expectations, bringing together Americans from Harlem and beyond over the course of a particularly sweltering city summer. The music was amazing, sure, but it seemed all 300,000 attendees understood that this was about more than just the music. This — to quote Nina Simone — was about being young, gifted and black, about the world waiting for you, about the quest that’s just begun.

By mid-1970, the Harlem Cultural Festival was forgotten entirely.

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Best of 2020

Last year The Last Black Man in San Francisco took home the #1 spot on our annual Top Ten list, and we still stand by placement of that elemental experience over Bong Joon-ho’s architectural Parasite. Given the choice between a) pole position on a Motion State list and b) an Academy Award for Best Picture, well, hopefully Bong Joon-ho’s not too crushed.

Of course, as is nearly always the case, another 2019 release arose on our radar shortly after publication that would have upset the rankings significantly: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a stunning film that sort of existed as both a messy humanist experience and a meticulously-crafted work of precision. Portrait would’ve bumped Parasite to #3, sending Bong Joon-ho into utter desperation, banging on my door at 2am, pleading for another chance.

2020 was weird because…well, we won’t get into all of that. But let’s get out ahead of it this year: through lockdowns, release delays and cinema closures both temporary and tragically permanent, the moviegoing experience was different enough that the following list should be considered with a few grains of salt. I only got to about half the number of films I watched in 2019, and many of the films appearing on other Top Ten lists — notably Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, Pablo Larrain’s Ema, Sean Durkin’s The Nest, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, and a dozen others — simply weren’t available in my area.

Nonetheless! Before we get to the good stuff, please remember to visit our new Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters; we’ll be expanding this section of the site throughout 2021 in an effort to give back to these strongholds of cinema art.

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Beau travail (1999)

War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.

Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.

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