June 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

The Last Black Man in San Francisco(6/15/2019)

Indie comedies of the Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach variety are often described as being “unbearably white,” an insult that seems to have less to do with the number of Caucasians in the cast (they aren’t any less diverse than any number of movies) and more to do with how their quirky sensibilities display a sort of privileged point of view that is generally associated with whiteness.  Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco in some ways feels like an attempt to apply a similar sort of indie quirkiness to a movie that is decidedly “black” and about people who are rather specifically not privileged.  It tells the story of Jimmie Fails, which is the name of both the character and the actor that potrays him, who is obsessed with this large San Francisco house that his father once owned and which is now in the possession of two old white people.  From the film’s provocative title (which is not literal) I had expected it to be something of a Spike Lee style polemic about gentrification but the actual movie is a bit more relaxed than that. The movie take great pains not to blame those new white owners (who seem like perfectly nice and reasonable people) or really any other individuals for the sense of loss that Fails is feeling.  That’s a nicely mature and nuanced take on the subject, which I certainly like in theory but there is a fine line between making a nuanced argument and just sort of not bothering to make an argument at all.  In some ways I think the film’s avoidance of standard exposition (another trait I should like in theory) undermines it a little.  It took a while to fully get what Fails’ story really comes down to and I think some flashbacks to “the good times” might have given a better idea of why he’s so angry about the present because as someone who’s never been to San Francisco and who’s generally indifferent to it I’m not very connected to what he’s mourning.  This is ultimately a movie I respect more than I like.  I can kind of see what it’s going for and can admire aspects of its execution, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Fall of the American Empire(6/16/2019)

Titling Denys Arcand’s latest film The Fall of the American Empire, thus implying that it is another sequel to The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, was probably a savy commercial move as it got my attention and got me to go out to see one of Arcand’s movies for the first time since 2003.  However, this movie actually has no direct connection to those earlier movies and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because what it actually is is kind of neat.  The film concerns an underemployed intellectual who finds himself witnessing a robbery through sheer coincidence and after the burglars all kill each other he realizes he can pick up the loot himself and run off with it.  From there he finds himself sitting on millions of dollars in cash with no idea how to launder it.  From there it becomes a story that somewhat represents “Breaking Bad” in that it’s about a nerdy intellectual taking part in the minutia of the criminal underworld, but it never gets as dark as that show.  The protagonist is in legitimate danger and there is some violenct in the movie, but the slightly contrived situation allows him to be engaging in a more or less victimless crime and he remains likable throughout.  Arcand is not much of a visual stylist, which is a bit more of a problem here given the genre elements.  There are also elements of the film that don’t ring particularly true like the love interest that emerges midway through the movie but the core of the movie, which is a deeply cynical look at the inner workings of capitalism, does come through and the film’s comedic elements make it a rather enjoyable watch throughout.

**** out of Five

 

Late Night(6/30/2019)

As streaming has emerged as a major force in cinema I’ve been very supportive of streaming services like Amazon that respect the theatrical window and let their films play on the big screen before coming to the internet.  I feel this way because I sternly believe the theater is the ideal place for most movies to be enjoyed regardless of budget and that at times even the smallest of movie are the ones that most benefit from a distraction free environment or from a larger format.  That having been said, Amazon probably could have sent Late Night straight to streaming and it would have been fine.  In fact Late Night seems like a pretty textbook example of a movie that seems impressive at Sundance but proves to be a lot less interesting to the general public.  The film, a story about a struggling late night comedy show fronted by a middle aged lady played by Emma Thompson which gets a needed boost after adding a lady played by Mindy Kaling to its all white and male writing staff.  I can definitely see why a group of people who spend a lot of time talking about representation in comedy on Twitter, but to general audiences the whole thing might be a bit inside baseball.   What it certainly isn’t is particularly funny.  This is a movie that’s literally set in a comedy show’s writers room, which should be an environment filled with ribald banter, but instead it feels like little more than the most mildly of amusing workplace comedies.  This is a problem considering that this is a movie that spends a lot of time chastising its own characters for settling for mediocrity rather than really stretching the boundaries of their form and that feels kind of hypocritical given that this is a movie that feels pretty comfortable being mediocre.

