April 2017 Quick Capsules

Two Lovers
Gray seems to be caught in the thrall of two paradoxically reconcilable traditions: the modern (cell phones, a clear sense of diversity, liberated and tastefully explicit sexuality) and the classical. But he continually finds ways to make the two work in tandem, in scenes that say so much with just The Shot. The screenplay itself is quietly effective, but what I’ll remember is the awkward, pained, yet cool movements of Phoenix, the smudged mascara of Paltrow, and the conversations conducted first by shouting, then by phone, across an apartment complex, all of which culminate in a wondrous, totally ambiguous ending. I was hoping that Gray would go the entire film without any overt romantic gestures between Phoenix and Paltrow, but what he did is nearly as heartbreaking.

Double Indemnity (rewatch)
Managed to forget nearly everything surrounding Edward G. Robinson’s and Jean Heather’s characters, which, while perhaps understandable, made my conception of the film just before rewatch largely flawed. There is an ocean’s worth of seediness and dirty laundry here, but there is also a great deal of humanity, and Wilder does wonders in making every character (except, perhaps, Tom Powers’) function as more than just a cog in the inexorable machine that signals Fred MacMurray’s doom. It is a world of hurt and pain, and yet there is some small hope of redemption, at least until it is silenced by a gunshot.

Continue reading

Entry #1: The Personal

Note: This essay was written without a copy of Silence at hand and based off of recollections from two theatrical viewings, hence there may be more inaccuracies than usual.

It is, of course, conceited and undeniably inaccurate to claim that a film serves as an exact mirror to one’s life journey. Both a great movie and a person are inordinately complex, and it is impossible to truly distill either essence into a relatively uncomplicated and accurate summary. But nevertheless I feel a pull, a certain resemblance of my own experiences with faith and doubt in Silence, one that I think deserves some explication before I dive further into the movie’s many complexities.

I was born into a Christian family, and while I have never lived in Taiwan—the country of my heritage, and coincidentally the filming location for Silence—for more than a few weeks, there is nevertheless a strong sense of culture, both secular and nonsecular, that has been instilled by my family and communities throughout my life. I grew up going to church, first in an Chinese church in Seattle (that I am currently attending) and then, when my family moved to Southern California, to Saddleback Church, the famed megachurch. Moving from a small congregation of roughly three hundred to a gigantic conglomerate of twenty thousand had multiple effects on me, some for good and some for ill.

For one, I feel that I arrived at faith and religion early, probably too early. I declared my faith independently around the age of six or seven, and was baptized at the tender age of eight. As far as I can ascertain, most people are baptized as teenagers, and I can’t help but wonder if this early zealotry made my sense of doubt more acute as I grew up.

And I was, regrettably, a zealot of sorts, perhaps too much invested in the letter of the Bible and too little in the spirit. I went on a few medical mission trips with my family, and while I wasn’t necessarily the most interested in them (I’ve never been one for traveling), I did dedicate myself whole-heartedly while I was there. I was far too public about my beliefs and too inconsiderate of others, and only somewhat recently have I felt true remorse about what I did and how I did it.

All of this is to say that I relate strongly to the spirit, if not the letter, of the padres’ journey in Silence. Like them, I have gone through extreme periods of doubt (though mine are based more on the various cultures and communities I’ve been through), but more important is the manner in which this doubt has manifested itself. It does not lie in sudden moments or public declarations, but instead arises internally over a vast period of time. I am thinking specifically of that magnificent interlude, where Rodrigues prays alone on a grassy mountainside, overcome by loss as he tries to search for meaning in his suffering. To a religious person, the absence of God can feel like a total absence of life, and, as I stand now, religion is more than anything a quest for meaning, a desperate and hopefully fruitful attempt to survive in this world, something that I think Silence embraces as well.

Hopefully, I can refrain from this level of personal exorcism henceforth, but this series will be inextricably bound to my various identities. I (and hopefully you) wouldn’t have it any other way.

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.

