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 domesticand 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. Issue #3 collects our takes on March theatrical releases, including the late Hu Bo’s four-hour An Elephant Sitting Still; Khalik Allah’s documentary treatise and avant-garde portrait of Jamaica, Black Mother; Gaspar Noe’s latest, and uncharacteristically well-received provocation, Climax; German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Casablanca-like neo noir, Transit; and many others.
An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo’s bleak epic of lives spent swimming upstream in the modern economic conditions of China, is an exacting depiction of depression. Even without knowing the circumstances behind the film (its director took his own life last October), an unrelenting nihilism of both narrative and tone couch Elephant in double-downed hopelessness for nearly its entire runtime. But while the film toes the line of miserabilism, Hu’s commitment to intimacy makes it feel more like an emotional and psychological audit than a cudgel — an attempt at exorcising the demons that dictate this reading of the world. The director’s chief aesthetic commitment is closeness to his characters, literally and figuratively. His patient approach allows characters to hold lengthy, unabridged conversations, punctuated by uncomfortable silences and deflections, reveling in the micro temporal setting of a single day as evidence of a macro existence. Visually, Hu prefers soulful, floating Steadicam shots, ghostly navigations of cramped quarters and decaying city streets, and swirling shots that almost seem to be searching for a better view. Still, Hu’s camera turns away from much gratuitous violence (a brutal dog attack and a beating that one of the characters suffers both occur offscreen), a self-aware nod to the internal violence already borne by his subjects. And while certain narrative contrivances (two suicides and an accidental murder all occur within 24 hours) and constant self-reflection of circumstance and misanthropic philosophizing by the characters sporadically undermine the film’s power, Hu shatters this POV with a poignant and devastating final moment that serves as a pointed rejection of the previous four hours’ hopelessness. Luke Gorham
Khalik Allah’s new essayistic documentary Black Mother is a deeply moving work of humanistic empathy, intertwining the personal and the political into an aesthetic that attempts to harmonize the natural beauty and urban horrors of Jamaica. It’s a bracing corrective to those overly simplified travelogues for rich tourists, and lends a voice to the voiceless and the disenfranchised. It has a pulsating energy, images threatening to explode or evaporate right off of the screen, fragile and ephemeral, violent and tender. The soundtrack, a mixture of funky music and religious hymns and chattering dialogue, comes tantalizingly close to synching up with the image and then veers off on its own, existing asynchronously, weaving in and out of discord. It can be jarring, abstract, and impressionistic, but Allah anchors everything within a defined structure, mirroring the three trimesters of pregnancy, with a recurring motif of the camera circling a black female body. It’s about life and death and rebirth, the effects of colonialism and radical political consciousness. Black Mother dares to constantly dance along the ledge of inscrutability, reveling in poetic mystery. In interviews, Allah has spoken about his history with Jamaica; his mother is from there and he has visited frequently since he was a child. Allah’s grandfather comes up a lot in these interviews, and that grandfather (who’s dead now) is in this film as well. The work is a collage of footage, some of which is years old, which Allah filmed without fully realizing what would ever come from it. In a sense, Black Mother is a kind of personal excavation, but it also represents a curatorial process: how do we organize our own thoughts and memories? Shot with a 16mm bolex, super 8mm, digital cameras, and even a drone, the different formats offer different textures, a kind of volatile jumble of surface qualities. Allowing the perforations of the small gauge film frames to stay in the final image is an interesting choice — raw, even sloppy, but tethering the film to a history of modernist experimental film, emphasizing the physical, tactile nature of the medium. Black Mother is very much a continuation of Allah’s process in 2014’s Field Niggas, while also representing an ambitious expansion. It is a major film from a major talent. Daniel Gorman
Knife + Heart
Knife + Heart was probably the oddest entry in Cannes’ main competition slate last year — a trendy, queer, pop cinema throwback that stood-out in a sea of stodginess from the usual festival circuit faves. Director Yann Gonzalez previously caught the attention of world cinema’s elite back in 2013, when his charmingly debauched debut, You and the Night, earned itself a special screening at Critics’ Week. With his leap up to the main slate, it’s reasonable to suspect that Gonzalez will become a favorite of international fest programmers for years to come. But outside the insular festival echo chamber, Knife + Heart appears much lighter, a very slick, very cool movie that isn’t truly prepared to contend with the cultural history it cannibalizes. Concerning itself with the goings ons of a French gay porn studio, operating in the days before