Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)


Opening Thursday and playing through the weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is Travis Wilkerson’s first-person documentary about the murder of a black man in Alabama. The victim, Bill Spann, was killed in a grocery store in Dothan by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who was initially charged with murder for the crime but the charges quickly disappeared. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson heads home for the first time in a long while to investigate his ancestor, his victim, the town, and the history and mechanics of white supremacy and its persistence into the present day.

At just about every stop in his investigation, Wilkerson is stymied. The environment of Dothan, along with neighboring towns that may have some connection to the events, has changed over the past 70 years, although not as much one might expect (at least where I’m from, in the West, change is a constant: the parts of Spokane I grew up in are unrecognizable today, let alone how the city would have looked to my grandparents in the 1940s). The physical persistence of the past is captured in black and white static images: old houses, ominous streets, blossoming yet menacing trees, a strip mall city hall, a fateful store counter. These constitute tangible evidence of more spectral ideological hauntings: a great aunt who has become a Southern Nationalist, creepy teens in cars following nosy outsiders, and a conspiracy of silence over a long-forgotten crime: witnesses who refuse to speak, government documents disappeared, the town hospital gone to ruin, a cemetery of unmarked graves. What Wilkerson does find is disturbing in its banality: old home movies of his great-grandfather, looking no more sinister than anyone else and a death certificate horrifying in its stark, uninquisitive language.

Wilkerson narrates with a deep voice hinting at contained rage and only occasionally do any other voices enter the film. His mother and aunts write him letters about his great-granfather, revealing new, undiscovered crimes, but he reads them himself. The current neighbor of the family’s old store (since sold and resold and now a kind of speakeasy) speaks on camera for a bit, and Wilkerson gives over ten minutes or so to a rambling, fascinating monologue by Ed Vaughn, a civil rights leader and resident of Dothan, who nonetheless can provide few details on the crime itself. Instead Vaughn helps bring to life a period of American history the feeling of which we have willfully forgotten in favor of belief in our own (that is to say, White America’s) heroic progress, while the terror of racism, along with the identities of its victims and the activists who worked to upend it, are conveniently shuttered away (there’s an interesting side story about Rosa Parks and her activism long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott with victims of racist and sexual violence in Alabama, work which is usually left out of the standard narrative about Parks). The story is framed by a discussion of Atticus Finch, with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, standard images int he beginning, describing Harper Lee’s character for what he has become, a “secular saint”. The film ends with red-tinged negatives of that same footage, as Wilkerson describes Lee’s revision of her character in Go Tell a Watchman, the private, racist face of Finch (of America) exposed underneath the public virtue. Punctuating the narrative are names of victims of white brutality: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bill Spann, accompanied by Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”. It isn’t as effective as Raoul Peck’s insertion of modern protest footage into his James Baldwin doc I Am Not You Negro, but it makes the point. What Wilkerson discovers, what we probably have always known, but rarely have acknowledged, is that that past hasn’t passed, that the legacy of white supremacy lives on and its effects are still being felt. That the very fact that S.E. Branch has a great grandson and Bill Spann does not is proof.


The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)


Armando Iannucci is, if nothing else, the defining political comedian of our era. The anti-Aaron Sorkin, he understands that politics is about power, and nothing else. His lying, manipulative, vulgar, grasping, venal, and above all stupid bureaucrats, officials, advisors and other governing detritus barely even pay lip service to the ideals and ideology valorized in the word of the last era’s most celebrated propagandist, Aaron Sorkin, and Iannucci, with his television series The Thick of It and Veep and his film In the Loop, seems to have dedicated himself to undermining and unraveling all the myths and delusions of propriety, fair play and principled centrism that The West Wing perpetuated. I don’t know that the functionaries of Iannucci’s work are any more “accurate” than Sorkin’s heroes and heroines, but they seem like it. And in their degradation they certainly speak more to the present moment than the earnest ideologues of neo-liberal technocracy. That Iannucci can so deftly translate his style from the world of contemporary American politics to that of Soviet Russia should tell us a lot about what politics truly is: games of manipulation performed by the vile, the scheming and the moronic for the sake of self-preservation and, above all, power.

