Booksmart

Booksmart is a one wild night, end-of-high-school party caper, only this time our endearing failboat heroes are two girls in a story written and directed by sharp, fun-loving female filmmakers, the hookup quest belongs to the cute dorky lesbian, and there are no real villains besides arranging transportation. It’s rowdy and raucous and hilarious and heartfelt, feels like a big, rocking hug from millennial women to our shining Gen Z little sisters, and you should go see it in the most crowded theater you can find with as many of your friends as you can muster, for the literal lols—this movie was designed for those infectious peals of laughter that would take over the gang at a slumber party. Booksmart is absolutely the slumber party of movies, with that freewheeling happy energy that feels like it’s going to carry you through to morning and into the rest of your lives.

Molly and Amy, played to the peak by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, are a pair of idiosyncratic, high achieving rule-followers who approached school like their own personal battlefield, shielding themselves from the inane antics of their classmates behind their ambition and love for each other—both fierce. But on the last day, they discover that while they sequestered themselves off, buckled down, worked hard, and got into great colleges, their partying classmates UNbuckled and also got into great colleges. Determined to catch up on what they missed in one all-nighter (#nerds), they launch off to find the big graduation party at one kid’s aunt’s house, like a modern pair of clever, dumbass Odysseuses in blue jumpsuits.

The supporting cast of characters are sketched with tremendous kookiness and warmth for a teen party movie, but for my money the standout among them is Billie Lourd, who has absolutely inherited her mom Carrie Fisher’s astral plane goofball comedic genius, playing a character called Gigi whom one of the screenwriters has described as “a magical party coyote.” The surprises Gigi doles out are the most surreally outrageous, though honestly not by far (I was going to name one of a dozen other examples, but why take the zany joy of their reveals away from you? I’M NOT GONNA). But the Gigi discoveries are just the more absurd version of the kinds of discoveries we make about all the characters. Like any good work about young ones, this is a growing up tale, and a big part of growing up is growing less self-centered—learning that those around you are full, complex people too, who have their own weird passions & worries just like you and your best friend.

We’ve been in what feels like a bit of a groundswell of actors taking on directing roles lately, and after seeing Booksmart, hoo boy am I excited about the Olivia Wilde cinematic universe! This is a super duper well-made first feature, with punch and spirit and heart, the kind of normalized queer representation we’re always asking for, and several impressively bold stylistic swings, all of which has me very much looking forward to what she works on next. Basically, everyone involved with this movie is a star, go light up the sky babes.

★★★★

Volver

Apparently Penélope Cruz has one of those faces with a one-to-one relationship to my emotions. Penélope Cruz: [tears fill her eyes] / Me, sobbing: “She’s so beautiful and strong!” And tears fill her eyes a LOT in Volver (‘The Return’), the second Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen in a month, and hey I love him. The closest comparison I have for Volver is actually, hear me out, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as it’s the only other thing I can think of where a director rendered a really dark, traumatic plot into such a likable, charming movie. But Volver has an even greater mix of tones going on, fluidly jumbling funny, wild melodrama with a sincere, lovely portrayal of an unconventional family and their intimacy with death. It’s morbid and colorful and somehow makes single-handedly running a restaurant look like a desirable occupation. This movie’s kinda magic.

It is also, and I cannot stress this enough, entirely about women. I think the combined total male speaking time runs less than five minutes. This movie is two hours long. Pedro mi cariño. ❤ Oh by the way I’ve started trying to learn Spanish! By using an app and well, watching a lot of Almodóvar movies. People have suggested telenovas, but so far with Almodóvar I’ve already watched Javier Cámara rob a church in drag and four women haul a deep freezer with a body in it into the back of a van, so I’m doing pretty bueno.

Anyway, what I think might make a good companion to Volver is Joan Didion’s essay on the Santa Ana wind in Southern California. There is a supernatural wind here too, a strong east wind that blows through the village where Raimunda and her sister Sole grew up, which Raimunda (Cruz) says makes everyone there go mad. I sure do love stories with a madness-inducing wind! And that opening scene of the wind whipping the brightly colored skirts of all the women cleaning gravestones in a sun-scoured cemetery? Beautiful beautiful beautiful.