** out of Five

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June 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Non-Fiction(6/5/2019)

I’ve never quite been able to pin down Olivier Assayas’ style as a filmmaker.  He isn’t a commercial filmmaker and he takes his craft very seriously like an auteur, and yet he seems to move on very quickly between different ideas and any one of his films is likely to seem quite different from the last.  His last two movies were both fairly serious English language films starring Kristen Stewart so it had seemed like he had found a lane he was going to stick to, but instead he’s completely switched things up with his latest film which is a essentially a modern French take on a Woody Allen movie.  The movie concerns an author who is currently having an affair with his publisher’s wife while he’s having an affair with the lady who’s helping convert his publishing house to digital.  Very French.  But the affairs are more of a plot structure to hang the movie on than the real focus, which is a series of witty discussions about the digital future and its effect on publishing, which is more than likely meant to be a stand in on its effect on the world of cinema.  Lest you wonder where Assayas himself comes down on all of this, note that the film was shot on 16mm despite it being a very talky movie that isn’t going for much in the way of visual style.  It’s very much a movie of the moment, one that might seem a bit odd a few decades from now, or it might seem interestingly prescient.  As a comedy I don’t know that I found the movie overly funny but as a fun witty look at the discussions of the modern intellectual class it was fun to watch.  Did I mention that it feels a whole lot like a Woody Allen movie?

*** out of Five

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix(6/6/2019)

I think I was the only person holding out hope for X-Men: Dark Phoenix.  That might partially be because I generally liked the last movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, more than most.  It wasn’t great but it had some good X-Men fun in it and introduced a promising roster of young actors to play young versions of the second generation of X-Men at Xavier’s mutant academy.  I also feel like a lot of the critics went into the movie a bit too wrapped up in their inside baseball knowledge about Disney buying 20th Century Fox and planning to reboot the franchise.  It may well have been true that this franchise was doomed by business concerns, but the filmmakers probably didn’t know that when this went into production and were presumably trying to make a quality film that would get the franchise back on track.  On some level I was really hoping they would prove the doubters wrong by knocking this out of the park and forcing them to keep the X-Men series I grew up on going.  That wasn’t such a crazy thing to hope for, the franchise has bounced back from the brink in the past.  Unfortunately the movie they produced was decidedly not a home run that would prove anyone wrong, but I also don’t think it’s a movie that’s as much of a disaster as people are making it out to be.

If there’s anything to complain about with X-Men: Dark Phoenix it’s that it’s a movie which tries nothing new and does nothing unexpected.  It’s set about ten years after X-Men: Apolcalypse in 1992 but does pretty much nothing with that setting and it’s also still done basically nothing to make its chracters look like they’ve aged a decade (supposed Holocaust survivor Magneto still appears to be forty and isn’t starting to resemble Ian McKellen even a little).  Once again the franchise is taking on the Dark Phoenix Saga and this time has Jean Gray becoming “the phoenix” by coming in contact with a sort of force while on a rescue mission in space (despite the previous movie and the still-kinda-canon X2 both suggesting that it’s actually something latent in her powers).  So clearly there’s some sloppiness on display here but the movie generally isn’t, like, aggressively stupid and its tone is largely in line with what we’ve been seeing from the other movies in the “First Class” timeline of X-Men movies.  I did enjoy getting another look at what these characters are up to and there is something of an underdeveloped but interesting conflict between Xavier and various other mutants who sort of view him as a conformist “respectability politics” sellout to the cause.

Reports indicate that the film’s final sequence was re-shot because what they had done turned out to be too similar to the finale of Captain Marvel, which was probably money well spent because the closing action scenes are some of the best parts of the movie even if they don’t exactly blow what other superhero movies have been doing out of the water. What’s odd though is that the film’s villains are also a bit too similar to some of the bad guys from that film and its opening scene is pretty similar to the opening scene from Shazam, and in general it doesn’t introduce any characters or concepts that we didn’t see in other better X-Men movies.  In general this movie is kind of a victim of the general over-saturation of superhero flicks these days.  If this had been X-Men 3 back in 2006 instead of the offensively botched X-Men: The Last Stand it would have been able to hold its own pretty well, but in 2019 specifically the standards are a lot higher.  Still, my experience watching this movie was not a terrible one.  It mostly passed the time effectively and in general I think its 23% Rotten Tomatoes score and will probably provide some thrills to fans of the series.  Walking out of the movie I was about ready to give it a pass but then I remembered the critically reviled film from the last week which I also defended: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  That movie was all kinds of stupid, but the lower lows came with higher highs and the kind of thrills it offered were in much shorter supply than what we get from this movie, and I ultimately think that was a movie I’d be more inclined to go to bat for.  This one? It’s not the hill I’m willing to die on.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Dead Don’t Die(6/13/2019)

