As I am, frustratingly, only a part-time critic, there are a lot of movies I’m forced to miss due to other practical work and real-life obstacles. Every once in a while I make a point to catch up with some of them. They’re probably not actually showing anywhere, but these are certainly worth tracking down on DVD or on other streaming venues.
A dark, moody and stylish confection, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (USA, 2014) is a surprisingly effective pastiche/plundering of dozens of other peoples’ ideas. Promoted as “the first Iranian vampire spaghetti western,” we careen through artfully arranged snippet-homages to Jim Jarmusch, Sergio Leone, Tony Scott, George Romero, Michael Almereyda, film noir, and 50s and 60s pulp filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, Seijun Suzuki and Russ Meyer. The cultural curveball here is placing the narrative in an Iranian Muslim context – the film is Persian language, and there are a number of references to proper Muslim behavior as well. The Girl (i.e., The Vampire) (Sheila Vand) assumes, in context, the mantle of silent-but-deadly avenger against weak-willed westernized alpha-males, skateboarding through the suburban wasteland in a horizontal-striped t-shirt and chador like a Persian Irma Vep. Our male protagonist, Arash (Arash Marandi) is the sensitive right-minded guy who may, or may not, save her from her haunted homicidal seclusion. Snubbed by the cute rich girl from work, and burdened with his widowed junkie father, Arash runs afoul of Dad’s dealer, a reptilian aggro- pimp named Saeed (Dominic Rains), who then steals Arash’s vintage Ford Thunderbird as garnishment for medicinal-services-rendered. Arash’s befriending of The Girl changes much of that in predictable but satisfying ways.
This is more a movie about other movies than its own creative stand-alone work, and many will rightfully dismiss it for that. But director Ana Lili Amirpour has a very good sense of narrative structure and real visual chops – there’s a lot less dialogue and exposition than you might think, and the sex-and-violence factor is effectively present without being explicit. We learn practically everything visually. The striking black & white cinematography is by Lyle Vincent, who clearly knows what he’s doing. Amirpour’s next film was reportedly out in August (but distribution is checqered, a bad sign) – a dystopian cannibal love story called The Bad Batch, with a big Annapurna Pictures budget and some acting talent from higher places in the industry foodchain. An adventurous and capable new filmmaker, or another Robert Rodriguez wannabe? Time will tell, but A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an auspicious first feature that I recommend.
Book editor, writer and filmmaker Whit Stillman took a sizeable break from filmmaking from 1998 to 2011 – he’d enjoyed some indie success with his 90s trio of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco, then didn’t re-emerge until 2011’s Damsels In Distress. They’re all glibly amusing washes of twenty-something white east-coast privilege, but the early films, at least, were still well-performed and admirably self-effacing.
Last year’s Love & Friendship (USA, 2016) is Stillman’s much-lauded adaptation of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan; adapting Austen rather than emulating her style within his own narrative is certainly a cagey and constructive tactic, and most of the elements associated with that succeed nicely. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed. A prodigious flirt and social force-to-be-reckoned-with, she works the moral ambiguities under the straight-laced manners of wealthy provincialism with self-serving Machiavellian glee. Visiting the stately homes of England, and the families thereof, though, has a short shelf-life – having spent everything the late Mr. Vernon might have left them, she needs to find the next nobleman who will put her and her daughter Fredericka (Morfydd Clark) back into the secure manner to which they’ve become accustomed before she incorrigibly commits another scandal. While staying at the home of the Manwaring family, she’s forced to abandon one rich suitor, the foppish and silly Sir James Martin (a hilariously earnest Tom Bennett) when she’s discovered seducing the very-spoken-for Mr. Manwaring. She then moves to her next eligible candidate, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), a charming young man staying with her in-laws Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). The plot thickens when Fredericka, tossed out of her exclusive school, must move in as well, to be followed by the besotted Sir James, arriving in ardent pursuit of whichever Vernon woman will have him. Chloë Sevigny’s role is especially crucial – as Alicia Johnson, she’s Lady Susan’s intelligence agent within the social circles of rural England, and a valuable adviser and consigliore.
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes are stunning, if a little period-sprawling, and cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout’s photography is sometimes Barry Lyndon– beautiful. One big problem I had was Stillman’s squandering of Van Oosterhout’s efforts – Whit’s a better writer of plot than director of visual narrative. His imagery is very staid, safe and TV-like. You’ll be seeing the backs of lots of people’s heads, and the wonderful locations are far more pretty background than consequential environment. Stillman needs to be put in a room with a notepad for multiple screenings of Raoul Ruiz’ Mysteries Of Lisbon. My other big problem, God bless ‘er, was Kate Beckinsale, who is given a lot to do and gamely delivers about half of it successfully. Beckinsale’s Lady Susan can be fearsomely charming here and there – it’s a technical job well-done, and her hard work is apparent. But she’s just not actor enough to give her character the power and scale Lady Susan requires, and Stillman does little to help her. There are a lot of parts to like here, even admire, but the film aspires to a league it just can’t quite reach.
