Thoughts on Ad Astra (2019)

James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), co-written with Ethan Gross, is a stellar (sorry) achievement. Occupying the space orbited by Sunshine (2007), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016) (not Life’s Journey but the shorter version narrated by Brad Pitt), it succeeds where First Man (2018) fails, to symbolize one man’s traumatized state with the infinite void of space; and it stands in good contrast to Blade Runner 2049, which loaded the atmospheric gravitas onto various earthbound locations. The film also draws from Solaris (both 1972 and 2002) and Gravity (2013) for certain sequences. Brian Tallerico wrote a rave, as did Richard Brody. Pitt’s acting, the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema), the production design (by Kevin Thompson), and the score (by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) are all to die for. But it’s not a perfect film, knowingly eliding over its weak plot structure by deeming it “beyond the scope of this” film.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Ad Astra (2019)”

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.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019)”

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.

Continue reading “The Banality of Evil: Notes on an Appearance (2018)”

The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You! The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자 2019)

What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.

Continue reading “The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You! The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자 2019)”

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.)

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

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.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Imitation Girl (2017)”

Thoughts on Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018)

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

We in the West know about Soviet Realism, the dictum that art must be about how the State and Party lead the people to prosperity, but how does a society feel with only one kind of art? Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018), directed and cowritten by Alexei German, Jr., with Yuliya Tupikina, gives us a glimpse by following famous-late-in-life Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov (a tone-perfect Milan Marić) around Leningrad for a week in November 1971 as he suffers isolation, rejection, indignities, and the loss of friends to death, arrest, and emigration—the lattermost an option he would finally take in 1979.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018)”

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.

Continue reading “Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)”

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.

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