the AIDS epidemic, Knife + Heart shifts gears when a director and their crew suddenly find themselves the targets of a masked killer, whose presence begins to influence the studio’s current production in ways both overt (the dying-off of the performers) and unexpected (a porn narrative branches off for recreations of police interrogations and acts of sadism). One would imagine that such a premise would naturally build-out into a bold statement. But Gonzalez is unable to milk anything fresh out of his conceit. In fact, boldness is lacking across the board, from the peculiar choice to not indulge in male nudity to a dredging-up of New Queer Cinema’s pet themes (the connective tissue between sex and death, a very literal interpretation of Mulvey’s “Phallic Economy”). This sheepish approach even characterizes the film’s tone, with Gonzalez (perhaps intentionally) confusing loving homage with parody. While the film’s best trait is its assertion that pornography, particularly gay male pornography, is of artistic and historical value, Gonzalez is unfortunately unable to resist jokes at the expense of his characters, and ends up painting them as silly and pretentious. The self-aware industry satire may have amused festival-goers, but divorced of that context, it feels empty. M.G. Mailloux
Christian Petzold is one of our great contemporary dramatists, taking the building blocks of melodrama and draining them of artificiality; he’s a kind of quotidian, brutalist Douglas Sirk. What could be simple narrative convenience or lazy coincidence instead becomes, in Petzold’s hands, a kind of tragic, cosmic inevitability. Beginning in media res, Petzold’s new film Transit opens on two men discussing their plans for escape, what to do about comrades in hiding, and the passing of illicit letters. It’s just another day — at least until police cars go screaming by and soldiers come marching up the street. Then the voiceover begins, an omniscient third-person narration that is (at first) strikingly incongruous with what we see on-screen. In a bold formal gambit, Petzold integrates certain WW2-era elements from Anna Seghers’s 1944 source novel into his film adaptation’s narration, but sets his film in a (mostly fictional) modern era. Narration and images exist in a sometimes confounding, contrapuntal relationship in Transit, and other times begin to dovetail and mirror each other. This creates a profoundly disorienting effect, even after one discerns what, exactly, is going on. As critic Neil Bahadur points out, this conceit not only suggests the liminal space occupied by characters — trapped between countries, desperate for escape — but also a new liminal space between past and present. Ultimately, the narrative becomes a distaff, crypto-remake of Casablanca (much like Petzold’s previous feature, Phoenix, nodded to and took elements from Vertigo), as Georg (Franz Rogowski) takes on an assumed identity and becomes entangled with the wife of the man he is impersonating. Georg also strikes up a friendship of sorts with the wife and son of a fallen comrade, his connection with the boy ultimately complicating Georg’s desire to flee France for Mexico. It what is certainly one of the year’s best films, Petzold chronicles the Kafka-esque travails of displaced peoples, and how their struggles remain the same in the past and the present. Daniel Gorman
As one of the only Iranian films with traction and visibility on the international festival circuit, Jafar Panahi’s Three Faces has much to prove. The film shouldn’t have to assume this role, but due to the vagaries of programming and distribution, a forced narrative — say, one that sees Panahi’s film as a privileged window into the socio-political turmoil of modern day Iran — is somewhat inevitable. This situation appears to be of some concern to Panahi, especially since his films cannot be legally screened in Iran. Three Faces follows the director and adored actress Behnaz Jafari (both playing themselves) as they go on a road trip to rural Iran to investigate what looks to be a filmed suicide. The incident in question concerns a young woman who had hoped Jafari could convince her family of the value in pursuing an acting career. Jafari’s apparent inability to save the woman prompts the actor-director pair to reconsider their social responsibilities as artists: Who do we make movies for? What is the value of on-screen representation? How do we make movies that transcend cosmopolitan insularity? These are all questions worth asking, but Panahi tends to land on the easiest answers, and mostly allows himself to escape the self-scrutiny seemingly promised by his premise. Thanks to a heavily telegraphed twist, Three Faces turns into hokey self-aggrandizement. A potential indictment of both Panahi and his audience is traded for a simplistic template of an established director boosting the voices of women and the rural populace. That message has merit, but the film built around it merely applauds Panahi for the effort. M.G. Mailloux
