September/October 2017 Capsules

Clueless
It’s all too fitting that Clueless at once hews closely to and sets itself entirely apart from the standard template of the American teen comedy. In outline it conforms, as girl tries to meet boy before realizing she’s loved another all the while, but Heckerling’s skill is such that it never feels remotely formulaic or inorganic to the development of Cher as both character and ideal. This is owed in small part to the stylistic devices (blatant voiceover, atypical stirrings of music) but the key factor is the surroundings, literally and figuratively sunny. Every character both does and doesn’t fit in with the Beverly Hills setting, which is an all-inclusive, ultimately deeply loving and caring environment. There is never the hint that things will go dreadfully wrong for any character, and that makes the whole thing sing.

The Devil Wears Prada [rewatch]
By all appearances this should be an extraordinarily slight film made for purely commercial purposes, and to be sure there isn’t a great deal that would distinguish it, aside from some nicely fluid edits (if a bit overly reliant on flashy montages). But there is a wonderful feeling of restraint and professionalism, not only emanating from the characters but

October

Platform
As with most films, I kept going back to various works this reminded me of – Edward Yang in approach, To Live in rough thematic scope, and even Twin Peaks: The Return in editing and screenplay structure – but this is really a thoroughly surprising, immensely affecting work, in the way it mirrors the rhythms of everyday life. Duration helps with this of course, but even more key seems to be the structure of the scenes. This isn’t the realm of the memory film, where the events feel as if they are being recalled from a distant vantage point, but there is a similar weightlessness here, of time slipping away with each passing day in the way in which many events that are alluded to become elided or barely touched on before the next “non-event” occurs. Everything and nothing feels important in this decade-long span. In this context, the extended long shots and pans feel like the only logical way in which to film this, rendering each space with a tactility and sense of grounding that achieves a perfect, empathetic distance.

Certain Tendencies [REAR WINDOW]

blinded

It is perhaps no accident that the one apartment glimpsed more than once that is not explored by the roving eyes of Jeffries (and, of course, the viewer) is the one of what appears to be a loving and relatively normal family. Implicitly, the audience can grasp that what attracts the voyeur is brokenness in all its forms, whether it be creative rut, the fading luster of a new marriage, a hunger for something more in life, or simply the damn heat of summer in Greenwich Village. And from those elemental building blocks, those concerns which when combined form a microcosm of society at large, Hitchcock weaves something truly indelible, something which might even be perfect.

Rear Window may even surpass its legendary status purely based on how much it contains beyond the justly famous murder mystery plot. This is patently obvious from the objects of focus throughout; the case of Lars Thornwald isn’t even spotlighted until around the end of the first third, and Hitchcock places equal emphasis until then on the action happening inside the apartment as he does on the voyeurism – though, of course, the latter informs the former to no small extent. Lisa and Stella especially are incredibly thought-through characters, neither falling into a set stereotype but instead emerging as credible sources of both repartee and a tenderness that Jeffries struggles to reciprocate, turning instead to the outside world.

And it is indeed a world, populated with people who overcome the lack of audible dialogue to inhabit a general sense of longing and not-so-private conflict. The degree to which Hitchcock establishes each object of attention is such that when the silence is broken, and the camera leaves the confines of the apartment for the first time, it feels like the natural course of action. The viewer’s sympathies lie with the grieving couple not only because of their loss but because they feel like more than just objects.

It goes without saying that the outside goings-on reflect the inner turmoil of Jeffries to no small extent. More than anything, it is in the patterns and routines that he observes and his own pattern that he is forced to adopt due to both external influences (his confining cast) and his own obsession. Miss Torso dances and entertains men, the newlywed husband smokes forlornly out the window, the couple struggle to weather the elements, and all the while Jeffries can do nothing but watch. No wonder he fixates on the murder, a break in the monotony that, by proxy, affects the whole complex.

August 2017 Capsules

88:88
I could describe how I perceived the film, but I’m not even certain that my view was in any way accurate. Importantly, I almost totally missed the poverty aspect that seems to the focal point of many fine, laudatory reviews, and focused instead on the way in which it depicts a very specific type of navel-gazing, academic, young urbanite ennui. But in either case, I can’t truthfully say whether the aggressively abstract, functionally plotless and untethered style works in concert with the subject matter. It is alternately dazzling and distracting, and though that makes the little nuggets of information that aren’t dull mathematics all the more valuable, it still doesn’t provide a justification in a way that feels satisfying. 88:88 keeps moving until it comes to a stop, and while the invigorating feeling cannot be denied, it leaves me wondering what was trying to be said, what feeling was trying to be invoked.

From Nine to Nine
I wouldn’t even know where to begin with regards to the politics of this, though I was fascinated (if not pleased) by the predominant use of robotic filters on the narrators. This choice feels of a piece with the intentions of From Nine to Nine as a whole; unlike, say, 88:88, the film aims for that movie’s sense of alienation sans most of the abstraction. If the film feels a bit didactic and uncomplicated at times, it makes up for it with images that grow even more striking once the film samples are incorporated, adding a new, far more intriguing layer of interior thinking that does complicate the protagonist (who remains unnervingly blank the rest of the time). And of course, there is that sublime club scene, which to my mind could exist entirely separately as a truly beautiful short; the murkiness that elsewhere obscures, here magnifies a certain kind of otherworldly majesty.

The Wedding Banquet
Perhaps I place too much emphasis on traditions, on the respect paid to the past, whether represented in person (via Wai-Tung’s parents) or purely through the familiar customs of the wedding banquet, which have always been well-known to me, but Lee displays an admirable, astonishingly touching sensitivity to both cultures that Wai-Tung inhabits. It is a film equally about queerness as it is about the Chinese culture, and as such contains no small amount of specificity from both sectors: the Poison VHS, the Chinese scrolls (one of which is read in full), the martial arts serial, the pink triangle. All of this lends the plot, which at times lapses into something which lacks the studious and loving attention paid to establishing the web of relationships, a certain charge, a feeling of recognition and reconciliation. The Wedding Banquet is simply but handsomely mounted, but the layers of detail is no veneer; it is the lifeblood that defines what each character lives for.

Pickpocket
Benefits greatly from how stripped down and focused it is on Xiao Wu, whether or not one wishes to view it through a national critique lens. Pickpocket thus functions as equal parts sign of the times (in a very particular society and time period) and watchful character study, which Jia weaves together with a little bit of shakiness (surprisingly little, considering this is his debut) and a great deal of finesse. But the shakiness fascinates me even more than the expertly executed master shots or the kinetic montages, great as they are. Whether it be the handheld, the simultaneously foregrounded and interior performance of Wang Hongwei, or even the preponderance of small supporting characters, the roughness around the edges suggests to me something endearing, straining to coexist alongside the more clearly accomplished elements.

Sweetgrass
It’s odd to describe a film as doggedly realistic and faithful as Sweetgrass as shape-shifting, but that is exactly how it feels, even as it grounds itself in the hills and fields of Montana with unerring steadiness. The move from the electrifying focus on the sheep to the only somewhat less fascinating (and more disquieting) perspective on the ranchers is the most obvious of these shifts, but it is also, crucially, present in the aesthetic decisions. The frame seemingly opens up, stretching across the endless plains and mountains, and the audio becomes more and more intimate as the camera becomes more distant. The continuity of image is broken into gunshot flares and nighttime scenes, and the herds of both sheep and their herders is broken into solitary figures scrounging for artifacts and weeping and cursing the imminent death of the drive (and, in a way, the Western). These pivots are noticeable, but they all arise from the common foundation of the sheep, and this sense of the quotidian that arises in the second half lengthens the viewer’s perception, making something which by all accounts should be of mild interest into something approaching monumental, status. (It doesn’t hurt that it possesses some of the most arresting images I’ve seen recently, on standard-definition digital to boot.)