Continue reading

I Am Not Your Negro

protest

Especially at this moment of social crisis, it seems a moot point to dismiss relevancy as an insignificant part of any film’s power, something that goes double for a documentary about a subject of this sort. For my own part, I saw I Am Not Your Negro in the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at an arthouse theater. The audience was appropriately lively, and I would easily concede that I was swept up in the emotions of the crowd. But I Am Not Your Negro is no mere piece of rabble-rousing agitprop, nor is it heedlessly provocative for the sake of “sending a message.” It is relentlessly sober, contemplative, yet simmering with all too deserving anger, as Raoul Peck dives with incisiveness into a uniquely American kind of of injustice through one of the nation’s most singular minds.

It should be emphasized here that there is a harmony between subject and filmmaker that I have very rarely seen. Peck and James Baldwin are both shown to be equal parts celar-minded and wily, making points with wit that never masks an almost deadly seriousness. For Baldwin, this manifests itself largely in his archival interviews (which are contrapuntal to Jackson’s voiceover, of which much will be discussed later), and for Peck, this is shown in his sense of montage. It is sometimes almost hilariously literal (displaying footage of Mars while Baldwin describes the dissociation of whites from blacks) and sometimes breathtakingly damning, as he lets various scenes from media play in full and employs just the appropriate amount of current-day footage without letting it become distractiong.

But, arguably, I Am Not Your Negro‘s most valuable asset is Samuel L. Jackson’s revelatory voiceover performance of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which forms the backbone of the documentary and was supposed to be a personal retelling of the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Jackson is extraordinarily, heartbreakingly subdued here, his trademark fire and brimstone compressed into a voice just barely recognizable. It is subdued, but it broils with repressed anger to a degree that every quiver, every pause conveys a bottomless pit of sorrow and emotion. Peck wisely alternates between this proposal of a book and the more energetic archival footage, and in doing so creates a cohesive and often troubling whole.

It is entirely false to say that Peck is didactic in his filmmaking or arguments, and only rarely does it feel as if he is “just” making his point to the audience. His form of rhetoric is couched in categorical terms (there are various parts named like “Heroes”), and it slowly builds throughout the film as the evidence mounts and Baldwin’s (and Peck’s) views are explicated further and further. There are the bravura scenes, such as an extended excerpt from Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show where he rightfully excoriates a foolish professor who claims that Baldwin has a similar experience to him. But there are also the more damning and castigatory (and usually the weaker) scenes, like one that explicitly condemns Gary Cooper and Doris Day for being the emblems of comfortable white society.

But it is entirely to I Am Not Your Negro‘s benefit that Peck stops short of laying out a clear-cut message, as he recognizes the issues at hand are far more complex and important than befits a sound bite. Baldwin himself says “the history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture,” and the film makes the case in astonishingly powerful and almost unanimously persuasive terms. It draws no quarter in its insight, in its anger, and its genuine call for change.

Statement of Intent

In my limited experience, there are two types of “favorite” films. This does not apply just to films that the viewer relates to on a personal level (although that plays a significant part) or to the towering masterpieces of cinema, but to a very particularly moving form of connection that the experience of watching and subsequent reflection activates in a viewer. These two types, described in terms of what each individual lover has to say, are as follows:

1. It is immensely difficult to articulate the nature of the film’s greatness or general quality for whatever reason. Usually, this seems to stem from more intimate movies, ones that are difficult to evaluate from an impersonal lens. They are usually films that lie closer to real life, in the small interactions and little snippets of dialogue.

2. The viewer has an inordinate amount of things to say about the film from a variety of self-imposed perspectives and aspects. This more often than not occurs concerning mammoth films that are clearly great, grandiose productions (not to be conflated with Farber’s conception of white elephant art, as these are usually incisive works), whether they be in the canon or not.

Obviously, this binary is, as all binaries are, reductive, and there are many of my favorite films that fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Nevertheless, all of them are aligned somewhat with these dual categorizations. More importantly, never have I felt the urge of the second type as strongly as I have with Silence, Martin Scorsese’s depiction of incredible, purposeful, and troubling faith in the most hostile of locales. It is a film that gives no quarter, leaves no stone unturned in its repeated questioning of its central character and by proxy the viewer, and what results is a kind of affirmation, a complicated ambiguity that feels irresistible.

It is perhaps only fair to lay out my rather considerable shortcomings in undergoing this venture of writing multiple long essays on this great film. I have seen a grand total of—at this time of writing—six Scorsese films, and among the unseen are a good deal of films both relevant (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Wolf of Wall Street) and not but still essential (Mean Streets, The Age of Innocence). I also have not seen Masahiro Shinoda’s version of Silence, nor Shūsaku Endō’s original novel, though I do know the context in which the latter was made. And of course, I am a neophyte of cinema at best, whose cursory knowledge vastly outstrips any benchmark of actual viewing.

