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. | Our July issue collects our takes on this month’s theatrical releases, several of which, while released amidst fertile blockbuster territory, are surging in limited release. Included here are buzzed-about Sundance hits The Farewell and Honeyland; fall festival holdovers I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Angels Are Made of Light, and Ray & Liz; the film where Jesse Eisenberg practices martial arts, The Art of Self-Defense; and others.
We may have gotten to the point where not only is A24 curating its brand with obvious aesthetic guidelines, but also, we have fresh filmmakers out there recognizing those guidelines, and choosing to craft films with the A24 demographics in mind — much like the trend of the quirky Amer-indie that bets its distribution life on a well-received Sundance bow. That’s the problem with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell: slow-motion sequences of characters walking together and an overbearing, choral-infused score — which probably secured the film its A24 contract — tend to skew the focus of what is otherwise a sharp dramedy on issues of intercultural understanding, nationalism, and familial connection. New York-based Billi (Awkwafina) finds out that her Nai Nai (Zhou Shuzhen) — Chinese for ‘grandmother, on your father’s side’ — with whom she’s communicated long-distance from China for most of her life, is dying of cancer. But by instruction of her family, no one is allowed to tell her. Billi isn’t even supposed to go back with her parents to their birth city of Changchun, for the pretend wedding that the family has planned as an excuse, because she “can’t hide her emotions.”
All of this serves to set up The Farewell’s surprisingly even-handed study of cultural mores, and in particular, its unpacking of the sociopolitical realities that make the collective shouldering of emotional burden an ingrained part of Chinese identity. A big moment used in the film’s trailer, ready-made for an Oscar clip should things go that far, finds Billi’s exasperated uncle (Jiang Yongbo) trying to reason with his niece: “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” The scene is didactic, sure, but what goes unstressed is why this is the case — which is to say, the collectivist context of modern China’s subject formation. Wang chooses to articulate her politics in more subtle ways, like the recurring shots of vacant apartment buildings, casualties of a fraught real estate market in third-tier Chinese cities like Changchun. Which isn’t to say that The Farewell is really meant as a stealth effort of biting social critique; it’s no more critical of Chinese values than it is of American ones (as is made apparent during an incisive dinner table scene). Wang strikes a balance, and shows more interest in grappling with complicated realities than she does in taking cultural sides. This nuance extends, too, to the character work in her film, from Billi grappling with concepts of individual agency as a young Chinese-American, to her father (Tzi Ma), a Chinese national, struggling between the freedom he found in life in America and the directionlessness he’s felt since leaving his home. Wang’s voices as both writer and thinker are strong and assertive — so hopefully, next time, she won’t need a trendy distributor to be heard. Sam C. Mac
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Radu Jude begins his magisterial I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians with actress Ioana Iacob introducing herself to the audience, announcing the name of her character within the film, and then bidding us a cheerful “I hope you enjoy the film.” More than just a glib bit of meta-commentary, or a Brechtian gag, it is an announcement of purpose. What we are about to watch is a construct, and part of that construct is interrogating not only history but how we choose to interpret that history. Iacob plays Mariana, an artist who is attempting to stage a large-scale reenactment of a 1941 massacre of Romanian Jews at the hands of Romanian soldiers after they captured the city of Odessa on the Eastern Front. Alexandru Dabija plays Movila, a city official of some sort who is overseeing the project, and who objects to how Mariana is portraying the Romanian people as complicit in the Holocaust. A long conversation between Mariana and Movila takes up a sizable chunk of the two-hour plus runtime here, as Jude lays out his philosophical and pedagogical agenda. Movila lobs multiple rhetorical jabs at Mariana, running the gamut from questions of historical accuracy to aesthetics and finally a glib, what’s-the-point shrug, as he jokes about the rankings of historical atrocities (“No one wrote Nagasaki Mon Amour,” he quips, suggesting that only Hiroshima is truly remembered, before making a final solution joke).