As Tears Go By
As Tears Go By begins with a shot that particularly encapsulates ’80s culture – a storefront view of a wall of televisions – and only gets more entrenched in the aesthetic as it goes along. But this being Wong Kar-wai’s debut, it still feels wholly his, and he finds fascinating ways of melding the more down-to-earth yet heightened sensuality that became his trademark. This extends to the often duelling narratives that Wah finds himself caught in the middle of, illustrated no better than in the early scene where a night out is interrupted by Fly breaking into the apartment. The film lives and thrives on these whiplash moments; it seems as if Wong hadn’t yet perfected the languor that I love so much about his films, and so there is no small thrill in the chases, or the extended scenes of almost sadomasochistic violence inflicted on and by Wah (often shot in extremely long slow motion shots), or of course the unspoken flirtations.

Leviathan
In a gambit by equal measures audacious and paradoxical, Leviathan continually seems to aim for inhabiting two separate approaches. Whether it be low or fast, meditative or dynamic, spare or visceral, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel somehow manage to achieve all of these contradictory moods by dint of the utterly inconceivable filming techniques on display. If the film were nothing more than a compendium of the possibilities of the digital camera, then it would still be spectacular. But its context is also key, the balance between the hulking, clunking machinery of the boat, the precarious situation of the fish and birds, the wearying monotony of the workers, and the crashing waves. These are of course pat concepts, but they feel alive when shot in such extreme close-ups, in the rush of the camera cutting through the water and air. Indeed, what seems to be the default mode is a curious cross between stasis (the long takes, some lasting for over ten minutes) and motion (with few exceptions, the camera is constantly rushing through its environment). In this setting, where darkness renders the slightest movement or light source into an impressionistic blur, there is the feeling that Leviathan is the realm of both the real and the fantastical, where senses are broken down into their base elements.

Manakamana
It says quite a bit about Manakamana that I can, at the same time, hold the structure and order of the rides and hop around within said order. It’s a little difficult to determine to what extent this is intended by Spray and Velez – though it’s hard to imagine a different order working as harmoniously – but such is the nature of this incredible work. It lives and soars on so many aspects – the quiet conceptual genius of simply observing no more than three or four bodies for ten minutes, the playful seamlessness of the blackout transitions (including mid-film sound collage) – but there is above all such fluidity, such linkage through motifs, both spoken and unspoken. Funny, melancholic, hypnotic, baffling, all both free of and plainly steeped in the specific context of the temple in Nepal. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, to be sure, but to say so would deny the immense pleasures in each segment: a cat wandering on three band members, a perfectly executed water bottle birdy, the way so many look into the camera lens.

July 2017 Capsules

The Host
Brazenly careens through a multiplicity of narratives that would be more than enough to make up a single film on their own, but The Host never really loses sight of the family (and not the monster) at its core. Bong knows exactly when to engage fully with the broiling emotions a la something out of Godzilla, and, rightly or wrongly, he isn’t afraid of making his protagonists seem more than a little foolish or silly. Indeed, it is these moments that makes their nigh-suicidal showdowns with the monster that much more compelling and thrilling. Throughout the film runs an undercurrent of grief and shock that, along with Bong’s fluid and sometimes confrontational direction (those intensely discomforting close-ups!) propels The Host through an unwieldy plot to an immensely cathartic, fitting conclusion.

Okja
Recoups rather nicely after a singularly awful opening by moving – and firmly staying in – its most endearing and sincere mode. Okja is an odd movie in that it never loses a certain vitality or tendency towards the heartwarming despite its presentation of a bleak, nigh-fatalistic worldview, where the actions of the few are outweighed the commercial interests of the machine. Part of that is the intensely strong core of Mija and Okja, well-established by the opening 30 minutes, but it also comes through in the form of the ragtag crew of the Animal Liberation Front, Dano especially. Perhaps it’s too broad at times, too endearing, but Bong guides the viewer through with a steady, loving hand, by turns exhilarating and moving.

Wonder Woman
Almost depressing in some ways, given the critical and cultural hoopla that has descended upon Wonder Woman to a far greater extent than might be expected. It is somehow both anodyne and embarrassingly ridiculous, attempting to blend two disparate realms – the realm of myth (as opposed to more standard superhero mythology) and the very “real” concerns of World War I – with immensely clunky, repetitive dialogue. Jenkins has a bit of an eye for iconography but not much else, and the actors struggle to do their best with shaky material – a problem Gadot is particularly saddled with, faced with one tremulous reaction shot after another. Pine, incredibly, is the only one who comes out better off, as he is given an actually credible and fully-fledged character who manages a rather nicely-executed juggling act of love and duty. Otherwise, this lurches from scene to scene with little interest, only buoyed by the occasional swell of feeling that sometimes lands. And perhaps worst of all is how conventional this feels, how utterly predictable its narrative progression and reception is. This is no return to form or revolution; it is the status quo.

Pushing Hands
I’m generally wary of ascribing glaring faults to directors, but it seems fairly apparent that, at this point, Ang Lee was far less skilled at directing scenes in English than in Chinese. Nearly every scene that involves the admittedly thinly drawn character of Martha (that is, more than a third of the movie) feels either flat or shrill, and while the scenes conducted in Mandarin are only somewhat better, there is a sense of community and tenderness that is otherwise absent. It is perhaps inevitable that the most intriguing sequence is the opening, a wordless depiction of the cultural divide that implies what the rest of the movie proceeds to explain in ham-fisted and even didactic terms – the fact that Lee is so clearly on the side of the father makes the bluntness even more regrettable. There is a certain visual interest, but little else distinguishes this misguided, if slightly moving, film.

Vive L’Amour
The languor of Rebels of the Neon God is replaced with something more fearful; though the youth of this film are just as – if not moreso – disaffected as that film, they seem less possessed by their milieu as thrown into sharp relief. The huge pools of water are replaced with water bottles, and the general dank settings are replaced by the near-pristine walls of the duplex apartment. Said apartment, the point of intersection/purgatory for the two (or three) protagonists, feels at turns like a place of refuge, self-discovery, or existential fear, something Tsai achieves with very simple but very lighting changes and camera movements. His capacity to cut the viewer to the quick with a single line (or, in the first significant set of dialogue lines, a prattling set of phone conversations) is immense, as is his eye for duration, not just in his trademark static long shots but in his tracking shots as well; extended shots of people walking or driving in cars feel even more propulsive than the rest of the film. And throughout, the viewer feels almost like a voyeur, as the vulnerabilities and secrets of these isolated people can only stay hidden for so long.

Green Snake
Establishes itself with such vim and vigor that it almost seems to slow down when the snake-turned-human sisters show up, not before. No matter; Green Snake is so ineffably fantastical that its majesty seems to cascade off the screen with every swooning tilt, every blurred close-up, every dissolve that moves inexorably closer to its subject with something bordering on the mythic. This sense of the fantastic is undeniably key to this story of monks wielding the power of gods and monsters assuming flesh, but it is heightened almost past the point of no return. Yet Tsui Hark burrows deep, cutting through any hint of undeserved excess to arrive at the elemental core, of love, barely concealed jealousy, and ultimate destruction. And of course, Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong are almost too intensely alluring, with a kind of vamping that almost burns through the screen, equal parts maturity and melancholy.

