Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)

her smell

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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Love in the Time of Upheaval [ASH IS PUREST WHITE and TRANSIT]

ash is purest white

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The release year of 2019 has already been a bountiful one for Seattle theaters, with such important films as The Image Book, Us, and a long-awaited run of Police Story arriving in the first three months. And by one of the quirks that comes with rolling limited releases, two of the best films of the year — and of the last three years — by two of the preeminent directors in world cinema are making their debut this week at SIFF Uptown: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White and Christian Petzold’s Transit.

The two auteurs make for a fascinating comparison in terms of their relative profile in the arthouse film realm. Jia has created for himself a deserved reputation as the foremost chronicler of the unprecedented change — economically, socially, topographically — that has taken place in 21st-century China, and received consistent play in festivals and U.S. distribution. Petzold, by contrast, is an almost unknown quantity in America; though his films have had distribution from around 2008 and gotten some festival play, they have been little seen…except for his previous film Phoenix (2014), which upon its release in 2015 became the art-house version of a box-office smash, receiving more American viewers than probably any German film this side of The Lives of Others, and, significantly, possibly more than any of Jia’s films.

I should note here that I am far more familiar with Jia’s work than Petzold’s — I’ve seen all of the former’s features and only the latter’s two most recent films — but from my general understanding of their careers, the two share a particular thematic interest that links the two, and proves to be a essential asset to both films (in sometimes oblique ways): that of genre filmmaking. Since A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia has taken a sharp turn towards films explicitly emphasized and built around specific genres, from wuxia and action (Touch) to melodrama (Mountains May Depart, 2015) to the gangster genre that forms the base of Ash Is Purest White. Petzold has had this preoccupation from the beginning of his career: his second feature Cuba Libre (1996) was a remake of the great film noir Detour, and his explorations of genre have only developed since then.

What binds these two directors together even more is their particular methods of deploying these generic conventions; both are heavily invested in exploring their respective national societies, dissecting — in mostly pleasurable and sometimes sensual ways — the various means of oppression, resistance, and living within and outside systems impacts flesh-and-blood people. This is not to say that more traditional genre fare does not accomplish this, but Jia and Petzold are even more direct and acute in these respects. Certain other similarities can be drawn — continuous collaborations with muses (Jia with his wife Zhao Tao, Petzold until this latest film with Nina Hoss), a command of composition and editing stronger than almost any living filmmaker — but what makes them so vital is the particularities of their films.

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Fists of Fury: POLICE STORY and POLICE STORY 2 (1985/1988, Jackie Chan)

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With the general, distressing decline in the state of action cinema, not only (but most noticeably) in the United States but in general film at large, standouts like the occasional Hong Kong film and Tom Cruise’s reign over the Mission: Impossible franchise become increasingly lonely lights in the darkness. So it comes as a relief to have the opportunity to reexamine works from more halcyon times, when pre-Handover Hong Kong served as one of the most exciting places for the production of film in cinematic history.

One of the most internationally well-known purveyors of Hong Kong’s particular mode of action cinema was (and to some degree still is) Jackie Chan, who, after a large amount of work as an actor and stunt performer and a brief, unsatisfying stint in Hollywood, returned to the colony to create his most enduring work as a director: 1985’s Police Story, which was followed by the equally popular (if not as artistically successful) Police Story 2 in 1988. Both star Chan as Inspector Chan Ka-Kui, a bold and talented police officer in the Hong Kong Police Force, who uses substantial martial arts skills and near-superhuman endurance to best the numerous criminals and gangs who beset him. This double-header cemented Chan’s status in the West as a presence equally gifted in death-defying action and physical comedy, and provided a path for his career going forward.

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Keeping all this context in mind, the actual manner in which Police Story proceeds is often surprising in a gratifying way; for all the surface pleasures that Chan provides in lightweight films like the Rush Hour series, this is a film that consistently and impressively touches upon structures endemic to Hong Kong society. (Not for nothing did Richard Roud select the film for the 25th New York Film Festival.) Police corruption almost serves as the subtext that threatens to become text throughout the film, as Ka-Kui’s compatriots are either incompetent, bribed by the drug dealers, or hamstrung by bureaucratic expectations and regulations. Chan fills the role of the rogue cop who gets results almost too well, and yet (at least in the first film) he never becomes just the hero: his character is always complicated by his all-too human traits.