The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, begins on the last day of the Russian dictator’s life. He eats a big meal with his closest advisors: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), watches a Western (I couldn’t tell which one, but they toast Wayne and John Ford at the end of their boozy night) and, left alone in his room, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s not discovered until the next morning and, because he’d recently killed or exiled all the best doctors in Moscow, he’s unable to receive medical attention until it’s too late. The delay is exacerbated by the scheming of his advisors, most of whom are more than willing to let the man die: as soon as his condition is discovered Beria and Khrushchev begin their plotting, a race to secure the support of the various other members of the inner circle and the various state security forces. Beria, as head of the secret police (called the NKVD at this point), has the initial advantage, and is able to manipulate Malenkov (a fool in most things and especially devoted to Stalin: a pointed reminder that in a totalitarian state the only officials who survive long enough to attain any kind of importance are either evil or stupid or both), who as Stalin’s deputy becomes the titular ruler in his absence.

The scramble for control between Khrushchev and Beria is greatly accelerated in time: events that here transpire over only a few days in fact took about six months, but while the film certainly takes liberties with historical fact, in its essence it is accurate. A host of fascinating side characters fill out the world, the overwhelming sense of terror and irrationality and double-thinking inherent in the Stalinist state. Olga Kurylenko plays the pianist Maria Yudina, whose defiant note to Stalin (included in a concert recording, the apocryphal story of which opens the film) may have killed him. Michael Palin plays Molotov, a longtime Stalin ally who had been marked for death but is rescued by the dictator’s demise, who nonetheless sticks to the Stalinist party line (Palin gives maybe the best performance in the film, and Molotov is its most dizzying character, a cruel man driven mad by even greater cruelties). Jason Isaacs appears late in the film as General Zhukov, bedecked in a lunatic assembly of medals, who comes to Khrushchev’s aid. But the Beria/Khrushchev conflict is at the film’s core: Beria tries to consolidate power by appearing to overthrow the “excesses” of Stalinism, positioning himself as a reformer while merely switching out one list of enemies for another. Khrushchev, on the other hand, actually is a reformer (well, relatively speaking), and while he (apparently) lacks Beria’s most vile qualities (in addition to all the murders, Beria was a perpetrator of just about every sex crime you can imagine) he has no qualms about exercising any means necessary to achieve his goals.

The Death of Stalin is deeply, darkly funny at almost every moment, like all of Iannucci’s work. Whether in the petty infighting and reversals of the Soviet leaders, to minor side-plots like the comic opening sequence with the fear and panic of the Radio Moscow technicians when Stalin requests a recording of a concert that was broadcast live, forcing them (led by Paddy Considine) to regather the audience and musicians to play the whole thing again, or the desperate scrambling of Stalin’s children, suddenly pawns in a greater game they are wholly unequipped to play (the son’s coaching of the state hockey team is especially funny), or more terrifying background action, like the cold brutal efficiency in which everyone in Stalin’s household is rounded up and shot by the NKVD. It’s an absurdist world where there are literally no moral or ideological values, and only the people who actually understand that truth are able to achieve power.

Grass (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)


Evan Morgan: Let’s start with the title. Hong arguably crafts the best titles of any filmmaker working today; something like On the Beach at Night Alone is tinged with mystery, poetical and allusive. Grass, on the other hand, sounds quite atypical: earthy, prosaic, direct. Critical writing on Hong often runs the risk of devolving into a game of spot-the-differences (full disclosure: it’s a game I like to play) but this title, which initially seems uncharacteristic, continues a certain tendency of Hong’s: to telegraph to his audience, quite literally, which objects might exercise a totemic effect on the film, objects that can shape and reshape the narrative. Claire’s Camera, Oki’s Movie, On the Occasion of Remembering Turning Gate. So why, then, Grass? The film does open with some kind of potted shrub, though it quickly moves to the interior space of nearby café. At one point, a few characters wander over to crouch down near the plant and it does make one final appearance after the credits roll, but it never takes center stage quite like those other objects. Whatever power it exerts over Hong’s narrative is merely suggestive, lacking the obvious metaphorical potential of, say, Huppert’s camera. The title speaks, rather modestly, of things that grow, of fecundity and naturalness and finally—dare I say—of a kind of utopia.

We’ll get to where Grass ultimately ends up, I’m sure, but let’s linger on the road for a while—and a verdant lane it is not. The film is haunted by at least two deaths (more on that later too), and, for much of its short runtime, a rather cruel work.