Hiroshima mon amour
The opening sequence of Hiroshima mon amour – a dizzying collection of direct allusions to the horrors and trauma of a city – is justly acclaimed, but it is worth considering its place, narratively and structurally, within this film. Though it opens the film and is the series of moments for which the film is most remembered, it bears only some resemblance to the eighty minutes that follows it. Okada and especially Riva, the faces and figures upon which the film rests, are abstracted into clasped bodies – equated, at the very beginning, with the ashen corpses of the bombed – and voices, and they speak in a blunt way completely at odds with their curious, almost emotionally revealing conversations. It is as if they are speaking from a point far later or, even more likely, in a distant memory, far away from the slightly unreal, scarred city that dominates their existence. Their nationalities and differences in culture are all the more pronounced, and all the more deeply felt, with the inexorable passage of time.

Theatre of Blood
Chalk it up to my general horror myopia, my suspicion of melodrama outside of a concrete sense of emotion, my general distaste for wanton killing, my status as a critic, or any number of general predilections, but I found it very difficult to get into Theatre of Blood as a whole. By virtue of its jerry-rigged structure, stringing together an alarming number of purportedly justified murders while it seems no investigation is ventured at all, the film goes through highs and lows, with the undisputed high being a quite well-choreographed fencing duel through a gymnasium and the low being…one of three or four particularly gruesome murders? Leaving aside the illogicality of nearly every character’s actions save Price and Rigg (both of whom are clearly having much fun, for better or worse), the film can’t decide what tone it wishes to assume, and instead shifts awkwardly – sometimes in the same scene – between seriousness (as signaled by the lachrymose score) and hilarity. And all of this comes from an irreconcilable fact: Lionheart (not Price) is a fairly bad actor. Some nice shots from Hickox, though.

The Emperor’s New Groove (rewatch)
Leaving all of the insanely clever and intensely paced gags, I was struck at how totally The Emperor’s New Groove nails every aspect of its construction. From the brilliantly modern corporate speak, used both in and out of the royal court (“Emperor or not, it’s called common courtesy”), the purposefully sparing use of some of the best characters (the waiter, Pacha’s family), and even a heartwarming redemptive arc that, in its breathless movement through multiple betrayals and reconciliations, almost manages to outpace the film at large, it is exceedingly well-crafted, even if its pacing is too manic to let everything fully settle. But of course, one must return to the gags, to the absurdity that makes constant fourth-wall narration both obnoxious and consistently funny, that makes a dramatic zoom-out into something oddly suggestive of a wider world, and that makes pathos acutely earned.

Taste of Cherry (out of order)
Humanism is really a word that should be taken for granted when it comes to a director like Kiarostami, and yet it seems nigh impossible to describe Taste of Cherry as anything but. The scenario has such an overwhelming pathos baked in, but there is something ineffable about its brilliance, something so logical and elemental, that makes it devastating. Much of it is in the little feints: the brief use of the clergyman’s friend, the lack of introduction for Badii’s potential savior. But just as key are the big moments, the way in which Badii must get all the details right for fear of dying “unnaturally” or the laundry list of the things that make life worth living. And somehow each choice just amplifies the ache, the necessity of life; Kiarostami’s camera is never exploitative, never too distant, and especially in the transcendent final scene, never not quietly radical.

2016 SFCA Capsules

Manchester by the Sea
Grief – all-consuming, life-altering grief – is a rarity in the American cinema.
More often than not, it is dealt with and then pushed aside, and to be fair Manchester by the Sea does not fixate solely on one man’s overpowering grief. But it is woven into the structure and the backbone of the film, shadowing and enriching every interaction, every pause, every Atlantean movement.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an oddity from a cultural point of view. Ostensibly a straightforward drama in the standard independent vein, it expands outwards, not necessarily in scope (as in his landmark 2011 film Margaret) but in depth, unspooling out its insight over 137 minutes in great detail. Its focus is Lee (Casey Affleck), a janitor in Massachusetts who returns to his eponymous hometown to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies. It is clear, even in the wake of this traumatic incident, that Lee has been carrying a deep sadness for some time, a revelation only clarified midway through the film. With this grief comes a sense of purpose and relentless drive; he is almost exclusively seen stone-faced, thinking rationally when others are overwhelmed, though his sarcastic and impulsive nature – something shared with many residents of the town – shine through on multiple occasions.

And it is this sense of the town, of the various people that surround Lee in an orbit, some supportive and others dismissive, that lend Manchester by the Sea its ultimate power. Lonergan renders this drama with an intense vitality that feels almost too close to real life, with equal parts poignancy and levelheadedness.

Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart reconciles those two most opposing of artistic tendencies: the intimate drama and the epic. Provocatively, the simple tale of a mother trying to connect with her son is both situated in and symbolically made into the story of an entire nation’s history over the course of three decades. It is entirely to Jia Zhangke’s credit that the film emerges not as a political treatise or heavy-handed metaphor, but as melodrama of the highest order, that moves with inexorable energy through the passing of time, technology, cities, and love.

Much of what makes Mountains May Depart so ineffably radical lies in its simple but oddly confounding structure. Separated into three parts of roughly equal length, each section, set at the turn of the millennium, 2014, and 2025 respectively, has its own plot, tone, and accompanying aspect ratio. Though they all are connected by a well-established narrative core, each part feels as if it could stand alone – though, of course, the emotional heft is only magnified as the film moves along. It feels audacious in some unquantifiable way, succumbing to emotion yet never losing control of the larger narrative of the Westernization of China, and though its sincerity seems to have invited laughter, its power and prowess shines through, as Jia always finds the exact right tenor to devastate and move the viewer. Mountains May Depart demands openness and reconciliation between both the characters and the viewers, a concrete sense of understanding that reaches the sublime.

The Handmaiden
Erotic romance, especially of the queer variety, has become a hot topic among filmmakers in recent times; one need only look to films like Blue is the Warmest Color and Weekend to see explicit sex treated with genuine love and care. But what separates The Handmaiden from those (excellent) films is that said romance is gleefully wrapped within a dense and thrilling web of cons. The ultimate goal that each participant tries to achieve, which is only fully uncovered just before the final act, seems entirely beside the point; what matters much more is the swooning romance and charged close-ups with which each woman views the other, the gonzo sensibility of Park Chan-wook that bursts forth in virtually every scene.

What makes The Handmaiden so delightful is that sense of exhilarating disorientation, of allegiances being formed and broken before the viewer’s very eyes, as Kim Tae-ri’s and Kim Min-hee’s characters engage in lithe pas de deux, all too frequently intruded upon by lecherous and self-serving men. True, their entire romance may be something straight out of the erotic novels that the count of the estate obsesses over, but it is between them (and the viewer). And when the viewer looks back at all of the twists and turns, the miracle is that they all remain true to these characters; love does not conquer all, per se, but it feels like enough. Indeed, it almost feels like a fairy tale or a story, something literalized by that last, glorious dissolve.

Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong Sang-soo’s films have always had an incredible, intuitive understandings of the immensely flawed characters at their center, but Right Now, Wrong Then may represent one of the first times that he has pulled off this trick twice (or, if you like, four times) in his remarkable oeuvre. Roughly speaking,
the film follows a well-known director (Jung Jae-young) visiting a small town for the first time when he meets a shy artist (Kim Min-hee). They talk and drink together, the director leaves, and, quite unexpectedly, the sequence of events repeats with many small but important differences.

