November 2019 Capsules

Jojo Rabbit
Let’s leave aside the extravagant vanity and stupidity of this, a project that seems as much an excuse for Waititi to clown around in Führer cosplay as to indulge his worst and most juvenile tendencies: the twee coming-of-age story, the playful mocking that ultimately coalesces into love. Let’s even excuse the utterly incoherent at best, downright fascistic approach to Nazism, which doesn’t so much dismantle the very real and very dangerous ideology as it presents it baldly and plainly, hoping that the viewer will find these hideous statements and behaviors from cuddly and/or blasé puppets hilarious. Jojo Rabbit would be utterly irredeemable if it just stuck to its proudly “anti-hate satire” formulations and its virtually nonexistent comedy, but it somehow manages to sink lower, into simpering, sappy romance.

Much of Jojo Rabbit is almost literally cloistered, as at least half of the film takes place solely within the eponymous character’s home, where he co-habits with both his vaguely antifascist mother and a teenage Jewish girl. Like with everything in this, Waititi’s approach comes off as maddeningly incoherent, going as far to employ a terribly overextended use of every horror movie trick in the book to accompany her first scene. But slowly, gradually, the true intent is revealed: despite her experiences fleeing the rot of fascist power, she is as flat and childlike as everyone, the object of affection — laid out oh-so-helpfully with paper-animated butterflies — and just another figure for Jojo to latch onto. In doing so, her inherent identity, which has caused the gassing of her parents and her present fearful existence, is all but erased, seemingly replaced uncomfortably with the role of both mother and lover. And in a film that refuses to reckon whatsoever with the horrors of fascism, that lies about the nature of ideologies, that closes itself off from any interesting or subversive view of the modern world, such a grievous conflation is just left there, as abject as anything in this monstrosity of a film.

Martin Eden
It’s crucial that, for all of the political rabble-rousing Martin does in writing and speech over the course of this film, his prose writing, which appears to be a true cornerstone of his success, is relegated in small snatches, only fitfully represented. As shown in his previous work, especially Lost and Beautiful, Marcello’s sensibility is never settled but always restless, and paradoxically the seeming strictures of a narrative format only amplify his tendencies. In this particular case, his penchant for archival footage is weaponized for a specific intent, taking on the immense task of capturing the undeniable power of Martin’s writing. By juxtaposing the bits of writing with longer, more abstruse moments of perhaps-found, perhaps-created shots of mundane life, Marcello both creates an emotional and an intellectual bond, reaching across class and time to conjure up an ever more complicated, beautiful feeling.

October 2019 Capsules

Mahjong
“In ten years, this place will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And do you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history, the 19th century with the glorious age of imperialism right? Just wait ’till you see the 21st century.”

These words, said in English by an arrogant British industrialist in voiceover towards the close of Mahjong, of course shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value; Yang’s own Yi Yi four years later acts in many ways as a repudiation of a great number of the statements made in this and A Confucian Confusion, effectively the sister film to this. But it acts as a key signifier for Yang’s own intentions: in every work of his save perhaps A Brighter Summer Day, Yang sees the future of Taipei as its past and present, continually reflecting on the former as directly affecting and molding the latter. This is reflected most obviously in the familial relationships, which dominate practically all his films and especially this one, but it reveals itself in so many other ways: the scattered rock memorabilia (especially the Beatles), the past entanglements of multiple characters, and most importantly in language. Here, too, Yang gestures towards the future: Hokkien is phased further out, and English shares center stage with Mandarin. The effect is like a less overtly reflexive version of Mountains May Depart‘s third act: slightly uncanny, immensely focused on the minutiae involved in translation (skewed or otherwise), and eventually incredibly moving. It’s no accident that the two final definitive acts almost eschew language all together: Yang’s cinema is nothing if not at turns impossibly alienated and unbearably intimate, and Mahjong contains both of these impulses at their fullest force.

A City of Sadness
Even besides the obvious narrative and thematic implications that come with language and communication in A City of Sadness, its imprint on reinforcing Hou’s style feels paramount. Taking place at a much more contemplative pace than the naturalistic conversations found elsewhere (especially in scenes with co-writer Wu Nien-jen), the viewer is forced to consider not only what Tony Leung and Xin Shufen write to one another, but how they communicate by other means: the little glances, the manner in which they pass the pen and pad of paper back and forth. It feels so indicative that the words are not shown in inserts of the paper, but in intertitles: even their most inconsequential words are imbued with an additional, almost transcendent power. And the one exception, the message given by Leung to the widow, the words of a man who he never heard or spoke to, accrues its power from the materiality of his final statement, from the imprint of the ink.