Sean Gilman: I do think there’s something to the title. Initially I thought of Whitman, the source as well of the title for On the Beach at Night Alone, especially when you mentioned to me that the Korean version of the title more directly translates to “Grass Leaves”. Whitman apparently chose Leaves of Grass as the title of his life’s work, continuously revised, as a pun. Quoting wikipedia quoting someone else: “”Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.” Hong’s Grass too is made up of stories of seemingly minor value, exchanges and conversations that are variations on theme Hong has been working with for over twenty years now, losing some value perhaps in their repetition.

But I also think about the title in relation to Carl Sandberg and his poem of the same name. That poem is specifically about death, about the dead men of Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg and Verdun, shoveled under and covered by grass.  The final lines I think give a new perspective to our Hongian short stories, perhaps shedding some light on Kim Minhee’s role in the film:

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Kim sits in her café, like us overhearing various Hongian conversations, about love gone wrong and suicide and horny actors trying to convince women to let them stay with them for a few days. She takes in the stories and writes. . . something. We don’t know what. She could be writing the characters themselves (twenty years of Hong has taught us to expect that kind of thing) or she could just be writing what she thinks about them. Or she could be inspired by their stories to create new ones of her own. She covers them all, if they’d just let her work.

I suppose I’m getting ahead of where we should be in trying to review this film, but it’s such an unusual work that it’s hard to talk about it as a linearly progressing narrative. It has that, a story of a day in the life of a café and the people who hang around there, each with their own little story arc and unique interaction with Kim’s own. It’s basically a network narrative, along the lines of Robert Altman, but Altman’s cynical coldness (which Hong adopted frequently, especially in his early work) is leavened by the film’s raw emotionality and its omnipresent score, dominated by long stretches of the lush romanticism of Schubert and Wagner. In its circularity, an essential feature of Altman’s network stories (and as opposed to, say, Richard Linklater’s), the film invites increasingly mystical readings. The café could be a way station in the afterlife, it could be a fictional construct of a writer dealing with her own issues (perhaps she had a friend or lover recently commit suicide?), or it could just be an ordinary café. As is usual with Hong, I end up deciding that it is all those things (and more) at the same time.

EM: I like the idea of the café as afterlife—and in that way your citation of Sandberg might not be so far off. There’s one telling line of dialogue that really stuck out to me. The oldest actor, who appears to be recovering from a deep bout of depression, mentions an attempt to take his own life: “after my suicide I didn’t drink much.” It might be a consequence of translation, but to me that particular phrasing implies that the man who speaks the line may already be dead. But, as you suggest, Hong is too protean an artist, too resistant to metaphor, to allow for a reading that thuddingly literary. To allude to Whitman again, there are always multitudes.

In a great interview that CinemaScope ran a few years back, Hong drew a weird little sketch with the caption “infinite worlds possible,” and though he’s played with repetition and narrative branching before, I do wonder if Grass realizes that principle most fully: instead of his oft-used this-then-that structure, which is multivalent but still fundamentally linear, Grass seems to hover between worlds, never committing to one or the other. The overwhelming sense here is one of simultaneity. I’m thinking of something as simple as that first pan from a couple in the café to Kim, who is also in the café but near the window, just off-screen. The way Hong shoots the interior of the café prevents us from obtaining a complete understanding of the space: it’s always segmented into this table or that table, this couple or that couple. So when he initially cuts from Kim contemplating her writing to a man and a woman speaking, one naturally assumes that these are her fictional creations, that we’ve moved onto a different narrative plane. But after a few minutes of chatter, Hong casually tracks over to Kim, and two worlds, previously understood to be apart, are fused together. When taken in combination with the wall-to-wall music (which I’m glad you mentioned; it’s integral to the emotional texture of the film) moments like this create a sense of the film rising and converging, a crescendo effect prolonged until the final moments.

That effect is also an essential feature of the network film; the movements of a dozen roundelays suddenly click together. Though I wasn’t thinking of Altman. The Rivette of Haut bas fragile and Va savoir came to mind: actors swirling around a central location, lives bleeding into fiction, and the bar or café transformed into a theater (what is a writer doing in a café if not performing the act of writing?). And there’s nothing more Rivettian in Hong’s body of work than that sequence which comes about halfway through Grass, where one of the women appears to achieve some kind of breakthrough (or maybe it’s a breakfrom: from the network of couples, from the café, from the fiction) by traversing a staircase over and over again. She begins the scene frustrated but ends, after much physical exertion, elated and smiling. In its trajectory from anger to some kind of bliss, it functions as a perfect synecdoche for the film.

