Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
5. Little Men
For all the films that are basically about men who are friends—the vast majority of them—few of them seem to have a resemblance to actual male friendship. From the first time preteens Jake and Tony meet, Ira Sachs’s Little Men captures that reality with an impressive authenticity. The two ask about each other’s home life, play video games, share their dreams and discuss their school crushes, all seen through the eyes of a camera that understands both the empirical significance and bigger picture. The boys’ friendship intersects with a war of gentrification waged by their parents, but that higher-stakes, politically significant story never overpowers the film’s proximity to its child protagonists.
4. Don’t Breathe
Don’t Breathe takes place in an abandoned Detroit and features three teens, one of whom has neglectful parents and a younger sister, breaking into the home of a blind army veteran who was awarded nearly $1 million in a settlement after his daughter was killed. Despite appearances, there is no sociopolitical heft to the film whatsoever. While that might trouble or alienate some viewers, it’s a welcome reprieve from the didactic, self-congratulatory seriousness of recent acclaimed indie horror films, and it smokes the competition in suspense as well. Fete Alvarez maps and reveals the home where most of the film takes place with precision, making it clear where characters are in relation to one another without ever insisting. It’s a small thing, but a forgotten one, and it makes each cascading set piece a terrifying delight.
“An army veteran is hired to protect the wife of an arms dealer” may not be the most enticing or original logline, but the film Alice Winocour fashions from it is more worthy of consideration. Approximating literature’s closed first-person narrative, Winocour keeps us firmly in the headspace of Matthias Schoenarts’s Vincent. Dialogue drifts in and out of the sound mix in accordance with his movement, and his PTSD overwhelms his senses in brutal, punishing screeches and hums, complemented by Gesaffelstein’s brutalist score (think Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” and “Send It Up,” which he produced). The amplificatory sound design and the decision to eschew narrative particulars and psychoanalysis in favor of impressionism make for a visceral, impressive thriller bound to please more than just genre fans.
2. Happy Hour
There are no flashbacks in Happy Hour, no lengthy sequences of landscapes or processions, and no shots of particularly noteworthy length, all in spite of its five-hour, 17-minute runtime. There is simply patient, elongated storytelling, almost like a TV show or miniseries, but lacking even the mini-arcs that those fulfill—which gradually fill in characters’ gaps and map out, almost invisibly, a broader story. None of that is to say that Happy Hour lacks structural intrigue, but its length does allow it to develop a parallel plot or abandon a character for a significant amount of time without feeling alarming. Indeed, one of the charms of the film is that its weirdness becomes apparent only in retrospect, when the introduction and development of secondary characters—literally hours apart, in some cases—can be seen as if on a map. On occasion, Happy Hour uses allegory—cell development and mental teamwork exercises—to gesture toward the creation and development of individuals and their function within groups, but even if it didn’t, the film paints a perfect picture of life in a way that one could not help but examine and question its dynamic interdependencies.
Journalism, thriller, and treatise on documentary ethics—Kate Plays Christine is all of these things and more. Arising from an impulse that can be described as curiosity of the unknown at best or outright sadism at worst, Robert Greene and Kate Lyn Sheil investigate the life of Christine Chubbock, who killed herself on live TV but whose entire broadcasting career, including the suicide, is impossible to find online. Sheil attempts to get into character without being able to even hear Chubbock’s voice, with her acting process lending an empathetic rather than purely informational drive. Rather than blindly indulging the most questionable of these impulses, however, the filmmakers instead delve into the limits of their own approach, culminating in an ending that is both provocative and revelatory.
Dud of the Month: Complete Unknown
For a while, Complete Unknown looks to join The Invitation and Coherence as recent films structured around a dinner party where a stranger throws everything for a loop. This one is dominated by the presence of a woman calling herself Alice (Rachel Weisz), whose past and identity confound the other attendees. Joshua Marston and his cast handle these scenes gracefully, capturing glances and hesitations in a way that suggests more is going on than meets the eye. Unfortunately, as it becomes more apparent what the film is doing, it loses its intrigue entirely and fails to conjure up an interesting backstory or sustain any sense of purpose. Ultimately, the gratification of a mystery solved comes too early, leaving far too much fat to trim.
Best New Old Movie: Blow-Up
Mod London seems like too easy a target for Michelangelo Antonioni’s portraiture of cultural erosion, but as is so often the case with him, a detectable fascination mitigates his condemnation. The rock ‘n’ roll, colorful costumes and exaggerated fashion photography move from parodic symbols of commodification to more affecting, valuable objects. In the end, Blow-Up clarifies the underlying assumption of all films—that the false is as powerful as the real, and even uniquely attuned to insight in particular cases. We arrive through a constant array of memorable, enigmatic scenes and Antonioni’s unique treatment of actors. For Antonioni, men have a statuesque discontentment and women a forlorn vitality and are thrown into a vast, complicated web they must try to escape. That treatment, much imitated but never matched, explodes in unlikely scenarios. Itself regularly mimicked, Blow-Up remains singular, serving as a how-to guide for watching Antonioni films. It also, as its placement in Anthology Film Archives’s Voyeurism, Surveillance and Identity series suggests, interrogates the link between power and the look, and how they intersect with between happiness and work.