Jude and cameraman Marius Panduru film scenes in snaking, flowing long takes, which follow characters around while they verbally joust; but they also lock the camera down into a stationary position, as characters read long passages of political theory either directly to the camera or to other characters situated offscreen. Jude is particularly adept at arranging bits of business in all parts of the frame, so that there is always movement in the background even as two or more characters converse in the foreground. It is of course not lost on Jude that he is marshaling huge numbers of extras and props for his film just as Mariana is for her project. There’s an important scene that shows Mariana looking at old, black-and-white newsreel footage of soldiers violently rounding up Jews. She likes the footage, in as much as it’s the sort of documentary evidence that she needs to bolster her case for the authenticity of her claims against Movila’s protests. But she realizes that the footage is from Lithuania, and has nothing to do with the actual crimes in Odessa, or involving Romanians, and that the proper course of action is to rely on the photographs she already has. She knows they are from the authentic time and place, and more importantly, that they implicate the actual participants. This is the morality of images, and the power of the filmmaker to make ethical choices, not just formal ones. Jude deeply cares about excavating this dark past, forcing viewers to confront it, and to finally, absolutely damn the barbarians who perpetrated it. Daniel Gorman
Angels Are Made of Light
James Longley‘s Angels Are Made of Light is an essential document, chronicling several seasons at the Daqiqi Balkhi School in Kabul, Afghanistan. The remnants of conflict are everywhere, even as life goes on in and around this war-torn landscape. Longley chronicles the school, which as the film begins is a grouping of tents, before it moves into an actual building, and follows several students and teachers as they navigate their day-to-day life. Children play and study and goof around, while teachers go through the routine of reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is an emphasis, despite the proliferation of religious texts, on logical, reason based thinking. The teachers are acutely aware that greed, ego, and petty differences are at the heart of much of their country’s troubles, and seem determined to push past religious and political animosity. Still, Longley is not naive, and as this school becomes a polling station for a national election, he captures plenty of arguments and flared tempers, as well as competing religious ceremonies. He’s not interested in editorializing, but the stark differences are clear enough. America has been involved in conflict in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and while Angels Are Made of Light is not specifically political, the specter of US occupation hangs over most of the people in the film. It’s a fact of life, something that exists like breathing or the weather.
Longley makes sure to reflect the beauty of the landscape and the bustling city streets, but also shows children having to choose between work and school, and watches them as they contemplate what kind of future they might have if the fighting would stop. Kabul, as depicted here, seems relatively peaceful, but the threat of conflict is constant. Longley indulges in a couple of essayistic interludes, using archival footage to fill in historical details, and while they are too brief to be particularly educational, they do illustrate a violent history that has occupied the better part of the 20th Century. At one point, someone in the film mentions that everything would be okay if only Afghans could get rid of the Taliban and America. That we’re mentioned in the same breathe should give every American pause. Longley’s film declares the humanity of a people, whom exist only in an abstract sense to most of us, in a country that is shaping their future. We must do better, their future depends on it. Daniel Gorman
The Art of Self-Defense