SG: You know I love that sequence, one of the most singular in all of Hong’s work. Like the piggyback ride in Hahaha it’s a wholly unexpected physical expression of an unnameable feeling, but even more abstract, because we know so little about that woman. We’d met her earlier: she’s a writer with whom the director from Claire’s Camera is hoping to work. They form the third of the three couples we meet in the café. She rebuffs his advances, and he moves on to make a similar offer to Kim herself (the first character to actually interact with her), while the writer goes away (she says she has to meet. . . her boyfriend? I forget). We don’t see her again until sometime later, after the events in the restaurant, right? In that strange interlude after the mood of the film has turned its sourest (the interrogation scene and Kim’s fight with her brother)? But then, with her repeated climbing and descending, as her mood changes so does that of the film. Kim undergoes something similar: walking back to the café she hears a song, some kind of folk pop song coming from somewhere. She walks past and it diminishes, then she walks back toward it and it grows louder. We don’t know what happens next, Hong elides it, but when we’re back in the café everything has changed. It’s like the movie is wholly uninterested in traditional narrative trajectory (the this-then-that you refer to), rather trying to capture the rising and falling (and vice versa) feeling of music itself. Never has a Hong film been so structured by mood.

At the same time, its building blocks are the typical Hongian games of repetition. All three men in the café are actors, though at different stages of life and career. Three women are asked by a man if he can live with them for awhile. There are three suicides, two successful (or maybe three, if this is the afterlife). There are three writers (counting Kim). All the conversations are standard Hong table shots, except one. That one, what I’ve been calling the “interrogation scene”, is one of the more intense conversations of Hong’s career, as raw as the opening fight in Yourself and Yours but much more cruel. It’s not a table shot, but rather a long over-the-shoulder one of a man questioning a woman he thinks contributed to their mutual friend’s suicide (by inducing him to drink too much). The camera holds on her face for a long time, we never see his. But the most unusual thing is when it pans away from them to the wall, where we see the man’s shadow speaking while any trace of the woman has been erased. It may be the most horrifying thing Hong has ever shot, and that’s including the bloody finale of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.

EM: Why is that “interrogation scene” so upsetting? The narrative material is well-trod ground, so it must be a consequence of that pan to the wall that you highlight, which is almost a mirror image of the earlier pan to Kim in the café: instead of fusing two worlds, it tears them apart. A form of erasure, as you suggest. Or maybe it’s that over-the-shoulder framing: at some point in the movie one of the actors jokes that “it feels like we’re being observed” and there’s a way in which Hong’s constricted compositions throughout amplify the general air of surveillance. The “standard table shot” you refer to typically balances the performers across the center of the frame. Hong isn’t aiming for Premingerian objectivity, I don’t think, but his customary approach deploys none of the film grammar which typically signals perspective. But this film does. Given Kim’s role as outsider looking in, as a potential artificer weaving fiction from what she sees, the film’s attention to the act of watching—and being watched—seems essential to its final purpose.

Which brings me back to my claim that Grass arrives, ultimately, at a place of renewal. The network of couples end up back in the café—or just outside, in the case of Kim’s brother and his girlfriend—for another night of reminisces. Kim initially hovers back, as she has done throughout, apart and alone, but after sharing a smoke outside with one of the men she finally joins the group. The writer brought back into the fold of life. Grass features, arguably, more plot than any Hong since the ‘90s. But all the incident is there just to bring us to this one moment: inviting Kim to join in on a classic Hong table shot. Only Hong could conceive of a movie in which something as simple as sitting down at a café table seems to lighten the weight of all the world’s loneliness.

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)


The latest film from one of the most interesting directors in the world right now is playing at the Grand Illusion for week starting this Friday. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of such key Japanese horror films as Pulse and Cure, as well as award-winning dramas like Tokyo Sonatawas last seen here at SIFF in 2016 with Creepy, though his Daguerrotype was also released on VOD last fall. The new one is a science-fiction film about an alien invasion, and while its conclusion veers dangerously close to sappy, the path it takes to get there is anything but.