Hong’s films have almost always had various structural conceits – something similar appeared in On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate – but there is a special symmetry in this case, a near 1:1 reproduction that nevertheless feels radically different in approach. The complicating factor, of course, is Kim’s character, who is cast as an equal to the almost archetypal director in Hong’s filmography. She has many of the most affecting moments, and her vulnerability gives even more heft to Right Now, Wrong Then‘s emotional pull.

But what makes Right Now, Wrong Then so gratifying is its sense of warmth and control, to an even greater extent than most of Hong’s other films. Perhaps it is because the film is so much of a two-hander, but he plumbs the depths of his characters to a profound degree, teasing out more flaws, inadequacies, and personal failings while never doling out an ounce of judgement.

Kate Plays Christine
I will readily profess to having nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the contemporary documentary landscape, but I cannot recall ever seeing a film like Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene’s radical study of both ethics and performance. Not coincidentally, those two ideas dovetail nicely with the ostensible subject: Christine Chubbuck, a newswoman known solely for her on-air suicide. Greene’s film, almost akin to docufiction, is less an investigation than an interrogation, using the figure of actress Kate Lyn Sheil as both avatar and experiment subject.

Lest the wrong impression be given, it must be emphasized that Lyn Sheil is effectively the co-auteur of the film, giving perhaps the performance of the year with an endlessly layered, immensely subtle performance that shifts in and out of character. Even the way she acts as an interviewer is utterly fascinating, infusing her questions with both care and a hard-edged professionalism, giving off the sense that she wants to get the role right.

But the whole point of Kate Plays Christine is that one deeply troubled woman’s life cannot be distilled without distorting the facts (as in Antonio Campos’s immensely flawed and questionable Christine), and Greene reaches that conclusion without ever showing his hand, save for the bracingly high-wire finale. The whole journey is expertly, mesmerizingly rendered from beginning to end, and along the way so many different facets of one person few truly knew are brought up, only to be washed away by real footage in living color.

June 2017 Quick Capsules

The Wolfpack
Curiously distended and aimless, despite the inherently compelling and dramatic subject matter. At times it almost feels as if Moselle is stalling or simply too endeared with an observational mode of filmmaking, content to simply record the scattered observations and retellings of her subjects rather than provide any sort of motivating force – aside from, that is, her actual physical presence with her camera. This dovetails, unfortunately, with one of the other significant aspects that was truly unexpected on my part: the particular brand of cinephilia that the Angulos’ exhibit as depicted in the film is far more elemental and basic than I had anticipated. Moselle shows shockingly little interest in it except when it is deemed essential to the story (the movie theater visit, a reenactment here or there) and otherwise abandons it. The Wolfpack has its own small share of pathos, but otherwise feels rather inert and lifeless.

Troll 2
Indefensible in damn near every conventional way, and yet Troll 2 has a strong tinge of the unassailable to it. There is something to the general competence of the technical aspects – some extraordinarily odd camera choices, editing, and special effects aside – that casts all of the totally incompetent plotting and acting in a different light. Not to say that I view this as some sort of high-trash masterpiece, as it manages to become dull roughly an hour into its ninety-minute runtime, but it remains so consummately dedicated to its weirdness, its transparently demented and malicious environment, and its bozo logic that it occasionally becomes mesmerizing.

Tabu
Appeals so greatly to that sense of the elemental tale as old as time that I seem to gravitate so strongly towards, and yet I think that Tabu is putatively something that does not fall into that. By way of parallel construction, Murnau sets the idyllic island and the hustle and bustle of a more modern way of life in direct opposition and manages to find more than a little bit of resemblance. But what matters most, and what the lovers on the lam seem to miss, is the sense of community and ritual among the beaches and the palm-frond villages, and the evident guilt and fear that they hold becomes so much more than just forbidden love under the watchful eye of Murnau. They attempt to resist nature itself, swimming against the tide of time to no avail. Such a doomed struggle is handled with the most simple of techniques, and yet a whole world is alchemically conjured in the dissolve from a written language to English, in the refusal to use an intertitle. In the land of Murnau, the emotions howl just as strongly as the waves.

To the Wonder
Putatively, this is one of Malick’s most modestly pitched films – a love story centering on a couple, with a priest in the periphery and a former flame even further from the center – very likely the least ponderous film he has made since Badlands. But almost everything else about it feels like a kind of next step for Malick, albeit one that looks back. Every character feels like a variation of one of his previous characters: Kurylenko to Pocahontas, Tatiana to Manz, Affleck to Jack etc. and Malick’s style pushes Lubezki’s rushing camera movements even further. What is different is the lack of any inhibition, as his characters dance around each other, coming together and breaking apart as quickly. Kurylenko’s status as an outsider seems key here – as does Bardem, their voiceovers in their “native” languages are among the loveliest aspects of To the Wonder – something only deepened by the sense of this vaguely defined but distinctly modern and American milieu. Unlike Knight of Cups or Song to Song there is no society to be commented on; this culture simply exists, much in the same way that it has for decades and as it likely will for years to come. So what changes are the relationships, the people as they grow and wane in their passion, in their sense of inner life, something which Malick explores with an aching, unmistakably poignant passion.

Knight of Cups (rewatch)
Several orders of magnitude more fractured and aimless than what I can recall from the rest of Malick’s oeuvre, for a number of fairly apparent reasons. Almost certainly the main problem is built into the intertitle-separated structure. This wasn’t an issue for the only other Malick I can remember having clear delineations such as this, the extended cut of The New World, but where that movie even gained a hint of the novelistic, this film feels like it loses something in the blitz of characters that remain fairly confined to their own segments. It certainly doesn’t help that Bale’s presence is (whether through his performance or Malick’s realization of it) near-absent in ways that do and don’t feel productive. And the spiritual allegories here feel unmoored from the moment in which Rick lives, foisted upon the narrative rather than organically developed.

But it must be said, few directors could handle such an unwieldy, risky text nearly as well as the deft hand of Malick. His conjuring of awe, of the lightness of movement, character, and narrative is almost wholly sui generis; the signposts may be clear (an earthquake as the inciting incident, the virginal woman as redeemer) but they feel both otherworldly and grounded, rendered in pristine shimmering that flows in the light and dark. The result is nothing short of awe, something that Knight of Cups holds more of than it should have any right to possess.

John From
I’m tempted to separate this neatly into halves, the first being an exceedingly well-developed hangout film and the second a considerably dreamier and fantastical endeavor. But to do so would rob John From of its more impressive distinguishing traits, particularly its actual justification for this switch. The pivot isn’t truly a pivot at all, but a rather organic (literally) metamorphosis, as the film evolves before the viewer’s very eyes in ways both expected and unexpected, visible and invisible. Much of the credit must go to the immensely fluid and always engrossing guiding hand of João Nicolau; the closest analogue in my limited knowledge is Linklater (at least for the first half), but his sense is more rigorous but with the same sense of looseness, containing a plentitude of rather dramatic tracking shots. Utterly pleasurable.