I generally like Jim Jarmusch movies but I don’t think I’ve ever really loved any of them.  The guy in many ways feels like a product of a very specific time in which independent movies were rather novel and simply embodying a certain bohemian coolness was enough to get by, but he did usually have at least some additional ideas behind what he was doing.  His latest movie has a staggering number of famous people in it and plays in genre, so it’s getting a somewhat wide release, but god help anyone who stumbles into this movie not knowing its indie lineage because they will definitely find it to be a strange and off-putting experience.  The film is meant as a highly post-modern take on the conventions of the zombie film via a zombie attack on a small town in Pennsylvania.  There are a whole lot of characters, probably too many, but the most important are probably the sheriff and his deputy, played by Bill Murray and Adam Driver, which would seem like a smart comic pairing but Jarmusch has all his characters here speak in the most intentionally stilted of dialogue.  The film takes the most broad of comic material but treats it with the dryest deadpan possible, which is maybe an interesting idea but I don’t think it really translates into compelling viewing.  Beyond that a lot of other things the movie tries to do just sort of flame out.  It teases at political relevance here and there, mainly through maga-hat wearing farmer played by Steve Buscemi, but that goes nowhere and there’s also a fourth wall breaking element that ultimately feels pretty empty.  In many ways it feels like Jarmusch was just throwing a whole lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks and I wish he had instead focused in on a couple of them and actually made them work because the movie he delivered is downright dull at times.

** out of Five

May 2019 Round-Up

Long Shot(5/5/2019)

Putting out any movie the week after Avengers: Endgame was bound to be a rather fraught choice and it would seem that the producers of the new Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron comedy were hoping they could pull it off as a counter-programming move and it doesn’t look like the gamble paid off for them at all.  The movie was basically marketed as a romantic comedy, which it basically is in terms of basic formula, but it also has a lot more R-rated Seth Rogan comedy than its advertising would have you think.  The film focuses on an unlikely romance between a youngish female Secretary of State and an out of work journalist who makes a habit of walking around in windbreakers but nonetheless has a certain charm to him and strong political convictions.  The basic premise of the film is of course reminiscent of Rogan’s breakthrough film Knocked Up, which was another hybrid of crude and romantic comedy about how Rogan is not exactly the most likely physical specimen to be the partner of a beautiful and successful career woman.  That basic premise did grate on people with the earlier film with the view being that it was a sort of wish fulfilment fantasy that forgave male mediocrity.   I get why people would see it that way, but if you think about it a lot of traditional romantic comedies also focus around career women falling for salt of the earth losers, the only difference is that in Rogan’s films they aren’t being played by hunky Matthew McConaughey and the screenplay actually acknowledges and makes funny jokes about how unlikely such a pairing would be.

For their part I think Rogan and Theron do have some genuine chemistry and the movie does a fairly good job of making the audience understand how Theron would at least be intrigued by Rogan.  Where the movie really stumbles for me is less in its romantic comedy than in its political comedy.  The plot is based around a strange contrivance where the current president is a dumbass played by Bob Odenkirk who is planning to step down after his first term in order to pursue a career in Hollywood acting… which feels like a bit of absurdity out of a different movie.  The movie never makes mention of what party Odenkirk is in, but given that he’s being heavily supported by a news channel that is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Fox News one would assume that he is a Republican and yet absolutely everything about policies that Theron is advancing screams Democrat so it’s unclear why she is in the same administration.  The movie seems to want to walk some kind of line where it never called the parties by name (except in one scene late in the movie where it rather jarringly does) but that approach simply does not make sense to me in the hyper-partisan world we live in.  Like a lot of political movies it wants to exist in a sort of fictional world where everything didn’t go crazy after 9/11 and the dream of the 90s lived on.  I just don’t think you can get away with that anymore.  Still, if you’re able to set that aside and you’re able to get behind the Rogan and Theron relationship there is a lot of funny stuff in Long Shot and I would recommend it over most of the weak-ass comedies that have been in theaters lately.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Shadow(5/18/2019)

