June 2018 Capsules

That Day, on the Beach
Yang’s sensibility and perspective eventually becomes unmistakeable throughout That Day, on the Beach, but, aside from perhaps “Expectations,” this is the first work I’ve seen from him where the perspective is so heavily colored by a single character’s viewpoint, whether it be Jiali’s or someone else’s. For a director so otherwise forthright in his storytelling – though, of course, the rapid changes in character focus are a key component of his expansive and all-encompassing vision – Yang goes for a full-bore elliptical approach. Memory slips in and out of the viewer’s headspace, some “flashbacks” (although clearly the past is meant to be fully present) lasting mere moments and others lingering for seemingly close to an hour. Incredibly, all this happens while the film operates on an emotional register that manages to evoke melodrama while ostensibly remaining within the restraint and distance that Yang deployed even more skillfully in the films to come.

And what makes this structure – which folds in on itself to access the most formative moments – so vital is this feeling of transience. To say Yang’s films are fundamentally about modernity is far too general, but it manifests itself even in the moments that are meant to be past: society and the codes of conduct (in the home, in the workplace, in the city) are never far away, and they bear down on the individual and the marriage in ways both plainly visible and achingly invisible. The prospect of escape is tantalizing, but even with a triumphant final image the viewer (and Yang) is all too aware of the cost, the long, meandering, jumbled journey required to get there. And in that, seemingly all of human emotion and experience can be found.

April 2018 Capsules

Les Vampires
If a summation of what makes Les Vampires such a pleasurable experience inevitably devolves into a description of just a handful of its most indelible moments, this is by no means a weakness on the part of the film. Even more than most of the great directors, Feuillade seems to think in terms of the scene, plotting out all of the possibilities of drastic narrative change within this discrete block of time and then executing any number of them. The suspense aspect most associated with a “crime thriller” such as this is quickly replaced with the pleasure of the unexpected, and the even greater pleasure of seeing so many twists and turns executed so flawlessly, with such a skillful restraint in technique matched with the most outlandish developments imaginable.

Also everyone is superhuman in this.

March 2018 Capsules

In the Mood for Love (rewatch)
Wong Kar-wai’s films are full of ambiguities, little moments of languor or frenzied motion that don’t so much stick out of the dense textures as infuse them with an odd charge. But I can’t recall anything in his filmography quite like Mr. Chow’s and Mrs. Chan’s spouses, in both their exclusively back-facing appearances and their place in the emotional narrative. Aside from a few direct, curt but not impolite interactions, they function as structuring absences, fitting into the abbreviated scene structure of the first third of the film with furtive phone conversations, often comprised of single lines that convey a whole world of feeling, just outside of their spouses’ – and the viewer’s – comprehension. Chow’s wife, and perhaps Chan’s husband towards the end, leave them so suddenly that I didn’t even notice it on first watch, and yet they are brought to life by those reenactments, those attempts to subsume identities that can’t help but become something more real, more mysteriously captivating.

Inevitably, the most traditionally Wongian sentiments and dialogue come in the final interactions between Chow and Chan, almost sounding like the voiceover of one of his other film’s protagonists, when the emotional connections and bittersweet recollections of missed romances come to the fore. All else is cloaked and yearning, which the filmmaking makes almost unbearably heartbreaking.

The Day After
“…a rare art that utilizes concrete human forms to reveal the phenomenal disposition and attitude of humans.”

Ever since the introduction of the zoom, Hong’s filmmaking has relied to some palpable extent upon the conspicuous, the emphatic gesture of a tripod-mounted camera. But I can’t recall him utilizing his main outlet for stylistic flourishes to the degree that he does for most of the conversations, panning back and forth, never holding on one face for more than ten seconds at a time. This suits The Day After, undeniably fractious and heated even by Hong’s standards, and especially the frazzled headspace in which Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is in. But what makes it so much more effective are the “bookend” conversations, both of which display a deep well of disappointment, in which the camera holds on the two figures for the majority of the shot. At one end of the film, there is total deceit and a stubborn lack of clarity. At the other, genuine change and a willingness to embrace a new beginning. In the middle lies every emotion, every obsession, everything that comprises the films of Hong.

Close-Up (rewatch)
I feel like the conceptualization of Close-Up – both in the general film cultural sense and specifically in my recollection – as a seamless docufiction runs counter to the actual experience of seeing the film. In truth, it is a true hybrid, with something more than half the film taken up by the “real” courtroom scene, shot in 16mm, and the rest by “fictional” reenactments, shot in 35mm. Of course, Kiarostami’s touch in this is such that both take on elements of the other – in particular, the chronicling of certain moments (like the conversation in the taxi) that takes on a whole new charge when considering that real people are telling their own stories. But a key factor in what makes the ending so overwhelming is the long-awaited fusing of these two impulses. The real is shot with a clarity that nevertheless is interrupted; the viewer strains to hear what ultimately cannot be spoken, and can simply be expressed with universal languages: music and vision.