Shot on gorgeous 35mm, and in director Laszlo Nemes’s preferred close-up style (ported in from his debut feature, Son of Saul), and employing what appears to be exclusively natural light, the visceral Sunset deftly recalibrates gothic tradition in its depiction of an early 20th century European society on the precipice of collapse. Instead of applying this lens to heighten Sunset’s narrative beats, however, Nemes uses genre-specific elements (a piecemeal approach to doling out information; hushed exchanges; mysterious encounters with eccentric side characters) to craft a fevered chaos of confusion and unease. In developing his themes, Nemes forgoes visual subtlety in favor of compositional saturation. Light and dark collide, literally and metaphorically; the action largely unfolds in lantern-lit nighttime streets or amidst clouds of carriage-kicked up dust during bustling afternoons. The film’s ostensible heroine, Irisz (Juli Jakab), is all but swallowed by the phantasmagoric swirl of violent, competing forces which she finds herself caught up in. Nemes augments this approach by fashioning a reactive character: Jakab is as expressive as she is impenetrable. This treatment of the lead is significant, and the director’s underlying interest in the relationship between individual and society is no more keenly felt than when, in the course of a riotous tracking-shot that portends a ratcheting tension to follow, Irisz is paradoxically warned: “You’re spared. Save yourself.” Luke Gorham
Ash Is Purest White begins with the blaring of a bus horn — a sound which bears striking resemblance to another, heard at the end of an earlier Jia Zhangke film: 2001’s Platform. This makes sense, because these two works are really sister films. Platform surveys the waning years of Maoism, from the late ‘70s to the early 90s, and Ash Is Purest White picks up pretty much where that film left off, with footage shot around the same time that Jia made 2002’s Unknown Pleasures. From here, like Platform, Ash Is Purest White sprawls-out across decades, collating Jia’s 2000s filmography (knowledge of Unknown Pleasures and 2006’s Still Life is of particular importance for gleaning the nuances of the film’s narrative), and, in the process, negotiating a division of not only national identity — which, in China, has moved from collectivism to a greater emphasis on ‘the individual’ — but of Jia’s own cinema, which has transitioned from docu-realism to a more commercial mode of drama — this, in itself, being representative of another cultural shift, from socialism to capitalism. And whereas Jia’s last two films (2013’s A Touch of Sin and 2015’s Mountains May Depart) didn’t seem self-aware in their commercial ambitions (or, rather, of the role that State sponsorship inevitably had in helping Jia realize them), Ash Is Purest White is different in that it confronts its own ‘political’ dualism, its commodified modernity and its cultural traditionalism — narratively, formally, thematically. It’s Jia’s best, most expansive, and most quixotic film. Sam C. Mac
If nothing else, Gaspar Noe‘s Climax suggests that, should someone ever decide to revive the Step Up franchise, Noe might be a name producers could consider. Anchored by a couple of impressively filmed and staged dance scenes, Climax features two dozen dancers in its cast (including a former dancer, Sofia Boutella, who’s also the only professional actor here). This multicultural terpsichorean mass writhes with clashing, exuberantly mashed-together styles of ecstatic movement — all in front of a disco-glittery French flag. The camera initially faces the actors/dancers head-on, but eventually floats up over their heads, in a kind of ‘90s rave-like version of Busby Berkeley. In between dance sequences, Noe inserts little vignettes that morsel-out details of the dancers’ lives, and their personalities, through one-on-one conversations. (With a pronounced focus on sexual desire and predilection.) Initially a surprisingly sedate human comedy, this being a Gaspar Noe film, shit gets cray: A punchbowl of sangria laced with LSD incites Lord of the Flies-level madness involving violence, recrimination, screaming, knife-slashing, lesbian make-outs, incest, and suicide. All this is punctuated by Noe’s trademark woozy, endless tracking shots and swooping, nausea-inducing camerawork — and set to a non-stop classic EDM soundtrack by the likes of Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, Cerrone, M/A/R/R/S, Soft Cell, and others. Also, there’s Noe’s typical structural/graphical gimmicks: end credits at the beginning, opening titles in the middle, sub-Godardian aphorisms (“LIFE IS A COLLECTIVE IMPOSSIBILITY”). In the end, the film isn’t saying much more than ‘don’t do drugs, kids!’ But though many unpleasant things happen, Climax isn’t an unpleasant watch. And at a lean 95 minutes, it’s a big improvement over bloated, diminishing-return epics like Enter the Void and Love. Christopher Bourne
Relaxer sticks to a grim formalist gimmick that exhausts its visual ideas by about the halfway mark, leaving director Joel Potrykus to indulge in the worst aspects of his gross-out nihilism. Ne’er-do-well/serial quitter Abbie (Joshua Burge) sets himself the “challenge” of beating level 256 in Pac-Man and resolves to not get up from his brother’s couch until this task is accomplished. This set-up allows Potrykus to confine his film to the space of a studio apartment, where Abbie’s communication with the outside world is limited to the occasional visit from a friend. Relaxer consists mostly of long, static takes (and the occasional pan) and means to force viewers to endure the same restrictions as Abbie. But what isn’t present is any sense of the weight or repercussions that might make this story feel connected to a lived reality. By largely cutting Abbie off from others, his actions don’t serve to build any relationships, and instead feel like mundanely strung together vignettes of miserablism. Even Abbie himself comes off as a contrivance, a character given little interiority beyond the physical and psychological pain of his ordeal (mention is made of a possible trauma in his family life, but even that seems to be written off as a cruel joke). The greatest challenge in Relaxer, then, comes not from any diegetic circumstance, but from trying to sit through the thing. Paul Attard
