Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)

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Of all of the various American filmmakers who have emerged this century, one of the most fascinating, talented, and enormously polarizing is Alex Ross Perry. He first emerged a decade ago with Impolex (2009), a riff on Gravity’s Rainbow, which operated in a vein of surrealism and absurdism — featuring miniature V2 rockets, charmingly low-budget military uniforms, and a talking octopus — almost fully absent from the rest of his oeuvre. His next two films established his reputation for better and for worse: The Color Wheel (2011) is perhaps the most intensely unpleasant of his films, in some ways acting as an American cousin of Hong’s The Day He Arrives of the same year. Shot in a haze of 16mm black-and-white, it stars Perry himself and Carlen Altman (who also co-wrote) as siblings on a road trip to salvage the latter’s belongings from a nasty breakup with her former professor, and along the way skillfully excavates numerous hangups and issues. Perry’s finest film to date was his next work, Listen Up Philip (2014), which featured Jason Schwartzman as the eponymous moody author, who finds a mentor in an aging but intermittently brilliant writer played by Jonathan Pryce. Of all his films, it is perhaps the most covertly dynamic, in no small part due to a crucial interlude involving Philip’s girlfriend, radiantly played by Elisabeth Moss, and its trajectory is at once inevitable yet utterly surprising. From there, Perry’s career path has taken him to strange but often fruitful pathways, including the explicitly psychological framework of Queen of Earth (2015), which featured Moss and Katherine Waterston in a Persona-esque two-hander, and the gentler city film environs of Golden Exits (2017), a true ensemble cast featuring, among others, Emily Browning, Schwartzman, and Chloë Sevigny.

All of this has led to Her Smell, his most daring and expansive work yet, and easily his most impressive on a directorial level. Once again, it stars Moss, this time as Becky Something, the mercurial and explosive bandleader of the riot grrl band Something She, which enjoyed enormous success sometime in the early-’90s (becoming the first all-female band to score a platinum record) and which by the start of the film is playing to crowds half their previous capacity. What follows is a gloriously theatrical five-act narrative, moving relentlessly through two hours and fifteen minutes that span the better part of a decade, as Becky undergoes a severe, harrowing mental and professional decline and, ultimately, a genuine form of redemption.

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Savage (Cui Siwei, 2019)

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Cui Siwei’s directorial debut is not, unfortunately, a remake of the classic blaxploitation film Savage (tagline: “On the streets, or in the sheets, he’s. . . SAVAGE!”). Instead, it’s another moody Chinese noir, this one headed by two excellent actors and set in a snowy mountain wilderness. Chang Chen plays a cop who stumbles across escaping gold thieves, led by Liao Fan. The bad guys shoot Chang and kill his partner. Chang suffers angst for a year, which even his friendship/romance with the pretty local doctor cannot cure. Then, he and another partner, in the course of chasing after some poachers hours before the biggest blizzard of the year, run into the very same gang of thieves who have returned for their stash of gold. Everyone shoots everyone with a seemingly endless supply of bullets and cartridges, until all the brilliant whites are stained with blood.

Given that Cui’s last credit was for the screenplay of The Island, a film which played here last year that I thought was quite well-constructed and clever, it’s a bit of a shock that Savage is so shoddy. Action thriller clichés abound: the dead partner, the pretty woman in peril, the double-crosses, the double deadlines of impending storm and the doctor leaving town. There’s a scene where the doctor watches Chang beat the hell out of three men in a restaurant and responds by making out with him, fully clothed, under a running shower. The plot collapses amidst a blizzard of coincidence, and very little in the final half hour or so makes much sense.

Chang and Liao are two of modern cinema’s finest serious face actors, they’re great at being sad and angry at the same time. But those are the only emotions they’re allowed. Still, Cui has a terrific eye, and in some alternate universe this could have been a solid elemental thriller along the lines of Track of the Cat, or at least Shoot to Kill. One stand-off takes place outdoors, in a field of tall grass covered by blinding snow, the score hinting at Morricone without the least bit of subtlety. And yes indeed two men do slide down a mountainside, firing rifles at each other as they go. Near the climax, someone drives a sno-cat into a building for no apparent reason other than it lets Cui backlight snow falling inside a room for the final showdown. But it does look pretty cool.

Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng, 2018)

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The Northwest Film Forum’s commitment to rethinking the movie release calendar continues this week, and part of last week, with the oddball Wednesday-Tuesday run of Suburban Birds, the feature debut of director Qiu Sheng. That the film should play here at all is somewhat remarkable, contemporary Chinese cinema releases being almost entirely limited to the small runs of pop genre films that we like to highlight here at Seattle Screen Scene. Sure, festival blockbusters like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night play too, but it’s exceedingly rare that a film by an unknown Chinese director gets an art house release. The film has been well-received at Locarno and the New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival, and has the backing of a solid distributor in Cinema Guild. That is likely because, like Bi Gan, who also had his debut feature released on the art house circuit, Suburban Birds is heavily influenced by the works of established and well-known East Asian star directors. Audiences familiar with Jia and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang will have no trouble relating to this beautiful, dreamy, yet precise tour through the contradictions of modern China.