★★★★

Happy as Lazzaro

This was lovely and brutal. A dreamy Italian fable from Cannes darling Alice Rohrwacher about how wealth is inherently abusive, with wolves. Adriano Tardiolo’s face is practically a wonder of the world. At one point I sat straight up with a gasp, and a moment later realized I literally had my hand pressed over my heart. In short, if I have to pick one 2+ hour non-English language class warfare film from 2018 (a distinct category), I’m taking this one!

Lazzaro felice (‘Happy as Lazzaro’) is another movie I’m stuck talking around in a lot of ways, because there is a twist. What I’ll say is that it reminded me of Sorry To Bother You in that for the first half I thought the loglines had mis-categorized the genre as ‘magical realism’. They aren’t wrong! The movie is just picking its moment. (Though ultimately Happy as Lazzaro is also quite like Sorry To Bother You in its feelings on modern economies. They would make a tonally abrupt double feature, but thematically a fairly consistent one.)

Anyway I’m coming back to the wolf because I love an animal symbol in a movie so much. Part harbinger, part familiar, part allegory, all BEASTIE. I’ll always be down for that trope. The wolf and the Fool, in that bright yellow Italian sunlight. Dry sunbaked land and those big green tobacco leaves. “Lazzaro’s staring into the void again, go shake him.” The organ music following him through the night air… This was a very beautiful movie, as much as it kind of harrows you.

★★★★

In the Mood for Love

You all weren’t kidding about In the Mood for Love. WHEN THE SCORE COMES IN WITH THAT SLO-MO???? BOY I DIE!!!!!!

Absolutely masterpiece level
– BEAUTY*
– PASSION**
– STYLE***
– PINING****

*gorgeous
**I tremble!
***the Most
****strange, wondrous, obliterating

This was one of those movies where Emily and I spent the entire thing exclaiming to each other, in two modes: overwhelmt™, and gasping recognition of how this influenced other filmmakers we love. Because we are sure not the only one seduced by Mr. Wong Kar-wai!

First and foremost has gotta be Barry Jenkins. The COLORS, the compositions, the Romance, the beautiful beautiful actors with wonderful wonderful faces: that’s Barry, baby! Noted Wong Kar-wai superfan (as well as fellow recent Legend of the ‘Log, Claire Denis) (seriously, Jenkins start a film club challenge). I’d also highlight Tarsem’s passion project The Fall, which was what my mind giddily leapt to after the first instance of those strings knocked me sideways—the frame rate felt like it matched the rhythm of The Fall’s opening black & white prologue, that slow motion ballet of movement set to Beethoven’s rapturous Symphony No. 7. Shigeru Umebayashi gives Beets a run for his money with ‘Yumeji’s Theme’, I’ll say it! And then Johnny Greenwood rose toward Umebayashi in turn with his score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, also with one particular melody repeating throughout the movie, finally in this dark stirring string rendition that was the second thing I thought of as Maggie Cheung waited gracefully for her noodles on a dark street.

We also felt In the Mood for Love’s influence in Todd Haines’ Carol (like a triptych of longing with Brief Encounter, those three are), in the shots framed by windows, all the moments of characters sitting at tables and feeling, an erotic focus on accessories, hotel rooms… I’d even say you can catch glimpses of Wong Kar-wai in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, again in composition and a set of particular colors repeating like a motif, but perhaps most in how that movie also deliberately withholds two key characters’ faces from ever being seen. Later I would read—and be dumbstruck at how I had not recognized it earlier—that Sofia Coppola cites In the Mood for Love as her biggest influence for Lost In Translation, even thanking Wong Kar-wai in an acceptance speech. The proximal living quarters, the affair-not-affair, the unheard whispered secrets, Sofia yes! And she would use a Roxy Music song in her movie itself, after  got his English title inspiration from one of Bryan Ferry’s ballads. (Because apparently everything in my life these days eventually comes up Ferry.)

Oh and! The pulpy paperback writing part of the plot is reminded me so much of that portion of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin. Though that was published the same year In the Mood for Love was released, so that one just seems to be the universe’s classy little coincidence.

Anyway. The fact that you can see where so many other artists took inspiration from this movie, along with its own cultural connections and echoes, speaks to what an incredibly rich work it is, a work placed within an artistic lineage. But it’s also just ravishing entertainment on its own, a captivating, utterly watchable feast that will steal your breath away. This was so good, I am: in awe.