The aliens’ scout team consists of three “people” who take over the bodies of a trio of Japanese people: a teenage girl, a young man and an older married man. Before the invasion can begin, they have to learn everything they can about the people of Earth, but language gets in the way so the aliens have figured out a way to steal “conceptions”, the preverbal ideas which are the Platonic forms of things like “family”, “work”, “ownership”, etc, directly out of human’s heads. This has the unfortunate side-effect of completely removing the concept from the victim, leaving them forever without any conception of self or otherness or what have you.

In theory this amount to a kind of philosophical state of nature experiment, wherein you remove these basic ideas from our understanding of the world to see how we behave and what kind of society we’d build. The aliens have no understanding of these concepts until they take them, and we can see their behavior change when they learn what family is, for example, which ultimately contributes to their downfall. They enlist two “guides” along their way: the married man’s wife, who honestly likes him a lot better once he’s possessed by a malevolent creature from beyond the stars, and a tabloid journalist from a weekly news magazine, who agrees to help the aliens in hopes of staying alive long enough to thwart their plans, though his run-ins with the government forces pursuing the same goal and reexamination of his own life see him wavering in his loyalty to humanity.

Kurosawa’s direction is crisp and fluid, with snaking long takes, eerily upbeat music and unexpected cuts giving everything a comic, off-kilter vibe that meshes nicely with the film’s not quite satirical, not quiet earnest message. There’s even a healthy dose of violence and mayhem to keep things moving. A genuinely weird, light, and funny movie, a perfect tonic after all the dreary self-importance of recent Hollywood science-fiction.

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)


A sparkly meteor screams across the sky and crashes into a lighthouse. Three years later, Oscar Isaac shows up in Natalie Portman’s house. He’s her husband and has been missing for three years, is acting oddly and suddenly becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, the two are captured and brought to a secret location, the edge of a shimmering wall of. . . something. Isaac escaped from the something and Portman heads into it, part of a team of women led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. What they find in there is both easy to figure out (stuff is mutating), beautiful and scary and weird (stuff is mutating) and inexplicable (most of the why and a bunch of other side mysteries), explored in a mostly unsatisfactory blend of arthouse stillness and genre thriller scares, part of a burgeoning subgenre of sci-fi films that I suppose function as a counterweight to the more populist nonsense of superhero sc-fi. Director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, is a prime example, along with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (and his Blade Runner too, probably, I haven’t seen it) and so on. These films give an aura of respectability and complexity to an otherwise disreputable genre, and Annihilation is basically Predator for people who think Predator is dumb, but without any of the qualities that actually make Predator good (structure, pacing, action, coherence). Or Stalker for people who think Stalker is too arty and obscure.

While Annihilation is following its women on a weird mission plot, it’s mostly pretty good. The environment is new even if the situations are not: the group will of course be picked off one-by-one, either by unexpected creatures or their own tendency toward madness. Interspersed are flashbacks to Portman’s former life with Isaac, before he went on his mission into the unknown, which are mostly useless, designed to ground her character in the boring pyschology of Hollywood screenwriting convention, where women are only allowed to be motivated by something involving their role as wife and/or mother. These are actually flashbacks within a flashback, as the entire film is actually a dramatization of the story of her experience told by Portman to a team of radiation suit investigators led by Benedict Wong. How reliable a narrator Portman is, though, is not explored, potentially destabilizing the whole film, if not outright rendering the whole thing pointless. Is everything we’re seeing in her head, or is it what she’s telling Wong? Are the flashbacks real and the other stuff fake? Is she telling Wong about her relationship with her husband? Is it all phony, a story designed to satisfying her inquisitors but not actually the truth? I guess we’ll find out in the sequel? There are a lot of these little “mysteries” in Annihilation, things left unexplained that I suppose one could expend some brain energy trying to figure out, but I don’t know that it would be worth it, since the central mystery is both easily guessed and not that interesting, and it’s probably rendered moot by the film’s ending anyway. I’m curious about the tattoo that Portman and Rodriguez seem to share, for example, but I’d have to watch the movie again to try to solve it. But that’s probably not going to happen.

Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)


During the aftermath of a car chase in South Korea, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) cautions T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly-crowned warrior king of Wakanda and the eponymous superhero, warning him that “the whole world is watching.” It is a tempting and largely justifiable sentiment to apply to Black Panther, given both the lamentable societal state and the slightly more specific cultural moment. Though it is by no means the first film to have as its center a black superhero (as BAMcinématek’s excellent series demonstrated), it is the first of note since the rise of the juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2009. As a member of this alternately prestigious and dubious enterprise, its very existence brings along a whole host of expectations and baggage in terms of overall quality and, perhaps most crucially, representation.

That Black Panther is almost certainly the finest and most distinctive entry in the MCU is one bonus, but that it genuinely grapples with these issues and its particular place in modern society is another aspect entirely. The two are certainly linked, even down to the basic motivations of narrative, and the film’s ability to sublimate this and notions of culture within the loose template of a Marvel film is, at times, genuinely invigorating.


Part of what distinguishes Black Panther is its deftness, its ability to locate character struggles within in a world that feels genuinely engaged with the present moment – in a way that does not simply kowtow to “The Way We Live” back-patting – even as it weaves its own fantasies. The main locus is Wakanda, a fictional African nation that conceals its status as the most technologically advanced country in the world, thanks to its virtually unlimited supply of a versatile metal known vibranium. As the film begins, T’Challa inherits the crown from his dead father, only to encounter the heretofore unknown Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). A Wakandan hardened by his upbringing in Oakland, California, an extensive stint in the military, and his desire for vengeance, he seeks to usurp the new ruler and use the technological advancements of the country to trigger black uprisings against white-dominated governments around the world.

Such a description is certainly more grounded than the average MCU entry, but what is most curious about Black Panther is how it upholds and subverts its comic book origins. The decision to (pre-Marvel company credit!) open with a fantastical animated retelling of the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther, only to move immediately into a crucial scene set in 1992 Oakland – complete with a plastic crate standing in for a basketball hoop – is an early indication, as is the bold fusion of old traditions and ceremonial wear with hypermodern landscapes.

Much of the credit for this uncharacteristic level of cultural engagement must go to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who appears from this effort to have a knack for negotiating his own sense of artistry within franchise efforts after both this and 2015’s Creed (although his direction here on the whole feels less balletic than in that film). But the efforts of the cast, which in itself represents a remarkable collection of black talent (from Daniel Kaluuya to Forest Whitaker to Angela Bassett to Danai Gurira to even Isaach de Bankolé), lend an immense vitality to the proceedings. Boseman and especially Letitia Wright (as his technical genius of a sister) are marvelous, but Jordan, who has appeared in all of Coogler’s films to date, is utterly magnetic, infusing his ostensible villain with genuine pain and swagger that makes his already sympathetic aims (if not sympathetic methods) become even more attractive.

Black Panther‘s spirit thrums with this continual back-and-forth, this negotiation of lore (both comic-book and tribal) and reality, personal motivations and pragmatism. I don’t have the knowledge or confidence to fully go into the occasionally questionable politics of the film, but suffice it to say that the radicalism of Killmonger is never simply undercut by the film, which continually questions Wakanda’s and its own position as the most exalted form of modern black representation. What seems to matter most at this particular moment is the film’s very existence, its ability to present customs totally outside of the mainstream with nothing less than total acceptance. (What the culture does with them is another matter entirely.)

The Monkey King 3 (Soi Cheang, 2018)


The latest in director Soi Cheang’s saga inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West might be the strangest one yet. The franchise blockbuster has always been a weird fit for the former director of indie horror movies and slick crime dramas, and Cheang’s first Monkey King was kind of a mess, taking place in an almost parodically artificial computer-generated environment when it wasn’t populated by humans in sub-Cats animal costumes, and led by a distractingly fidgety performance by an unrecognizable Donnie Yen. The second film was a big improvement, as the effects were higher quality and more strikingly original, the acting, with Aaron Kwok taking over the title role and Gong Li playing the primary villain, much improved and the story much more in Cheang’s comfort zone. The second one was the first to follow the Journey to the West itself, with the Monkey King designated to help Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk from Tang Dynasty China, travel to India in order to bring back essential scriptures. The plot involves the Tang monk’s efforts to reform the White-Bone Demon (Li), a malevolent creature whom everyone else would prefer to simply destroy. The Monkey King must learn to submit his violent impulses to his master’s compassion, despite his firm belief that he knows best.

