Rapid-Fire Reviews (II)

I’ve been too busy this month to write long reviews, but I sure as hell didn’t stop watching films. This month’s overview features some real heavy-hitters, not least because the 2017 update of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They 1000 Greatest Films list was released early in the month and it reminded me of some classics I’d meant to watch for a long time. Short reviews really can’t do them justice, but here we go anyway.   

Up first is In the Mood for Love (2000), an instant favourite, a classic I’ll gladly watch many times over. The film begins with the serendipitous meeting of a man and a woman each moving in, along with their respective partners, into the spare rooms of two adjacent flats. This being Hong Kong, they share common spaces with the families who own the cramped and colourful interiors. They cross paths each day, their exchanges are formal. The wife and the husband are sometimes heard, the back of their head glimpsed in a mirror or through a doorway, but their partners are absent. The narration is full of allusions, a series of vignettes intercut each time by a fade and a few frames of black. What time elapses each time we do not know. A few days, a few weeks perhaps. Time flows by. Regularly a fanciful, beautiful musical theme strikes up and the images slow down into delicate camera movements, capturing a moment, a glance as they pass each other by in the street every night. Then one day, an accumulation of signs tells each of them that they have been betrayed, that the partner of one is seeing the partner of the other. They seek to understand. They play out possible scenarios to understand the cause. Who made the first move? Imitations of infidelity become excuses for connection. Perhaps the love-trap is knowingly set. It’s hard to tell if they fall in love. Is it really love? Is it shared? Time keeps passing. Suddenly years have passed. Secret love and loss are whispered to ancient stone walls and Wong Kar Wai’s film open into an unexpected space, a greater, almost mystical place. If you watch anything from this month’s list, watch In the Mood for Love. I find it unforgettable and beautiful.

Natalie Portman is absolutely striking in Jackie, with which Larrain shows us yet again how to intelligently approach the biopic. Instead of enumerating life events, the focus is exclusively on the three days surrounding JFK’s murder to illuminate the full force and complexity of her character as she ensures that her husband is given a funeral to be remembered, consciously laying the ground for history to turn into myth and struggles with grief in the all-too-white rooms of the White House. Victoria is shot in a single two-hour take, making it the longest film of its kind, surpassing Russian Ark. Given that the budget allowed for only three takes, that over 20 locations are used, and that dialogue was to a large extent improvised, it is a thoroughly impressive achievement. The story of a night-out gone awfully, unexpectedly wrong manages to gradually build tension and raises it to incredible extremes. I would not be surprised if a good deal of that was due to genuine stress. The actors run a gamut of emotions, the camera dances with them, it’s gripping and novel enough to be worth the watch.  

John Wick: Chapter 2 wasn’t as good as the first instalment, but still retained some solid action choreography and imaginative settings, like a silent shootout in a crowded subway station. It also significantly developed the whole concept of an underworld peopled with assassins, with its own currency and codes of honour, which is fun to consider. On the downside was the lesser quality of character development this time around (why was the Ruby Rose character mute?) and the fact that all the quotable bits are essentially repeats of the first film (the pencil kill story, “babayaga”). One gimmick that offended me though was how Laurence Fishburne’s character was ripped-off Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It might be meant as a tribute, but there was no narrative justification for it, so it just felt like an insult. I’m prickly when it comes to Ghost Dog, seeing it at 15 is one of the reasons I love film. If my better judgment didn’t prevail, I’d look for the director, find him and, um, reprimand him.

Colour me not convinced.

The Neon Demon, my least favourite film this month,was a further sign that Keanu Reeves really likes to bathe in blue and pink neon glow. His role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) new film is only minor, because it is Elle Fanning who really shines here. This is my least favourite film for the month. I get that it was meant to say something clever about the vampiric, youth-obsessed, morbid world of Hollywood fashion, and the images were regularly striking, but in the end it felt lurid and empty to me. Not to keep bitching but there’s something annoying about a director whose name appears as stylized initials (“NWR”) that rubs me the wrong way. Anyway. Hard Boiled is another solid action film with one of the most striking shoot-out scenes I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing transcendent about this story of a trigger-happy cop (Chow Yun-Fat) and his undercover colleague (Tony Leung) facing down an over-armed gun-smuggling gang led by a psychopathic shades-wearing boss, but the action choreography is quality, over-the-top and fun to watch.

