I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)


The German director Angela Schanelec has had, with the exception of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the most circuitous path to arthouse prominence of any director in the past decade. As part of the loose collective known as the Berlin School, which has produced some of the most interesting and skilled directors working today (Maren Ade, Christian Petzold, Ulrich Köhler), Schanelec has struck her own path, pursuing a more elliptical and rigorous approach to narrative and filmmaking than her peers. Correspondingly, she has had a low profile for a director of her stature, making six features before her breakout in 2016 with The Dreamed Path, perhaps her most narratively complex and productively opaque work yet.

Her follow-up, I Was at Home, But… takes a more “conventional” and discernible approach, but in doing so accesses both the emotional and the inexplicable, taking detours and narrative strands while burrowing deep into its central character. That person is Astrid, a single mother, played by regular Schanelec actor Maren Eggert, living in Berlin; the film begins just after her teenage son has returned from running away for undisclosed reasons. In essence, the film deals more or less solely with her, her son’s, and her young daughter’s daily lives after this brief rupture, and yet all attempts at simplification are nigh pointless. For one, there are significant corollary threads: a teacher (the ascendant Franz Rogowski) at the son’s school embarking on a tentative romance with one of his colleagues; Astrid’s relationship with her lover; the ongoing, particularly uninflected rehearsal of a translation of Hamlet. Overshadowing all of this is the death of Astrid’s partner some years before, a crucial piece of narrative information that, like most else in the film, is only parceled out slowly, communicated strongest in the loveliest detour: a brief montage of dance and nature scored to an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”


One of the most peculiar and gratifying qualities of Schanelec’s film is her ability to draw these disparate moments into an ever-shifting whole, capturing the unsettled but quietly fortified existence of these characters. It’s difficult, for instance, to exactly settle on the tone of many scenes: the petulance of Astrid as she tries to hash out the status of the bike she bought from a man who speaks via a tinny electro-larynx is both maddening and truthful, just as the acting of the schoolchildren is both stilted and affecting. This applies in the interweaving of scenes as well: there are as many “random” moments introduced and dropped as there are narrative throughlines, and the viewer is left to determine the relative import of each for themselves in the course of the film, extending to the bookends, which feature a donkey, a dog, and a rabbit in the forest.

Of course, none of these are ultimately random or tossed-off; I Was at Home, But… is too intelligent for deliberate sabotage, something evident in the visual scheme, which typically foregoes the Bressonian close-ups of The Dreamed Path for long shots and long takes, the better to capture the full range of motion that the actors possess. This is captured in the film’s signal scene, a ten-minute tracking shot that follows Astrid and a filmmaker friend of hers (played by filmmaker Dane Komljen) as she lambasts his film for featuring an actor and a real sick person alongside each other. Where Schanelec ultimately falls on this spectrum is unresolved, but one of the lines that the filmmaker feels pertinent: “When you’re working on a film with other people, then it does become important how the work affects those people. What it means to them.” Affect and meaning go hand in hand, mysterious processes that nevertheless carry a personal truth that, in the right hands, can be overwhelming.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018, Roberto Minervini)


The opening gesture of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? consists of a move from the outward to the inward. A hard cut yields the first shot in the film, following an adolescent Mardi Gras Indian as he bounds down a suburban street, brandishing a sword and chanting along to a pounding drum beat. This restless image gives way to enclosure, as two young brothers cautiously make their way through a flickering haunted house, with the younger sibling clearly more frightened than the elder. This lateral move, from a figure who never reemerges to two of the film’s main characters, typifies the structural schema of this remarkable film: relations between scenes and characters are fluid and inexact, operating more on contrast and rhythm than thematic heft, and yet yielding tantalizing, often moving associations.

The director of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (a title derived from a traditional spiritual), the Italian-born, Houston-based Roberto Minervini, began in fiction filmmaking before moving to documentary, or at least a slippery hybrid that mines both the approximate formal and narratological approach of standard documentary and the performativity that comes with any human being placed in front of a camera. His two previous works in this vein, 2013’s Stop the Pounding Heart and his 2015 breakthrough The Other Side, both followed white outsiders; the former featuring religious goat farmers in Texas, the latter following amphetamine addicts and, in one of the most disquieting and prescient sequences of filmmaking of the decade, far-right nationalists in Louisiana.


With What You Gonna Do…, Minervini shifts focus within the Bayou State to a different group of outsiders. Hewing exclusively to the black communities in Baton Rouge and its outskirts, he focuses mostly on three separate threads: a bar owner, Judy; the two brothers from the opening, Ronaldo and Titus; and the members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The film’s style is stripped of almost all adornment: no intertitles, chyrons, or dividing chapters; no clear delineation of dates — though the film begins and closes with the Mardi Gras Indians, who are otherwise not seen, and the New Black Panther Party’s protest surrounds the one-year anniversary of Alton Sterling’s murder by the police; and no direct interviews or voiceovers.

The approach, then, is almost akin to a hyperrealized — perhaps overly so — version of verite, shot entirely in black-and-white handheld and frequently in extended close-ups. Minervini, who is also one of the camera operators, observes from mere inches away as Judy commiserates with her friends about the ingrained nature of institutional discrimination as a modern form of slavery, or as the New Black Panther Party protests outside of the Baton Rouge City Hall, or as Ronaldo and Titus bike freely down the city streets. His aim here isn’t necessarily one of total sociopolitical equivalency — his sincere belief and support of the radicalism suggested and stated by his adult figures seems apparent — but the coherency and cohesion of this particular experience is paramount.

In the modern landscape, when racial oppression in America and elsewhere is very nearly as severe as it has ever been, What You Gonna Do… understands that the small moments of day-to-day living are just as vital as the outward protests. (Whiteness is the structuring absence in some ways: no white people are visible on screen until the New Black Panther Party’s final scene, in which multiple members are arrested at a protest by taser-wielding police officers.) The vitality that his fluid camera and editing afford these people only enhances their quiet but defiant resistance, achieving a sweeping quality because of, not in spite of, their individuality.

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.

Continue reading Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)”

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

ash is purest white


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)


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.


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)


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)


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)


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)

high school

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.

Continue reading Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)”

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


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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