Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ascent (2016) A Film by Fiona Tan

"Splendor can't be diminished by context or weakened by one's overexposure to it. That's one of the principal lessons of Fiona Tan's Ascent, a docufiction photomontage film that meditates on Japan's magisterial Mount Fuji via its representation in photographic material captured over the course of the last century. Tan's comprehensive project discriminates against no particular era or pedigree of imagery, meaning that the depictions of Mount Fuji on display run the textural gamut from exquisitely staged shots on early color-tinted celluloid to pixelated, drive-by cellphone snaps and everything in between. The mountain's singular presence—astonishing, enchanting, intimidating—remains the one constant throughout, emanating in even the lowest-grade photos a peculiar autonomy, a tendency to float apart from the surrounding image as though possessed of its own life force."

Full review continues at Slant.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Woman Who Left (2017) A Film by Lav Diaz

"Having demarcated his world cleanly into abject cruelty, haunted victimhood, and pure saintliness, Diaz eases into The Woman Who Left's primary plot around the two-hour mark when a trans woman, Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), on the brink of death after a brutal beating, collapses her way through Horacia's front door. The scenes that follow, which feature Horacia patiently fielding Hollanda's torrents of self-loathing, healing her open wounds, and talking her down from a cliff, represent the tender highpoint of the film, and yet they're also dramatically inert, functioning transparently as allegory for a wounded nation. That the eventual resolution of this thread implies transference of violence from one outlet to another hints at the director's pained and pessimistic assessment of the country's past and present."

Full review of Lav Diaz's latest film at Slant Magazine.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Woman of the Year (1942) A Film by George Stevens

"Harping on the politics of a 1942 romantic comedy is a dubious game, especially when one considers that the context for Woman of the Year's American exceptionalism was the pall of Nazism. But the film plays particularly poorly in 2017, and not only because its central narrative thrust involves the question of how to handle refugees, the relevance or lack thereof of the traditional blue-collar American male, and the place of feminism within American life. The film's conservative agenda also shortchanges Tracy and Hepburn's chemistry. The former's earthy restraint and the latter's electric sensuality are best collided in the early stages of the plot before Sam and Tess's differing worldviews stir conflict (one alcohol-lubricated back and forth in which the lovers hesitantly flesh out their respective backstories features a sizzling arrangement of intimate close-ups). But the screenplay's emphasis on Sam and Tess's disparities quickly fosters an environment that runs counter to Tracy and Hepburn's finest asset when sharing the screen together: the sense that the actors, and not just the characters they're playing, can barely contain their affection for one another."

Full review of The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release of Woman of the Year continues here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) A Film by Juho Kuosmanen

"With its 16mm black-and-white cinematography and lack of musical score, however, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki reaches further back into history for its primary cinematic touchstones, specifically to the grayscale neorealism of Ermanno Olmi and the Czech New Wave films, works which unhurriedly examined the plights of working-class everymen jostled around by forces of class and economics. It's noted often in the dialogue that Mäki's humble background is as a baker, and Elis repeatedly reminds him of the pitiful 'backwoods' to which he will return if he fails to live up to the hype. Alas, Kuosmanen places his sympathies squarely with the rube who's hopelessly out of place in a globalized market."

Review continues at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Quiet Passion (2016) A Film by Terence Davies

"The first and most conspicuous sign of A Quiet Passion's historical specificity is the supreme headiness and eloquence of its dialogue, which comes at a rapid clip and with almost wall-to-wall frequency. More than a mere place of residence and relaxation, the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts—the actual preserved site of which was provided to Davies for the film's few exteriors—serves as an arena for around-the-clock banter on such matters as the nature and limits of Christian piety, the literature and art of the day, local gossip, and general discourses around the question of how to lead a dignified life. Recorded with such heightened clarity as to almost sound dubbed, these dense conversations have a distancing quality comparable to that of Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, but the linguistic information moves too swiftly to allow time for comedic upshot. Instead, the discussions generally begin as nourishing meetings of the mind, transform into indignant sparring sessions, and resolve as apologetic declarations of mutual respect—each a microcosmic demonstration of Davies's refined feel for human drama."

Full review continues at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Death of Louis XIV (2016) A Film by Albert Serra

"In prior efforts, Serra has shown a penchant for degrading his iconic subjects and passing the result off as humanizing historical realism—dwelling on Casanova as he admires his own excrement or shovels heaps of animal meat in his face, for instance. That tendency isn't fully abolished in The Death of Louis XIV, but it's tamed. The emphasis is where it should be—which is to say, not on the Sun King's increasingly black, gangrenous left leg, but on the leader's face, and the faces of those around him, as he sluggishly succumbs to his undoing. The humanity of the situation, rather than the grotesquery, is Serra's focus here, which is already a promising recalibration of his sensibility."

Review continues at Slant.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Autumn, Autumn (2016) A Film by Jang Woo-jin

"If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that Jang’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place."

Full review of Autumn, Autumn, now showing at New Directors/New Films, continues here.