The Little Hours

One of my coworkers at my old job recommended this one to me, and I think she did a good job: it’s a deadpan bi sex comedy set at a medieval convent starring Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci. I encourage you to not look up the rest of the cast and just experience the opening credits (playing over Aubrey Plaza in a nun habit short-temperedly leading a really adorable furry donkey through the countryside to some lilt-y Middle Ages vocal arrangement).

The Little Hours is actually based on a couple ribald 14th-century short stories from a Canterbury Tales-esque collection known as The Decameron, but is performed with modern dialogue and affect, which is an easy joke, but the first time Plaza and Micucci launch a cavalcade of “fuck off!”s at a gardener for looking at them I’ll admit I fully lost it. There is every opportunity for the funniness of cursing, drinking nuns to wear out, and your mileage will probably vary. But for me, tonally this movie landed most like one of those long Kids In the Hall sketches, the ones that could run to maybe 10, 12 minutes, and gradually take the bit that a boy has adopted a businessman as if he’s a stray dog or whatever to a kind of surprising emotional resonance by the end—with also one or two completely absurdist wild turns along the way.

Another reason why it probably feels KITH-y to me is that a several real-life couples made it, and it definitely has that vibe of a group of friends just doing a project together. This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but I appreciated how this movie felt like they didn’t put a lot of sweat into it? It’s relaxed. The plot as blocked is totally watchable, chill but always moving along (the movie clocks in at a pleasant 89 minutes), while maintaining that looseness you get from the fact that the actors just riffed all their dialogue and organically built jokes that way.

So if you want to watch a feature-length sketch with frank, queer, occasionally violent nuns hauling Dave Franco around as a mostly mute make-out Pinocchio, The Little Hours is on Netflix.

★★

High Life

High Life is an absurd, harrowing, erotic existential crisis in space from visionary director Claire Denis, in which Juliette Binoche plays a freaky mad scientist/sex witch conducting fertility experiments on a ship of condemned criminals headed toward a black hole and Robert Pattinson is essentially 2001: A Space Odyssey’s quiet, obliquely determined Dave if he had been a single dad to the space baby. I fucking loved it.

Like 2001 it is concerned with Life and Death, humanity set against the Vantablackness of the void. Like Under the Skin, the void might also sexually consume you. But also it is like nothing else, a movie composed of moments that are wholly, madly, silently-screaming-in-the-theater Original. Every line someone says in High Life is a tiny bewildering miracle. At one point André 3000 sighs “I’m tired as a bat,” and it broke me, I caused a disruption. At another point I’m pretty certain Juliette Binoche combatively asks Robert Pattinson “Are you happy, space-monk?” but I can’t be sure because I BLACKED OUT WITH JOY.

I need to impress upon you that this movie is deeply unsettling and alarming, like high-key alarming, both physically and spiritually violent, very Denis-style “provocative.” I need you to know this because I’m probably going to spend the rest of this talking about good space dad Robert Pattinson and his tiny baby and it’s going sound real cute. Listen: it is real cute. It is maybe my favorite baby thing ever. When we were DECOMPRESSING afterward my friend Emily and I simultaneously declared we would have spent four to five hours just watching RPatz and his space baby. And as is, I think we got a solid 20 minutes? Nearly the whole of act one is just Monte alone on a rundown space ship taking care of his infant daughter, because that Claire Denis never runs out of genius ideas.

It’s really really remarkable—back to that “like nothing else” thing—because you get babies in your safe, Star Trek-style space futures all the time, but never in your space exploration movies, and this injection of domesticity into that atmosphere of surreal danger is striking and touching and captivating as hell. Like, the opening scene of High Life is a person in a space suit carefully fixing a busted panel on the ship siding, and he has rigged the communication system in his helmet into a baby monitor so he can keep an ear to her babbling away in her makeshift playpen inside and coo nonsense at her when he hears her get fussy. When have you ever seen that! Never! This is the kind of SO GOOD this section is. He behaves like every parent with an infant the world over in how everything is a chance for him to try to teach her a word or keep her happy, only those chances in their case are all to do with the practical and philosophical terrors of space travel. It’s absolutely brilliant, I’m obsessed, RPatz & his space baby for screen partners of the year.