Island of Hungry Ghosts
The foggy shores of Australia’s Christmas Island become a crossroad for migrants of both the human and animal variety in Gabrielle Brady‘s haunted and moody new documentary, Island of Hungry Ghosts. The film chronicles not only Christmas Island’s famous crab migration, but also its lesser known high security encampment that houses thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Australia. In an ironic juxtaposition, Brady explores the ubiquitous crabs’ journey to the sea with the stagnation of the asylum-seekers trapped in what is essentially a glorified prison, treated as criminals for the simple act of seeking a better life. The animals are free to carry on with their ancient journey, lead by an instinct to procreate and seek a better life for their children, while the humans are punished for similar desires. While the film deals with Australian immigration practices in particular, one can’t help but recognize the universal plight of the displaced currently facing immigrants in Donald Trump’s America, and across Europe. Island of Hungry Ghosts feels like a rebuke to right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment, yet Brady also avoids turning his film into a simple polemic, eschewing rhetoric for an intrinsic humanity. Here, on an island made famous by migratory animals, Brady paints a poetic, and at times chilling, portrait of life in transit, of a struggle for survival as old as time now playing-out in both the macro and the micro; an eternal flux on a tiny island, at a time when humans are treated with less dignity than the lowest creatures. Mattie Lucas
Acclaimed film critic and programmer Kent Jones follows up 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut with his first fiction film as writer/director, yielding decidedly uneven results. Diane is a fairly straightforward character study that doesn’t quite stick the landing, its narrative revealing a mish-mash of influences and filmic modes that ultimately don’t meld into a satisfying, edifying whole. Mary Kay Place is phenomenal as Diane, an endlessly patient, selfless middle-aged woman who spends her days visiting a sick cousin at the hospital, checking in on various elderly friends and family members, volunteering at a soup kitchen and tending to her drug addict son, Brian (Jake Lacy, giving the film’s one weak performance). Jones toys with the idea of sainthood here, giving Diane a Job-like patience as she attends to everyone but herself; but he smartly eases back to reveal the damaged human behind the serene façade. Indeed, Diane’s gradual unraveling is well realized by Place, wisely avoiding emotional hyperbole, instead presenting itself as a kind of general weariness that metastasizes into anger, regret, and self-loathing. The second half of the film introduces elliptical time jumps, as scenes start covering weeks, years, and, in the end, seemingly decades, as Diane ages and her friends and family begin dying. This is mostly strong material, and Jones has an eye for unfussy realism and an authentic sense of place. But Diane is weakened by some odd choices; there’s an ill-placed dream sequence that seems like it might be a kind of emotional skeleton key to Diane’s past, but it’s too opaque to be really effective. There’s also a kind of final confrontation between Diane and Brian — he’s now clean, has found religion, and is not-so-happily married — that feels over-written and artificial. Secrets from the past come bubbling up, but the film hasn’t laid the narrative framework for this sort of thing to be meaningful. Jones is attempting a kind of profound transcendence that’s grounded in the quotidian details of everyday life, a la Bresson (Diane has clear echoes of both Diary of a Country Priest and Au Hasard Balthazar), but just can’t conjure that strange alchemy required to make it work. Daniel Gorman
Chinese cinema is now deep into its latest movement, its 8th Wave. But this moment is a conflicted one, as intensely contradictory as Chinese existence itself — and its cinema seems self-conscious of this. In titles as disparate as Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, one can see refracted kernels of the lived reality of both the few and the many; while other films, such as Sun Lu’s How Long Will I Love U and any recent work from 6th Wave director Jia Zhangke (e.g. Mountains May Depart or Ash Is Purest White) explicitly contend with the antagonism of extreme differences in material conditions as relating to temporal change — one finding cause to celebrate the differences accumulated over decades, while Jia’s films are defined by ambivalence. Bai Xue’s debut feature, The Crossing, is firmly rooted in this milieu, following the life of Peipei (Huang Yao) on daily commutes from Shenzhen to Hong Kong for school, in struggles with her parents’ working class social position, and as she dreams of traveling to Hokkaido with her best friend. Eventually, in order to fund her travel, and lessen her reliance on family, Peipei gets involved in a smuggling operation.
