Then Playing — Gas Food Lodging; The Tragedy of Macbeth; C’mon C’mon

Gas Food Lodging (Allison Anders, 1992). Here is early nineteen-nineties independent U.S. filmmaking in all its charm and shortcoming. Gas Food Lodging is a small story rendered with intimate emotional detail and acted with wildly varying ability. Simultaneously endearing and frustrating for its tinge of amateurism, the film feels so personal that it gives the impression of being autobiography, though writer-director Allison Anders actually adapted the story from the 1972 young adult novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, by Richard Peck. There’s plenty of plot in the film, but its details matter less than the strength of purpose brings to capturing the contours of a life skirting the poverty line as lives by teenager (Fairuza Balk, quietly affecting in the sort of role that would be vanishingly rare for her after being typecast as off-kilter wild women). Anders has a deep commitment to these characters, and that caretaker affection comes through.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021). Working without his brother for the first time in his film career, Joel Coen turns his attention to one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a stark film filled with powerhouse images that borrow heavily from German Expressionism. Strangely, the thick layer of technique is so striking that it starts to nullify the adapted play itself, making the familiar beats of Macbeth mere rhythm in the background. Entire scenes can play out without really registering that there’s a performance of Shakespeare going on. As the power-mad soldier at the center of the story, Denzel Washington is as tremendous as expected, filing scenes with intensity, intellectual fury, and ravenous need. There’s also a one-of-a-kind turn of dazzling invention by Kathryn Hunter, playing the three witches. Frances McDormand doesn’t fare as well. She plays Lady Macbeth with her trademark deadpan certainty, essentially skirting self-parody in a role that should have been an invitation to widen her craft.

C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, 2021). Good-natured while retaining worldly wisdom, C’mon C’mon follows an audio journalist named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) who briefly looks after his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). The slightly curmudgeonly adult softened by prolonged interaction with a precocious kid could easily be unbearably maudlin (it has been countless times before in superficially similar films). Writer-director Mike Mills avoids that pitfall by imbuing the material with resolute honesty and staging scenes with sly, quiet invention. In ways large and small, he brings the viewer so deep into the central relationship that it feels like the kind of poignant, revelatory memoir that sticks in the memory as firmly as one’s own history. Adding to the pleasure is a truly wonderful performance by Gaby Hoffmann, and Johnny’s sister and Jesse’s mother. With artful grace, she wears the burden of an adulthood perpetually beset by responsibility. C’mon C’mon is a truly special film.

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