★★★★½

Good Time

I also watched Good Time this weekend, as the other piece of my High Life homework. Director, actor—and Good Time is 100 percent the kind of movie you watch for an actor. With all respect to the Safdie Brothers, who have made a fine movie here, and making a movie this good is hard, but you watch Good Time because someone tells you that Robert Pattinson is really good in it. Such as me right now: it’s true! Robert Pattinson is good enough in this that after something like a decade of obscure indie work it seemed like suddenly this one role single-handedly made him credible, even exciting. It was his Clouds of Sils Maria, and suddenly we were living in a post-Twilight era where both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson had become, fantastically, indie darlings. Can you believe! What a world.

Robert Pattinson looks like my friend Jonathan if Jonathan were an alien. Pattinson’s face is preternaturally beautiful and weird looking and yet, wildly, it’s that specific kind of sharply cut model face that stands out everywhere except for being somehow perfectly realistic on a scroungey, squirrely, small-time criminal. They put him in a large jacket and pull a hoodie over his head and suddenly I’m just like oh yes, this is a Jawline Street Boy. I have seen this type of boy. So that was good casting at the jump, and then he just really sells it.

The story is a basic petty crime & family number, nothing groundbreaking there, save that the brother who landed in jail after their bank robbery went bust is mentally disabled, and that provides some interesting framing to Connie’s gnawing, hyper-focused responsibility to get the bail money together and get his brother out of lock-up. I think the whole downhill tumble of action all takes place in about 24 hours, but somehow that doesn’t seem as important to the movie as it does to something like Support the Girls, which by the clock doesn’t actually even all take place in one day, yet in spirit still does more than this one. But that’s because Support the Girls is a slice of life, while Good Time has a very clear outcome-oriented plot and is all driving action toward that end, despite all the twists and turns that befall our down-and-out Sisyphus as he keeps trying to achieve his goal.

Anyway, was Good Time as good as Beau Travail? Hah don’t be silly. But it wasn’t work to get through.

★★½

Beau Travail

You know how there’s those movies that are considered masterpieces of cinema and you watch them and you understand why, but you understand the way you understand, like, a school assignment? I’m thinking, mm The 400 Blows, maybe. Paris, Texas.

Beau Travail was NOT like that, for me. Beau Travail’s art-mad bold ass genius just rose muscularly out of the blazing desert like so many exercising Legionnaires, sideswiping any academic posturing or “importance” to pour straight into the nerve centers of my brain. I want to make my own film ranking site with a produce-based rubric where I can rate this one CERTIFIED BANANAS, and that means I LOVED IT.

Beau Travail (‘Good Work’), Claire Denis’ legacy-making picture, dates from 1999, and is based on the Herman Melville novella Billy Budd. I almost feel I can go ahead and say its spirit is captured perfectly despite having not read this particular Melville, because boy it sure paints a tale of obsession, and if I know anything from the Melville I have read, that’s the theme, baby! This is a movie about obsession—fateful, jealous, violent, classically tragic, Melvillian obsession. And also like Melville, it is elliptical and poetic and physical, bizarrely hypnotic, and boldly homoerotic. Narratively: a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti reflects on the young soldier who drove him to madness and downfall, as we watch these dreamy, athletic scenes of the Legionnaires conducting balletic choreographed exercises under the hot sun. It: rules.