Stray Dogs
The Taipei that Hsiao-kang grew up in has almost vanished. Gone are the motorcycle rides that acted as a reprieve from daily existence, the skywalks, the flooded apartments, the street stands. They’ve been supplanted by the high-end condos like Vive L’Amour‘s, only that the erotic potential is gone; even the streets feel sterile now. So Hsiao-kang can only go almost literally underground, with offspring in tow; they wander the construction sites and gleaming supermarkets, eating from plastic takeout trays and fitfully drawing mosquito nets around their meager living conditions. It’s not much, but it’s the home he knows, and the only home he can imagine.

September 2019 Capsules

Days of Being Wild (rewatch)
Wong’s characters’ obsession with time, which reaches its early peak here, fits so deeply into his overall aesthetic concerns because it’s at once concrete and yet subjective. Unlike a pair of earrings, a car, or a lighter, time isn’t something that can be contained, even by the numerous watches or clocks scattered around the relative ghost town of 1960 Hong Kong. Instead, it floats between them, suffusing the characters and their perceptions. For the male characters, it’s more concrete: Leslie Cheung means it when he says he’ll remember his minute with Maggie Cheung, even if he forgets everything else; Andy Lau’s existence is defined by being on the clock, first in vocation and then in tentative infatuation. For the female characters, it’s something more slippery: a state of constant reverie and remembrance, wondering exactly when their relationships went wrong. But no one can escape their own subjectivity, their own flawed commitments: even Tony Leung’s hustler has to glance at his watch before he brings the lights down.

August 2019 Capsules

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Pushes its insistent rhymings with the first film past any reasonable limit: this is no mere referentiality, but conscious inversion and recontextualization from the opening moments, a class-flipped take on the predecessor’s opening scene. That this transpires with the two new main characters, Yeung Yeung and Paul, lends a further unpredictable charge, and a few scenes pass before the original tripartite dynamic is even partially restored — Qi Hong, not coincidentally the most (relatively) stable and committed character of the madcap ensemble, only makes sporadic appearances, which only begin more than twenty minutes in. Instead, the love triangle takes place between the volatile Shen Ran and the two newcomers, yet parallels crop up: Paul spends much of the second half in a soused state heavily reminiscent of Qi Hong in his original state, complete with a penchant for Johnnie Walker; Shen Ran takes Yeung Yeung to the same restaurant where he botched his initial engagement, directly mentioning this fact and prolonging the inevitable conversation until after dessert; Paul cooks seafood for Yeung Yeung in his own relatively humble quarters. “I must have met you before” is said by the new characters multiple times, and in a sense it’s true; by the time the opening is reinvoked once more with Chi Yan sitting on the bus in tears and Shen Ran driving by her in a sports car, the viewer would be forgiven for a strong case of déjà vu.

And yet it feels all so new, or at least cyclical in a way that feels genuine. The economic aspect sets the tone: where the global crash acted as a plot catalyst in the predecessor, here the sudden downturns and upturns feel ultimately immaterial, as of little consequence to the viewer as to the characters, wrapped up as they are in their love affairs. And as lovely as Gao Yuanyuan is once more, and as hard Louis Koo pushes himself (to great and perfectly absurd effect), Miriam Yeung absolutely defines this film. The dichotomy between her severe “queen of the stocks” status and the devil-may-care attitude with which she throws herself into love couldn’t be clearer, and her acceptance of Shen Ran’s proposal halfway through somehow feels both so wrong and so right.

That paradoxical feeling resonates throughout this, a disquietude that intermingles with the euphoria emanating from To’s visual confidence and his ensemble cast’s overflowing charisma. In a sense, this is to be expected: both Chi Yan and Genie, the octopus acting as a feebler but still wonderful stand-in for Froggy, display a consistent sense of “reverse thinking,” predicting the exact wrong thing, which proves great for sports and stocks betting but only muddles the waters further in the games of love. The continual sense of things being not quite right maps onto the sense of entrapment or limbo here, as characters enact the same scenarios over and over. But at the same time there’s such joy, such genuine astonishment on display; the last shot suggests at once infinite heartbreak, bitter defeat, and a feeling that the war is not yet over, and may never be over. In that sense, it’s a perfect sequel, in the sense that it consciously expands the original, inverting and altering it to enrich both parts. It feels so carefully considered, yet so inventive and energetic in the undertaking, that it exists both separately and apart, inextricable and yet fully, gloriously alive.