The Day He Arrives (rewatch)
Went into this particular rewatch with all of the praise and love that this receives from some of the most fervent Hong admirers in mind (especially Kevin B. Lee’s video essay), but that can only account for some of my drastically altered perception and immensely greater love for this film. The Day He Arrives feels like, among the seven Hongs I’ve seen so far, the clearest summation of what makes his body of work so immensely special and beguiling. Even though it feels in some ways like an oddity – the black-and-white, the pointed use of voiceover – it manages to marry the immensely playful structure with a certain looseness, a use of dialogue that at first glance seems somewhat unrelated to the plight of the central character. Of course, nothing is throwaway and everything is important in Hong’s world; the slightest bit of difference in who enters or doesn’t enter the frame, the change in the type of zoom he uses, the reappearance of figures in entirely different contexts. And it moves along with such grace, such melancholy drive, pinballing off of slightly different characterizations and conversations, that it achieves its own kind of sublime.

Daughter of the Nile
Moves with astonishing fluidity (in the span of a single cut) between a slightly narcotized, dreamy feeling among nocturnal settings and the comparatively harsh, glaring light of day, but what remains predominant is the extent of Hou’s reserved intimacy. Though his camera floats far less than I expected, his locked down frames consistently stun, bringing the viewer closer with a medium shot than most filmmakers could accomplish with a long shot, and the mood remains so warm, even as the characters fall closer and closer into the depths of the modern world. Perhaps the story is too small for its own good, but the scenes in the night school and KFC (admittedly, the ones I was most interested in) act as marvelous embellishments, and the commitment in Daughter of the Nile is apparent from beginning to elegiac end.

Nerve
More than a little worrying and dangerous, simply by virtue of the degree to which it displays and even glorifies the culture that forms its center. Despite the supposed objections that Nerve has towards Nerve, there is a very certain glamor given to the foolish daredevils, a seductiveness in the admittedly gorgeous oversaturated lights and the slow-motion shots of its heroes walking through crowds of admirers. This extends to the fantasia of the Internet, all touchscreens, flashy pans, and flowing data, something which perhaps wisely extends to the “real world,” which itself is a series of disembodied streets and unmoored building. Someone much more dedicated to this could easily make a case for this as high art (certainly there’s something interesting in its brazen commitment to a despicable culture) but I am content to both appreciate and feel wary at this, with whiplash regularity.

Split (rewatch)
It was much more apparent to me on this viewing just how meticulous and unnerving Shyamalan’s direction was, and I do think I originally did it a disservice by questioning how much of the film truly functioned as a thriller. For this does truly feel like a tightly coiled spring that expertly unravels over the course of the film; even Betty Buckley’s scenes carry a charge with how unsettling Kevin’s intentions remain. And of course, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy hold the screen, he with his multivalent, rapidly switching personas and she with a hypnotic intensity, projecting fear and will with the same glance.

Game of Death
It’s difficult to ascertain whether Game of Death benefits or suffers from the inclusion of actual Bruce Lee footage. On the one hand, it substantially raises the level of overall interest in this otherwise half-hearted effort, and even makes the viewer scour the other segments for other moments that actually feature the legendary martial artist. But it also highlights just how shoddy many of the other fight scenes feel, which themselves seem nothing short of brilliant (thanks to Sammo Hung’s choreography) when placed next to stiffly performed, rote conspiracy machinations. The film certainly improves as it becomes more and more about Billy Lo’s revenge, but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more screen presence in one scene than the Bruce Lee doppelgangers do in the entire film, it spells trouble.

The Great Wall
Explicitly calls itself a legend at the very start, which Zhang Yimou uses as essentially a carte blanche to create his own alternate version of Imperial China. And like a legend, The Great Wall feels almost too barebones, moving from one great feat or hurried conversation to another, with little time to truly delve into the characters. But the actors all perform their parts ably, and this truly is a kind of showcase for Zhang, a fluidly grandiose and thrillingly fun series of daredevil tricks, using more in one introductory battle than many would in entire films. There is much power to be found in the well-timed close-up or the particular body movement, and like many of the other actually competent and sometimes genius directors Zhang realizes this, and uses it to no small effect in this flawed, endearing work.

The Unbelievable Truth
Nervier and looser than Trust, perhaps for good reason – even more than that film, The Unbelievable Truth is as compassionate and playful with its peripheral characters as it is with the duo at its center, and Hartley uses them to great, hilarious effect. Of course, there is a tension, borne not only out of Audry’s apocalyptic obsessions but from the inescapable feeling of patterns repeating themselves, bits of dialogue and situations playing out over and over, which feels comedic sometimes and tragic at others. And there is catharsis, melancholy, vulgarity, and connections broken and found aplenty, almost too much for one to bear. But it is glorious and true, beautiful in its overt yet unassuming way.

Stranger by the Lake
Was most astonished by how much inherent feeling Guiraudie manages to wrest from the anxiety-ridden climate that eventually develops in Stranger by the Lake. The cruising scene is depicted with an unspoken matter-of-fact attitude, completely unapologetic yet almost labyrinthian in the expanse of the woods (which contrasts with the wide-open, exposed vision of the beach), in a way that feels utterly refreshing. But even more gratifying are the distinct, discrete patterns of behavior, the locked down, tightly wound direction of Guiraudie, and above all the characters, particularly Henri. He radiates a gruff sort of care, a longing that feels cut from the same cloth as that of the various gay men looking for connection, and serves as a kind of conduit, a balancing point between the simple carnal pleasures and the sinister, the suspenseful, the genuinely shocking.

Staying Vertical
Staying Vertical seems to suffer primarily from an abundance of narrative concerns. While Stranger by the Lake was extraordinarily focused on a man and his interactions with primarily two people and confined its setting to a week at a beach, this film feels almost sprawling in comparison, as Leo moves around the city and countryside and forging uneasy relationships with many groups. This isn’t necessarily a weak aspect, as much of the pleasure is derived from the variety of odd happenings that arise out of this hapless screenwriter’s apparent sense of overcommitment. But it feels like a faintly uneven experience, something mostly smoothed over by Guiraudie’s hypnotic, ceaselessly rigorous direction. Pleasantly befuddling, if a bit shapeless.

May 2017 Quick Capsules

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A fascinating film in many ways, both when taken in extratextual contexts (its odd relation to the other Marvel films) and in the tug and pull of the filmmaking itself. Gunn seems almost too eager to trip over his plotting, jumping with alarming inelegance between planet to planet. Also present is an inconsistent and befuddling attitude towards emotion and melodrama; half the time the characters seem to be taking the piss and the other half they’re almost too sincere. But none of these (or maybe all of these) account for the weirdness of the whole enterprise, of arcade machines that become weapons of death, of tender reconciliations taking place in the stars or in front of a fiery crashed ship, of a joy in violence that only somewhat feels gratuitous. And somehow, this contains some of the most resonant, beautiful, and emotional scenes in the superhero genre.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Very likely went into this with entirely wrong expectations, but I certainly didn’t expect something this subdued. But it certainly isn’t correct to call this minor-key in any way; this is a fairly lively, if not energetic, film, thanks to a wonderful combination of Kuosmanen’s always moving (in legible fashion) mise-en-scéne and, even more importantly, Lahti’s pensive yet magnetic performance. The way he moves is key, a sort of loping and hunched gait that does little to disguise a measure of playfulness and overall sincerity that makes him a joy to watch. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for me was the actual narrative, which seems too anticlimactic for its own good (leaving aside all intentions) and predicated on a relationship that doesn’t feel adequately emphasized, but this film is absorbing nonetheless.

Detour
Tawdry and relentless in all of the feverishly anticipated ways, but it really should be emphasized how much this film moves. It bears down on its main character and the audience like a freight train carrying the inexorable will of fate, as the immensely woeful voiceover couples with whiplash editing to produce all the kinetic energy that Al cannot muster. And it feels so noxious it becomes intoxicating, as fatalism crashes headlong into nihilism, pragmatism suffocates flights of fancy. And above all, the artifice makes for simple, intensely evocative images: silhouettes in fog, looming neon signs, rain-spattered windshields, furtive eyes in rear-view mirrors, fantasia in shadows.