Zhang Yimou is a director who was once quite the critical darling and while he’s never exactly gone out of favor he has lost some of his edge as he’s become increasingly commercial since the international success of his 2003 film Hero, which is I believe the only foreign produced subtitled movie to debut at number one at the American box office.  He never quite had the same success despite some of his follow-ups like House of Flying Daggers being quite solid but he does still have the clout to make movies on a pretty large budget and while many of them are not profound works of art they usually are quite beautiful.  His latest film, Shadow is a return to his work making period epics and like a lot of his work it is quite pretty.  The film is sharply shot and would be very worthy nominee for best costumes if given the chance by the Academy.  However the movie has a bit of a darker streak than a lot of his other movies.  The story concerns a man who is being used as a decoy/double for a powerful general who is waylaid by illness and in the midst of a power struggle with the local king.  That business with doubles brings to mind Kurosawa’s Kagemusha but the film also brings to mind Ran in that it seems to be trying to invoke a sort of Shakespearian tragedy in the way everyone is kind of messed up and acting at cross purposes and aren’t necessarily going to have things go well for them by the end.  It is however, a bit too silly to live up to all of that.  This is the movie’s ultimate Achilles heel: it’s not really a martial arts movie and isn’t able to be carried by its action scenes but the drama doesn’t necessarily stand on its own either and the action scenes that are in it involve these sword umbrellas that look kind of ridiculous.  There’s enough here to be worth a look and some of the visuals are indeed quite strong but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.

*** out of Five

 

Booksmart(5/23/2019)

Set Rogan’s Long Shot opened as counter-programing to Avengers: Endgame and was not particularly well rewarded at the box office, now two weeks later the Rogan-inspired comedy Booksmart is opening opposite the Aladdin remake and is not expected to do much better.  When Blockers failed to gain any real traction last year I was pretty much resigned to the fact that this wave of post-Apatow R-rated comedies were kind of dead at the box office, but I still like them and will keep going to them as long as they’re being made and Booksmart is a pretty good one.  Focusing on two high achieving teenage girls who, upon discovering that the slackers they’ve been sticking their noses up at have also gotten into Ivy League universities, decide they’re going to use the last day of high school to let loose and party for the first time but must go on something of an odyssey in order to figure out the address of the cool kids’ party.  I can definitely relate to that same frustration at seeing people who do dumb stuff coasting to success, so this was in some ways a movie that was made for me and while I liked the film a lot I will say there were a couple of things keeping it from being as funny as it could have been.

I think one of those was that Beanie Feldstein’s character is painted a bit too broadly as a stuck up bully a bit too quickly and you sort of see her character arc and eventual conflict with Kaitlyn Dever coming from a mile away.  A version of the film where you really come to like the character before realizing her dark side might have been a bit more effective especially since Dever’s character is rather adorable throughout, making the contrast in likability between the two really stand out.  Aside from that I just felt like the jokes just weren’t quite as consistent as they could have been.  Parts of it are extremely funny but other stretches are a bit short on laughs, and not necessarily intentionally so.  In some ways first time director Olivia Wilde seems a bit more adept at the coming of age character-based material than with the comedy and I would be curious to see what a version of this which isn’t trying so hard to be the Gen Z Superbad would have been like.  Ultimately though the film’s strengths are much more prominent than its occasional shortcomings and it proves to be one of the better made if not necessarily funniest films of its kind.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Brightburn(5/26/2019)

The James Gunn produced horror/superhero movie Brightburn certainly had an intriguing premise: copy the famous Superman origin story, almost to the point of copyright infringement, but posit as a “what if” that instead of being a kid predisposed to truth, justice, and the American way he ended up being more like a creepy Columbine kid who ended up using his powers for evil.  I’ve heard people describe this as a refutation of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, but if anything the movie would seem to be vindication of the strict disciplinarian tendencies of the father from that movie because the loosey goosey millennial parenting on display here is plainly the wrong approach to raising a kid who’s faster than a locomotive.  Granted, the movie basically lets the parents here off the hook by making it so they weren’t aware of the kid’s powers (despite knowing he was an alien) and it also basically sidesteps the psychology of how the kid is driven mad by power by essentially making that the result of his communicating with his alien pod.  As it played out it became pretty clear that the movie was less interested in the idea of how these powers would corrupt the mind of this kid than it was in coming up with the gory ways in which the powers would be used for evil.  That focus isn’t entirely without its rewards, the scenes where the kid goes full supervillain are creatively gory and entertaining, but the movie isn’t really “scary” per se and I feel like the movie could have done a lot more with this premise than it does and that makes it pretty disappointing.

