Monday, January 15, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 8 January 2024 - 14 January 2024 (No movies in Texas)

Well, none on this trip to meet with the rest of the remote-working team, although when you throw in a couple film festival and previous trips, Texas is probably the state I've seen the third-most movies in, dropping to fourth once you include Canadian provinces, though maintaining the position if you include Australian states…

This Week in Tickets
(Once again, the Alamo reservation is not a real ticket.)

When I look back on this book later, if I do, i won't remember that I had a 7:30am flight Monday, after-work commitments through Wednesday, and then a 1:20pm flight Thursday that had me ready to drop when I got home. But I did, hence the hole.

Friday, I hit the Brattle for the one screening that Ethan Coen's first solo film, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, is getting in the Boston area, which throws a bit of a wrench into the "one does Macbeth, the other does Drive Away Dolls" analysis.

I kind of screwed up my plans on Saturday, not realizing that basically the whole Green Line was being replaced by buses of some sort, and missed the movie I'd planned to see, eventually just re-watching Bullet in the Head so that I could do a Film Rolls writeup.

Got back on it Sunday, though, catching If You Are the One 3 at the Causeway and then walking to the Seaport for The Book of Clarence, which has been a fun one to turn over in my brain for a bit. It was an accidental folks-playing-two-roles double feature.

(That was also a reminder of some of Boston's weird transit geography; I was planning to take the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing, the Red Line to South Station, and the Silver Line to Courthouse, but the direct route is a pretty straight 20-minute walk. Strange that there's no bus line that goes that way, or maybe there just isn't on Sundays.)

Pretty short week, but it's MLK Day, so I'll likely have two more things in my Letterboxd account by the end of the day and a fun week ahead.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2024 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

Has Matthew McConaughey played Jerry Lee Lewis yet? Look at them; he should.

As to this documentary, which I believe is all archive footage except for a 2020 gospel recording session that feels like it was intended to be the centerpiece of another project, there's an interesting shagginess to it that doesn't always work in its favor. Early on, as rocker Jerry Lee Lewis is telling his story between full-song clips, you see how director Ethan Coen and editor Tricia Cooke are cutting between various interviews in a way that has Lewis in one decade finishing the sentence of Lewis in another, emphasizing how well he's honed his story in some areas, and then there's this sharp realization that parts of Lewis's life fits a pattern we still see today: A rise to broad popularity; a sexual scandal; time spent in the wilderness before a re-emergence playing to a more conservative crowd (in this case, labeling himself country rather than rock & roll); and an ongoing sense of being aggrieved, like it's ridiculous that people fault him for marrying his 12-year-old cousin. It's Louis C.K., or anyone else who complains about being "canceled" rather than questioning their own actions. But once Coen has shown this to the audience, he seemingly stops being interested in it, and never finds something else to talk about, presenting the hit parade and a variety of seemingly self-serving interviews from later in his life and live appearances where he seems to have a chip on his shoulder when they do approach the energy of his youth.

I think, in the ending titles, which reference his death and other events after the 2021 copyright date in the credits, making me curious what they were originally, we get some idea of what intrigued Coen: After the familiar cycle, Lewis kept going being Jerry Lee Lewis. He kept playing, touring constantly, relearning how to play piano after a stroke, somehow survived a bunch of self-destructive behavior, married and divorced four more times after that infamous pairing. It's not a redemption story, really, or a tragedy, and Coen seems fascinated by that lack of an arc.

There's something Coen-esque about that - Coen Brothers films are filled with eccentrics who simply are who they are, for better or worse - but I'm not sure it's a great documentary as a result, or at least not this one. The film winds up mired in this sort of stasis, and never does that much with how there's something uncanny about Lewis's appearance compared to his wild-haired youth, a sort of rigidness to the face and over-gelled hair that Southern folks like him seem especially vulnerable to. Is it just time, bitterness, or something else?

Anyway - get Coen, McConnaughey, and some other interesting folks together for a feature, and we might have something; more than this doc gives, at least.