Set in an unnamed Chinese city, one of those meticulous and vast urban spaces that has cropped up over the past twenty years, where a surveying crew is attempting to account for the subsidence of various buildings. The new city is literally sinking into the ground. Exploring an abandoned elementary school, one of the crew, Xia Hao, discovers an old diary and the next hour or so of the film is an extended flashback, or dream, of his childhood, complete with title cards for the date and day of the week (but not the year), as if we too are reading the lost diary. There’s little forward momentum here: the middle school kids, almost entirely without adult presence, wander their town, in between forest and construction zones, exploring the city as the old is being demolished to make way for the new. The two timelines, past and future Xia Hao, intersect in minor ways, recalling more the temporal contradictions of Hong Sangsoo’s In Another Country than anything more serious (Bi Gan’s scrambling of time in Kaili Blues, for example). The middle section is less coming of age than slice of life, what plot direction it has is more toward a falling away than growing up, entropic rather than progressive.

Back in the present (or the future), Xia Hao is increasingly convinced that the whole city is resting on a groundwater leak, that its unstable foundations will eventually, possibly quite soon, lead the whole thing to collapse. The metaphor here is not the least bit subtle, but Qiu underplays it, relying on image and landscape and cityscape, captured in crystal clear and brightly colored 1.33 images, to build a mood of societal unease, of inevitable collapse. In this it recalls another recent Chinese film to have been released here (in the US, not Seattle, as far as I can tell), Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary Behemoth, which ended its exploration of China’s coal industry in a vast, freshly-constructed ghost town, a space of cutting edge modernity that was nonetheless wholly empty of human habitation. The streets of Suburban Birds are similarly empty, we really only see Xia Hao and his companions, past and present, though the sounds of others are omnipresent. Birds chirp constantly in the past, but there’s only construction and traffic in the present, and the drip drip drip of the new city’s impending watery doom.

Friday May 3 – Thursday May 9

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Featured Film:

High Life at the SIFF Uptown

I’m either a week ahead or a week behind, having already reviewed the Chinese movie that’s opening here next week (Shadow) but not yet two of the ones that are playing this week (Suburban Birds and Savage). I’ll get to those in a couple of days, and I hope to catch up to Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (which opens on Sunday at the Uptown) soon as well. But I’m going with Claire Denis’s English-language sci-fi movie with Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson as the Featured Film this week, because it’s probably the last chance we’ll have to see it here in Seattle (yeah, I haven’t watched it yet either) and Evan and Lawrence had an excellent discussion about it a couple of weeks ago.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker, 1980) Fri-Weds
Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings

SIFF Egyptian:

Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Fri-Thurs 

Century Federal Way:

Blackia (Sukhminder Dhanjal) Fri-Thurs 
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Sun & Weds Only Our Podcast

Grand Cinema:

Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olnek) Fri-Thurs 
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrick, 1999) Sat Only 
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green) Tues Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Dogman (Matteo Garrone) Fri-Thurs 
Hard Ticket to Hawaii (Andy Sidaris) Fri, Sat & Tues Only 

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Jersey (Gowtam Tinnanuri) Fri-Thurs 
Kalank (Abhishek Verman) Fri-Thurs 
Nuvvu Thopu Ra (Harinath Babu B) Fri & Sat Only 
Oru Yamandan Premakadha (B.C. Noufal) Fri-Thurs 
Vellaipookal (Vivek Elangovan) Fri-Thurs 
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Sun & Weds Only Our Podcast

Regal Meridian:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng) Fri-Tues Our Review
Arcadia (Paul Wright) Fri-Thurs 
Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng) Starts Weds 

AMC Pacific Place:

Savage (Cui Siwei) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Always Miss You (Chen Hung-i) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Kalank (Abhishek Verman) Fri-Thurs 
El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Maze (Stephen Burke) Fri-Thurs 
Family (Laura Steinel) Fri-Thurs 
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

I’m All Right, Jack (John Boulting, 1959) Thurs Only 

SIFF Film Center:

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green) Fri-Sun 

AMC Southcenter:

El Chicano (Ben Bray) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Uptown:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) Fri-Thurs 
High Life (Claire Denis) Fri-Thurs Our Discussion 
Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry) Sun-Thurs 

Varsity Theatre:

Transit (Christian Petzold) Fri-Thurs Our Podcast
Hesburgh (Patrick Creadon) Fri-Thurs 
I’ll Take Your Dead (Chad Archibald) Fri-Thurs 
Tell It to the Bees (Annabel Jankel) Fri-Thurs 
True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) Weds Only Our Podcast