Film Comment (September-October 2018)

Everybody Hurts, by Andrew Chan

More than any of his Korean compatriots on the international art-house scene, Lee, who served as South Korea’s minister of culture and tourism in the early 2000s, has always been prone to sick-soul-of-the-nation indictments, tinged with a mix of mordant humor and earnest humanism reminiscent of Edward Yang.

More and more, the director has began to revel in the pleasures of genre, and with his two previous masterpieces, Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010), he figured out how to make melodramas with sharp teeth and irresistible momentum. In this insular worlds of these films, suspense and tragedy fit hand in glove: every moment is fueled by the question of how the heroine will make it out of her purgatory alive.

Where both Secret Sunshine  and Poetry are centered on alienated women whose individuality is thrown into relief by grim fate — women who has given up on reading all the social cues — Burning shows us characters who stumble their way into connections without having too much of a self to offer, in the process conjuring identities and detecting motives that, like the pantomimed orange, may not really be there.

Because so much what we feel in life is inchoate and inexplicable, one of the great comforts of melodrama is seeing anguish made highly visible and treated as incontrovertibly warranted.

The Paragon of Animals, by Michael Koresky

Joel and Ethan Coen’s gallery of reprobates here are quite the opposite of what we would traditionally refer to as hero: feckless, loveless, aimless, murderous, weak-willed, greedy, or pathetic, and it’s unlikely that any of them could have sustained a feature-length narrative without delivering viewers directly to the exits. But what makes the Coen’s gambit work so brilliantly is that these discrete tales of the banal and the cursed accumulate into a single, unified work that is much stronger, stranger, and sadder than initially seems possible.

Dime-store novels are a good reference point for the Coens, whose rich, occasionally florid and grotesque style conceals hard moral centers — if never certitude.

However gratifyingly breakneck their pacing and clean their visual lines of action, one would be forgiven for watching these first two chapters and wondering what in heckfire the Coens are really on about. The depths of their vision begin to come into focus in the third part, […]

Private Life, by Sheila O’Malley

One of Jenkins’s gifts as a screenwriter is her ability to ground Rachel and Richard in their intimate specifics of their lives — their jobs, their apartment, their passions.

Wildlife, by Steven Mears

Whenever you think you have it clocked, Dano’s sometimes frustrating, always fascinating screenplay bends away from you, proceeding with confident restraint in its embrace of stillness and silence.

The Guilty, by April Wolfe

Moller delivers a compelling narrative by artfully concealing bald truths until the very last possible second. But The Guilty subverts expectations by complicating the crime drama convention that the tough-talking guy who breaks through the bureaucracy to get the job done is always the hero.

Film Comment (November-December 2018)

Lover and Theft, by Aliza Ma

These outsiders provide a window into the elaborate inner dynamics of domesticity, and a larger social canvas on which Kore-eda can investigate the ways families are formed by and give shape to social and cultural mores.

With her face despondent and her movements mechanical, these ritual displays of lust become a physical and psychological barrier to romantic intimacy, and a way to escape past emotional damage. This setup produces wistful and poignant observations on sex and romance in a world of artifice-consumed, post-procreational, and socially isolated individuals —  a heartbreaking theme that Kore-eda also delved into with Air Doll (2009).

What Kore-eda probes more deeply in Shoplifters than any of his previous films are the class issues in an overbearing late-capitalist megacity.

The cramped, downtrodden domain of the Shibatas stands in dark contrast to the mise en scene of Our Little Sister, […] and Like Father, Like Son, with its glistening allure of affluent city life. Instead, in this portrayal of individuals who have long been overlooked by dominant Japanese society, Kore-eda magnifies simple moments of pleasure shared by the characters into vignettes of poetry and grace, […]

Hope for Us Yet, By Manu Yanez Murillo

In short, past and present blur together in Rohrwacher’s vision of an Italy stasis — a land where the incessant cycle of dispossession is fueled by the dogmas of faith and profit.

A whole collection of uncertain realities, slightly out of time and place — lending the quality of myths, fables, and dreams — come together in the mesmerizing titular character of Happy as Lazzaro.

The filmmaker shares Lazzaro’s values but not his naivete: she distances herself from the film’s hero to observe the chain of exploitation that has propelled modern forms of feudalism. One can feel (and share) Rohrwacher’s outrage, but fortunately that doesn’t prevent her from admiring the beauty that radiates from Lazzaro.

It is through the eyes of her young protagonists that Rohrwacher captures the essence of Italian reality and its popular imagination, a cultural amalgam both exalted and dispiriting, colorful and miasmic. Through the curious, startled gaze of her uncorrupted heroes, Rohrwacher renders as pure, intentional chaos the connivance of the church, the political classes, the media, and the financial world in the governance of the state.

Still I Rise, by Nick Davis

It’s an urban panorama as meticulous and glorious as ROMA’s, but it knows characters more thoroughly and is less fixed on its own grandeur. It’s meditation on the decade-after-decade stocking of prisons with the bodies and minds of black men, framed not as expose or as systemic protest (though that’s certainly baked into the film) but through the inductive logic of emotional lament, watching a soul with everyday imperfections get railroaded down some familiar tracks and sequestered from everyone who loves him — including the filmmakers, who have only partial access to his experience.

Plenty of scenes or inserts could be almost anywhere in the film, especially those that advance feeling or tone more than plot, so full credit to McMillon and Sanders for maintaining affective through-line and dramatic momentum even in passages with no binding structure.

The Favorite, by Molly Haskell

The Favorite  is somewhere in between: it carries us along its exuberance and wit, its diabolical conceit, until it seems to gradually deflate; the verbal pyrotechnics disappear, with nothing to replace them. We live in a time of dark narratives (or anti-narratives); fractured plots; elusive, opaque characters; but even without the usual coordinates, we usually sense a director’s purpose, though we can’t always put it into words.