The Book of Clarence

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2024 in Alamo Drafthouse Seaport #4 (first-run, DCP)

The most entertaining parts of this movie are when filmmaker Jeymes Samuel is at his most irreverent, but I suspect that, when I've turned it over in my head a few times more, the central thing that will stick out is that he likely is a believer, but one full of anger that other Christians don't live up to their professed ideals. He makes jokes, but they're steeped in drawing lines and calling people out.

It opens in "Lower Jerusalem", AD 34, with hustler Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) in a street race that goes awry, leaving them with thirty days to pay back Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) or be killed, and the fact that Clarence is hopelessly smitten with Jedediah's sister Varinia (Anna Diop) isn't going to work in his favor. The best way to escape, Clarence figures, is to join or emulate the Messianic Jesus (Nichola Pinnock), but everybody knows Clarence to be an atheist looking for an angle - although when Judas (Michael Ward) challenges him to free the gladiator slaves held by Asher (Babs Olusanmokun), he at least manages one, Barabbas the Immortal (Omar Sy), which is kind of more than Jesus and his apostles have done on the ground.

That, I think, is the real crux of the movie: For all that Samuel is doing a surface-level sendup of Biblical epics - a Black Life of Brian, in a lot of ways - there's sharp intention here. Recasting the New Testament (except the Romans) with Black actors draws a straight line between two oppressed peoples, making those stories immediately relevant in a way they might not have been before. But he tweaks them in other ways to draw other lines, most notably in how he uses the miracles: The first we see is when Jesus stops the stoning of Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) - it's unmistakably supernatural, but Elijah has already been shielding her with his body, taking the brunt of the stones - the effect is to burnish Jesus's reputation as much as it is to save Mary. Afterward, he asks the woman leading the stoning her name, and says everybody will know it soon enough. It's a good line, but it's also kind of pointedly cruel, and it's not the only time Jesus and his apostles are shown being superficially good but ultimately self-serving. Samuel is not necessarily saying Jesus was like this, but if you draw a line between Christianity as institutions across two thousand years, it very much seems like a man frustrated that the people who use Jesus's words and have immense power that they can use often do not do as much to help people as dirt-poor, seemingly self-centered Clarence does.

The jokes are also good, though, from an opening that takes a Ben Hur-style chariot race and puts it in the streets, because it's that sort of movie, to LaKeith Stanfield and Alfre Woodard playing a scene where Clarence tries to learn Jesus's tricks from his mother Mary like they're in different movies that somehow come together. Samuel has characters throw off funny, bantery bits that he could have easily saved for a more conventional movie. The whole movie is so off-kilter that every scene calls attention to the weirdness of it while, underneath, Stanfield is getting ready to do something interesting with Clarence becoming a better person. Stanfield is generally great, making little gags like pronouncing the T in "apostle" funnier than they could be while handling the fact that his crazy schemer is the straight man much of the time like it's easy. He does a great job of playing twins, making both very clearly the children of the same mother but finding nuances between them, and plays well off everybody. His best partner is probably Omar Sy, though, as Barabbas is entertainingly confident and chill in his claims of being "un-sword-able", but also has two of the film's best comic outbursts.

As with his previous film, The Harder They Fall, Samuel not only writes, directs, and produces, but composes the score and sings lead vocals on the new songs that make up much of the soundtrack, which more often leans more toward soul and hip-hop than conventional orchestration. It makes for an exceptionally singular experience, and while he's not afraid to get weird between the floating, almost-anachronistic lightbulb moments, and "papers please" bits, he's also a solid filmmaker when it comes down to it: He can stage action for thrills, heightened emotion, or laughs; he doesn't overload the audience trying to fit too many easter eggs into a scene; he can let an impactful moment breathe.

Yes, I think this one is going to grow on me. It's unsteady as heck while you're watching, but Samuel is making the sort of ambitiously weird movies that deserve some attention, and I hope folks keep giving him the resources to make different old-Hollywood genres his own.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind Bullet in the Head If You Are the One 3 The Book of Clarence

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