Asako I & II
Obviously have much, much more to say about this heartstopping masterpiece, but one of the most important aspects seems to be the sudden intrusion of the March 2011 earthquake, only hinted at by iOS designs amid the almost timeless/fantastical quality of the romances. Rather than grounding its surprising, almost radical approach to this odd love triangle, Asako I & II restrains itself to bounding and locating it, all the better to bring forth the flights of fancy. In a film filled to the brim with little details, feelings, and gestures, this act registers as one of the most quietly powerful.

A Confucian Confusion
The pleasures and interests in A Confucian Confusion are perhaps best expressed in two contradictory, yet not necessarily mutually exclusive, statements made less than five minutes apart: the categorization of Taipei as a small town and as a big place. Coupled with the opening statements the unusually direct intertitle (which in itself is counterposed with the elusive, mysterious dialogue snippet intertitles interspersed throughout) calling Taipei one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the impression is one of a space in total flux, befitting a milieu in which everything, no matter how seemingly settled and predestined the existing structures are. As always in Yang, the mercurial and unpredictable flights of human emotion clash with the glass windows and steel buildings: a theater director makes a swerve from postmodern abstraction to comedy, people fall in and out of love with almost alarming regularity, and people decide to seek other forms of employment. Yang, incongruously but perfectly, plays this roundelay of absurdity as farce, but there is a surfeit of scenes pitched at his usual, startling emotional level; if this doesn’t quite aim for a comedy of remarriage, the implications of its overall narrative feel deeply in kinship with his past work, with the comedy tradition, with the state of the modern world.

July 2019 Capsules

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
The genius of Lang lies in his ability to make even the most abstract, most incomprehensible moments totally concrete, representing the total paranoia of a man pursued in a tilt down matched to an oscillating soundscape. Arguably the reveal of the metallic silhouette behind the curtain is already redundant; Mabuse and the figures he possesses have already transcended the normal form, and yet they retain a distinctly material existence: etched scribblings onto paper, a rigged record player, neatly typewritten memoranda. The feeling is of total entrapment, of narrowly escaping one room only to become confined within another; even the thrill of a car chase in the night is subsumed by the rear projection.

June 2019 Capsules

Blue Velvet (rewatch)
One of the keys to Blue Velvet is that, at least in the heightened collection of Americana that is Lumberton, Jeffrey is closer to a bad boy than when viewed from the vantage point of 1986 (or now). The earring is of course the tell-tale sign, but it is evident throughout: the slight unrecollection of Detective Williams, the appellation of “Ivy League” from Sandy’s jilted boyfriend, the approving comments of the high school girls. Lynch’s vision is less of total innocence corrupted and only partially restored than the exposure of that which was hidden in plain sight — like an ear only uncovered when searching for rocks to lob at a beer bottle in a fit of stifled discouragement. Sandy is the innocent (and luminous), but Jeffrey is something more undefinable and complex: the boy investigator, the lover of mysteries both benign and seductive, the detective *and* the pervert.

The Awful Truth
There are far too many standout scenes in this staggering masterwork, but perhaps one of the most representative of The Awful Truth‘s genius is one of its most seemingly direct, with its central couple and their farcical paramours (one of whom, Dixie Belle, holds this as her only scene in the film) together in a club. In purely narrative terms, this scene’s utility is to provide the inspiration for Lucy’s “drunken” performance near the end of the film, but it possesses a dynamic that speaks to the ensuing hijinks within the scene and through the rest of the film. McCarey isn’t necessarily subtle with how he conveys the prevailing relationships, but it remains both effective and hilarious: through much of the scene, the divorcing Jerry and Lucy are captured in a two-shot, while Leeson and Dixie Belle are shunted off into their own separate singles, a decision that enhances the spouses’ connection by way of discomfort at their present states.

