Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Recent & Decent: Men and Montana Story

I'm not quite going to punt the theatrical/festival stuff I've watched over the past few months - I still want to say a little more about some of the things I've logged on Letterboxd - but the past few months have had me re-evalulating what I want to use various spaces for, especially since eFilmCritic has been down for neary three months and it's fairly clear that it's not going to lead to anything like being able to ditch writing SQL to write about movies. That's kind of why this blog has mostly been a place to organize my thoughts about next week lately, with a few detours. But I still want to have the best version of what I think under my own name and give myself room to go a little longer, add images, and maybe make the blog more explicitly biographical.

Which brings us to last week, when a couple movies I'd been looking forward to came out right when I'd planned a vacation to Chicago to see my brother and my sister-in-law, carefully scheduled for when I could see the Red Sox play a series against the White Sox and also catch a game at Wrighley Field. Fortunately, Matt & Morgan were looking forward to seeing Men, and it gave me a chance to check out the city's famous Music Box Theatre. I scheduled it so that I'd have Memorial Day to decompress after coming home (in part because they had their own thing going on Sunday), which was handy, because while I'd skipped Montana Story at IFFBoston because it was clearly going to play theaters, it didn't last despite the fact that there's not a lot much better than watching Haley Lu Richardson hold down a movie. One week and out at the Kendall, and a two week booking at Boston Common where they weren't going to let it have screens that could be showing Top Gun. It's still playing at 11am through Thursday, but the holiday was necessary to get to that.

I must admit to being a bit surprised how basic the Music Box is, at least if you're going to a weekday matinee. Nothing unusual and cool at the concession stand, the main room decent but not striking like other venerable independent houses. There's a lounge (but I don't drink) and you know there's a 70mm projector in the booth, but I suspect that it's more fun when it's busy. Meanwhile, getting back from Chicago on Sunday night means that you might be sluggish getting to a literal matinee on Monday morning.

Anyway, here's my Letterboxd. I tend to think of it as rough drafts for here, composed on the ride back from the theater, but sometimes it's as much as I've got.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2022 in the Music Box Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

In some ways, Men is a bit of a step back from the grand, abstract nightmare of Annihilation for writer/director Alex Garland - it's such a tighter, more grounded premise - but he gets the same sort of effect: An uncanny nightmare where you can almost see some sort of logic behind the madness but are still unnerved by a world that won't make easy sense.

It's a genuinely odd film in so many ways. Its central gimmick - that all but one of the men that newly single (by one means or another) Harper encounters is played by the same actor as her AirBNB host - feels like something that should be acknowledged within the movie itself, especially since his face really doesn't fit on the snotty little tween, but it's not, and it leaves one to wonder whether this place itself is weird, whether it's in her head, or if it's illustrating something for the audience. On top of that, there's weird English pagan stuff to seemingly provide method if not meaning, and a gross-out climax that also doesn't seem to fit any theme Garland was playing with over the rest of the movie particularly well. The whole film walks the line between unnerving and just frustrating - more often the former, but it does occasionally raise the question of just what Garland is trying to accomplish.

Not that he necessarily needs to be trying to accomplish any specific thing; there's some value in a horror movie just trying to freak its viewers out and letting them find the parts that scare them a bit more because they resonate. Heck, a story is arguably not horror if it's too easily grasped and attributed to some sort of metaphor; horror maybe has to unnerve you at a gut level that the rational mind can't deal with, and that's always been Garland's thing, from Sunshine (where he and director Danny Boyle disagreed on whether proximity to the Sun's raw power leads on to find God or find the idea of God inadequate) to the unknowable aliens imitating Terran life in Annihilation. To a certain extent, he's asking just why men are like that here, with every repeated face a variation on the same underlying issue, and each layer seeming to be the same thing in a different package, and all the rest weird details maybe fitting in some other way (are the dandelions sperm, or is that too much?).

It's put together nicely, though, with a couple terrific stars in Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. My brother noted Buckley's Harper seems to go sort of dead toward the end as she's put through the wringer, but it seems a bit more specific than that, like she's pulling herself in so that she can get through this ordeal without damage. Kinnear does a neat job of playing variations on male awfulness, finding different ways to make his characters mostly oblivious to how self-centered they are. The film is filled with beautiful settings that Garland allows the audience to sit in and enjoy while giving himself room to go giallo when necessary, from the deep red of the house's interior walls to how an echoing tunnel is a fun toy until disorientation become dangerous. The sound design is terrific, and the gross-out moments build impressively to become icky character bits.

The part of me that defaults to decoding art that has clearly had so much attention to detail would like a few more one-to-one mappings, I must admit, but being given all that can prevent my skin from crawling, and I can't deny that Men creeped me out more than a movie that's all clear metaphor would.

Montana Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2022 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Montana Story is a pretty straight-ahead film that benefits from solid performances by its small cast, with both Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson doing a fine job of making their characters feel like they've got some miles on them despite half the point being how young they are. Cal and Erin haven't really had enough time for the injuries of everything that led to the worst night of their lives seven years ago to scab over or give them perspective, and on top of making their simple reactions raw, it focuses the story in a way that more dramas perhaps should, by arguably eliminating stakes. There's no transaction or end goal visible here - Erin doesn't need to forgive her brother or admit that some part of her loves her father in order to have a healthy relationship with another man; it's just about being able to live with themselves.

Filmmakers Scott McGehee & David Siegel and Teague do nice work early on, both before Erin shows up and for a while afterward, at making him interestingly at odds with himself. His appearance and demeanor suggest he belongs in this environment, but there's not actually much good ol' boy to him when he gets a moment to himself. Erin's testy entrance and constant attachment to her mobile phone suggests the young woman who outgrew this place, but she seems to belong whenever she's actually doing something. She's probably more country than her brother with the denim wardrobe and oversized belt buckle, but she's been running away.

I like the way that the setting often needs to be unpacked a little, and to a lesser extent how they're willing to give the audience a push in a certain direction by having the characters discuss something without sounding authoritative, like the wide-open spaces never really represent freedom. The first time the camera really widens to give a vista a big-screen moment, it's to consider the characters' ambivalence to what that means - an abandoned copper mine is obviously striking in one way, and Owen sees it as beautiful in another, but they are both well aware of the cost, even if ecological issues mostly play out on car radios. There's an American flag in the middle of a number of shots of the homestead, but that particular version of the American Dream is collapsing from the rot at the center - it was always an image their father wanted to project rather than the reality, and after his stroke he's no longer going to be able to prop it up. It's probably no coincidence that the family is cushioned by an African nurse and a Native housekeeper, for that matter; folks like the comatose father were never as independent as they pretended.

It's a small piece, and one that doesn't really contain hidden truths, but it communicates well.

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