OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online‘s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some other things happen, like Hilary Clinton’s next run for president, or the inevitable uninhabitability of the planet — so, y’know, before we vanish. Issue #1 collects our takes on January theatrical releases, including the latest film-essay from Jean-Luc Godard (The Image Book); a semi-autobiographical film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (The Wild Pear Tree); two films from fresh faces, Michael M. Bilandic (Jobe’z World) and Lukas Dhont (Girl); another document on the evils of humanity by Barbet Schroder (The Venerable W); and Manolo Caro’s Perfect Strangers — one of what at this point number about a half-dozen films made all over the world that all have the same cheeky premise: people share every text message and phone call they get with each other and lose their fucking minds. Also included in this issue is a selection from InRO‘s Kicking the Canon: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s historical epic A City of Sadness, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 30 years ago this year.
At least for awhile, the new essay film by the pushing-90 French auteur Jean-Luc Godard plays like a liberally abridged version of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma. The Image Book, too, combines film clips ripped from JLG’s memory via his archives or whatever digital reserves he had handy with his own croaked, doom-laden voiceover, delivering statements both general (“War is here”; “I prefer the poor because they are the defeated”) and seemingly personal (“They are not men of their word…they told me I was everything…it was a lie.”). Having buried language in 2014 with another home-cooked experiment (Goodbye to Language), Godard here dissects and laments “the image” and its failure to slow humanity’s death drive. The 2014 film’s 3D whimsy and its diversions involving Godard’s dog (who does make a split-second cameo here) are supplanted in The Image Book by the considerably less “fun” atrocity footage (ISIS home videos, etc.), which Godard splices with film-historical clips to make a point about cinema’s impotence, or possibly its complicity. For cinephiles, there is fleeting pleasure in I.D.-ing footage sources (Ivan the Terrible, Kiss Me Deadly, Salo, L’Atalante, Johnny Guitar, Freaks, La Strada, Elephant…Jacques Tourneur’s underrated Berlin Express, which was shot in a bombed-out postwar Germany), but Godard isn’t particularly interested in pleasing, a point emphasized by his degradation of the imagery herein via hyper-saturation, digital obfuscation, display ratio shifts, bleaching, and whatever other means his software provided. He divides his film into parts (part 1 is called “Remakes” — meant to invoke both modern Hollywood and warmongers’ attempts to remake societies with bombing and bloodshed), and almost the full final third is devoted to “joyful Arabia,” in Godard’s view a region still misunderstood and abused by the West because “the world is not interested in Arabs — Muslims either.” It is very possibly my own failing in this regard that I found this section the least compelling, with its dwelling on a hypothetical pan-Arabic ruler and real, recent “terrorist” footage (“Throwing bombs seems normal to me,” intones JLG). But no even casual clocker of Godard’s career or cinematic contributions could fail to be touched or disturbed when his raspy voiceover becomes an actual phlegmy hacking cough, segueing into a final image from Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir of a dandy spinning and collapsing on a dancefloor — the end of an epoch. Justin Stewart
Before Jobe’z World establishes itself as a new, classic New York night movie, it’s already up in the cosmos: the refracted neon twinkle and burbling ambient churn of the pretty opening credits segues into spacey images of “bonkers shit…constellations…nothingness, sub-nothingness, the infinite void,” or so says voiceover by Jobe (Jason Grisell), a bleach-blonde, nocturnal, rollerblading ecstasy dealer. Jobe prefers the chill vibe of space to the “shrieking mayhem and abject suffering of earth,” so much so that he’s “making a sick manga about it” (the title of which is later revealed to be: Celestial Steven: Space Raver). By the time a yin-yang symbol spirals out of the cosmic slop (a superimposition effect reused later with a character’s disembodied face), it’s already clear that New York-based writer-director Michael M. Bilandic isn’t being wholly serious — yet his After Hours-ish comedy, which takes place over a single night, is laced throughout with grace notes of anxious melancholy, world-weariness and great beauty, aided by expert performances, as well as Sean Price Williams’s and Paul Grimstad’s excellent cinematography and music, respectively. Bilandic’s film is also exciting: When Jobe is tasked by his fearsome boss Linda (Lindsay Burdge) with delivering a potent packet “worse than what killed MJ and Prince put together” to his favorite actor, Royce David Leslie (Theodore Bouloukos), the worst happens and Jobe becomes a persecuted man in the mold of his Biblical namesake.