Bai pays attention to familial tensions and squabbles over money in a way that might remind one of An Elephant Sitting Still, sans that film’s brutal fatalism, but which in fact hews much closer to the tonal management and aesthetic sensibility of a Jia picture (The Crossing happens to share Jia’s regular editor, Matthieu Laclau, and Jia himself is thanked in the credits). This is an odd combination, but one that gives the film a certain beauty and thematic potency that many films of this 8th Wave often lack. Indeed, as a coming-of-age drama, The Crossing benefits greatly from Huang Yao’s standout performance, and from the palpable joy she conveys in finding community and success amongst the cohort of smugglers she falls in with, including a romantic interest. The film is warm-hearted and astute in portraying class positions and the difficulties fostered by financial instability, as well as intelligent in equivocating on moral judgment when it comes to how its protagonists attempt to improve their lot, duplicitously. Yet, in spite of these successes, The Crossing struggles to resolve, and unknot, its contradictions, because the nation as of yet hasn’t. Arriving as some kind of deus ex machina, the state brings order where justice is required, and the compromised feel of this ending leaves a sour taste. Matt McCracken
In Dario Argento’s Deep Red, the piercing visions of a Jewish-German telepath (Macha Méril) serve as an embodiment of this Italian master’s worldview: to look is to know, and to know is to feel. As in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up before it, a murder (here it’s Méril’s imperilled seer) drives the wanderings of David Hemmings’s would-be detective, Marcus Daly — a musician with a “sensitive” temperament to match. The setting, though, is not the Swinging London of Blow-Up, but a cavernous, depopulated Rome, where Daly is accompanied by Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s lover at the time), a brash, “elephant-hided” reporter and a “liberated woman” to boot. Unlike in Antonioni’s masterpiece, however, the inciting event here is never in question — and there’s a dead body to prove it. (It’s no accident that, viewed in retrospect, the film’s prologue contains all the answers, if one only looks properly.) Despite the protestations of Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a perpetually sloshed-out queer layabout, the mystery is hidden in the details, disguised among the screaming faces of the murdered woman’s apartment, and locked away — as in Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage — somewhere within a foreigner, Daly’s, fickle mind. Only he can reveal it by chipping away at the “house of the screaming child,” a climactic location that’s amusingly up-front about its Jungian symbolism.
Throughout Deep Red, Argento’s images alternate between cavernous emptiness (the space surrounding a Roman fountain) and bustling, frenetic activity (which is very much reminiscent of the stock exchange chaos in L’Eclisse); between bold color (the plush, velvet curtains of an opera house) and the absence of same (a stark white bathroom, and a shot of a swirling drain that’s right out of Psycho). Flimsy dynamics of character give way to an angular abstraction that’s augmented by Goblin’s chillingly memorable score, and by Argento’s ever-moving camera-eye. The film’s abject terror flows less from the threat of murder than the director’s studied inscriptions of space: the fated mansion, an academic’s apartment, and a school named after Da Vinci. (In one particularly memorable interlude, the camera surveys a psychologist’s playground of horrors: severed dolls’ heads, pins, macabre crayon sketches, etc.) At the outset, Daly claims that he really “just likes music.” But as Argento’s lurid giallo seems to ask: Does anyone “just” like what they like? Bringing to mind the traumatic flashes of color in Marnie, Deep Red’s final, fatal image is of a pool of blood that reflects Hemmings’s impassive face — a face looking, knowing, feeling. Lawrence Neil Garcia