The Journey Is the Reward: In Transit (2015)

 

For one glorious week, documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles’s last film, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the US, in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do—but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.

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Thoughts on Booksmart (2019)

Yet another entry in the genre of teenage coming-of-age films, Booksmart (2019), the debut directorial feature from Olivia Wilde, miraculously manages to stake out new ground. It feels fresh and original, mostly because it does well the postmodern trick of mixing and matching old forms.

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The Lucky One: Miss Americana (2020, aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana)

People often say that you need to be objective to be a good critic, but I’ve often found that being invested in a work can illumine more pathways into what it’s trying to do and how well it succeeds. Of course, it’s not necessarily a “better” perspective, whatever that means, just a different one. Being a Swiftie, I find the Taylor Swift on screen in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020, aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana) to be a familiar presence from all of the interview and behind-the-scenes footage of her that already exists, some of which is used in this documentary. As Swift suggests in an early interview, also included, fame and career longevity have always been on her mind, and the film grounds such abstract musings in raw and emotionally vulnerable moments, captured as they happen.

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Thoughts on Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019)

Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019), Makoto Shinkai’s new feature, is a strange beast. The trailer conveys it well: stunningly beautiful, but with two plotlines that seem to be on different planes altogether, to the point where the trailer can’t find a way to put them together. Also, the characterizations are lazy archetypes and many points of tension are artificial. I still enjoyed it though.

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The Banality of Evil: Notes on an Appearance (2018)

Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose’s no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D’Ambrose has made two shorts before, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.

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Thoughts on Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

Vampire films are inevitably an allegory for something or other, and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) (which is told through an interview with a vampire), which Jordan wrote uncredited based on Anne Rice’s book and first draft, is no exception. Tom Cruise of all people plays the vampire Lestat, who turns Louis (Brad Pitt) out of loneliness, and saves the “life” of Claudia (an outstanding eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst) by turning her as well—she becomes the daughter of the two men’s subtextual marriage. Strangely, Claudia’s also the only character with whom we can fully identify.

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You Bloody Whoreson Gauls! Synonyms (Synonymes 2019)

In our era of resurging fascism, Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (and co-writer Haim Lapid) gives us Synonyms (Synonymes 2019), a primarily French film about the fascist prostitution of national identity. It’s an anti-bildungsroman, in which the protagonist starts off not knowing what he wants, and ends with the realization that what we wants can’t be found.

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Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974) is probably the most twisted film I’ve seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do to the viewer’s vicarious identification. From an artistic perspective, it’s a pity the film doesn’t follow through.

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On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018), among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

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