An arch and wickedly funny portrait of American male masculinity in the 21st century, one could argue that writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense is the kind of film we desperately need in this day and age of toxicity. In telling the story of a weak and ineffectual accountant named Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) who joins a karate dojo after being brutally attacked and left for dead, Stearns channels the deadpan and absurd humor of Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest. And what can sometimes come across as overly precious subtly takes on greater power as Casey embraces his masculinity, speaking in a robotic monotone that implies strength and power. It’s a killer joke, one that goes beyond the mere affect present in the film’s opening scenes. Unfortunately, Stearns doesn’t trust his material, and opts to make his message painfully explicit in the film’s back half. He also becomes overly concerned with the machinations of his plot, with twists that any viewer can see coming from a mile away. The Art of Self-Defense ultimately loses steam the longer it goes on — save for a truly killer ending. Eisenberg is a pretty obvious choice for the lead here, but even still, he proves far more adept at dark comedy than one might expect. The true standout, though, is Alessandro Nivola, as the dojo’s Sensei, a man who firmly believes that heavy metal is the only masculine form of music that exists and who can somehow utter a line like, “I’ve found that her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man” with breathtaking earnestness. This is an imperfect film, to be sure, but one that confirms Stearns — whose debut feature, 2014’s Faults, deserves far more love and attention than it received upon release — as a filmmaker to watch. Steven Warner
Sword of Trust
It can be difficult to wrap ones head around what ‘Mumblecore’ is today: a genuine movement ten-plus years ago, and one that once had so much promise, it’s finally yielded to some of its shallower tendencies. Lynn Shelton’s latest feature, Sword of Trust, is a prime example — a sitcom-esque dramatic comedy that leans on the audience’s history with its star, celebrity Marc Maron, as well as their awareness of what’s currently topical, in lieu of anything more substantive. Admittedly these were always traits at least present in the work by Shelton and her colleagues throughout the mid-to-late-2000s, but whereas Mumblecore once had a firm grasp on why modern peculiarities eventually evolved into crippling social neuroses, more recent films, like Joe Swanberg’s Easy, suggest an apathy toward imagination, coupled with a desire to mine modern idiosyncrasies without looking at them too closely. Maron acts as the unlikely center of this production, playing a loosely fictionalized version of himself named Mel, a recovering addict who runs a pawn shop in Alabama after wasting away much of his youth in an unhealthy, drug-fueled relationship.
Anyone who has a decent familiarity with Maron’s podcast, stand up, or his IFC show (of which Shelton directed two episodes) will recognize this narrative as the comedian’s own — albeit a version where Maron didn’t end up successful. Of course, Shelton and her mumblecore contemporaries have long employed this tactic in their work, and while it’s paid off in the past (she somehow coaxed a good performance out of Mark Duplass by casting him as a guy resentful of his dead brother in Your Sister’s Sister), it feels rather pointless to further analyze a pop culture figure who’s built his entire career upon re-litigating his past. This all starts to look even more egregious when you consider that the primary plot (lesbian couple inherit a sword and try to sell it to Civil War truthers) has no real need for Maron’s character, and yet he dominates the proceedings, which, combined with the humor and pokey pacing, makes the whole affair feel like a leftover episode of the actor/comedian’s cancelled show (IFC are also distributing Sword of Trust), but stretched to feature length. M.G. Mailloux
Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary Honeyland opens with the image of a yellow-frocked figure, indistinct, walking a notched path that winds through a green sea of grass. It’s an aerial shot, and it basks in a vision of spring-colored tranquility. But this is almost immediately upset with a cut to a closer, tracking shot, one that follows just paces behind the woman who is the main focus of Honeyland — Hatidze Muratova — as she clambers along the cliffed façade of a precarious mountain path. Hatidze’s destination proves to be a strategically frequented one: a selected bit of hollowed-out rock, inside of which are precious bits of honeycomb. The film then settles into the hardscrabble rhythms of this North Macedonian beekeeper’s daily routines, which mostly consist of caring for her bedridden, octogenarian mother and maintaining her artful science of bee care and honey collection. Hatidze seems to occupy a netherworld between epochs: she lives in an antiquated, lantern-lit stone home and is frequently shot in close-up, her weathered and sun-browned face and wide smile, set atop a grey-whiskered chin, speaking to a certain noble obsolescence. But she also routinely travels to a nearby city, where she hawks her honey and uses the proceeds to purchase extravagances like chestnut-colored hair dye because “everyone likes to look good.”