Inland Empire (rewatch)
So much of this seems to be about a universal sort of decay, that spreads throughout Hollywood, Poland, and Nowheresville, USA. Ghosts, curses, and other such hauntings are in plentiful supply, but they must jocky for space with the utterly fearful, indomitable visage of Laura Dern in many guises. Perhaps less consistently terrifying than I remembered and contains many, many more musical stings, but it remains a vision in totality, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and to see reality, the body, and film contorted and distorted in such a way is truly haunting and moving.

Something Wild
Love how this film is essentially constructed from two highjacked narratives, the first by Lulu/Audrey and the second by Ray. It lends a strong irreverence to the whole affair, as Demme and company never stray far from the road and keep a rapid pace. But each character is given such a wonderful sense of presence, in large part to the genius performances and gradual character transformations by all involved – including, of course, the multitude of background characters. It is because of them that this movie thrives, as optimism and pop culture are rendered into something beautiful and lively. Charlie travels into two essentially alternate realities that dissolve into his own, with Audrey as his guide, and finds something more.

Prometheus
Far less stupid (on an actual narrative basis) than I was led to believe; there is a wisely executed rather strong foundation in a sense of exploration and mounting dread that comes to a head in the jaw-dropping succession of infections and contaminations that somehow occur simultaneously. But what feels more important than the inexorable narrative drive are the figures and the space in which they move. This is a plainly gorgeous movie, even as it descends into the dark and dank environs, as Scott revels in both the sterile spaceship and the wet, oozing surfaces of the unknown. Prometheus may be mostly surface, though it deals with the shades of religion and mortality in oblique but fascinating ways, but the surface is more than compelling and fun enough.

Act of Violence
Perhaps it’s the ever present influence of Sarris speaking, but it seems that I have an aversion to Zinnemann’s view of his characters. They seem to be flattened in a way, transformed into simple narrative motivators instead of fleshed out into fully-fledged figures. High Noon was especially afflicted by this, and while Act of Violence‘s noir textures do much to justify his view, it doesn’t compensate for the remorseless nature of Joe or the hopelessly abstruse Frank. Only Janet Leigh really makes something of her character, as she represents the closest thing to reality; all else is murky, which only satisfies for so long.

The Thief of Bagdad
Begins quite literally with a melting pot of influences – the Koran, Arabian Nights – and this is reflected in the otherworldly place where this film takes place. The Thief of Bagdad is from a place out of time, magical without end, and yet the world feels totally lived, as if it exists just beyond the pale. Of course, the main attraction here is the immense physicality and charisma of Fairbanks, and he is something approaching transcendent in this, making his grandstanding raconteur seem like the most natural thing in the world. But it would be much pooer without the towering, gloriously artificial sets, or the gorgeous Rimsky-Korsakov inspired score, or the immensely heightened special effects. It is “A FILM” in totality, a work of magic and immense romance. Perhaps it suffers a little bit in the final third, as the focus is taken off of Ahmed to some extent and the heartbreakingly beautiful romance is put into the background, but it matters little when Walsh makes a man fly and love with all of his soul.

Alien: Covenant
For a while, this plays, probably unintentionally, almost in counterpoint to Prometheus to me. It is a film fundamentally centered around professionals thrust into an eerie-turned-terrifying environment, and as such its tone is pared down into a subdued hum. Yet there is exploration and humanity aplenty, something that Scott wisely parcels out slowly, so that the impact of a death hits unexpectedly hard. And there is naturally much death; Alien: Covenant feels like a haunted film, as much by its predecessors (from which it liberally extracts strands of DNA) as the dead that are strewn in its wake. From those bodies, it delivers terror to the viewer, that ebbs and flows with unnerving, wonderfully intelligent power.

T-Men
Procedural – quite literally for about half of the film – to a fault. T-Men comes close to cold-blooded throughout its entirety (and just plain bloodless during the utterly stone-faced intro) but there is something to be said for how frankly it depicts these men on a mission, especially as it leads them closer and closer towards their prey. And it would be entirely remiss of me to not mention Alton’s rather stunning photography and Mann’s punchy, visceral approach to violence.

The Dreamers
I’m entirely uncertain if Bertolucci is at all self-aware when he manages to cram both the musical score of The 400 Blows and a quotation and film clip from Breathless into the same scene, whether he is being arrogant, brazenly confident, or just plain misguided. That being said, The Dreamers, after the first fourth of wall-to-wall rock music and blatant, sometimes contradictory cinephilia – it makes no sense to me that the three would try to imitate Band of Outsiders, a film that came out just a few years before) – settles down into a more straightforwardly dramatic groove, for better and for worse. But the entire affair feels overbearing, its cinephilia far too sincere and blatantly obvious, using the most obvious signposts (the most egregious being the simultaneous use of archival and contemporary footage of Jean-Pierre Leaud). Perhaps it’s just my particular sensibility, but I would have liked to have seen less Godard, more Mizoguchi. And for the love of God, fewer film clips.

The Marriage Circle
There is of course a good deal of value in the simple telling of a simple story, and Lubitsch executes this bedroom farce with a wonderful amount of precision. But something holds me back; maybe the lack of screwball dialogue, maybe a sense of obviousness about the multiplicity of pairings, or just a lack of truly fleshed out characters. Regardless, consistent pleasures are to be had in the world of the rich and covetous.

Your Name.
More than anything, Your Name. seems to be about timelessness placed in the context of a very specific time. Rooted unambiguously in the present, modern world – iPhones, LINE, digital billboards on skyscrapers, rapid transit, and virtual diaries figure prominently in Taki’s Tokyo – the film nonetheless continuously goes back to the past, typified in Mitsuha’s hometown and in the Shinto religion so heavily featured. But there is a commingling of sorts; to my eyes the entanglement of time is implicitly described in quantum mechanical terms, and jargon is used to describe the fateful meteor comet on the news without any explanation to the characters or the viewer.

All of this is to say that the characters yearn for connection, and not, it should be noted, any stated romantic longings. Taki and Mitsuha try to meet more out of a sense of curiosity, and yet their rendezvous seems to be of paramount importance, not only because of the surrounding context but because of their separation by time and space. That Your Name. manages to work at all, let alone as well as it does, is near-miraculous. An emotional crucible of sorts, that unfolds exactly as it shouldn’t, yet in a way that feels right.

Mulholland Dr.
Still remains my favorite film, even though and perhaps because it doesn’t overwhelmingly fulfill any one “criteria”: it is not the most moving or soul-rendingly sad film I’ve ever seen, it is not the most gorgeously shot or the most technically proficient, it is not a masterfully plotted and supremely well-paced and scripted work, etc. And yet it is all of these things in its own particular manner, in the way the streets of Los Angeles are only glimpsed as lights speeding past a car window, in the way language and reality seem to bleed into one another, in the way that sincerity shines through artifice with the slightest bit of movement on Naomi Watts’ face. To wit, it is a film in totality, one that I love because of its flaws, because it beguiles me to no end.