**1/2 out of Five

April 2019 Round-Up

Pet Sematary(4/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

After the wild success of the It movie two years ago it seemed logical that Hollywood would take another wack at some other Stephen King films that had gotten lesser adaptations over the years, but I was surprised to see that the first one out the gate was one whose first adaptation is actually fairly well remembered.  There are certainly aspects of Mary Lambert’s 1989 take on the novel “Pet Sematary” that haven’t aged perfectly but it works in the parts that matter and it follows the original novel quite effectively.  Nonetheless there are certainly things about this update that do feel like an improvement, specifically the casting of the central couple and also the decision to bring John Lithgow in as their neighbor (Fred Gwynne’s performance in the original film is certainly memorable as camp but… yeah, Lithgow is plainly better) and seeing the film play out with modern visual effects and cinematography is not unwelcome.  What was surprising about the movie (or at least would have been surprising if it hadn’t been spoiled by the film’s absolutely wretched final trailer) is that it actually does make some changes to the book and original film and I don’t think they’re entirely for the better.  The increased emphasis on the evil draw of the “sematary” helps explain some of the character motivations, but it also reduces the primal power of someone being driven to madness through grief and all too often is simply used to make the film feel more like a run of the mill haunting movie than the intense tribute to the tale of the monkey’s paw that it was intended as.  Honestly I kind of wish they had just stuck to basics, a more straightforward remake done with this extra craftsmanship probably would have made this the definitive version, instead it’s a flawed effort unto itself.

*** out of Five

The Wild Pear Tree(4/20/2019)

Back in 2014 I came out pretty strongly in favor of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial opinion given that film’s Palm d’Or win, but that movie wasn’t very widely watched even among people who are inclined towards weighty foreign cinema.  I guess the 196 minute runtime scared people off, and of those who did see it there was certainly a contingent who liked it but weren’t as into it as they were into some of Ceylan’s previous films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but from where I sat the movie was a clear triumph.  Then at last year’s Cannes his newest film, The Wild Pear Tree, premiered and mostly got good reviews but didn’t win any awards and I’m not sure it’s even going to get a proper theatrical release (I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival).  That’s unfortunate because it is a movie that deserves to be seen but I must admit I get why it’s gotten a bit of a cooler reception as I have fairly mixed feelings about it myself.

The film follows a young man named Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) who has just come home from college and is going through something of a quarter-life crisis.  He wants to be a writer but doesn’t have the funds to get his first book published (it’s unclear to the audience if this book is supposed to be any good, I’m guessing “no”) and is ambivalent about following any other path in life.  Sinan is not a likable character and the movie knows it.  He’s whiny and self-centered in a way that many twenty year olds are and the film is in some ways meant to be his coming to terms with the fact that he may not get everything he wants out of life.  In this sense the film is not unlike Winter Sleep, which was about an older man coming to realize that he’s a bit of an asshole, but that guy came to his shortcomings in ways there were more unique and you could better understand why he might be blind to them, this kid by contrast is just kind of grating.  I would say that the film is also a lot less visually striking than Winter Sleep, which was set in a more scenic location and did more with it.  That’s not to suggest that The Wild Pear Tree is a complete failure by any means.  There are individual scenes and extended conversations within the film that are really compelling, a scene between Sinan and a local author that goes on for almost a half hour is a clear highlight, but I’m not sure they all congeal into a full movie that serves as a worthy follow-up to Winter Sleep.

*** out of Five

Peterloo(4/28/2019)

