Oppenheimer (2023; d. Christopher Nolan)
In general, I am not a Nolan fan (the only one of his I liked was Dunkirk), and I went into this hesitantly because I read an interview with him where he said the whole movie was inspired by the line “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” from Sting’s song “Russians”. There are not enough eyerolls in the world!! I have THOUGHTS about that song – dating back YEARS – it just made me laugh to hear him talk about it like it was this deep thought-provoking thing. But whatever, I’m an asshole, and of course I had to see Oppenheimer! I think Nolan is better when whatever he’s making is grounded in a real story – in history – not coming from his imagination. He’s obligated to a story that has already occurred: this is good for him. Some of the criticisms of the film I’ve seen have been indicative of the problem when you are only able to see something through a single lens. It’s like your actual critical faculties atrophy when you frame everything the same way, and want every story to “comment on” the same things – even if it doesn’t fit with the story. Different pieces of art say different things in different ways. Trying to shoehorn every single story into the same framework is … like the writers in Communist Russia suddenly having to toe the line with Socialist realism, in a literal Publish or Die scenario. Every single story had to be written in the “approved” style, and all of the stories had to show the “correct” historical interpretation. Like … this is what these “critics” sound like to me. Oppenheimer is pretty straightforward. In other words, it’s fine. It ain’t that deep.
Between Two Worlds (2023; d. Emmanuel Carrère)
There’s something rather The Help-ish about this story, although it’s worse, because it’s based on a true story. It means well, but, whatever, so do a lot of things. I reviewed for Ebert.
Birth/rebirth (2023; d. Laura Moss)
I really liked this. I reviewed for Ebert.
King Creole (1958; d. Michael Curtiz)
Elvis has stepped into his own here, holding up the starring role admirably, sensitively, and understanding of the complexities. He takes Nellie to that seedy hotel room! What a scene! He’s captivating, charismatic, but he doesn’t ONLY rely on that. He’s actually giving a real performance here – the two films before this one (Jailhouse Rock and Loving You) were designed expressly to “comment on” or at least try to RESPOND to the phenomenon of his fame. This, though, was a “regular” movie. He had to “show up” in a different way, and he does, particularly in scenes with these really skilled actors, like Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, and Dolores Hart. I don’t mean any of this in a condescending way. It’s quite the opposite. You have to know what to look for, when you look at Elvis’ career. You have to recognize and acknowledge its singularity. Not a lot was asked of him. Beyond his draconian contract, that is. Eventually, his movies shied away from complexity, from grown-up stuff. But King Creole is ALL grown-up stuff. He’s dark and soulful and quiet. He doesn’t push. Ever. He’s very good. I love this movie.
Thief (1981; d. Michael Mann)
It’s so damn good. And you know I love my heist movies.
Flaming Star (1960; d. Don Siegel)
Criterion just added this one to their Elvis lineup and I’m so pleased. It’s so good! 2023 standards can’t apply: it was 1960. It’s of its time. That out of the way: the message here is so strong, so bold. South Africa banned the film – not because of violence, but because it portrayed an interracial relationship. The whole film is about racism, and scapegoating someone because they belong to an identity group. The film is clearly on the side of the indigenous people. The white people who are good and open-minded are the exception. The action here – the fighting, the horse riding, everything – is so strong (I mean, look at the director), and it makes me wish Elvis had done more stuff with Siegel. Elvis plays Pacer, the half-white half-Native son, torn between two groups: he’s never been made to feel welcome in the white world, but he loves his father and brother. He also doesn’t feel at home with his tribe: he’s outside. But finally things go too far: he has to fight the whites with his tribe. Elvis is all action here: everything has an objective behind it, an engine running underneath it. He doesn’t talk much. He’s too BUSY. This is different than anything else Elvis was ever asked to do. It really suits him. There’s some wild horse back riding where it’s obvious he’s actually doing it. Very impressive. And powerful uncompromising ending.
Scrapper (2023; d. Charlotte Regan)
I loved this so much! Everyone should see it, lol. It’s a first film too – so we have so much to look forward to from this young filmmaker. I reviewed for Ebert.
The Trouble with Girls (1969; d. Peter Tewksbury)
This is probably one of the most forgotten of Elvis’ mostly forgotten filmography. There’s no reason it should be forgotten. Maybe something like Girls Girls Girls is an acquired taste – you have to get into the spirit of it, you have to play by its rules – but Trouble with Girls isn’t like that. It’s not even really an “Elvis movie”. There are long stretches where he’s not even in it. Unheard of! It’s a big ensemble cast, lots of great character actors – Sheree North, Vincent Price, Dabney Coleman – and everyone has their own story. There’s also a murder-mystery. Elvis strolls through it, in head to toe white, with sideburns to die for, and he’s so present and easy and uncaring. I’m sure by this point he just did not give a fuck anymore: he had one more movie to go in his contract. But this “not giving a fuck” takes any pressure off. The Trouble with Girls takes place in 1929, and Elvis is the center – he even gets to sign gospel! – but he’s not running the show. He still justifies the film’s existence – it’s a movie star role. But another movie star – Burt Reynolds – Robert Redford – Paul Newman – those guys could have played the role too. (Maybe not the gospel part.) Not every actor could just stroll through a cast of hundreds and draw every eye to him. The film is charming, it’s funny, it has some wacky unmotivated camera moves – like, whose POV is the movie from? – and I love the whole thing. There’s no reason this film shouldn’t be more well-known. The title has nothing to do with the film itself.
Bad Fever (2011; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
Caught this on the Criterion Channel, along with the rest of Defa’s work. I fell in love with it. Wow. I’m working on a piece about it. I highly recommend checking it out. It stars Kentucker Audley, an actor (and director) I really admire. I’ve written a lot about him but somehow I never caught this one.
Prince of the City (1981; d. Sidney Lumet)
A re-watch in the wake of Treat Williams’ death. This movie was huge for me as a kid, and one of the ways I discovered films – as a conscious thing, as opposed to a passive receiver of stories. Dog Day Afternoon introduced me to … so much. I was 12, 13 years old when I first saw it. When I was a little older – in college – I rented Prince of the City from my local video store. I still remember this huge VHS tape, it just seemed so substantial, so important! It was so different from Dog Day Afternoon, and the story was so complicated, so layered, and he is SO good in it. But they’re all good. God, this film.
Past Lives (2023; d. Celine Song)
So far, one of my faves of 2023. I became familiar with Greta Lee because of Russian Doll, and Teo Yoo from Decision to Leave. Here they play adults who had been childhood friends, separated for two decades, and then reunited through social media. John Magaro (whom I first “met” in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow) is also excellent – and kind of heartbreaking in a really quiet subtle way. I’m hungry for films like this. Starving, really. A film about human relationships, about a man and a woman – connecting (or not) – nothing huge “happening”, but everything happens. Our relationships to each other is the real stuff of life, the stuff we all know and care about. I was not just moved by this. I was actually overwhelmed. The final 20, 30 minutes were super intense. I wonder what I would have felt about this film if I had seen it when I was 26, 27. I am sure it would have looked very different. I don’t know. It seems like this is the kind of film you could revisit multiple times through your life and it would seem like a different film each time. The acting is so good. The film is very difficult, in its way. Before Sunset comes to mind as an appropriate comparison, but Past Lives is its own thing. It broke my heart a little bit. I loved it.
Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia (2023; d. Julien Chheng and Jean-Christophe Roger)
Charming, tender, and deep! I reviewed Ernest & Celestine for Ebert.