The third film in the series opens with an image from the second, the massive skeletal incarnation of the White-Bone Demon glowering over the Earth, and flips it, literally, as we plunge into a film wholly opposite its predecessor. Where the second film was dominated by mountain snow, dark nights, and cruel, demonic violence, this one takes place in lush green riverlands, and its concerns will be romantic and all-too human. Escaping an angry river god in the film’s first moments, the monk and his party (the Monkey King, the reformed pig demon Bajie, the blue-skinned muscle-man Sha, and their magical White Dragon Horse) are thrown, thanks to a wormhole helpfully provided by Buddha himself, into a secluded kingdom populated entirely by women. Men are banned from the kingdom, and the heroes are to be executed on sight but are saved by the young queen (Zanilla Zhao, an earnest waif last seen here in Duckweed), who has fallen in love with the monk. With a few sidetracks (including an ill-considered subplot about obtaining abortions for the men who become pregnant and some spectacular water effects as the river god reveals his own unrequited love story), the rest of the film is about Xuanzang’s desire to remain with the woman he now loves and his need to abandon her to continue his quest.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the monk’s story, and he really takes center stage here, with the Monkey King relegated to a supporting role. William Feng builds on his strong work in the second film with his most soulful performance yet. The Kingdom of Women story in the novel plays out very differently, with the monk pretending to marry the Queen and then sneaking away, and it’s not one I’ve ever seen adapted before. Though Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has the monk come to the same realization, that you can’t really renounce anything if you don’t have any attachments in the first place, as the final step in his enlightenment. Choosing this as the next story in the saga I think is a telling choice, especially when one might have expected a more famous subject like the Cave of the Spider Women, in which female demons lure the heroes with the promise of sex and then try to eat them. That would have been more in line with the White-Bone Demon story of the second film. But instead Cheang zigzags into completely the opposite type of story, neatly subverting the misogyny inherent in both the original Kingdom of Women chapter and the popular Spider-Women stories. Once again, Soi Cheang has utterly defied expectations within a single blockbuster film series: from goofy cartoon to bleak action horror to gorgeous romantic tragedy.

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018)


Apparently the latest Clint Eastwood film isn’t considered to be very good. The studio behind it didn’t bother to screen it for critics here in Seattle, and while I haven’t read any other reviews, I’ve been exposed to the usual inane twitter chatter, in this case people seem to be upset about a poster that appears a year before it should have. But the Saturday afternoon show I caught at my local mall was packed, and the audience seemed to be into it, so I don’t know. I liked it, as I’ve liked all of Eastwood’s recent work (I’ve seen all of them going back to 2011). Like his last two films, it’s specifically a look at what it means to be an American hero, more sophisticated than it appears on the surface, while at the same time pandering to the basest levels of patriotism.

The most obviously striking thing about The 15:17 Paris of course is that it is a recreation of actual events performed by the actual people involved in them, a trio of Americans (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler), two of them serving in the military, who foiled a terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015. The film begins with the prelude to the attack, close-ups of the feet and pants of the terrorist as he walks through the terminal and gets on the train, and we’ll see flashes of the event itself throughout the rest of the movie, but first it skips back in time to when the three met as middle schoolers. This early section of the film is the least interesting, mostly because the script is extraordinarily artless (poor Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, saddled with lines like “My God is bigger than your statistics!”, which is probably something that that character would actually say, but just sounds phony in a motion picture). But once the kids grow up and the real people take over the roles, the movie takes off.

Stone is the best of them, and his story gets the most focus. He joins the Air Force, utterly sincere in his desire to help people the best way he can, but keeps flunking out of the various specialties he tries. He never does see any action, as far as we can tell, and Skarlatos, also in the military and stationed in Afghanistan, doesn’t seem to be doing much better: the lone scene we get of his deployment is a bit of excitement caused by his leaving his backpack behind in a village. The two men agree to meet up in Germany, and Sadler goes along with them, for the adventure of seeing Europe. Despite the utter ineffectuality of his service thus far, Stone, he tells Sadler, remains convinced that he is meant to do something meaningful in the world, that his whole life has been leading him to a decisive point.