Like many a great director, Chan is interested in the processes that run microcosms, and the slow build-up to the first great setpiece of the franchise — involving extreme vehicular destruction — observes the police force outlining an operation. This idea is taken even further in Police Story 2, which is half taken up by a full-on surveillance investigation led by Ka-Kui, a development which lends some nice Hawksian charm that, if not essential, is missing from its predecessor.

But of course, the one and only star of the Police Story films — not to discount the efforts of a very game Maggie Cheung (in her breakout role) as Ka-Kui’s long-suffering girlfriend May, and Brigitte Lin in the first film as a material witness — is Jackie Chan, and the films’ best moments focus squarely on him, whether in total action mode or in very deft physical comedy. The latter may be the more unfamiliar, but such moments as when Chan must juggle four telephones and conversations simultaneously in a police station manage to feel both completely self-contained and yet endemic to the flow of the film.

That flow, of course, is centered around the action, and this trait is key to the first film’s astonishing power. Police Story‘s trajectory feels almost predestined, as Ka-Kui is thrown further and further into the machinations of the triad until he quite literally cannot restrain himself from causing untold amounts of property damage and corporeal devastation (though not to the point of death). Action is reconfigured as a motivating force that overrides every character’s moral and physical capabilities; in both films every character — even and especially Cheung’s May — gets brutally injured. Chan’s brilliance, at least in the first movie, is that the lines are at once blurred and totally clear, where Ka-Kui still remains the hero because of his herculean feats. And the fact that it is Chan himself hanging on to a bus with an umbrella, or sliding three stories down a light-covered pole, makes it that much more impressive, that much more legitimately, wondrously dangerous.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)

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There are few aspects of film more alternated praised and criticized than so-called “excessive” style. Whether manifested in languor or in freneticism, rapid bursts of images or gorgeously exacting frames, the excesses of the styles of one director or the other has been dissected, castigated, fawned over, and put back together again in mountains of words written in the past decade alone. And yet, despite all of this sometimes heated and passionate discourse, such overt manifestations of filmmaking still seem even more subjective, even less explainable than most other determining factors of a film.

One of the most overt examples of this in recent years comes in the form of Let the Corpses Tan, a neo-Western crime film directed by Hélène Catte and Bruno Forzani, best known for their prior giallo efforts Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Though this time the gloriously pulpy title is taken from the source material, a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, the sensibility and eye for relentless stylization is unmistakeable. For better and for worse, this is an unfiltered vision, throwing in so many techniques and formal devices that it somehow becomes a unified aesthetic.

Continue reading Let the Corpses Tan (2017, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)”

Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden)

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What does it mean to say that a film is, in whole or in part, about America or, indeed, “America”? Perhaps more than most mediums, cinema has provided a whole range of examples and styles from which to draw from and examine; to name just a few wildly disparate examples: The Searchers, Dogville, Paris, Texas. This tendency, of course, should be distinguished from films that are about a specific aspect of American life, culture, or society: films like Rio Bravo or Trust, while expansive in their own way, don’t appear to attempt to dissect the idea of America.

What does distinguish a film about America is a certain sense of scope, or a focus upon a part of America that is at once universal within the land and (usually) concentrated to a certain milieu. The film in question doesn’t need to announce itself as attempting this task; rather, it (by necessity) almost always emerges organically out of the visual and thematic fabric of the film.

One such example of this phenomenon is Wanda, the sole feature film written and directed by Barbara Loden, otherwise known as a theatrical and movie actress, frequently for Elia Kazan. In narrative terms, it is a deceptively simple film: Wanda (played by Loden herself) is a woman living in impoverished circumstances in the coal mining regions of eastern Pennsylvania. Near the beginning of the film, she divorces her husband, acquiescing with a startling lack of resistance – one of her key traits throughout the film – to her now ex-husband’s wishes, willingly relinquishing her two young children. She then meets the tempestuous, tetchy petty criminal Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who takes her away from the bar that he has just robbed. The rest of the film follows this odd, often abusive relationship, as they meander through the state until Mr. Dennis attempts to enact a half-baked bank robbery.