As in 2013’s stellar Hellaware, Bilandic’s subtle but funny writing is in perfect harmony with his cast, who toss-off golden line reads like: “Living my bleak-ass life… Lake Wobegon,” quipped by Jobe’s stand-up comedian customer, Zane (Owen Kline, who also drew the manga art); “waiting for a bite” fishing for “East River walleye,” and Williams as Linda’s boyfriend, who diminishes Jobe as “bladeboy” and rudely flings his manga with hilarious nonchalance. Some of the best gags are stuffed into small corners of the frame, like one particularly funny YouTube “reaction video” thumbnail. The stage-trained Bouloukos adds actorly heft, his turn here already justifiably the subject of critic encomiums. Grisell’s Jobe is just as good, his acid-casualty boyishness an oddly calming constant throughout. He’s tensely coiled, stressed about work, and having to pick up his mother at JFK, but he’s still the sanity-anchoring presence in scenes like, say, the one with a shouting, basement-dwelling weapon nut customer (Stephen Payne). Even at under 70 minutes, Jobe’z World feels like a full journey, and near the end, when Jobe rips off a wig, gazes into a sunrise with born-again wonder, and blades away, trenchcoat flapping, Bilandic even flirts with the iconic. Justin Stewart
The Wild Pear Tree
Two decades on now and Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become something of a genre unto himself. To those that concern themselves with film festivals and prestigey world cinema, his name carries with it a check list of thematic interests and formal predilections. Lord knows there will be some long takes, some deep-focus cataloging of Turkey’s superlative natural beauty, a lot of Dostoevskian philosophizing, and petty disputes between the inert intellectual class and the despondent proletariat. None of that changes with The Wild Pear Tree; in fact, this film furthers one of Ceylan’s new hallmarks: an indulgent runtime that, in the case of this film, is entirely unearned. One of the joys of Ceylan’s previous film, Palme d’Or-winner Winter Sleep, was taking in the precision of the dialogue (the translation of which was excellent, as is the case with this one), each exchange a carefully constructed bundle of coded passive aggression and venomous subtext. Wild Pear Tree operates on a similar principle, but provides us with a baldly loathsome protagonist, as played by Aydın Doğu Demirkol, who smirks his way through a 188-minute runtime that sees him on the screen almost constantly. Demirkol plays a recent college grad who returns to his hometown intending to write a (seemingly exploitative) novel and reconnect with a father he holds deep disdain for. The film proceeds to play-out as a glacially-paced, high-minded Garden State, bluntly spelling out obvious metaphor, delivering its characters to saccharine redemption, and forcing the audience to spend unbearable amounts of time with a contemptuous lead. Let us hope that Ceylan’s depictions of ineffectual artistry aren’t predictive of his future work. M.G. Mailloux
Manolo Caro’s Perfect Strangers asks the question: how much do we really know about our nearest and dearest? Based on Paolo Genovese’s 2016 Italian comedy, this script about a dinner party gone wrong is clearly proving popular with filmmakers, having already received the remake treatment by directors from Spain, Greece, South Korea, and China. One can see the appeal: This comedy of manners about seven friends who surrender their cell phones and analyze each other’s calls and messages opens itself up to lots of interesting ideas, unravelling the double lives that our phones allow us to lead. Set on the eve of a lunar eclipse — just to heighten the sense of impending chaos — Caro’s Perfect Strangers begins tamely before growing unsettlingly tense once the group learn each other’s deepest secrets. In the manner of a true ensemble piece, each of the actors here get something to sink their teeth into — and largely do so with successful results. Cecilia Suarez stands out as the controlling hostess, continually stirring the pot, while Mariana Trevino makes for a convincingly erratic, downtrodden wife. Even when serious relationship issues concerning infidelity and sexuality are revealed, Caro’s film confidently straddles the line between acerbic melodrama and disorderly comedy, conjuring up scenes of emotional turmoil to which laughter feels like a wicked yet natural response. One too many late plot twists threaten to drag the film into over-the-top absurdity, but for the most part, Perfect Strangers is a deliciously no-holds-barred chamber-piece that keeps its audience rapt until the very end. Calum Reed
The Venerable W
If there is such a thing as the ‘banality of evil,’ surely Ashin Wirathu is a poster boy for it. An unassuming looking man with a round, boyish face and a soft-spoken, even-keeled demeanor, Wirathu lets slip a slight smile or stifled chuckle while calmly comparing Myanmar’s Muslim population to “African catfish” that are “violent” and “breed quickly.” Footage of Wirathu’s prayer meetings show the man calmly reciting a litany of outrageous claims, and a gathered crowd repeating his words back to him. He says that he prefers teaching children, as they need to know “who the enemy is and where danger is.” Director Barbet Schroeder is clearly fascinated by this man whom Time Magazine declared “the face of Buddhist terror” in a 2013 cover story. The Venerable W presents Wirathu as a Buddhist who sees no contradiction whatsoever in reconciling his religion of peace with his fomenting of violence against Burma’s Rohingya minority — a population in the tens of thousands, and one that’s in the midst of an urgent humanitarian