February 7, 2017

Art by Karen Seto / 司徒嘉蘭

Will Schube is starting a band if you wanna join.

The Drive-In returns in two parts this week, as I saw quite a few movies from January 29 through February 4. Look out for Part II in its regularly scheduled Thursday slot.

I. Little Men (2016) – Directed by Ira Sachs

Putting your film—and your budget—on the backs of child actors is always a risky and terrifying proposition. Not every film utilizing pre-pubescent talent has Jake Jardine and Michael Barbieri at its disposal, though. It isn’t only the talent of these two insanely skilled actors that makes Little Men an excellent film, however. Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, and Paulina García coalesce into a wonderful triumvirate of adult antagonism. Pro tip: if you hold zero leverage in a negotiation, don’t be an asshole. It won’t get you far.

Ira Sachs’ latest feature performs the nice little trick of kids acting like adults and adults behaving like children, before the kids revert to babyish behavior to prove a point. The film is a masterclass in subtlety, and Sachs remains one of independent cinemas most under-appreciated directors. He turns Brooklyn into a familiar neighborhood, and we even get a little Alfred Molina cameo.

Indie films with low ambitions tend to wear that aesthetic like a cheap suit. It’s easy to cut corners and disguise it as artistic choice and even easier to keep blemishes and pass them off as stylish. Sachs has no interest in either, crafting a tight microcosm of a struggle between families. It’s not a political film, but politics are adjacent to its narrative. For Sachs to be able to use this story and film it from an objective, judgement-free POV is a triumph. These may be little men, but they grasp at great things.

II. Sing Street (2016) – Directed by John Carney

Speaking of child actors, the kids in Sing Street are phenomenal. The film is a quasi-musical about dreams, brotherhood, and young love, with these themes shaping the entire film up into a riotously good time. La La Land should have been taking notes. This is how you make a film about music without the form itself bogging the work down into a self-conscious snoozer. The film’s thrust comes from a classic boy-girl narrative: Conor (a revelatory Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band with his school pals in order to get his crush Raphina (Lucy Boynton, also superlative) to act in their videos.

The film uses this springboard to explore music—and art in general—as an escape from just about everything: abusive role models, bullies, arguing parents, and broken homes. But the film emerges from this rubble and ends up being a celebration of brotherhood. It showcases the tight-bond and fine line siblings walk when growing up and becoming individuals. Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor, who steals the show) is a college dropout stoner, and it’s easy to laugh at him during the film’s early scenes. He’s an antagonistic, philosophy-spouting music nerd who never leaves home. But the distance between pride and jealousy between siblings is never far off, and director John Carney (Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013)) teases this tension perfectly, slowly introducing it in such a way that it feels shocking and heartbreaking when its conclusion finally arrives. Sing Street, like Little Men, is a film about the way young people cope when the support structures around them crumble. Sometimes kids really do know best.

III. Frank (2014) – Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Following the trend of movies that do music better than La La Land, I finally caught Frank on Netflix, a film I’ve been trying to watch ever since I read the logline—and I’m paraphrasing loosely—”Michael Fassbender wears a mask the entire film and leads a noise band.” That’s pretty much what this movie is about (Fassbender takes off the mask…briefly), but it also deals with identity and briefly touches on mental illness, and the way we shape celebrity and celebrities.

Domhnhall Gleeson plays Jon, a confused twenty-something who composes pop songs on his keyboard when he’s not working a mindless desk job. He manages to play with Frank’s (Fassbender) band, Soronprfbs by accident. The band’s name is purposefully impossible to pronounce, just one of many subtle moments Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room (2015)) peppers into this delightfully odd film.

I found Domhnall Gleeson underwhelming in Ex Machina (2015) and he does much better here. He’s desperate and power hungry and clashes with Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in scenes of ferocious intensity. The film nearly comes off the rails multiple times during its final act, but a movie this wildly inventive and engaging deserves leeway to see itself back on course if it occasionally veers off.

IV. Matador (1986) – Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

This trailer is the best I can find.

It’s Almodóvar month over at the Alamo Drafthouse, and having only previously seen Volver (2006), I’ve been trying to catch as many as possible from one of Spain’s best directors. Early Almodóvar—I’ve seen one more since catching Matador—is all about sex and Hitchcock. The sex is highly erotic and often homosexual, and the stories are erotically charged thrillers in the vein of Hitch—even the haunting score recalls Psycho (1960) or Vertigo (1958). What’s wild about Almodóvar is that his approach to sex doesn’t date the film in any way. His approach to on-screen sex in 1986 was as forward thinking as most filmmakers are only touching on now.

I don’t want to say too much about this film because frankly, it’s absolutely wild and I don’t want to reveal too much (and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can write eloquently about it). Essentially, Diego (Nacho Martínez—best name ever?) is a retired bullfighter who hangs up the red sheet early because he was gored by a bull and thus rendered incompetent. And thus, let the sexual imagery begin! Young Antonio Banderas shows up as a bullfighting pupil, suffering from vertigo and fueled by hallucinations and an ability to read minds. The movie is bonkers, and it isn’t even the craziest Almodóvar I watched this week.

V. In The Mood For Love (2000) – Directed by Wong Kar Wai

I arrived at the films of Wong Kar Wai (the non-Americanized spelling of his name is Kar-Wai Wong) in a circuitous manner. Moonlight (2016) is one of my favorite films from last year and one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Criterion did an interview with instant-favorite-director Barry Jenkins in which he discusses the impact of Wai’s work, and I was thus propelled to check out the Hong Kong director’s work.

I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but Wong Kar Wai’s work isn’t meant for the average movie watcher. His films are too infatuated with the medium itself, too referential to cinematic language, to captivate a Netflix and chiller. His films are certainly beautiful; In The Mood For Love is perfectly composed, but Wai is a bit like Godard: he comes to his films as a student, using the medium to speak not to an audience but to the world he knows—film. Like Godard, he uses mundane plots to flex his directorial muscles in other ways, namely frame composition, atmosphere, mood, and editing. Wai juxtaposes rapid cuts with slow motion moments to both speed and up and slow down the days passing in his story. There are aspects of this film that are too appealing for anyone to dislike, but even I found the capital-F Film approach of this film tiring at times.

The movie takes place in Hong Kong, 1962, and centers around two neighbors, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). The two are clearly attracted to each other and often left to their own devices as their significant others are constantly traveling. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow—despite their attraction—vow never to sleep together after they realize that their spouses are doing precisely that with each other.

The film’s best moments come when the jilted couple rehearsing the ways they’ll confront their own husband and wife, as each conversation initially sounds like Chow and Chan are speaking to each other. It’s a perfect trick and the movie’s most astounding moment.

In The Mood For Love is a beautiful film and a true work of art. It’s a document for film lovers and a great display of talent and knowledge of film history. Like all great auteurs, Wai showcases his skill in the frame. “We won’t be like them,” Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan promise to each other. In Wong Kar Wai’s conversation with ghosts of cinema past, he vows to do the opposite, with a bit of edge, of course. Like all great directors, Wai’s greatest strength is in his ability to steal—and innovate while doing so.

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