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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Thoughts on Imitation Girl (2017)

I walked into this one cold, not knowing a thing about it—if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t’ve walked in at all. Imitation Girl (2017), by writer-director Natasha Kermani (who also has a music credit), had me wanting to crawl out of my skin or, failing that, drop down in front of my front row seat to do some pushups, because I detest fish-out-of-water stories, and this film has three of them: adult film star Julianna (Lauren Ashley Carter) trying to improve her life but being utterly unprepared, an alien (also Carter) who seems to be a benevolent version of the alien from Under the Skin (2013) slowly acclimating to human society, and Lauren Ashley Carter herself doing her best to pretend fluency in Farsi, because that’s the main language of the family the alien joins. For me, it was pure torture.

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Thoughts on Men in Black: International (2019)

The quickest way to describe Men in Black: International (2019) is to call it a Marvel film that’s more allergic to sincerity and features worse acting. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are both fine actors, but here the former (when not doing action scenes) is reduced to his Ghostbusters (2016) shtick, and the latter coasts along on a broad and blunt comedic performance. They do provide a handful of the obligatory GIF-able moments though, so mission accomplished!

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Thoughts on The Lady Improper (Feifen Shounü / 非分熟女 2019)

Marketed as a midlife erotic coming-of-age film, The Lady Improper (Feifen Shounü / 非分熟女 2019), directed and cowritten by Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan with Link Sng based on Anna Lai Yuet-San’s story, follows Siu Man (Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin), whose husband and apparent first love (Deep Ng) has left her because penetrative sex is too painful for her, and who now has to navigate Hong Kong, her family restaurant’s impending closure, her father’s failing health, and her own desires as a single woman. The film is incredible for how one rotten apple—the script—spoils a truly stellar bunch.

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Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

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

The German fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don’t have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the US doesn’t want you), but with no flights, you’ll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

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L’art pour l’humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival, and it benefits from two post-screening Q&As, and a subsequent panel discussion of which I was a part.

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of its vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

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