February 2018 Capsules

Sansho the Bailiff
A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

That the practitioners of these words are both empowered and powerless, torn asunder by the forces of evil in this world and yet brought back together in the most elemental ways, is the great mystery and the great beauty of this film. A fable, yes, but one with a direct conduit to the heart of human emotion.

Dragon Inn (rewatch)
Among the endless amount of perfect things that Dragon Inn does, perhaps the ending is the most telling. If the ending is abrupt, it is so because the elemental perfection of the scenario and its execution is such that there simply cannot be a continuation. The heroes ride off into the sunset, but it is almost an afterthought: what matters is the completion of the task, the visceral, punctuated triumph of motions.

Fallen Angels
Though Fallen Angels certainly has a dialogue in both narrative and production with Chungking Express, it’s important to stress just how exaggerated, how forceful so much of this film feels in comparison to even the glorious excesses of its predecessor. Especially for the almost purely sensorial opening fifteen minutes, where all narrative aside from the Wongian fundamentals of longing and disaffection is cast aside, every single shot feels nearly as revelatory as Takeshi Kaneshiro running through the blur of Hong Kong. Fallen Angels doesn’t settle down so much as overheat, but Wong running on the fumes of narrative still allows for some of the most sublime image-making I’ve witnessed. A film that feels like the Most version of itself, which means that it ranks among the Most films, for good and ill.

Woman in the Dunes
During perhaps the most primal scene among a film composed almost solely in a primordial key, the visages calling for physical titillation are concealed behind a multiplicity of masks, deliberately contrasting and jarring in their almost anachronistic qualities. In the grand sweep of surveillance on the part of both tribal masks and gas masks, an entire film’s sensibility is unlocked.

Woman in the Dunes, in its sparseness and yet its overpowering sensuality, in the perfect opacity of its central metaphor and structuring landscape, aims to capture something of both the distant past and all-too-present now; in other words, all of humanity. That it does so without ever once explicitly saying so is but the tip of its achievements.

January 2018 Capsules

Millennium Mambo
“Dream of a dove flying.”

Always on the cusp of something but stranded in the moment, many beginnings but no endings.

A Man Escaped
There’s something very vital about the subtitle of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, which I can’t recall reading before I actually saw the film. Lifted from a scene almost exactly at the midpoint of the film, it is one of the points where the film becomes its most clear and removed from the (terrific) abstraction that otherwise characterizes it. Through the words of Jesus through John, as spoken by our hero Fontaine, the escape that he succeeds at is directly equated with spiritual salvation, even as his predecessor is being shot at that very moment. This divergence between the realm of the spiritual and the realm of the actual is key, layering ideas of transcendence that never distract from the intense, slow procedure of escape but rather enhance and contextualize them. Without more than a hint of background given to Fontaine, the viewer must draw the reason, the emotion from the struggle to survive itself, and the cell becomes its own crucible. Whether it is faith, chance, sheer will, or a combination of all that enables Fontaine to make his escape, there is no way to describe that feeling of cathartic release other than overwhelming grace.

The Hole
Yes, those musical sequences. Even if they weren’t so delightfully varied, so transcendently effervescent and yet grounded in the dilapidated Taipei that traps the protagonists, their programming alone is nothing short of masterful. I hadn’t noticed the placement of them at ~15 minute intervals, but what matters is their complete harmony with the emotional tenor of the film’s development, coming just after what would be considered an emotional crescendo in a regular movie and acting as the logical extension of that.

But, of course, this is still the realm of Tsai Ming-liang. The overtly apocalyptic tone and scenario feels like his trademark vision pushed to a kind of breaking point, and it’s remarkable to see his locked-down perspectives open up to no small degree, boasting pans, extended tracking shots, and even what appears to be a handheld shot, hurtling through a mall as it follows a squad of exterminators. But these don’t disrupt the stasis so much as heighten it, fleshing out the spaces so as to render them all the more claustrophobic yet cavernous. Decay and madness come hand in hand, the malaise is literalized, and any method of escape, no matter how fleeting, is what matters.

December 2017 Capsules

A Touch of Zen
The rare film whose greatness is both totally, utterly assured and constantly daring, pushing and probing at its own ambitions to create something more. The opening section alone evokes this seeming contradiction: Hu’s constant camera motions, cutting judiciously to closer and closer views of the central fort, tease out so much of the haunted textures that define roughly two-thirds of the film, but crucially never come close to spelling out the layout of the structure. It is a metaphysical realm even before the priests take the center stage, one defined by the delineation between standard society and the mystical forces that swirl just outside of the town square. Ku moves between these freely, defined by his indecision and complacency, serving as the perfect conduit and viewpoint from which to marvel at these barely superhuman figures. Methodical, explosive, eerie, A Touch of Zen seems to contain all of humanity’s attributes for good and ill, and then goes beyond in its final foregrounding of the mystical, the fundamentally unknowable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Establishes itself from the outset, with the tactical equivalent of a prank call, to be an exceptionally perceptive, playful and loving subversion of practically every single convention of the closest thing post-20th century culture has to a modern myth. At times, Star Wars: The Last Jedi almost feels like a series of constantly escalating dares that Rian Johnson is issuing over the span of two and a half hours, willfully bewildering and perplexing the viewer with totally unexpected events, structural conceits, and even performance choices. But to reduce such a textually and aesthetically rich film to gambits is foolish: it is as much invested in reinforcement as it is in subversion, and the journey to the former while balancing the latter is rendered expertly.

