April 2017 Capsules

April 3
Lumumba
Lumumba is remarkable largely for me because I saw it after Raoul Peck’s singularly focused documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and watching his similar confidence with fiction filmmaking had its own odd sense of pleasure. But this is solid and immensely well-done on its own terms, remaining immensely lowkey and almost wholly resisting any sense of valorization with regards to its hero. Patrice Lumumba, as depicted by Eriq Ebouaney in an intensely driven performance, is continually stifled in his efforts, and Peck observes with detailed attention as the government slowly but inexorably falls into chaos, but the prime minister remains nobly composed throughout. What lingers most is the sense of specificity and fidelity, one that rejects speeches in favor of actions, even ones that are ultimately for naught.

April 7
The Story of Qiu Ju
There is so much in this that should work, especially with the inherently comical premise, but judging from Zhang’s filmography as a whole and especially this film, his sense of comedic timing is lacking. To break one of my cardinal rules and invoke another film that I found very similar, Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madam Bovary struck me as a far more successful manifestation of the central storyline, somehow functioning as both riotously funny and rather shockingly melancholy. Part of this difference lies I think in the fact that there is very little sense of development or dramatic investment in Qiu Ju’s actual plight, and the sense of repetition (visually and structurally) works more in a foisting of thematics on the film rather than as an interesting narrative device. Plus, for all her obvious talent, Gong Li really can’t pull off the po-faced absurdity that the film requires to be anything close to funny. There are some interesting documentary aspects, but not a whole lot more.

Moonrise Kingdom (2nd rewatch)
So much of this deepens as the viewer gets more and more used to Moonrise Kingdom‘s rhythms, its odd eccentricities, and its push and pull between the light and dark. For this is a film that struggles so much against itself, privileging both the hopeful children and the downtrodden parents. But, of course, each person has a well of hurt and desire within themselves. It is only that the children can conceal it in fantasy or play-acting, but that sense of raw emotion is felt in every scene. They run away with and after each other, but there is ultimately only acceptance, only the end to fantasy. But memory lingers on.

Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution
Only feel really truthful in discussing the first half of this strange film, such is the deadly combination of Diaz’s contemplation and my own physical feebleness. But what is there is intriguing in and of itself, as Diaz effortlessly stages quite simple but involving long takes where nothing and yet everything happens. This is, of course, typical of the good Slow Cinema directors, but what seems to distinguish Diaz for me is the root in the urban, or at least (from what I saw of Evolution of a Filipino Family) a mapping of a space that feels urban. The story is vague at best even while it feels necessary for the film to truly function, but the skillful use of slow black and white lingers in my mind.

April 8
Hill of Freedom
The hook of Hill of Freedom might seem fairly obvious at first, stemming from the opening scene that establishes the purposely jumbled structure. But there is so much more to the film than just trying to parse out what scene fits where and what is missing; this is no puzzle film. What it is is yet another immensely pleasurable iteration of Hong Sang-soo, here deployed through various layers of translation. The English is flagrantly broken, but the comedy arises as natural as can be out of the situations and the attempts to relate across cultures. Most of all, it manages to be bitter and sweet, loose and tightly constructed (the jumbled letters nevertheless always seem to lead into each other), endlessly ambiguous and as clear as day, and riotously funny all the way.

April 15
The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Batman Movie‘s sense of anarchic, slapdash humor is its greatest asset and its largest weakness. It is almost too preoccupied with the superhero franchise lineage it hails from, and functionally speaking the rather simple story arc that the movie at large is concerned with—Batman learning to open up and become part of a family with a little help from his friends—shouldn’t work at all, but it somehow does. Part of the relative success of the film must be attributed to the sense of familiarity that McKay and company have with the idea of Batman as a character rather than simply as an idea. He is a fully fledged character, masked and unmasked, complete with varying neuroses that are conveyed rather simply and effectively. This is not the world of unarticulated emotions, but it shouldn’t be, what with the pop-art inflected visuals (there are “POW”s and “BANG”s aplenty) and increasing levels of cross-franchise characters that threaten to plunge the film into a singularity black hole. But then again, there is the strong core cast of characters, voiced by supremely talented actors, who anchor the movie and let it (and the jokes) breathe freely. If there is one significant structural flaw, it is the resolution to The Lego Batman Movie. Ending it on such a ludicrous but sentimental note seems somewhat cheap, especially since its internal narrative logic is slightly suspect and the final nail in Batman’s “redemption” (so to speak) is delivered with more than a hint of anticlimax. But this film’s delights are in the unexpected reference, in the sly in-joke, in the joyful insanity.

April 17
Chocolat
Probably the most immediately noticeable aspect of Chocolat is, counterintuitively, its sense of focus. Denis rarely lets her film stray from a singular undercurrent of suspense that creates an outline for the racially charged thematics of the film. True, the intensely contemplative mood of the first half slightly lets up with the introduction of complicating figures and situations, but there is such a strong attraction to the bodies and especially the faces—on the part of both the characters and the camera—in this desolate landscape, in the heat of the sun, that threatens to tear all manner of society asunder.

April 18
To Live
To Live manages to inhabit two polar opposite roles and equally devastating modes of filmmaking. On the one hand, it functions as a grand sweeping historical epic, observing over many years the entire arc of the Cultural Revolution. But it keeps returning to the small-scale, to the intimate family at its heart, never going for anything more than absolute emotion. Ge You in particular is incredible, managing to move with ease from comically obstinate to desperate to accepting, and Gong Li’s nuance shines even brighter in a slightly less central role. But this is Zhang’s film through and through: his sweeping sense of melodrama and grandeur matches the fatalistic day-to-day life pace with wondrous, heartbreaking harmony.

Daughters of the Dust
Almost too willfully metaphorical at times, as Julie Dash’s film feels like it moves with abandon through time and space. But it never feels weightless: there is such a grounding, an intrinsic foundation in the history and people of the island, that strongly colors every interaction. Perhaps inevitably, I was most moved and astounded by the clash between religions; it is the most significant of the various conflicts, but it underpins everything. It is inextricably woven into the fabric of the culture that connects all of the characters.

The Mission

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