crisis that’s rooted in long-standing cultural prejudices which have been either ignored, or tacitly endorsed, by the Myanmar government. In other words, there’s a lot going on in this documentary. But, curiously enough, Schroeder’s film feels both overstuffed and frustratingly vague, introducing more ideas and avenues for further investigation than it can possibly manage to follow. A woman’s voiceover recites passages from Buddhist theology as a counterpoint to Wirathu’s hate-mongering, but it comes across as an easy, pat irony. By the time we near the end of the film, Wirathu has weaponized social media, his Ma Ba Tha movement a fully organized, technologically advanced operation, shooting and distributing their own propaganda films — a subject that could alone sustain a feature-length documentary. Dates and events are mentioned only briefly, or without much context — like the history of British imperialism in Burma, the military junta government, and the Saffron Revolution of 2007, which Wirathu claims to have incited even though he was in prison at the time (just one of several instances of Wirathu’s unassuming demeanor belying an incredible ego). More frustrating is Schroeder’s seeming fascination with evil as a kind of metaphysical phenomenon, which he has explored in previous documentaries, including General Idi Amin Dada and Terror’s Advocate — two films which, along with The Venerable W, constitute Schroeder’s so-called ‘Trilogy of Evil’ — and his most acclaimed fiction feature, Reversal of Fortune. Schroeder has been turning his camera on the oppressors for so long, in fact, that it’s hard not to wonder: Why doesn’t he give voice to the oppressed? Daniel Gorman
“I don’t want to be an example. I just want to be a girl,” says Lara (Victor Polster), the title character of Girl, Lukas Dhont’s highly acclaimed debut feature about a teenage transgender ballerina. Given the Belgian director’s attempts to sidestep glib representation and focus on the exigencies of Lara’s situation — namely, the specifics of her ongoing hormone therapy and the demands of her education at the Royal Ballet School Antwerp — the statement might well be the driving force of the film itself. Indeed, unlike Sebastian Leilo’s misguided A Fantastic Woman from last year — a simplistic film that put its title character through a series of punishing indignities — Girl maintains a distinctive physical intensity, which is no small feat, given the familiarity of adolescent coming-of-age stories. Doctor’s visits and therapist sessions alternate with rapidly cut ballet sequences, breathless whirls of pliés, posés and arabesques. Although Lara does experience minor slights throughout the runtime, she is, for the most part, ably supported by a network of family and medical professionals; the film’s conflict thus remains largely internal. It’s a shame, then, that Dhont feels the need to up the ante by playing the same dispiritingly rote narrative beats that plague the international arthouse scene. And in doing so, he ultimately transforms Girl into yet another example of what he seemed to be so promisingly attempting to avoid. Lawrence Garcia
If A City of Sadness represents Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s greatest achievement to date — an assessment that its Venice Golden Lion and long-standing reputation would seem to support — this is in part because Hou’s oblique, elliptical approach to narrative creates an astounding frisson with the film’s epic historical backdrop. A City of Sadness follows the travails of the Lin family during the “White Terror” years, a time when the Kuomintang (KMT) suppressed real and imagined dissent or opposition among the populace of Taiwan. But this is no lush, monumental period-piece in the vein of, say, Luchino Visconti. Instead, the drama proceeds in ritualized repetitions; it’s glimpsed in truncated snatches and observed from remote vantages. As the film’s overlapping strands of narrative fade in and out over a captivating two-and-a-half hour runtime, musical motifs recur, shrouding the images in the hazy ambiance of memory. Hou’s shooting style, which favors long takes and master shots in order to preserve the unity of cinematic space, is by now well-known — seen in everything from the opium dens of 1998’s The Flowers of Shanghai to the palatial vistas of 2015’s The Assassin. But it retains an air of mystery; his practice and methodology is such that even a small pocket of cinematic time somehow feels boundless and depthless.
The immediate impression of A City of Sadness is desultory and remote, yet the film is also supremely enveloping, ultimately even moving — and all the more so for the way Hou submerges its plangency, only letting emotions rush to the surface at key moments. (An unknown figure’s declaration to “face the world without shame” provides a reckoning equal to that of any family tragedy.) Throughout, Tony Leung’s deaf photographer — the youngest brother of the Lin family — takes on a (literally) restorative role. Documents and film negatives fill gaps in the narrative, while diaries and written conversations act as historical annotations. Like the key image of a young boy’s stamp collection in 1985’s A Time to Live, a Time to Die, the impression we get is of images, of entire lives, archived into memory. A City of Sadness accumulates in force precisely because it methodically, almost perversely resists the flow of conventional drama, because instead of subordinating action to symbolism or historical signification, it gives genuine weight to the rites of life and death. A fundamental sense of being, of feeling, comes first; then the weight of history comes crashing down. LG