The new film from Mike Leigh is probably the largest scale project he’s ever attempted to mount and this has been greeted with much less excitement than you might expect.  It was rejected by Cannes and ignored by the BAFTAs and it’s critical reception has been mixed at best, which is strange coming from a filmmaker who has almost never made an outright failure.  I’m not sure I’d call this one an outright failure either and I’m generally more enthusiastic than a lot of critics but I can see why this thing might not be for everyone.  The film is a chronicle of the titular Peterloo massacre, an 1819 event where local aristocrats ordered the army to perform a cavalry charge on a group of reformers who were peacefully assembling in a town square in Manchester.  That is the last half hour or so, the rest of the film chronicles the events leading up to this rally and the movement that was trying to increase representation in parliament and repeal the Corn Laws.  This is probably where the movie lost some people given that, well, not everyone is going to find extended conversations about 200 year old British politics to be as entertaining as others.   I also wonder if the film’s reception in the UK was a bit more muted simply because they’ve already heard a lot about this event and the film caused flashbacks to some of the more tedious days of their high school history classes.  However, a lot of this was new to me and I found a lot of the details of how this was organized at the grassroots level to be kind of interesting and I was also interested in the scenes with the aristocrats positively freaking out about what seem like fairly mundane reforms and the way their sheer out-of-touchness led to some very bad decision making.  Of course the film is not even remotely “even-handed” and in some ways it feels more like the kind of thing Leigh’s more outspoken pier Ken Loach would have made.  I also would have liked more of a focus on the aftermath of the massacre what why it did or didn’t inspire change.

***1/2 out of Five

March 2019 Round-Up

When I first decided to start doing capsule reviews of movies I saw in theaters I had expected I’d mostly be using it to write short reviews of Hollywood schlock that I was only semi-interested in.  But, as it turned out the first month of my use of the practice has been, I don’t want to call it a dumping ground, but it’s been the month that a lot of distributors have chosen to release foreign films from last year’s Cannes Film Festival that ended up not being a player in the Oscar race.  Some of these movies probably did deserve longer reviews but I probably wouldn’t have seens as many if I was committed to write full reviews of all of them so it’s probably for the best.

 

Everybody Knows (3/3/2019)

Since he broke out in a big way with his phenomenal 2011 film A Seperation the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has been something of a titan in international cinema but I must say I’ve been starting to notice some diminishing returns from him.  His follow-up to A Seperation, the French set The Past wasn’t as great as the film that made him famous but it was still really great.  His next film, The Salesman, was not so great.  It was still pretty good, but its rumination on revenge never quite connected. His latest film, a Spanish production called Everybody Knows did not look like it was going to reverse this trend given that it got a respectful but somehwat cool reception when it played on the festival circuit and despite having major European stars like Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz it didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.  Seeing it now I do kind of get the reception: for whatever its merits it’s not an overly profound film and you do sort of expect something profound from a filmmaker like Farhadi.  Still, if you keep your expectations in check Everybody Knows is a quality drama that’s worth a look.  It focuses on a kidnapping in a Spanish town and a variety of tensions and family secrets that this turn of events brings to the surface.  That sounds promising but Farhadi’s great asset as a filmmaker and screenwriter has always been the depths of the characters he creates and how real the tensions in their lives feel, but this works better when he’s looking at mundane situations like relationships and divorces than when he looks at movie-like crime narratives and the fact that he’s working with glamourous movie stars here kind of exacerbates the problem.  I do worry that this movie is a bit of a victim of expectations get rid of them and you’re left with a pretty good drama that’s certainly better than the average Hollywood movie, but people are not wrong to award other better works of world cinema over it.

***1/2 out of five

 

Birds of Passage (3/11/2019)

Ciro Guerra’s 2016 film Embrace of the Serpent was an incredibly creative piece of work and while it wasn’t its director’s first film it certainly announced him as a filmmaker to watch and while his follow-up, Birds of Passage hasn’t been quite as excitedly received it is nonetheless a very impressive film.  Once again Guerra (now working with a co-director named Cristina Gallego) has opted to focus in on the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia, but this time instead of looking at the Amazonian tribes he’s focused on the Wayuu people of the desert-like Northern region of the country.  Specifically it looks at one sub-group of the tribe as one of their members increasingly lead them into involvement with drug trafficking in the 60s and 70s.  In many ways the film gives its audience the familiar “decade-spanning crime family narrative” film pioneered by The Godfather but made rather unique by the fact that its main characters are indigenous people who are living out inherited customs while still living in a modern world.  Visually the film isn’t quite as inventive as Embrace of the Serpent in that it’s in color and generally isn’t as trippy, but it has an interesting location and Guerra does still have an eye for striking images.  If anything brings the film down it’s that it’s maybe trying to fit a few too many years into a relatively compact 125 minute runtime and eventually has to leap over a decade of development within this empire in a way that’s a little bit jarring.  It’s become a bit of a cliché to suggest that a new movie could have benefited from being expanded to mini-series length, but that might have been true of this.  Still, this is a very striking movie that deserves more attention than its gotten during its all too brief run in theaters.

