Welcome to a new monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
I’ll admit that I didn’t have as much fun as others seemed to while watching this uncritical, good-timey, nostalgic portrait of a group of obnoxious Texas college baseball bros clowning around during the runup to the first day of class, and I certainly couldn’t “relate” to The College Experience depicted, mine having been mostly dreary, but Richard Linklater has earned this giddy indulgence, and has packed his movie with a wealth of loving detail from his own personal experience. Pleasantly plotless, it coasts along on the same goofy-smiley vibe (colored by the vague menace of insecure masculinity) that marked the final segment of Boyhood, and though Dazed and Confused’s misfits are missed, Linklater’s enough of a humanist to find depth in the most vacuous-seeming packages.
After an opening segment that somewhat lazily riffs on Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”, establishing Tom Hanks’s businessman’s stateside divorce and house loss, he travels to Saudi Arabia to help sell the title technology. Of course, it’s actually a journey of self-discovery, but Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel remarkably avoids the entitled therapeutic colonialism that that setup implies. Even when it’s mining topics like public executions and car-bombing for humor, the film has a light touch that’s neither PC nor offensive, since it’s not trying to be either. There’s no telling when the Godot-like King will show up, and there’s an appealing, Groundhog Day mundanity to the waiting routines of Hanks (excellent here), and unpredictable, non-mugging comic work by his freelance driver (Alexander Black).
It’s pointless to divorce the poignancy of Chantal Akerman’s last film to the subsequent death of its main subject (the director’s mother) and Akerman’s 2015 suicide, concerned as No Home Movie is with sickness, death and the hunger for human connection. The unique, almost excruciating intimacy of what’s onscreen alone is almost powerful enough in itself—“almost” only because some prior familiarity with Akerman’s work offers some crucial context for No Home Movie’s mother-focus, fascination with household interiors and fondness for the long take. It’s not pretty as a picture, but you can’t walk away from No Home Movie without knowing you’ve seen a lifelong filial affection and appreciation almost primally expressed.
2. Neon Bull
The second feature from this sensitive Brazilian director, about a bull handler who yearns to design women’s fashion, and the activities of him and his small entourage, pegs Gabriel Mascaro as one to follow. He has an intuitive gift for the tricky art of conveying sexuality onscreen—in one extended, realistic fuck between the protagonist and a very pregnant woman, sure, but also in more workaday scenes of bull semen extraction, rodeos and even a man sewing a dress. Also an accomplished visual artist, Mascaro isn’t too squeamish to aestheticize and abstract his characters (even flirting with associating them with the libidinal rodeo bulls), and his confident, gorgeous style lifts Neon Bull above default film-festival realism.
1. The Invitation
I can’t say it’s as moving or uncompromising as No Home Movie, or as wholesome as even also-rans like The Family Fang and Louder Than Bombs, but The Invitation is the best time I had in a theater in April. Not that it’s joyful—the film plumbs authentic-enough-seeming reserves of grief while ratcheting up an almost unbearable (but pleasurable) tension over the course of one flashback-supplemented dinner party, and leaves you feeling unwell, because it works. Logan Marshall-Green, his Tom Hardy-ish face covered with a wispy Williamsbeard, at first seems a pretty vacant presence on which to hang a film, but his inscrutability makes his potential paranoia a continual open question. His ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michiel Huisman) are the party hosts, and their faux-Zen tranquility after having supposedly exorcised the grief of a past tragedy shared with Marshall-Green’s character sends up the sham spiritualism of a certain type of Los Angeleno, refreshingly minus more obvious cliches about vanity and superficiality. I’m glad I knew almost nothing going in, so I won’t say much more, except that the masterful slow burn is its own payoff, and director Karyn Kusama (and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) are poets of observed passive aggression, the loaded word, pregnant glances and, once the boil is high, pent-up violence.
Best New Old Movie: Los Sures
More than just a vivid time capsule of Williamsburg’s Southside and its largely Puerto Rican and Dominican community circa 1984—though it is that—Diego Echeverria’s handful of individual stories makes a powerful 16mm collage of the timeless struggles of low-income survival amidst the snares of vice and hopelessness and the bedrock of family and neighbors.
Dud of the month: Green Room
In the low-ambition revenge indie Blue Ruin, Saulnier proved he could adequately stage a violent setpiece and sustain a mood of bleak moral vacancy. Instead of trying something new, he’s carried that one note into his new film, about a punk band trapped in a rural nightclub full of murder-prone neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart. If Blue Ruin was his Get Carter, this is his Assault on Precinct 13, but with their bloodiness = profundity equation, de rigeur minor key ambient scores, and wholesale dearth of ideas, Saulnier’s two might as well be the same movie. With its silly setup and easy baddies (like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, Green Room knows that Nazis are the most politically safe villains), it’s like a graphic novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Saulnier’s lack of range means it’s the same five panels repeated, and the unabating murder is numbing and depressing.