So why do I want to tackle such an extraordinary film in such a brazen manner? The film’s majesty, of course, speaks for itself and even for someone as unlearned as me I want to discuss it. The decidedly mixed response of the consensus as a whole (in that the detractors have stated their opinions as vociferously as the supporters) is another reason. But certainly the strongest is my identity as an Asian Christian and the ways in which it deals with that ideal. Silence challenged and moved me in ways even religion cannot, and I relish any attempt to grapple with it further.

This project of sorts will take some time, and I anticipate that posts will come out irregularly. There is no set outline at this time, but each essay will attempt to tackle some different facet of Silence, some focusing on more technical sides and others on more theological issues.

For now, this is what I have to say about Silence. There will be many, many more words forthcoming, and I pray that they will not come in the form of unadulterated fawning, but as a testament to the glory of this truly monumental work.

A Few Immediate Thoughts on The Before Trilogy

So many echoes, both conscious and (I presume, though putting anything past these three geniuses is risky at best) unconscious. Each film has a scene of “acting” in a certain way, and the rhythms and often content of the walks are admirably similar, but each feels so differentiated by the ravages of time and love. A car ride that forms the climax of Sunset becomes the first act of Midnight, the glory of Sunrise becomes more and more attenuated until it acts as a divider, and through it all Linklater grows ever more confident, as vital as ever; the sense of worldly weariness comes from the roles, not the collaborators.

March 2017 Capsules

20th Century Women
“Santa Barbara, 1979” is a place and time, but it is also a mindset. More accurately, it is a kaleidoscope of mindsets; chief among the great strengths of 20th Century Women is its utter fidelity towards representing the multiple perspectives of its five main characters. But it is so much more than that: its tone is part rebellious, part serene, and even part transcendental. In the struggle between generations that eventually comes to define the film, Mills recognizes there is no wrong answer, accepting each person warts and all. The viewer sees who these broken but valiant people as they were, as they are, and as they will be, both defined and undefined by their time, and for my part I fell in love with them. It is bittersweet, melancholic, and uniformly wonderful in its loose grace, as free as the younger generation and as composed as the older generation.

Tampopo
A curious case. For the most part, Tampopo establishes itself as an intensely lighthearted work, jumping off of the central storyline to engage in food-related vignettes with abandon. Most of these are to some degree outré, but a few stick out in their bad taste (for good and for ill). An undercurrent of violence in the film is ever present (perhaps fittingly, given its status as a “Ramen Western”) but there is a vast divide between two men beating each other for an extended period of time and a gangster getting shot in the middle of the street, or, in the film’s most fascinating and troubling vignette, a wife getting up from her deathbed to cook one last meal. But in the end, the central storyline is the main attraction, and Itami takes almost too much delight in both skewering and glorifying food, to wonderful effect.

Continue reading

February 2017 Capsules

Ju Dou
I think the key to this film is that, though Gong Li is as usual the nominal lead, it takes place from a mix of the perspectives of Tianqing and Ju Dou. Zhang continually emphasizes the barriers between the two; even when they do finally connect there is more focus on their surroundings, and their embraces seem to be desperate attempts for connection. The film is on the whole rather depressing, but it is earned in the false hopes and the crushing developments that manifest themselves in abject hopelessness.

Chronicle of a Summer
Even more interesting than its reputation suggests; Morin and Rouch manage to wring out a wonderful variety of approaches, and if the comparatively sedate second half, with its myriad conversations, proves less innovative than the first half’s quick interviews and wide range of subjects, it is mostly compensated by the extraordinary sequence of Marceline’s Holocaust recollections and the phenomenal epilogue, which functions as a rather potent self-critique that in and of itself offers another lens with which to view the verité style, a reflection of a reflection. It is most instructive, of course, to view this not as necessarily a statement or a manifesto but rather, as the title suggests, as a chronicle or document of a milieu.