Like its predecessors (and especially The Force Awakens), the galactic struggles are consistently cast in terms of the personal, focusing on individual reactions and motivations as reflections of a wider movement. The whittling down of the Resistance makes this register even more strongly, but the decision to fracture the narrative into roughly four parts (so jarring at first that I nearly missed just how carefully the movie was edited together, especially in those oh-so-crucial Force conversations) means that the viewer’s grounding must be, even more than normal, in the characters. Their essential uncertainty, their hesitation to stand in the face of monumental events, is what defines them, and the film is willing to lean into these flaws in order to access something deeper, more painful than I could have expected.

November 2017 Capsules

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
By no means a slow burn, and yet the kills come in swift and brutal fashion only after the atmosphere has been totally, completely set in place. Scenes are elongated and yet completely compact – the scene with the hitchhiker, conducted entirely within the confines of the van, contains its own taut, visceral fear even before the razor blade comes out. And Marilyn Burns’ perpetual screaming, at once continuous and unchanging and always impactful, the editing and score combining to create something utterly inhuman. The ending, with its brief hint of hope amid the horror still visible in the rearview mirror, still provides an overwhelming moment of catharsis, a small triumph that still registers.

Unfriended
Looking at Unfriended from the vantage point of three years into the future, there have already been some drastic software changes that put me at a slight remove. The Facebook interface is overhauled, OS X is sleeker, just about every program or website here is reconfigured in some way. And there’s the fact that, though I watched it on my computer and am a contemporary of sorts with these teens if they existed in real life, I only sparingly used Skype in the same way, and my own desktop/browser/application dock/etc. are entirely different and less cluttered. But that doesn’t take away from the experience, and in some ways enhances it: the rapid blur of the cursor, the slightly-too-quick typing (even if it includes some extremely apropos typos), the excessive lagging all create a truly uncanny atmosphere, a disconnect between the way I look at my screen and the way Blair looks at her own. What exists on the screen is a heightened replica; there’s an odd sort of mise-en-scéne and blocking at play here, often cutting off half of the central Skype call and inadvertently creating two different reaction shots (creating six different reaction shots to a default profile icon is ingenious), and in general creating an almost 3-D feeling with the numerous layers of apps. The effect is natural enough that it feels spontaneous, but it’s still immensely striking. Gabriadze doesn’t need music, cuts, or unconventional cinematography to do this; it’s already created in the comfortable and familiar dimensions of the laptop screen, in our ingrained reactions to the sounds of notifications twisted by their contents. When even Google and Facebook aren’t functioning in the expected manner, it’s already too late.

The River
Tsai has obviously used stasis to extraordinary lengths and effects throughout his oeuvre, but halfway through I wonder if he’s employed it elsewhere in such a specifically patient manner. The style here isn’t vastly removed from that of, Vive L’Amour, but it’s applied to a much more specific and ostensibly insular societal institution. In Tsai’s world, the family is as amorphous and free-floating as the individuals that inhabit it, and part of the fascination that I had watching The River was seeing just how they would come together. Of course, the movie goes down immensely dark and upsetting paths, realized with some extraordinary plays with light and shadow, but the core images – rain, Lee Kang-sheng’s pained face, the decay of urban Taipei – remain the same. And Tsai (and I) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Night of the Living Dead
Almost certainly one of the most productive examples of a film effectively split in two. The first third or so – “They’re coming to get you Barbra” included – establishes an immense tone of melancholy and paranoia, buoyed by the dueling insular intensities of Jones and an effectively mute O’Dea. With both communicating the most fundamental fears and emotions with furtive glances and odd movements, Night of the Living Dead could conceivably have stayed in this vein for the entirety of its running time, especially with the radio providing clarification and more mystery in equal measure. But with more characters and the television comes necessary, even vital complications. Romero seems to be entirely truthful when he says that Jones wasn’t cast because of his race, but it adds a log to the raging fire that is this movie, only highlighted by the newsreel-esque footage playing under the credits. Primal tension is replaced by all-too-human tendencies towards self-destruction, so much so that the eventual resurrection by zombie bite is almost an afterthought.

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.

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.

Ashes of Time [Redux]
Hadn’t gone in knowing about the various differences between the original and redux versions, and thus I’m wondering just how much of the pixelated smear that defines so much of Ashes of Time comes from Wong’s tinkering. Regardless, this is maybe shot-for-shot the most stunning looking film I’ve ever seen, radically reinventing itself and adapting with the utmost fluidity to each scenario and season. The main setting is the desert, but the smallest glances at another place, whether shown in hallucination or vision, sear themselves into the mind just as strikingly. Narratively, events sort themselves out in time, but the emotions and ruminations remain crystal clear from the very moment of their emergence, remaining ephemeral, haunting, yet transporting to the last.

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.