Honeyland’s main turmoil comes from the introduction of a nomadic family, who settle near Hatidze’s home. At first, everyone exists in harmonious conviviality, with navy skies and nighttime fires backgrounding the early stages of their relationship. The newcomers — two parents and their numerous children — seem industrious; the youngsters help to birth and wrangle calves, amongst other trying work. But when the father of this family, Hussein, decides to diversify and get into the bee business, with the help of his kindly neighbor — Hatidze — a tension between tradition and modernity suddenly erupts. It’s here that the bees in Honeyland, in addition to serving their practical purpose, are also shown to function as something of a metaphor: bees have long been a symbol of environmental health and stability, so when Hussein ignores Hatidze’s experiential wisdom about beekeeping, this upsets the ecological balance and facilitates a fatal antagonism between the neighboring apian habitats, while also representing money culture’s short-sighted disregard for the necessity of nature’s balance and the imminent, gyroscopic consequences therein. Hussein’s actions emphasize his inability to extricate himself from, or situate himself within, present capitalist ideology, his need for productivity and profit organically turning him into a villain who threatens his children (he professes to have a new one each year, implicitly for the workforce gain) with decapitation for indolence, and whose actions result in the avoidable deaths of dozens of calves who exist only as commodity. Conflict gives way to loss and forceful resignation, and the large family absents themselves in pursuit of greener pastures. And in Honeyland‘s penultimate shot, those vibrant colors which ushered Hatidze into the film here give way to the fading day’s palette of azure, coral, and mauve, against which, silhouetted, is the image of a woman feeding honeycomb to her dog. In these moments, for the moment, joy and hope still exist. Luke Gorham
Ray & Liz
Following in the footsteps of Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, and Steve McQueen, amongst others, Birmingham-born artist Richard Billingham makes the jump from the gallery to feature films with Ray & Liz. But the fact that Billingham is a photographer known for portraiture is key to what doesn’t work about his film. Ostensibly autobiographical, and loosely connected to a series of photographs Billingham took of his family, over the years, Ray & Liz chronicles two young boys and their parents, the drunk but mostly affable Ray (Justin Salinger) and the gargantuan, frequently furious Liz (Ella Smith) living on the fringes of British society. Almost all of the action is confined to small, cramped living spaces of government subsidized homes, with peeling paint, scraped-off wallpaper, dirty carpeting and crummy furniture. Taking place over several years, the film’s three discreet sections observe Ray (Patrick Romer), who lives alone in a small flat, and whose penchant for drinking the days away becomes the film’s through-line. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who did stunning work on Under the Skin, ensures that Ray & Liz frequently looks beautiful. But it’s a shallow beauty — at its worst a kind of indie film affectation, Wes Anderson by way of Mike Leigh and Terence Davies. Shallow focus robs the images of any depth, so the focus is on patterns, kitschy tchotchkes, dollops of light through billowing window curtains and the like. The spaces don’t feel lived-in or authentic; they feel art-directed and stage managed. When Billingham cuts between two simple, static camera setups, occasionally throwing in an insert shot in extreme close-up to break from the back-and-forth monotony, his efforts register mainly as aesthetic posturing. The camera only occasionally moves, and there are a couple of totally unmotivated zooms that mostly just distract. There’s neither flow nor rhythm — no sense of how to put together moving images. Although now a film director, Billingham comes across mainly as a pretty good still photographer. Daniel Gorman
In its attempts to chart the decaying values of a country in the midst of political turmoil, Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo is disruptive from the very outset. The Argentinian writer-director’s exploration of poisonous nobility in 1970s high society finds Claudio (Dario Grandinetti), a Buenos Aires lawyer, becoming embroiled in the disappearance of local man Dieguito (Diego Cremonesi), after the pair have an altercation in a local restaurant. The film opens with their bitter dispute, in a scene that is wonderfully tense, its tumultuous dynamic slowly revealing to us which of these men has the superior intellect and nerve. The primary strength of Rojo is in how it portrays damaged moral frameworks, with a perpetually shifty performance from Grandinetti helping to make man-of-stature Claudio into an intriguing antihero, one who continually distorts his own ethics to suit his needs. Stories about the past catching up with shady characters can often be rewarding for an audience, yet it takes far too long for the investigation into the missing