There is, I have now learned, a 20th century opera also based on Billy Budd (with a libretto by E.M. Forster no less), and Denis has used pieces of Benjamin Britten’s compositions to score some of her most mesmerizing scenes, setting these strange drills to a soundtrack of dozens of powerful male voices rhythmically sing-chanting in no language I recognized, in an aesthetic that reminded of me of nothing so much as portions of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I was thrilled by this, because I was watching this as a precursor to seeing Denis’ new movie High Life this week, and High Life is set in space. High Life also looks trippy as absolute balls, and after seeing how trippy she gets on the ground, I’m now certain that’s just what happens when you bring Denis up above the confines of the atmosphere to holler directly into the void.

I’m going to talk about the ending of Beau Travail now, but super obliquely. I really just want to say that one of the number one agonies I hear about from my screenplay & story-writing friends is how to end things, and over the years this has made me even more enamored of stories that choose to solve this problem by just going for broke, artistically. Just go for it. Such a high proportion of my favorite movies of the last couple years have had these kinds of final scenes, and this one…this one fits right into that group.

★★★★

Sofia Coppola Week: Lost In Translation, and The Virgin Suicides

I watched these both for the first time a few days apart, so I’m just going to layer them on top of each other and talk about the overlay. Some spoilers ahead.

Do you know what I like? I wish I didn’t, but also I don’t care—I like that Sofia Coppola romanticizes things she’s not supposed to. Suicide, young women attracting older men, pale pink. After these two I’m finding it more and more surprising we don’t yet have a Sofia Coppola/Lana Del Rey collab, the other queen of holding dangerous eye contact with marked men in the center of all that’s the worst and best about lush, seductive femininity. You’ve never seen pastels so bold than in these women’s hands. Female characters who seem to be almost indulging themselves in exhibition, like one of the embodiments of that Margaret Atwood quote: “You are your own voyeur.”

Watching The Virgin Suicides reaffirmed for me how I’d seen Lost In Translation, that it was mostly about what Charlotte needed. Not as much Bob, who to my eyes was gradually revealed to be a character who was functioning closer to the role that all of Japan was playing: mostly just there to contextualize an individual [white] person’s loneliness. But, setting aside 2003’s nouveau orientalism to turn to the people the movie does care about, I don’t think what Charlotte needed from Bob was actually sexual per se, though it wasn’t separate from that. A strange, difficult to categorize mix of both romantic and paternal reassurance, a little more Oedipal than Daddy but still a bit more platonic than either of them are generally. A kiss that felt like it was there mostly due to a lack of another easily available gesture—the true shape of it found more in his hand curled on the back of her head, an unheard whisper that ends in “Okay?” Earlier the same hand sleepily patting her bare foot: “You’re not hopeless.”

Again, I don’t like that I liked this weird quasi-romantic relationship between a recent college grad and a man twice her age, but it’s Sofia and she does this to me! I also don’t like how much I enjoyed every dreamy shot of doomed teenage girl-limbs draped around a bedroom in alluring ennui. My favorite scene in The Virgin Suicides was one of those: the sequence where they and the neighborhood boys just wordlessly play each other records over the phone in quiet emotive tableau, alone together. In fact the moment Lost In Translation got me was also musical: when a soft, drunk Bill Murray sang a gently threadworn cover of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ sitting against the window in a Tokyo karaoke room. Maybe this too is a Sofia Coppola thing—letting the dialogue fall for a minute, and just letting the characters listen to a song. A sort of shorthand for introspection that when done well holds you still and contemplative too, just listening along.

★★

They Shall Not Grow Old

The first thing you need to know is that the theater my pal Emily and I saw this at must have mistyped the name in their computer system, and so our ticket receipts read “THEY SHANT GROW OLD,” and that’s what we’re going to be calling this documentary exclusively from here on forward.

The second thing you need to know is that if They Shan’t Grow Old is still playing anywhere near you, the theatrical run opens with Peter Jackson welcoming you to the movie and letting you know that if you want to stick around after, he’ll explain how they did everything. And you sure as hell do, the point of Peter Jackson movies is to spend about as much time inhaling the special features as you spend watching the actual film itself. I’ve talked to multiple friends about this doc and do you know what I tell them most about? All the stuff I learned in the making-of.