February 7
The Nice Guys (rewatch)
Wish I could say I liked this genuinely pleasurable film more the second time around, and some of the “big gags” landed even harder, but there’s too strong a sense of rootlessness in this. Arguably, it fits well with the pessimism of the film, the changing times so decried by Healy and March, but it doesn’t make for anything close to a consistent viewing. There are flashes of genius here, of course—the hallucination experience in particular is a beautifully sustained escalation—and Gosling and Crowe make a shockingly good team (with Rice as a wonderful connector) so there’s that.

February 23
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
It’s probably telling that Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s best scene by far is its most comparatively lowkey, when Ricky has a nigh idyllic encounter with a girl and her father. The rest of the film is frustratingly obstinate in its refusal to pick a single mood, vacillating awkwardly between slightly mawkish sentimentality and vivacious whimsy without finding any roots to dig into. Sam Neill is, of course, absolutely wonderful in his gruff sincerity, but he’s given far too little to do compared to the wide-eyed, borderline annoying juvenilia of Julian Dennison. And almost everything to do with the actual chase, especially the hunters, is painful.

February 28
Moonlight (rewatch, out of order)
Everything clicked in some way or another on rewatch (save for, perhaps, Paula, whose character feels much more overtly consequential than the rest of the film). There’s such an intoxicating feeling to Moonlight, a grounding in time and place that intertwines beautifully with the essential minimum of narrative. A set structure is present, yes, but it depicts moments that feel equally important and unimportant to Chiron. And throughout, there is a shimmering beauty, a vitality that doesn’t come just from the “timely” subject matter. It comes from empathy, from irresistible emotion.

Throne of Blood
Throne of Blood‘s atmosphere is nigh impossible to nail down: on one hand Kabuki-inflected and on the other operating in an almost dreamlike and ominously obscure environment. But what feels most surprising (especially to someone who’s read the play) is how much destruction is executed with so much efficiency. Macbeth is inherently a violent, bloody tale, but there is an additional dynamic inextricably tied to the heightened sense of honor, to Mifune’s sharp contrasts between rage and control, that makes this movie its own great work.

2016 Film Poll #4: Film Comment Readers’ Poll

Top 20 Films of 2016

1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Every shot, every action in this film is profoundly coded with faith and religion; it is on all levels a groundbeaking achievement.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
The most achingly moving film of the year, but also delightful, shocking, and sensitively interior.

3. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Both a grandiose affair and a slow-burn melodrama, it is multi-faceted and heartbreaking in a way that grows in the mind with each passing day.

4. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
There is no doubt that these are the images that have marked Kirsten Johnson, but they are also the images of humanity: life, death, destruction, and beauty.

5. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Both the madcap comedy and the heartfelt drama as promised, and so much more.

6. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
A wonderfully nostalgic film as beguiling as the subject’s undying love.

7. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
While most of the other films on this list aim for subdued minimalism, this film sounds the call for maximalism loud and clear, marrying a delightfully twisted narrative with the most pleasurable romance of the year.

8. Happy Hour (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Even more than most long films, this luxuriates in its length, never sacrificing intimacy while exploring the gamut of emotions and moods.

9. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
The most conversational and confessional film of the year, twice.

10. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Simultaneously provocative and sympathetic, this is a challenge to the idea of documentary carried out on all fronts.

11. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
A microcosm of a very specific, unexpectedly humane climate from so many perspectives.

12. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
The hoopla over whether this is a film or miniseries misses the point; it is a monolithic work, a pointed exposé of the state of the union through the lens of one of its most infamous figureheads.

13. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
It is a testament to the unbelievable prowess of all involved that this incredibly questionable premise resulted in this ravishingly clear-minded portrait of obsession.

14. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
As much as anything, this is remarkably quotidian even in its triptych structure as it moves more and more into the realms of unfathomably deep emotions.

15. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
A portrait of a woman constantly in motion.

16. SPL II: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang)
This is practically giddy on its own daring, on its wondrous and furious kineticism.

17. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Appropriately mesmerizing filmmaking on every level, woven in with a history that always seems just out of reach.

18. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
Endlessly relatable and wonderfully, agonizingly unvarnished.

19. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A brilliant masterclass in sustained, mounting tension, culminating in one of the most unexpectedly soul shreddingly cathartic acts of the year.

20. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
Blissful, supremely assured reflections on the bittersweet things in life.