man to commence, Alfredo Castro’s entrance as the grandstanding Detective Sinclair a thoroughly welcome intrusion — an entire hour into the proceedings. Prior to this, there is too much focus afforded to Claudio’s questionable business pursuits, as well as a superfluous subplot involving his daughter that attempts to address the political involvement of a younger generation. Naishtat’s use of the freeze frame, a popular film technique in the Seventies, helps to give the film some nostalgic flair, while his offhand comedy recalls the sort found in Claude Chabrol works such as 1986’s Inspector Lavardin. Collectively, these elements help to build the distinctive appeal of Rojo, which, while unable to capitalize fully on the promise of its exciting opening act, remains a perceptive and colorful disquisition on the failure of lawmakers to lead by example. Calum Reed
After his eccentric, taskmaster father (Udo Kier) dies, Andy (Tye Sheridan) — a burly, brooding mass of tortured American masculinity — joins a renowned physician, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), on an increasingly fraught tour of a debunked lobotomy procedure. So begins Rick Alverson’s The Mountain, a post-WWII period piece that follows a sexually frustrated man in the thrall of a roving fraud. If that description sounds a whole lot like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, that’s no coincidence; Alverson has crafted an American feature with similar concerns and comparably lofty ambitions. A literal state-of-the-nation diagnosis, The Mountain is a chamber piece writ large, observing the postwar boom of the 1950s through the eyes of a soul-sick, effectively orphaned figure. Unfolding mainly in claustrophobic, meticulously composed interiors, the film is also clinical in the extreme, with a bleached-out, colorless canvas to match. Like Anderson before him, Alverson aims to hypnotize with his directorial control, offering no shortage of formal ostentation. Not a single moment of this almost two-hour film ever really breathes — which, in theory, dovetails well with its portrayals of suffocating patriarchal authority. What’s missing, though, is any sort of tension — formal or otherwise — that would make the film more than just an inert curiosity. (Even Denis Lavant, who emerges late in the story as the father of one of Fiennes’s hapless patients, is unable to shatter the icy, mannered repose of Alverson’s film.) The Mountain eventually arrives at a point of (generational) abandonment: two youths left to gaze at the frozen wasteland of their future. Rather than plumb the depths of this anguish, however, Alverson is content to merely gesture towards it. Here, as in the rest of the film, he leaves the viewer out in the cold. Lawrence Garcia
Writer-director Guy Nattiv‘s Skin isn’t just a feature-length extension of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short film, also called Skin; the 2018 short played out like the most socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone anyone could imagine, as a backwoods racist received a taste of his own medicine when his entire body was tattooed black (seriously, this is real, and won an Oscar), while the 2019 Skin is more basic. Instead of expanding upon the batshit insanity of his debut, Nattiv opts to tell the true-life tale of Bryon “Babs” Widner, a white supremacist who figures out that being a violent, racist pig isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. His journey of healing is inspired by his love of the sassy and direct Julie Price, as well as her three young, sassy and direct daughters. As far as stories of redemption go, this one is about as formulaic as you can get — and frankly, the last thing anyone needs in 2019 is a movie that makes us sympathize with a Nazi. What to make of a movie where the death of our hero’s dog is given more weight than that of a hate crime where three Mexican males are brutally murdered? Nattiv does reveal some filmmaking chops when it comes to his stark compositions of a brutal, unforgiving midwestern winter landscape, and is aided greatly by a stacked cast that delivers dynamic and committed performances, especially Jamie Bell (can’t this guy catch a break?) as Widner and Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$) as Price. It’s too bad, then, that all of this is ultimately in service of something that aspires to be its generation’s American History X, minus that film’s affected and stylized theatricality. In 2019, we should expect and demand something greater from the social discourse. Steven Warner
A Faithful Man
