Wednesday, March 06, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 26 February 2024 - 3 March 2024 (Slow Week)

Very slow new release weekend, very lazy get-out-of-the-apartment mid-week.

This Week in Tickets
This week kicked off with one of my favorite Boston-area moviegoing experiences, the kind of disreputable movie at a fancy institution. In this case, it was Cotton Comes to Harlem at the Harvard Film Archive. In this case, it was shown in conjunction with the University's Houghton Library, which has acquired star Godfrey Cambridge's papers and has some of them on display in the lobby. He was a writer and journalist as well as being an actor, and the slide-show before the (very fun) movie was interesting.

I believe there was some weird train nonsense that made getting to things harder during the week, but I forget which color of weird train nonsense it was. Then on Friday, scheduling was weird/off, so both the big releases got hit on Saturday - Dune: Part Two as the afternoon matinee in 70mm on the Somerville's main screen and The Moon Thieves that evening, which was a pretty good day at the movies.

Sunday's train nonsense was definitely the Red Line - I came up just short of the one meant to get me to Kendall Square for some Oscar shorts and the next one wouldn't be for fifteen minutes, too late - so I wound up getting groceries and then catching Anatomy of a Fall at night, so I at least got a little Oscar catch-up done.

This week promises a little more on my Letterboxd account, although short packages probably won't be on in and Sunday's Oscar night, so I'll be watching that.

Cotton Comes to Harlem

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2024 in the Harvard Film Archive (Godfrey Cambridge, 35mm)
Available to rent/purcase on Prime and elsewhere, or on DVD at Amazon

Cotton Comes to Harlem is just top-shelf pulp filmmaking from Ossie Davis, the sort where you maybe expect to cut it a little slack for its pioneer status but instead find a movie that feels like something more assured and confident in how its genre works than a lot of later Blaxploitation films. The term didn't exist yet, but it is that, and maybe a top example of the genre.

It's adapted from one of a series of books starring two Harlem NYPD detectives, "Grave Digger" Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and "Coffin Ed" Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) who, from their nicknames, are likely not known for de-escalation and bringing suspects in quietly. To start, they're assigned to watch a rally by Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart), and ex-con running Johnson is certain is a scam as he convinces neighbors to invest in his Back-to-Africa program. The event is robbed, and O'Malley's people are nearly as aggressive toward the cops as the crooks during the chase. The guys decide to surveil Deke's girlfriend Iris (Judy Pace), though he opts to shack up with his late second-in-command's wife Mabel (Emily Yancy). During the chase, a bale of cotton falls from the robbers' van, and neighborhood character "Uncle Budd" (Redd Foxx) picks it up, not knowing that the stolen $87,000 is inside and everyone is looking for it.

It's worth noting that the initial car chase is kind of terrific, not just because it's the sort of old-school chase that is quite frankly terrifying if you think about it, just cars that are all sharp metal speeding through streets where one shouldn't be going that fast, without modern crumple zones or airbags, gunshots that feel like every stray could kill a bystander, etc. It's in the classic "do more, say less" mode that it reveals a lot of the story without spelling it out (it's very clear that Deke is in cahoots with those robbing him but also not something Grave Digger and Coffin Ed can present as certain), great storytelling on top of great stunts. At the other end, there's a climax where a curtain falls in a way that's maybe more symbolic than the movie really merits, but is too good to not do. Davis and co-writer Arnold Perl know the power of the image and will do all they can to let it elevate a B-movie filled with secret passages, broad characterization, and maybe a little more nudity than is strictly necessary, at least a little.

The comedy at times gets a little broad at times, but it's notable that Davis and company already have their leads kind of cracking jokes about the sheer number of slogans and comments on authenticity that various activists are using, at the time even as they're doing it (consider the earnest performer talking about how she has to do something important that speaks to Her People toward the start and how that winds up being burlesque in the end). It kind of feels like the sort of self-aware thing that comes at the end of a cycle, tweaking the things that had gotten so serious over time, rather than at what's arguably the first blaxploitation film, but, then, sometimes things do start out that way and have it stripped out only to get more sophisticated later.

Also, the Archive had a gorgeous print of a great-looking movie - Colors really pop when everybody's outside during the daytime, and there's a sense of Harlem being both kind of run down and on the way up that the palette and Gerald Hirschfeld's cinematography really heightens.

Dune: Part Two

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2024 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 70mm)
Not streaming yet, but where to watch when it is

Like its predecessor, Dune: Part Two is absolutely impeccable as a "just look at this thing" epic, especially on the Somerville Theatre's 70mm screen, chock-full of absolutely astounding feats of design, cinematography, and every other technical element of making a movie. It may not be the best possible realization of Frank Herbert's book, but it will certainly be daunting for someone considering another adaptation 20 years from now (as that appears to be the cycle we're on).