2016 Film Poll #3: The Muriel Awards

Best Feature-Length Film
1. Silence
2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Cameraperson
4. Toni Erdmann
5. My Golden Days
6. The Handmaiden
7. O.J.: Made in America
8. Mountains May Depart
9. Happy Hour
10. Right Now, Wrong Then

Best Lead Performance, Male
1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2. Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
3. Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro
4. Hidetoshi Nishijima, Creepy
5. Andrew Garfield, Silence

Best Lead Performance, Female
1. Kate Lyn Sheil, Kate Plays Christine
2. Zhao Tao, Mountains May Depart
3. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
4. Sônia Braga, Aquarius
5. Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann

Best Supporting Performance, Male
1. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
2. Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
3. Teruyuki Kagawa, Creepy
4. Issey Ogata, Silence
5. Laurent Lafitte, Elle

Best Supporting Performance, Female
1. Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
2. Sylvia Chang, Mountains May Depart
3. Michelle Williams, Certain Women
4. Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
5. Laura Dern, Certain Women

Best Direction
1. Jia Zhangke, Mountains May Depart
2. Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden
3. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Creepy
4. Martin Scorsese, Silence
5. Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson

Best Screenplay
(original or adapted)
1. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
2. Hong Sang-soo, Right Now, Wrong Then
3. Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
4. David Birke, Elle
5. Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women

Best Cinematography
1. The Handmaiden (Chung Chung-hoon)
2. Mountains May Depart (Nelson Lik-wai Yu)
3. Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)
4. Sunset Song (Michael McDonough)
5. Kaili Blues (Tianxing Wang)

Best Editing
1. Cameraperson (Nels Bangerter)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Jennifer Lame)
3. The Handmaiden (Kim Jae-Bum & Kim Sang-beom)
4. O.J.: Made in America (Bret Granato & Maya Mumma & Ben Sozanski)
5. I Am Not Your Negro (Alexandra Strauss)

Best Music
(original, adapted, or compiled)
1. The Handmaiden (Cho Young-wuk)
2. Mountains May Depart (Yoshihiro Hanno)
3. Manchester by the Sea (Lesley Barber)
4. Elle (Anne Dudley)
5. Julieta (Alberto Iglesias)

Best Documentary
1. Cameraperson
2. O.J.: Made in America
3. Kate Plays Christine

Best Cinematic Moment
(best scene or sequence)
1. Cameraperson – Violence montage
2. Silence – The voice
3. Manchester by the Sea – The accident flashback
4. Kate Plays Christine – Christine in living color
5. The Handmaiden – Throw away your books, run away in the fields
6. SPL II: A Time for Consequences – Emoji texting
7. Creepy – The interrogation
8. Mountains May Depart – “Go West” reprise
9. Happy Hour – Nightclub conversation
10. Cemetery of Splendour – The movie theater

Best Cinematic Breakthrough
(vague explanation: a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made a notable debut in film, took his/her career to a higher level, or revealed unforeseen layers to his/her talent during the year 2016)
1. Lily Gladstone
2. Kim Min-hee
3. Kirsten Johnson
4. Andrew Garfield
5. Kelly Fremon Craig

Best Body of Work
(a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made superior contributions to multiple films released in calendar year 2016)
1. Isabelle Huppert
2. Kim Min-hee
3. Andrew Garfield
4. Michelle Williams
5. Kristen Stewart

Best Ensemble Performance
1. Happy Hour
2. The Handmaiden
3. 20th Century Women
4. Love & Friendship
5. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Other remarks:
It is a great honor and pleasure to contribute my first ballot to the Muriels.
There were a ridiculous amount of extraordinary performances and technical achievements that I didn’t have the space to acknowledge, so here are some very honorable mentions: Things to Come, Sully, Paterson, The Edge of Seventeen, The Shallows, Shin Godzilla, Everybody Wants Some!!, Moonlight, and The Other Side.

10th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 2006
1. Inland Empire
2. Miami Vice
3. Old Joy
4. Syndromes and a Century
5. Woman on the Beach

25th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 1991
1. A Brighter Summer Day
2. The Double Life of Veronique
3. Barton Fink
4. Until the End of the World
5. Raise the Red Lantern

50th Anniversary Award, Best Feature Film 1966
1. Persona
2. The Battle of Algiers
3. Black Girl
4. Au hasard Balthazar
5. Masculin féminin