The Big Heat
So pared down it becomes mesmerizing; at its core The Big Heat is an archetypal story through and through about a detective who goes up against the mob. However, Lang and company imbue it with such personality, so many odds and ends that it works to a T chugging along up through some of the most memorably nasty moments I’ve seen in a noir. Lang’s direction feels more fluid than in something like M in a way that suits this active investigation, relentlessly following both the pursuer (Glenn Ford) and the pursued. But the film never feels labored or unfittingly cold-blooded, instead moving with remarkable precision between a certain brand of sentimentality in Ford’s immensely well-played scenes with Jocelyn Brando, which conjure a kind of domesticity that feels nothing short of blissful, with the kind of hardboiled sordidness that is much more de rigeur. Attention must also be paid to the uniformly fantastic cast; there is nary a part that doesn’t feel out of place, and all of this contributes to a feeling of immense satisfaction. Karmic retribution figures heavily here, but so does a profoundly wonderful tenderness.

Nanook of the North
Seemingly against the modern consensus, this played much better to me as a straightforward documentary than a drama. Flaherty’s eye is for spaces and figures rather than any sense of narrative propulsion, and many of the most pleasurable moments (the trader’s post, the igloo building) act as simple but wonderful scenes of documentation. And there is a very real feeling of collaboration; one could conceivably watch Nanook of the North without ever figuring out that the eponymous figure is consciously acting in staged scenes, but there is never the feeling that Flaherty condescends to his subjects or overtly exoticizes them. He is fascinated, held in thrall, and he manages to convey that feeling to the audience in a profoundly intimate and, occasionally, immensely moving way.

Kiss Me Deadly
Intentionally or not, Kiss Me Deadly seems to embody in its conception all of the anxieties and contradictions that figure prominently in its plot. It is immensely uneven and often incredibly opaque, as its ostensible protagonist strong-arms his way through seemingly all of Los Angeles – and, notably, through a veritable cross-section of racial groups – but ends up only muddying the waters further. What is clear is the aggressive, punchy, disquieting style of Aldrich, who seemingly couldn’t find a scene here that was inadequate for visual subversion; even the opening credits are immensely intrusive. And the ending is as troubling, as unexpectedly horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen, a burst of inspiration that threatens to consume all. No wonder the main references that the characters are epochal and universal.

A Quiet Passion
A complete oddity in its tenuous status as a hybrid, at least to my mind. A Quiet Passion is an English film about one of the most famous American artists (with what felt like immensely English stylings), a rendering of a time long past with modern implements, and most off-puttingly a movie that moves (at least to my eyes through much of the film) occasionally with grace, the kind I expected from the director of Sunset Song, but often with a kind of lurching momentum. It took me quite a while, perhaps into the final twenty minutes, to even remotely grasp what Davies was trying to achieve beneath (and with) the barbs, the static and anachronistic quick framings, and the almost breathless sense of recounting a great artist’s life.

Like many wonderful character studies, A Quiet Passion seeks to depict how a person can subtly change over the course of their lives. This film simply happens to depict a notable person’s notable life – the use of almost exclusively interior scenes in the second half fits like a glove with Nixon’s alternately immensely interior and defiantly exterior performance – and in a way that only reveals itself slowly, parceling out this change with each moment in Dickinson’s life. It is something to ponder, though it must be said that this otherwise entirely natural film contains two genuine acts of magic, truly stunning and near-monumental moments of sublimity. The rest may reveal itself to be the same in time.

The Act of Killing
Astounding for many of the obvious reasons: the extraordinary access to the actual perpetrators, the candor and glee with which they recount their deeds, the emotional trajectory and its visceral effect on both subject and viewer. But The Act of Killing is just as remarkable in its rigor and penetrating depth, managing to fit in between the reenactments a distinct dissection and indictment of the entire government and society, top to bottom, as being complicit in the mass killings; even regular citizens, by dint of acting in the recreations, seem somewhat implicated. At the same time, Oppenheimer takes great care in maintaining the fundamentally odious feeling of watching these aging boogeymen glorify themselves while making it still feel watchable and only intruding at a few crucial moments. And most shockingly of all, the reenactments, only some of which are consciously choreographed, feel genuine and upsetting, and Oppenheimer is able to observe exactly when this boundary between truth and fiction, past and present is broken. Over all, the knowledge of the massacres lingers (as introduced in the shrewd “mission statement”), a specter that, figuratively and literally, no one can escape from.

An Autumn Afternoon
Went into this expecting a “standard,” devastating drama about the impending marriage of a father’s daughter, a frame of reference I had codified despite a lack of almost any experience with Ozu, and found something much more rewarding. An Autumn Afternoon is fundamentally quotidian and free of any significant conflict, almost perversely so, though the final twenty minutes carry the exact amount of emotional devastation that they should. Narrative strands and characters are introduced, dropped, picked up, and dropped again with a glorious lightness; even Ryu’s immense performance is absent from a good chunk of the film. It forms a flowing – I had forgotten how natural Ozu’s style feels, with its distinctly frontal camera placements and quick edits – meditation upon a particular way of life at a very particular time. It is at once modern and not modern, in the city and apart from it – much of the film takes place in houses and apartments that could be anywhere. And there is so much tradition, so much history that feels lived-in, in the continual bowings, in the celebratory reunions, in the intimacy that remains unspoken. Gentleness and kindness overflow, with nary a cross word said, and Ozu carries the viewer into something approaching the sublime with each lingering moment.

After the Storm
Charming, but Koreeda’s approach in this case (melding the quotidian with a very clear-cut central conflict) doesn’t work in any unexpected or even predictably revelatory ways. It moves along, with some rather lovely moments and a mostly enjoyable exterior, but there isn’t much that isn’t on the surface.

Maurice
Suspect that my lack of foreknowledge concerning the events of the book going into this was not ideal, given that the emotional journey of Maurice feels a bit flat after the intensity of thwarted passion between him and Clive. I had anticipated a more conventional pathway, focusing on the two, so the introduction of Alec as an additional key figure –
complete with his own set of complicating factors, especially class – was unexpected. But it is all very expertly well done, remaining immensely close to all of the characters and using them with a neat precision. Maurice never truly escapes its period trappings, but it is more than pleasant all the same.

Branded to Kill
Branded to Kill manages to exist simultaneously as the gonzo, aggressively odd and experimental work it is often touted as and a hypersimplified, stripped-down crime thriller that continually sheds its accoutrements over its 90-minutes. The noir foundational elements are well apparent, as are the innovations spearheaded by Suzuki, no more so than in the gorgeous masks in the form of butterflies, birds, and other such invasive flying objects, but just as key seem to be Hisashi’s intense paranoia, the shift from the cold-blooded day job to the frenzied existence that takes over a man’s psyche, the cold, modern architecture.

It
Sweetly (and never saccharinely) told, and the whole affair has an undeniable cuteness and attractiveness as personified in Clara Bow, but that doesn’t truly salvage the film proper. It, despite its short running time, meanders and feels fairly inert, sputtering to life whenever Bow appears on the screen and dying down just as quickly when she is off. A legendary screen presence and sex appeal, however well conveyed (and it is admittedly conveyed quite well), can only go so far.

Yourself and Yours
It’s immensely odd to say that I “get” or more fully understand a filmmaker seven films into his oeuvre, but then again Hong Sang-soo is no ordinary filmmaker, or even any ordinary great filmmaker. Perhaps it is just that this feels like his most cogent summation of the relationships between men and women (which is a barrier that is, surprisingly, broken down) or that it contains every single tone that I love of his: playful, earnest, caustic, romantic. Or I might just be finally attuned to his rhythms, accepting the internal repetitions as vital strengths rather than just features inherent to his scripts. Regardless, it is gorgeous, wonderful, and funny in typical Hong fashion, to the highest magnitude I’ve yet seen.