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

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Discussing the evolution of a blockbuster franchise series can sometimes be a difficult venture (that is, when it is worth dissecting). With some, it seems patently obvious: for example, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series developed over the course of its thirteen-year existence from straightforward, video-game inflected horror to totally artificial, digital constructions. Others are tied explicitly to commercial interests: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has remained resolutely within its narrative and formal wheelhouse even while it aims to present the veneer of change.

In this context, the Mission: Impossible films present a fairly unusual case. On the surface, it would seem to lack a single unifying creative voice, having switched out directors every single installment until the most recent two, with the motley crew of helmers counting in its club Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird. One could then turn to the man at its center: Tom Cruise, whose continual acceleration of his tendencies towards potential self-destruction in order to achieve maximum visceral thrills is unparalleled in the modern Hollywood cinema. But that still doesn’t account for the overall series, which has rarely (if ever) veered outside of excellence, a continuity of quality. Furthermore, the specific manifestation of this quality varies from film to film, and up to this point from director to director.

Continue reading Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)”

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)

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In the course of writing evaluative pieces on film, a reviewer must always contend with their own biases related to form and content. This is by necessity, for if a critic tasks themselves with writing on movies that are “outside” their preferred aesthetic wheelhouse, then they will inevitably come across films that, try as they might, they cannot help but feel repulsed by. Of course, no film is made for everyone, and some films, even and especially those in the consciousness of mainstream culture, are hyper-specific in their catering to a specific audience. But there is a feeling of churlishness that can arise, one that exists on a level that exceeds a reaction that merely runs counter to a critical and cultural consensus.

I say all of this to give some context for my personal reaction to Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of YouTube personality Bo Burnham. As the title suggests, it covers the last week of the middle school tenure of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an outwardly shy and quiet student who posts daily YouTube vlogs covering topics almost exclusively related to self-betterment. Through the course of these few days, she deals with a variety of awkward and sometimes intensely embarrassing social situations, all while contending with the various pressures and possibilities of modern social media.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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In the wake of not just Avengers: Infinity War, but the length of more or less the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, one could certainly be forgiven for a healthy dose of skepticism. Not to say that there haven’t been noteworthy or even good films in the twenty-strong series – although undoubtedly some would argue even that – but the more pertinent question is that of stakes. In terms of the wider MCU, all of the films involve as their central conflict a villain whose plans at some point involve widespread destruction of an “innocent” public. Even something as far afield from the standard operation like Black Panther couldn’t help but hew to this.

The first exception I can think of to this is Ant-Man and the Wasp, which by design seems to be a comedown from the galactic strife of Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Peyton Reed (who also directed Ant-Man), this film somehow manages to embody all the qualities that Marvel films had heretofore merely suggested: light, breezy, and emotional in a way more linked to the characters rather than a wider society. This isn’t necessarily to say that this feels especially personal in the way that, say, Black Panther does. But it has more than its fair share of liveliness and sense of play, which makes this feel markedly different from other MCU films.

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Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik)

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One of the more pressing concerns of any narrative film is the representation of the environment – in purely geographic terms – that surrounds the characters and plot. In the hands of a carefully attuned director, the setting can (and almost always should) inflect and influence the mood of the film and the course of the events, drawing upon a landscape in order to reflect upon whatever conflicts or crises the figures are involved in. Such an ideal seems to apply to such a film as Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik.

Granik, whose last narrative feature film was the widely lauded Winter’s Bone back in 2010, seems to have developed this sense of location and place as her professed metier: her previous film derived much of its critical cachet from its hard-nosed portrayal of the Ozarks and the people that inhabited it. In a similar vein, Leave No Trace is defined by its primary (though crucially not sole) location: the forests of Oregon and Washington, especially an unspecified public park outside Portland.

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SIFF 2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, Desiree Akhavan)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 90 words.

For whatever reason, The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels like the sort of film that suffers from a clash in sensibilities, though it was directed and co-written by the same voice, Desiree Akhavan. This story of the film’s eponymous character’s stint in a gay conversion camp at the behest of her Evangelical aunt comes off alarmingly often as too pat and resolved for its own good. But a more sensitive sensibility sometimes shines through, and the film occasionally comes to life through an assortment of little, carefully considered interactions.