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (USA, 2016) has some seemingly interesting things to say about transgression – transgression observed safely from the distance of artistic contrivance, transgression that rears up in real life and does horrific damage to unsuspecting, perhaps undeserving, people, and subtle but quietly insistent transgressions that we only become aware of well after the fact, well after a passage of time.
Based on the late Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Ford’s three- layer narrative combines Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) present existence as an unhappily married Manhattan art gallery owner with the act of her reading the dark, noir-bleak Jim Thompson-style novel written by her estranged first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel (which doubles author Edward with protagonist ‘Tony’) tells of a small family terrorized on a west Texas highway by three willfully malevolent young men, and the father’s efforts to extract justice, revenge, or whatever blend of each he can stumble into after the fact with the help of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, impressive again), a jaded police investigator who is weighing just how much of ‘the book’ to go by here.
Modern art dominates Susan’s work life and home environment (Aaron Curry and Damien Hirst sculptures, John Currin paintings, and some provocative Ford-created video at the start of the film), and Ford wants us to speculate on how much of Susan’s interpretation of Edward’s story is affected, or distorted, by her own art-addled sensibilities, as well as her second-thought misgivings on their failed marriage. Women don’t fare particularly well here – they’re helpless victims in the novel, intrusively-observed subjects in the artwork, and non-supportive disappointments in Edward’s own past. Filtering the story-in-a-story through Susan probably worked much better in Wright’s novel, on the page; Ford’s not director (or adapting writer) enough – yet– to sort through this many irons in the fire. The idea that the novel is some kind of allegorical revenge on Susan just doesn’t play; perhaps it’s not meant to, but then Ford’s other art-world embellishments seem weirdly irrelevant. The random savagery that Tony’s family suffers is the stuff of good pulp fiction, and it’s convincingly presented, but it all feels like its own stand-alone story rather than part of the fabric. What Is Your Movie About, Tom?! I think he read a good book, had this other stuff percolating in his mind, and he banged them together to see what would happen. It all looks great (thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography), and feels non-specifically profound, but, ultimately, there just isn’t much here.
Another movie-about-other-movies (with another stolen vintage car figuring prominently), John Wick (USA, 2014) had a pretty successful run, pleasing critics and audiences and subsequently carrying a sequel earlier this year. Directed by martial arts performer, instructor and stuntman Chad Stahelski, it’s a pretty convincing and compelling underworld thriller about a retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) trying to make a normal life for himself, the tragedies that befall him nonetheless, and the murderous trail he must follow again to set things right. It draws enormous influence from Asian action films from the eighties through present day from directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, similar South Korean fare from Chan-wook Park and Kim Jee-woon, the equally-skillful-equally-derivative Jason Bourne films, and films shot with the visual digital crispness and finesse of Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and Park’s cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung.
Having very recently lost his loving wife Helen to a debilitating illness, John Wick has no sooner returned home from the funeral before he receives an unexpected package – Helen has left him a beagle puppy to love and care for, ostensibly to keep love and comfort in John’s now-peaceful life. From then on John and ‘Daisy’ are inseparable – until some young Russian mob types decide to steal John’s sweet 1969 Mustang, bust him up in his own home, and kill the dog. Clearly they haven’t just stolen a car and killed a dog – they’ve violated everything dear to John’s life, and awoken Wrath itself. One of the young mobsters is the son (Alfie Allen) of Viggo Tarasov (the late great Michael Nyqvist), the head of New York’s Russian Mob, and John Wick’s most prominent former employer. The rest is gangster-noir boilerplate – Viggo protects the son, then gives up the son, then takes revenge for the son, while John Wick moves through Viggo’s side of the world like a Smith and Wesson threshing machine. There’s a nice mythology developed here by writer Derek Kolstad – fellow assassins, and even the New York and New Jersey police departments, pay absolute deference to John Wick out of loyalty and professionalism. And there’s a stylish, elegant Assassins’ Downtown Resort of sorts, The Continental, run by Winston (Ian McShane), who forbids the “business” of his clientele to be exercised on the premises. Stahelski’s film is compelling, clichés notwithstanding, because he always finds a way to connect genuine personal emotion to the carnage. It’s not just fireworks and body counts (though there’s plenty) – what’s at stake for each character is up front, and smartly reiterated throughout.
Stahelski is the credited director, but a few references also credit David Leitch as a co-director; Leitch staged a number of the handfighting martial arts sequences, and gets that credit in the end titles. Leitch then moved on to 2017’s Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron. His fights here are impressive, and Reeves is skilled, but Stahelski himself prefers the guns-and-firepower approach of John Woo and the Wachowskis, so Leitch’s more intimate sequences within all of that are welcome. Visually arresting, compellingly structured and executed, John Wick is a sleek and muscular testosterone-driven thriller. There’s not much originality here, but you’ll love watching these pros work.