And of course it is. We know that because we know the story already (if we didn’t before walking into the theatre, those flash-forwards have explained it for us). Stone is able to be so convincing in his performance because he isn’t acting, it isn’t at this point a matter of faith or belief for him: he knows for a fact that he will accomplish something great that will save people’s lives. This is different from the kind of performance required of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, a movie about a man who also believed he was destined to save people, but whom the means of that saving (namely shooting a great many other people) took a toll on his psyche that he himself may not have understood. It’s different as well from the performance of Tom Hanks in Sully, about a different kind of heroism, the pragmatic working class “just doing my job” non-chalance that is the ideal of a different, less faith-based American masculinity. Stone and his friends’ uniqueness is their unwavering confidence, a confidence that comes from knowing that the ending to their story will be a happy one. It bleeds into every scene in the film, whether they’re making smoothies, failing a medical training class, telling lame jokes in Italy or hungover in Amsterdam. An actor could never convey the truth of their belief, only the real people could have done it.

Eastwood doesn’t critique this ideal, this vision of ultra-confident, beneficent American masculinity, as he might have done in American Sniper, depending on who you ask, or as he’s done in films like Unforgiven or even J. Edgar. But he does capture its essence, and that’s not nothing.

Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley, 2018)


Fifty Shades Freed, the latest and supposedly final entry in the continuing story of a young beautiful sub and her filthy rich dom, sees the happy couple finally married but finding the bonds of marriage significantly more uncomfortable than the handcuffs they use in their tepid sex. Ana’s mad that the architect designing their new home has the hots for Christian and struggles to fit in at a new job (that he gave her) which doesn’t seem to involve any actual work (except for the part where she tells someone to “increase the font size two points”). Christian doesn’t really want kids but he seems to do very little else but think about screwing his wife, which tends to have certain results. You can see where this is headed. They go on several vacations and eventually the creepy stalker boss from the last movie turns up and some kidnapping hijinks ensue. In very occasional spots, with Christian’s servants adjusting to their new mistress and the young bride adjusting to her secretive, paranoid husband, it almost resembles a wannabe poptimist Rebecca, only with a completely uninvestigated, bizarrely aspirational streak. As if we were expected to find it really romantic that the new Mrs. de Winter secretly hoped Maxim would eventually shoot her too.

As mainstream sexploitation goes this series is mostly inadequate, serving up more lifestyle porn than actual sex, let alone anything that any decent pervert would consider outré. It’s sadomasochism described by someone who wouldn’t even dream of being tied up in bed. One wonders if the alleged kink on display is meant to ground the wealth of these incredibly rich blanks in something supposedly relatable or if their wealth is meant to make the kink seem in some small way exotic. Either way, it’s kind of amazing that a woman who can’t even handle someone flirting with her husband and a man who suspects he’s being abandoned after a few missed phone calls could somehow manage the serious trust required for a sexual relationship in which someone asks you to hurt them while you fuck.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)


The Andersonian hero makes his own world. Not exactly a fantasist, he (and it’s almost always a he) is a man out of time. An aspiring thief (Bottle Rocket), a master thief (Fantastic Mr. Fox), wildly impractical teenagers (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), a discoverer of hidden worlds (Life Aquatic), families of prodigies (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). Their opponents are the depressing realities of everyday life, the warn-down depressions of middle-age (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), the accumulated disappointments of unrealized dreams (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums), or simply friends and family who lack their creative ambition and would rather settle down for a quiet life (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic).

Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave is The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s explicitly designated man out of time. A lone patch of civilization in the barbarous world of a fictionalized inter-war Central Europe. Dandyish and perfumed, prissy and effete, he swears like a drunken Marine and is very committed to his duties as concierge, going so far to please his guests as to sleep with all the rich, elderly ladies who come to stay at the palatial hotel (for he is their holding action against the inevitable declines of age). Against him stands not merely a personification of the real world or a more practical counterpart, but rather the systemic decline of civilization itself, murderous greed and the rise of fascism. Set against not merely the greedy inheritors of one of Gustave’s lover’s fortunes, but the increasingly menacing martial forces of a Nazi-like state, Grand Budapest Hotel is, I think, the first Anderson film to acknowledge an outside political reality whatsoever (rather than simply politics as family and personal relationships). That it deals with a phony version of an 80+ year old movement should come as no surprise.

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