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Seasoned Ticket, The Scarecrow Wire


Posted December 29th 2023

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. This series of "critic's notes" is chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connect them to the riches of Scarecrow's collection.

Three new titles, all on display right now: Dirt Roads at the Grand Illusion, Boys at SIFF, Killer in streaming world.

The Killer

David Fincher's hit-man movie resembles one of Steven Soderbergh's exercises in genre picture-making that never hint at wanting to transcend the genre, and that's okay. (Genres don't necessarily need to be transcended, anyway.) The Killer has that clean, frictionless mode that Fincher knows all about. "Keep calm, keep moving," as the assassin (Michael Fassbender) says in his amusingly extensive voiceover—one of the film's unstated comic touches is how his verbosity might be getting in the way of his professionalism.

If this movie isn't really memorable in a lot of ways, there are things worth noting. I can think of a couple of spoilers that stand out, so I will be coy. One involves Fassbender's brisk execution of a minor character, someone who has literally taken the assassin from one place to another. The man is presented as likable, not especially at fault when it comes to the incident that has Fassbender rejecting his usual code. We want the man to survive this encounter, but he will not. The moment feels like Fincher staking out a claim about current screenplay theory, in which protagonists must be sympathetic on some basic level; in this moment, Fincher seems to call back to the era of Fred Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal, when a central character might truly be icy cold.

The other scene that stands out belongs to Tilda Swinton, as another assassin, tracked down by Fassbender at a fancy restaurant. When he slumps down into a chair opposite her, it's basically the angel of death arriving unannounced, and the way she immediately orders a flight of whisky for a final sampling is a lovely reaction; perhaps she's planned that response for years, should the end come this way. Part of the code and the preparation. She enjoys each serving, as people so often do not in movies (I can never understand why so many drinks remain undrunk in cinema). Because this is Swinton, she carries off the banter and the action with gorgeous aplomb.

A satisfying film, yet I can't tell whether Fincher appreciates that his variations on the formula are still formula—and this movie embodies one of the most sentimental conventions of all, the one about the professional who allows the job to become personal. But then Fincher has never really been cold around the heart.

The Boys in the Boat

When George Clooney began his directing work, the results were promising: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck. suggested a wry attitude and a curiosity about people, systems, and history. Then he made Leatherheads.

So, you were warned. Leatherheads was pretty awful, but at least it had a silly streak. The Boys in the Boat, also a period sports movie, is hopelessly serious except for the bursts of square humor, which coagulate into the overall consistency of cornpone. Based on Daniel James Brown's best-selling nonfiction book, which chronicled the University of Washington's rowing team and its thrilling trip to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, this film is dutiful and glossy. It has a bright digital sheen that drains the texture out of every shot—the film image is practically Botoxed—and a tinkly score by Alexandre Desplat, one of the composer's worst. Most of the story focuses on one raw recruit (Callum Turner) and the coach (Joel Edgerton); Clooney's attention comes to life in the scenes with coach and his wife (Courtney Henggeler), which suggests that the director's strengths do not lie in the inspirational sports picture.

Inserts of cheering extras are amateurish and unconvincing. This is true even if the face in the crowd belongs to Adolf Hitler—and beyond that, the drama of a sports event in a fascist state is unaccountably flubbed. Even structurally, the movie feels off, as the Olympics final heaves into view without the usual night-before-the-race buildup. It feels like everybody on this movie was so intent on getting it right that nothing seems right. There is one bright spot: multiple renditions of the UW Husky fight song, one of the best such cheers in the land. Otherwise, forget it.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

If one mentions Tarkovsky and Malick as reference points for Raven Jackson's indie (and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust should probably be in there as well), it's not to try to box in this Mississippi mood piece. But the film is so sparse with explanation that it might help to have a few bearings before you watch it—I went in cold, and it took a while to sort through the people and timeframes. So: This is a series of nonlinear scenes filtered through the life of Mack, short for Mackenzie, a young woman (played by Charleen McClure and Kaylee Nicole Johnson) in the rural South who experiences a variety of meaningful events, including the death of her mother (Sheila Atim), a pregnancy, a parting. But these events do not unfold in conventional narrative fashion; instead, we have a series of tableaux rich in haunting visual detail, very specific sound, and striking music by Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro.

By the time All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt reaches the halfway mark, its scenes begin to make sense, at least on the visceral level—if you can get through a very long sequence of Mack embracing some kind of long-lost lover, you can make it into the overall rhythm. It is, admittedly, a test at times, and yet I can say that Jackson (this is her first feature) creates a few of the most remarkable shots I've seen in movies this year. There's one for which Jojo Fray's camera strays from a wedding ceremony in the small-town church to gaze out a window, finding some men and cars outside, then back into the church, to another window scene, and then inside again to light on an evocatively rendered spray of yellow roses. The ghost of Tarkovsky passes through the frame, a mysterious beauty in an enigmatic film.

December 29, 2023