The other thing I tell them is the key production change I would have made, if I had known several years ago that I should have sent a cover letter to Petey Jacks explaining how my unique skillset as a former cooking show producer & WWI buff specially qualifies me to help him produce his First World War documentary.

What Jackson and his team chose to do is pair their astonishingly clarified and colorized archival footage with only first-hand veteran accounts of their time in the war, no outside voices, to create an immersive experience of what it was like to be at the Western Front. I like this! The once jerky and grainy old footage looks strikingly more real after being refurbished, and so doubling down on the sense of this time in history “coming alive” is a cohesive and strong approach. But. These oral histories were recorded primarily in the ’60s and ’70s by various British historical organizations, and all the voices are unmistakably the voices of old men. For all that the more modern-looking footage makes this war feel more current, these grandfatherly voices bring it right back into the past. So you ask the BBC for more money, and you hire actors. Still use the words of the soldiers themselves as your scripts, but when we spend at least seven minutes with them just telling us how painfully young they were when they enlisted (17, 15…) over footage of these scrawny teenagers in their stiff uniforms, if those voices were voices of actual teenage boys? It would be a gut-punch.

Taking this approach would also allow you to correct the representational problem of the only narrative source being these first-hand accounts: we only hear from the men who were willing to talk about the war. A lot of First World War soldiers never wanted to talk about it again. But we do have some raw material that could be pieced together, because we have files from the shell shock clinics, with the doctors’ written notes and interviews conducted in the course of trying to treat their traumatized patients. Once you’re already putting together “scripts”, you wouldn’t be restricted to the self-selected group in the oral histories, and could write sections that sure, may not be real word-for-word accounts of specific soldiers, but would nonetheless create an overall work that’s more complete, and ultimately, maybe more truthful.

Anyway, these are just my own grand plans. What Peter Jackson’s team did create was made with great care and technical artistry and was really fucking harrowing. The moment when we finally reached the trenches and the video suddenly spread to widescreen and burst into color as the booms of the guns came in for the first time, our whole audience gasped. I got goosebumps. I have goosebumps right now. And that’s some powerful filmmaking.

★★★½

Cabaret

I saw Cabaret the stage musical during the second Mendes/Marshall Broadway revival with Alan Cumming as the Emcee, in the winter of Emma Stone’s run as Sally Bowles. I went with my friend Jonathan (yes the same one who has appeared in reviews here, after he would also end up moving from New York to Portland several years later). We spent a bunch of money we didn’t really have for a table on the floor and DRESSED, he in a suit and I in a dress cut all the way down my sternum. I remember us being probably 35 years younger than the audience median, immediately ordering cocktails, and all the extras/waitstaff/boys & girls of Berlin whose job it was to flirt up the patrons beelining over to deliver us transparently preferential service all night. Naturally this whole affair was > than my experience with the movie, but not a fair fight there.

So, other metrics: Alan Cumming’s Emcee sang every line like he was drunkenly tossing it across the room like an article of clothing, and Emma Stone’s Sally was as chaotically charming as Liza but much more clearly strung out on whatever the drug du jour of the Kit Kat Klub was. The whole production looked sexy and shabby and at the end it was shattered by the cruelty of history that was always looming in the shadows. The movie meanwhile delivered me the central story of Sally and Brian or Cliff or whatever his name is MUCH more strongly and bisexually (a warm hello to this baron plot that was not in my stage version), but with this aesthetic that I’m sorry to admit kept bouncing me out of everything because it was just so….’70s.

This movie made me think about time. How two hours of a movie feels compared to two hours of a musical. How each decade renders decades past, and wondering whether I’ll look at period productions from today 30 years from now and think they look unmistakably 2010s. How history can function as foreshadowing. And the nature of memories recalled over time.

★★