Although, speaking of Astounding (or was it Analog by then?), you can kind of see the original serial structure here, I think, as a lot of the focus changes suddenly around the midpoint, and it's bumpy, in part because director Denis Villeneuve and co-writer Jon Spaihts compacted a novel that took place over about five years to one that doesn't quite last the length of a pregnancy. That not only robs of the series's first creepy little kid, but it means that the Fremen seem a little more credulous about Paul's Chosen One status, and his eventual turn more forced than tragic. There's also a sense that the filmmakers are a bit wobbly on how they deal with prophecy and mysticism, not quite hitting that sweet spot where there's human frailty driving the sci-fi plot devices. The royalty, eugenics, and propaganda the story rails against work too well.

Crazy good cast, at least. Timothée Chalamet does a really nice job of making a character who is such a product of a weird environment as Paul into someone a viewer can genuinely connect with before turning on the afterburners, and while I'm not sure I've yet seen Zendaya in the role that makes one sure she's this sort of single-name superstar, one can certainly see where she's capable of being that actress. Rebecca Ferguson is a force, and it feels like it's been too long since I've seen Christopher Walken in anything.

And, did I mention it's gorgeous? They seem to have refined a lot of things that were only pretty good the first time around, such as the Harkonnen planet and royal family; there are more cool details to their standard black-leather bad guys this time around, and whoever came up with the black fireworks deserves some sort of raise.

So, yes, I'm looking forward to Dune Messiah (or Dune: Part Three, if they go that route), whenever they get around to that.

Anatomie d'une chute (Anatomy of a Fall)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2024 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)
Available to rent/purchase on Prime and elsewhere and for pre-order on Blu-ray at Amazon

Anatomy of a Fall is a pretty darn good movie, but I think it's also the sort of movie that benefits from being the sort of thing that writers, actors, and other folks who really appreciate such things love. It's got a script full of ambiguity and chewy dialogue that actors and critics quite reasonably fall in love with, often enough to forgive when it gets a little too caught up in those things, even before the story itself is centering writing as so crucial. It wants you to know it's clever, and that it mostly is doesn't always help when it's maybe too clever by at least a little bit.

The first half is great, at least, sort of brilliantly uncomfortable in its depiction how opaque and being part of a police investigation must feel from the inside, placing the viewer right in the middle of what could be a suicide, murder, or accident, with director Justine Triet and her co-writer Arthur Harari at once presenting it as a mystery that leaves room for the victim's wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller) to be culpable but also highlighting the tension of being in her position and knowing that an inquiry is necessary but possibly dangerous rightly or wrongly. It's full of tension, with her lawyer Vincent (Swann Arlaud) trying to work this case with detachment and her son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) possibly convincing himself that she couldn't have done it. It's here that the stuff that often unnerves during courtroom dramas - the way that every kind of evidence, from eyewitness to forensic, is far more subjective than believe - plays out.

Once the film jumps forward a year to the trial, the second half can't quite avoid how much fun this stuff is for writers, actors, and lawyers, and that's before you get to the a recording being entered into evidence that is a performer's dream for just how many words it contains about just laying out the facts of a relationship and the grievances within, no matter how convenient the whole thing is, and how Triet and Harari are putting "Sandra is complex and maybe difficult to like even if she is innocent" out from. Then they pin the whole thing on Daniel being a kid who is so absurdly perceptive in retrospect that it stretches belief. Add that to the combativeness and insinuations from the prosecutor that are barely pushed against (folks used to American courtroom dramas and courtrooms are going to wonder if French ones are really like this a lot!), and the natural, discomfiting situations of the first half are replaced by a lot of people trying just a bit harder than they seemingly have to.

On balance, I think the upsides of this setup outweighs the pitfalls that the movie happily springs, and by a fair amount. It's never less than compelling, and for all that one can easily point out how the second half isn't quite so interesting as the first, Triet is pretty darn good at walking right up to the point where you roll your eyes but not quite getting there. Actors and critics don't go for this just because they're self-interested, but because there's so much good work that can be (and is) done with it.

Spare thoughts: First, everyone saying that Messi deserves all the awards for Best Supporting Animal is correct - he is just an extremely good dog. Second, this look at the French legal system does nothing to shake me of the idea that trial by jury is like democracy - the worst possible way to arrive at a fair result, except for all the others. Cotton Comes to Harlem Dune: Part Two The Moon Thieves Anatomy of a Fall

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