Ouch.

Continuing on my science-fiction spree begun in January, I made a hop back to the 70s this month. I started with World on a Wire by Fassbinder. At 3h32 minutes, this is a Sunday afternoon film if I ever saw one. The film centers around the troubles of Fred Stiller as he is newly appointed technical director for a major cybernetics project following the unexpected death of his predecessor. The team of scientists at the IKZ, a government-funded institute, has developed a virtual world named ‘Simulacron’. It is meant to replicate the existing world exactly, complete with people, or ‘units’ free to make independent decisions. By feeding the system some starting conditions and watching reactions, it is then theoretically possible to predict the future. It’s a perfect simulation, a mirror image indistinguishable from reality to its every participant. What Elon Musk’s wet dreams are made of, basically. Except Fassbinder had a firmer grasp on the philosophical quandaries and existential woes this sort of messing about with the nature of reality could put us in, as well as its potential for corporate-led abuse. World on a Wire is, despite its length, an engrossing from beginning to end due to its effective mélange of satire, political commentary, office politics, action and questioning about the nature of reality.

Even more deeply reflective is Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This is not a film about plot, so my slightly edited version of the IMDB blurb is all you need to know: “A guide [the stalker] leads two men [a writer and a scientist] through an area known as the Zone [a dirty marsh fenced in by the military] to find a room that grants wishes.” This rather bare plot is oddly transfixing, as the three hopeless men confront their deepest selves. The pace is slow, contemplative, so that there is always time to think on the characters’ words, but also to let yourself be absorbed by the imagery. I was also very impressed by Tarkovsky’s ability to create tension with little more than anxious-looking actors, extended shots and the sound of a disembodied voice. It’s masterful, intriguing filmmaking.

In any case I learned a lot more about faith than in Silence, a film which frustratingly wastes wonderful potential. Two catholic missionaries, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to Japan in the hope of finding their teacher (Liam Neeson), who is reported to have renounced God. Once ashore the island, which at the time was entirely shut to foreign interlopers, the two clandestine priests find Christian converts living in mortal fear of an ongoing inquisition, but faith impels them to spread the good word regardless. Violent repression ensues, so that they are confronted with a moral dilemma: is it right and good for these poor peasant communities to endure so much pain in the name of their new God? The inquisitor is clever in his repression, he inflicts torture only on the flock, so that the shepherds must choose: as spiritual leaders, can they renounce their faith to save lives, or must the converts become martyrs? I mean, what a topic! Sadly, and despite some brief moments of brilliance, the film is laborious and repetitive, even boring, and I’m not even sure my lack of faith has anything to do with this assessment. Scorsese suggests that there are deep differences of vision between Rodrigues and Garupe, but fails to really investigate them. The reason for Rodrigues’ final choice between apostasy and survival remains unclear, the epilogue brushes over fascinating questions… Answers were too slow to come (nearly three hours) and too unsatisfying for me to mark this film positively, despite the brief flashes of brilliance, the beautiful cinematography and the good performances by Garfield and Driver both.

Oh, and you should really watch Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome; and Age of Shadows is a good addition to the Korean period thriller genre.

  • Jackie, by Pablo Larrain (01/02 – in the cinema)
  • Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins (04/02 – in the cinema)
  • In the Mood for Love, by Wong Kar-Wai (08/02)
  • Silence, by Martin Scorsese (09/02 – in the cinema)
  • Victoria, by Sebastian Schipper (15/02)
  • Age of Shadows, by Kim Jee-Woon (15/02)
  • Loving, by Jeff Nichols (16/02 – in the cinema)
  • John Wick: Chapter 2, by Chad Stahelski (24/02 – in the cinema)
  • Hard Boiled, by John Woo (25/02)
  • World on a Wire, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (25/02)
  • The Neon Demon, by Nicolas Winding Refn (26/02)
  • Stalker, by Andreï Tarkovsky (26-27/02)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome, by George Miller (28/02)