**** out of Five

 

Transit (3/17/2019)

Christian Petzold is a German filmmaker who has become rather prominent this decade for making movies that look at the difficult recent history of his homeland in unique ways.  His latest film, Transit, is no exception and may in fact be his most formally inventive look into the past yet.  The film begins with a man in occupied Paris on the run from the Germans who eventually makes his way to Marseille, where he hopes to get the papers he needs to get on a boat to Mexico.  So far it sounds like a fairly standard World War II narrative… except it isn’t actually a period piece.  Though the conflict at the film’s center is clearly a mirror image of that war the film is set in a world that looks like the present day: the German occupiers, who are never called Nazis but basically are, wear modern riot gear instead of the uniforms you’d expect and modern cars fill the streets.  In a sense what Petzold is doing is not like what theatrical toupes have been doing to Shakespeare plays for ages having them play out in modern dress or the dress of some other period of history not called for in the text and kind of just going with it when sword fights break out or when people talk about kings or ducats instead of presidents or dollars.

So why do this?  Well I think it’s in part to establish a parallel between this story and the refugee crises happening in Europe and the United States (the use of Mexico as an escape destination is probably not a coincidence).  The point is perhaps to say that it wasn’t too long ago that Europeans were also the ones trying to escape to foreign countries from conflicts.  In essence it’s trying to say “there but for the grace of God goes I” to those who watching from a place of comfort as they hear about people from Syria or Mexico desperately trying to get asylum or passage to safer places.  It’s a cool idea to be sure, but I must say I think there are flaws in the execution here.  Once our protagonist makes it to Marseille the Nazis become much less of a presence and the threat that they pose becomes very theoretical.  I can maybe see why Petzold might take that approach, it certain fits his restrained style, but I do think this story requires a constant sense of threat and that’s missing.  Additionally, the basic machinations of what our protagonist is up to through much of the film could have simply been more compelling.  He gets in the middle of something like two different love triangles and becomes kind of unclear who certain characters are.  So what we’re left with is an A+ conceptual idea applied to what is otherwise something of a B- story.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Ash is Purest White (3/31/2019)

I generally view the cinema of mainland China as being rather compromised by political censorship and populist impulses, and yet the continued career of the Chinese arthouse auteur Jia Zhangke would seem to prove that impulse wrong.  Zhangke is a filmmaker who acts as something of a social critic looking at the state of modern China with a sort of frustrated resignation.  He perhaps manages to get around political censorship because the aspects of modern Chinese society he’s most critical of isn’t the communist party or even the state so much as its westernization and new found capitalistic decadence.  He certainly doesn’t come to this through any love of the old Maoist ways but more as a sort of melancholy about how fast things are changing and how it’s chipping away at the culture.  Or at least that’s what I tend to gleam from his movies as an outsider, though there is always a sinking suspicion watching them that there are some complex local references and political ideas that are a little hard to grasp coming from the other side of the world

His most recent movie is Ash is Purest White, a film set over the course of more than twenty years about a relationship between a woman named Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), who live in the city of Datong.  Bin is a mid-level local gangster and if anything Qiao is attracted to his “bad boy” status and they have a fairly firey relationship, but this comes crashing down when the two are attacked by some local thugs and Qiao fends them off by firing off some warning shots using Bin’s unregistered handgun.  Qiao is arrested on the gun charge and being the ride or die chick that she is she refuses to testify that this was actually Bin’s gun and gets a five year prison sentence.   We then more or less cut to five years later and Qiao needs to find Bin and figure out how the rest of her life is going to go.

That summery might give the impression that this is more of a gangster movie than it really is.  The crime element is actually largely in the background and mostly serves as a catalyst for the character arcs.  It’s also not really as much of a romance as that description might suggest; the complicated relationship between the two characters is at the film’s center but as usual Jia Zhangke has a bit of an icy touch about such matters.  Like his last film, Mountains May Depart, this is set over the course of three different time periods (probably an expected structure for someone whose primary thematic interest is rapid societal change) but the shifts here are a bit less extreme and in some ways the film is a bit more mature.  That said it does kind of have the same problem as that film: that it’s third act is kind of its weakest even if I kind of get what he was going for.  It’s maybe a movie that works better when looked at in the context of the body of work than on its own but of the three Zhangke film’s I’ve seen it’s probably the least flawed and most accessible.

**** out of Five