In the spirit of the film, this initial situation is spun out further, with not one but two full performances. Jerry is in many ways the figure in charge here, remaining as the spectator, but just as important is the genuine sense of glee on Leeson’s face, the shameless committment of Dixie Belle, the sheepish embarassment of Lucy. And one of the film’s finest bits of subtlety is here, as Jerry moves seats, first to the space vacated by Dixie Belle, and then to Leeson’s. It is a mastery of space, an assertion of dominance, which plugs directly into the tug-of-war at The Awful Truth‘s core, and that he does it with a full grin makes it all the more pleasurable.

March 2019 Capsules

Transit
The central conceit, of an environment where the anachronistic elements are essential to the frissons of the whole endeavor, is brilliant, but even more impressive might be Petzold’s restraint and careful deployment. Transit never comes off as overbearing in this — or indeed any — regard: there are no intrusions of technologies that could not have been replicated in the 1940s. The effect is so much richer in this withholding; because the situation is so carefully etched and the stakes so closely tied to a specific time, one can very easily forget the present-tense trappings. But when a modern car trundles into view, or a soldier in an American uniform and an assault rifle stands guard, the effect is continually vivid and bracing, never unsurprising, but never *just* a reminder that what is past is present.

A telling sign, and just one of many moments that shows that Petzold completely understands what he’s accomplishing: Georg lights his cigarettes with matches, not a lighter.

Last Year at Marienbad (rewatch)
As much as any one of the elements in Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais understands the inherent uneasiness and ethereality of his constantly moving camera. It glides past people, emphasizing the spaces around the figures rather than the statuesque forms themselves. In many senses, the people are nigh indistinguishable from the background themselves, and yet to say that Resnais gives them no inner life would be wholly inaccurate. The snatches of conversation, the particular glances or looks that they have on their faces, suggests the possibility of infinite stories, even past the multiple manifestations of the central relationships. It is a limitless film, consisting of hallways and memories leading to everywhere and nowhere.

February 2019 Capsules

Céline and Julie Go Boating
Perhaps the most elegant metaphor for cinema ever devised, and crucially Céline and Julie Go Boating lacks a *visible* camera (which would localize its aesthetic concerns too thoroughly); Rivette’s supreme intelligence is such that theater and cinema, to an even greater extent than in his past films, mesh through his deftness of both staging and editing, as each new shot choice or repetition creates its own associations. Plus, what image of a moviegoer is more relatable than the two women staring slack-jawed at the screen, occasionally giggling or gasping in disbelief?

Blackhat [rewatch, first time director’s cut]
Impossible to state how much the inclusion of the ship denied harbor by the effect of the rising soy prices does to establish the world in which Blackhat moves: it is one set by nebulous rules and regulations, where the fate of innumerable people can be turned by the whims of a ghost in the machine.

Only a ghost can kill another ghost.

January 2019 Capsules

The Mother and the Whore
Will go into this much, much further on the podcast, but it’s so difficult to quantify why this film functions as perhaps the epitome of what the French New Wave birthed. Is it that it simply exemplifies the principles of the Nouvelle Vague and pushes them to their logical conclusion? Or is it that Jean Eustache is just more attuned to his characters, more deft at sifting through the inherent effects of prior political associations and affiliations on present relationships? The answer probably lies to some degree in both, but perhaps most important of all is that the Nouvelle Vague — in many ways like Gilberte — acts as a phantom that shadows The Mother and the Whore without necessarily tangibly affecting it. What is apparent is the film’s openness, manifested in forms that register in the narrative as both positive (the indelibly etched relations) and negative (the frankness, the frequent crassness). All of these are inherent to Alexandre, Veronika, and Marie as they exist as people (and, it must be inferred, Eustache and his real-life lovers), and that lack of filter, that willingness to confront the morass of humanity head-on, is what feels so shattering about this monumental work.

November 2018 Capsules

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
One of the most subtly yet immediately poignant moments in this masterwork comes midway through the film, when Jeanne is drinking coffee in a café. After she finishes and pays, she puts her elbow on the table and pauses, looking to her right with that placid yet fundamentally unreadable expression that she wears for nearly the entire film. It is the first — if not the last — time that the next step in her routine is not readily apparent to the audience, when she is given the chance to stop and ponder. Its brevity (it lasts less than twenty seconds) and its placement both within a larger shot and a larger sequence (she has just bought some yarn to continue knitting a sweater for her son) is emblematic of everything that this film accomplishes, everything that it evokes and embodies.