★★★★

Burning

As you all probably know, I like some really boring movies. I love some slow, long-ass movies, let me tell ya. So when I say that Burning was too long and too boring for ME, I imagine that should land!

I might have still been able to handle the slowly, s l o w l y delivered plot if I hadn’t found the three characters I had to spend all this time with each so aggravating. Jeon Jong-seo conceptually, Yoo Ah-in intrinsically, and Steven Yeun sexually. Good god Steven Yeun is handsome. 2018 was the year Steven Yeun was out to get your girl, and sorry he’s gonna! He’s such a fucking DISH. Even in this where he’s eerie as hell! Steven Yeun can always get it, and that’s what we have learned from Burning.

But no I cannot recommend this movie. Which is a shame because theoretically I like a slow-burn Korean neo-noir where one of the features is that you can distantly hear the disembodied propaganda loudspeakers at the border just a few miles north. I like someone jogging along frost-covered fields. I like the odd, cool-to-the-touch score (“bloodless” Emily Yoshida called it). I like the hazy blue poster, capturing the mesmerizing way Jeon Jong-seo has of moving her arms, alive and feeling all the way through her fingertips.

This could be a soufflé movie, where it’s gonna collapse if you break the gradually building atmosphere in any way, and admittedly I paused it for almost 24 hours when I got invited to a cook-out. But…I paused it gratefully. I wanted to like Burning, but I found this a dull, interminable drag, with a stupefyingly unlikable & uninteresting lead, and a sexist trope of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character I thought men were supposed to have been shamed out of writing years ago. Not even watching creepbabe Steven Yeun pristinely putting in his contacts could save this one for me.

½

Bad Education

A friend of mine lent me her DVD of this ages ago when she found out I’d never seen any Pedro Almodóvar movies, and also that I’d fallen in love with Javier Cámara in The Young Pope. But other than that he had a role in this, I knew absolutely nil about this movie when I sat down to watch it. When I say she lent me a DVD, I mean just the disc, in a clear plastic case. I didn’t know anyone else in the cast, and I sure did not know the PLOT. Which turns out to be a super queer film-within-a-film mystery crime thriller, each of these elements surprising me by turn!

For those that want a little more framework than I had: Pedro Almodóvar’s La mala educación (‘Bad Education’) takes place in Spain in the 1960s and ’70s. It stars Gael García Bernal and an array of long-faced, sad-eyed men. It was saddled with an NC-17 rating that I’m certain it would not have if it were released today instead of in 2004. That said, the movie deals quite frankly with homosexuality, transsexuality, clerical abuse of young boys, drug addiction, and metafiction (cw for metafiction). Javier Cámara plays an actor playing a trans woman* nightclub performer/petty thief and is sublime. Gael García Bernal plays possibly three roles, it could be argued, but perhaps most distinctively another trans woman named Zahara.

It was while watching the whole range of his performance in this, including his beautiful made-up face smiling under a wavy blonde wig, that it occurred to me that Gael García Bernal is the Mexican Cillian Murphy. Or maybe I mean Cillian Murphy is the Irish Gael García Bernal. Or they’re some kind of linked fae pair, as I’m looking at their IMDb pages now and their careers have tracked along on remarkably matched paths—both getting a lead in a feature around 2001, Murphy’s own trans role in Breakfast on Pluto coming out just one year after La mala educación, both diversifying from film to take the lead in a streaming service TV series 10 years later…my god what have I stumbled into…

Anyway. Anyway! Bad Education is a movie with A LOT TO UNPACK, but I’m hampered by my reluctance to reveal various plot details that completely rocked me when I watched it. So, vaguely, various essay topics for your film classes: identity, the truthfulness of memory, the truthfulness of art, What Is Art, Gael García Bernal doing those pushups. That last is the one I’d probably write, because it has the shape of a joke but there are a lot of places you can go off to with that as(s) a starting point.

Anyway again. Carolina was right, I love Almodovar and didn’t even know it. I’m now going to watch five more of his movies.

*This is an interesting case in the Cis Men Playing Trans Women history, as Bernal and Cámara are playing actors playing these roles, and in 1980 when it takes place, absolutely would men have been cast. I give this a pass. However, there is also another cis man playing a trans woman at a different level of the narrative where I would have wanted that role to go to a trans actress—but allowing of course that a movie made 24 years on from 1980 was still 15 years ago from today, when morally responsible casting is still an uphill battle.

★★★½