Abel (Louis Garrel) has a dilemma, one that makes-up the entire emotional framework of A Faithful Man. Abel lusts after two equally beautiful (and deviously cunning) women — his former girlfriend, Marianne (Laetitia Casta), who left him six years earlier for another man, and Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), who’s adored Abel from afar since she was a schoolgirl — and he has to make the difficult choice of which one he’s going to commit to. There really isn’t an issue with either partner here that would give Abel’s conflict any sort of moral weight, as both attach themselves to the young man without a second thought, while each also devise their own opportunistic strategies to ultimately seduce him (Eve consistently pursues; Marianna plays the long game, disguising her affection as indifference). Even the introduction of occasional side-plots to try and complicate these relationships, like the possibility of Marianne having murdering her previous husband, are treated more like amusing one-offs than attempts at actual character development. So, A Faithful Man ends up being a lovers triangle without tensions or stakes to speak of, while also presenting as a comedy despite not being particularly humorous; it’s an awkward, store-brand version of Garrel’s father’s films, with none of their bite, wit, or poignancy. The most striking image Garrel Jr. is able to conjure up across the film’s hour-long runtime (which is still somehow too long for material this meager) that has even an ounce of this aforementioned playfulness comes as Abel tries to win back Marianne, chasing her through a French parliament building before being tackled by security. He awakens, forced onto the floor with his upper body centering the frame, only for his lover’s black high heel to enter the shot, as if Abel’s ready to kiss her feet for forgiveness — it’s a brief moment of gaiety, one that feels especially pronounced relative to the inert melodrama on display. Paul Attard
In 1964, the Brazilian Armed Forces — with support from the United States government — took up measures to overthrow democratically elected leaders of Brazil, including President João Goulart and Miguel Arraes, governor of Pernambucan. This military dictatorship would go on to arrest, torture, and ‘disappear’ activists operating throughout the country. One such group, used by conservative forces as proof of an increasing communist influence, was the Ligas Camponesas, an organization based in the northeast of the country, and who fought for agrarian reforms and labor rights. The organization, who met their violent end with the installment of the new regime, had used the cultural symbol of the cangaceiro (social bandits of the semi-arid sertão who were killed off during the 1930s) as a revolutionary symbol of resistance against landowners and the latifúndio system, rousing the peasants of the sertão to take action against their exploiters. Glauber Rocha would make use of the cangaceiro too; in Black God, White Devil, they appear alongside other spatio-historical references that work in order to exhume the restless spirits that still linger amid the caatinga, giving them a new light within the cinema. Having been released only a few months following the coup, Rocha’s film takes on an opportune edge that re-establishes the words and actions of the Ligas Camponesas, in the style of a parable, apposite for the Cinema Novo movement developing at the time. Rocha and his contemporaries would overturn the old genres of Brazilian cinema and shine a light on the hunger of the working class, to reveal the fatalism forced upon them by their oppressors. At this point, violence becomes the only response to exploitation, for “the moment of violence is the moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the existence of the colonised.”
Black God, White Devil begins with the ranch hand Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) killing his boss in a fit of rage after having been cheated out of some of his wages. Manuel and his wife, Rosa (Yoná Magalhães), soon embark on a journey across the sertão, first joining a messianic preacher and his cult before leaving again to find refuge with the last of the cangaceiro. Rocha’s film is divided into two distinct segments: the first half, which is replete with disorienting camera movements and shot compositions that confuse our awareness of the surroundings amidst the babble of a cult, and the contrasting second half, where the blocking of actors becomes carefully determined in an overactive frame for more of an analytical effect, working against the earlier scenes through their Brechtian distanciation and monologues delivered to confront the audience. The “Black God” of the film’s English title refers to the cult leader, Sebastião (Lidio Silva), who seemingly serves as a reference to the War of Canudos and its central figure, Antônio Conselheiro, who led a rebellion against the government in the 1890s which ultimately resulted in his cult’s crushing defeat. In nominal opposition is the “White Devil,” Corisco (Othon Bastos), a surviving member of the cangaceiro through whom the ghost of Lampião (Brazil’s equivalent of Jesse James) interjects as a symbol of revolt against underdevelopment. Both of these figures, though, are murdered by the hired killer Antonio das Mortes (Maurício do Valle), who acts as the hand of both church and state, disposing of the region’s icons of primordial resistance against exploitation to show them as little more than the last vestiges of a bygone era — crushed by the solidifying republic. Manuel continues to run, fleeing once again in his protracted search for justice, while the final words of Corisco — “Power to the people” — ring out, as a realization of their only hope. Sam Thomas-Redfern