Devil in a Blue Dress
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to castigate a film for its loving and quite well-done homage to a particular mood, but Devil in a Blue Dress both overplays and underplays its hand with regards to the platonic ideal of the film noir. All of the tenets are readily apparent, in a manner that recalled Chinatown, especially and egregiously during a crucial scene late into the film, but Franklin seems unwilling to dive into the thornier, more complex ideas inherent in the shadows and the underworld. The movie moves with far too much slickness, though the value of this confidence on all levels cannot be fully denied, especially considering the remarkable, wonderful lightness of Tak Fujimoto’s camera.

The Final Cut
It’s probably not entirely correct to say that this specific premise and narrative could not be made into an altogether satisfying film. But leaving aside The Final Cut‘s bland, almost treacly direction (that reflects the films that Alan himself makes), the whole venture seems intensely misguided, a jumble of narrative concerns which don’t truly cohere and late revelations which reflect absolutely nothing about the world which they are meant to comment on. Almost certainly the only redeemable facet of this is Williams, who for the most part channels his excess into a repressed concentration that is rarely broken; it is no accident that the scenes where this mode is broken are among the worst in the film.

The Big Sick
I kept vacillating between dislike and a grudging respect for The Big Sick; it doesn’t help that it feels so uneven and lengthy yet curiously compressed. Kazan in particular is given rather short shrift in both runtime (perhaps necessarily, but still) and characterization, though she does do her best to pull it off. But what won me over was the ultimate sidelining of the risky and potentially maudlin sickness plot in favor of a more rewarding exploration of Kumail’s relationships, in how it forces all around Emily to come to terms with themselves. It is immensely flawed, sometimes funny, but earnestness oozes out of every pore, and a wholehearted belief in dedication can be rather lovely.

Marius
Perhaps did this a slight injustice by leaning heavily into the Before Trilogy parallels, something that seemed to be enforced by my initial impression that the film would take place over a period of less than 24 hours. But the one month later “epilogue” is approximately close to a third of the film, and as a whole this plays much closer to a version of Before Sunset than Before Sunrise, though the closest comparison my mind could come up with was The Young Girls of Rochefort in the push-and-pull between dreams and love, the hometown and the larger world.

All of that being said, Marius works entirely on its own terms as something well perched between melodrama and comedy; the narrative is fairly archetypal (save for the hilarious inclusion of Panisse) but the play of emotions is handled with precision. The situating of the film almost entirely in the three-walled confines of the bar may betray the theatrical origins, but it works rather well as a gathering place for men and women alike, and Korda does a skillful job of knowing exactly when to depict the outside world. And while all of the characters are delightful, César is something else entirely, a wholly compassionate and conflicted creation with equal parts pragmatism and optimism, keeping a waterfall’s worth of love behind a gruff exterior with exquisite poise.

Another Year
Enrapturing in part because of its unpredictability; aside from the basic structure of 13 long takes documenting 13 dinners, I was mostly unfamiliar with the other basic elements that formed Another Year. Even this central premise was somewhat inaccurate, as crucially the film depicts only some of the dinners (the first scene in particular only contains some of the preparation), and only the last to completion as it were. The change in setting also surprised me; the sense of interiority besieged by the outside world in both sound and talking point is preserved but otherwise a vastly different vision of the space in which this family (plus two guests, intriguingly) moves is conjured in these four scenes. But most importantly, I was unprepared for the focus, for the ultra-slow and observational mode that manages to hold my attention like few other types of filmmaking. It is an acidic, unhappy, and strident family, but Zhu manages to capture it with such unerring heart and distance that it becomes a little microcosm of a particular kind of unit that I only know all too well.

Solaris
Entirely impossible for me to approach this in anything close to a fair review, but Solaris baffled me to no end. It is without question a beautiful film, if shot in an odd mix of the flighty – the long takes shot in constantly roving close-up, flitting between various faces in the same space – and the unmistakably earthbound. But the machinations of plot, narrative, and thematic below the surface seem muddled to me, predicated on the central act of resurrection via romance that doesn’t feel quite successfully executed. And yet there are glimmers and patches of profundity that feel just out of reach, hidden beneath the rundown exterior that I hope to discover sometime sooner rather than later.

Heaven Knows What
There’s certainly a sense of light at the core of Heaven Knows What, an obvious warmth and affection that the Safides have for the characters that they more than succeed in doing justice to. Just as paramount, too, is that benighted and seemingly endless city of New York City, often just beyond the margins of the intensely intimate close-ups. The passersby move pass but everyone involved (including the magnificent camera of Sean Price Williams) remains intently focused, as the electronic music swirls around in the sea of emotions and Holmes, Duress, and Jones manage to make the scene at once external and immensely internal.

By the Time It Gets Dark
Was entirely unaware of the explicitly metafictional aspects of By the Time It Gets Dark going in, and I’m not certain whether they were telegraphed at all in the first third – obviously apart from the throughline of a woman making a historical film/documentary. But there is a certain thrill and joy with which Suwichakornpong pinballs from story to story, as the fantasy of the cinematic overwhelms the brutality of the real world. As even the original storyline is replicated with only some precision and the same characters recur in both “reality” and fantasy, the viewer is invited to either succumb or be repulsed. For my part, I succumbed.

The Heartbreak Kid
Perhaps not as immediate and arresting as A New Leaf, which I’m tempted to attribute to Neil Simon’s hilarious but slightly more diffuse script. But the unmistakeable and uneasy touch of Elaine May is warmly felt here, no more so than in the absolutely despicable, obnoxious and plain awful character of Charles Grodin’s Lenny. It is a credit to everyone involved (including Simon) that he does not overwhelm the film with his rank hypocrisy and fakery, and instead becomes something approaching a sympathetic figure, if only because the movie is implicitly dedicated to degrading and breaking down his character. But of course, Jeannie Berlin and Eddie Albert are just astonishing in their own ways, one playing distress and sorrow to the hilt and one serving as the barely suppressed fury, with both representing the extremes of two very different cultures, something which is put just in the immediate background to great effect. The most surprising aspect to this very surprising and more than a little mean-spirited film is the end, played in terms so straightforward it becomes ambiguous.

The Lost City of Z

jungle

Originally intended for Seattle Screen Scene.

The Lost City of Z has landed in the cinephile community with the kind of impact typically reserved for the most lauded or debated of auteurs. In some sense, this is expected: its director, James Gray, has steadily accrued a small but intensely dedicated following for his character-driven crime dramas and plain dramas like We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and his breakout The Lost City of Z (2013). Each of these films, as described in interviews with the writer-director, is almost self-consciously a throwback to a more classical Hollywood model of filmmaking–complete with a strict adherence to shooting on 35mm–but they are all distinctly American. All of his past films have taken place in immigrant communities in the US, and are inherently tied to some sense of overwhelming longing.

Gray’s latest film continues this sense of “classicism” (a dangerous but somewhat fitting term to use in relation to Gray), though the setting is changed to two locations: London and the uncharted jungles of the Amazon. The film follows the story of adventurer and soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman), structuring the film around his three expeditions to the Amazon over a period of two decades in the early twentieth century, as he attempted to discover a legendary lost civilization deep within the jungle. Crucially, however, The Lost City of Z is not a film that concerns itself solely with the act of depicting the explorations or distilling it to a descent into madness a la Herzog or Apocalypse Now. Gray’s path, like Fawcett’s, is far more knotted.

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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.

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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.

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