Furie (Lê Văn Kiệt, 2019)

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It’s not often we get a Vietnamese movie here on Seattle Screens, much less an action movie as kinetic and thrilling as Furie, a Taken-clone starring Veronica Ngô, the actress who stole the opening moments of The Last Jedi a few years ago. Like Ong-Bok: Muay Thai Warrior, from Thailand, and The Raid, from Indonesia, before it, Furie is a further marker in the spread of high quality martial arts cinema outward from Hong Kong and Japan across Southeast Asia at a time when the Hong Kong industry itself is having its lifeblood sucked away by the vast opportunities and resources but complicated politics of the Mainland Chinese market, like Jupiter stealing the Earth’s atmosphere in the biggest action hit of the year so far. Resolutely low-scale, Furie follows a mother’s quest from the pastoral countryside to the neon-lit criminal underbelly of Saigon in search of her ten year old daughter, kidnapped by an international cartel of organ harvesters. The plot is familiar, and its beats are nothing new, though the emphasis on the femininity of its heroes and ultimate villain is unusual. But the stunts, the stunts are terrific.

Unlike Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, Ngô is more an actor than a martial artist, though like many a great actress before her (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Kara Hui, Cheng Pei-pei) she is a dancer as well (she one the first season of Vietnam’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Director Lê Văn Kiệt, along with his stunt crew, do a fantastic job of covering any weaknesses as a fighter she might have, honestly I didn’t notice much of anything (unlike with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, who just looks out of place in every fight). The fight scenes are fluid and brutal, in the bone-crushing-to-electronic-beats style that has dominated martial arts movies this century, ever since Donnie Yen discovered MMA at least. Best of all is that the fights actually build, they have a sense of rhythm and pace that is almost entirely missing from Hollywood filmmaking, and frankly from a lot of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. The final 15 minutes are spectacular without restoring to special effects or outlandish stunts: they’re simply the best fights in the movie, charged with emotion and skill and captured with a minimum of editing. It’s the best on-screen action since Paradox, and possibly since SPL 2: A Time for Consequences.

Other than that, and outside of Ngô’s soulful performance, which brings to mind some of Hui’s better work (the recent and very fine Mrs. K, for one), and the novelty (at least for us in the US) of seeing contemporary Vietnam on film, that there isn’t much to the movie. Where Paradox and SPL 2 complicate the simple missing kid/organ harvesting plots with complex conspiracies and some beautifully outlandish storytelling, Furie is a simple straight line: a mother doing the impossible for the sake of her daughter. But I’ll take the purity of this efficient, brutally exciting adventure any day over the bloated CGI artifacts and winking, middling politics of whatever corporate Hollywood blockbuster it is we’re supposed to be caring about this week.

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Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019)

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A few weeks ago, concurrent with and possibly motivated by one of the many snowy disasters that has marked the early months of 2019 here in the South Puget Sound, I watched all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order. Most of them I had seen before, either in their initial release (sporadically as I found them to be relentlessly mediocre and all pretty much the same) or last summer, around the time I started reading comic books again for the first time in 30 years. The books too I’m tackling in chronological order, following the Marvel Literary Universe from its Silver Age inception in 1962 with Fantastic Four #1 on into the present day (so far I’m somewhere in 1965). Watching the movies in order has given me a sense of how they have changed over time, responding to current events (especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the election of Donald Trump) in occasionally interesting ways and forming their own internal structure through a system of Phases which can serve as markers for changes in tone and approach as the series has progressed. Reading the books has given me a new perspective on the films as well: not only can I now find them wanting as action films (the house action style is poor without exception: the editing a half-assed knock-off of Paul Greengrass’s already bad Bourne movies; the choreography, even when it is good, buried under whip pans, extreme close-ups, blurry images and too dark night scenes designed to hide the seams of CGI), as auteurist expressions (with authorial voices as distinct as Ryan Coogler, Louis Leterrier, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, Peyton Reed and a host of less interesting types smooshed into the familiar rhythms and bland imagery of a bad knockoff Joss Whedon (including Whedon himself)), and as adaptations of one of the unique 20th Century American art forms: the comic book.

Watching the MCU films as comic book adaptations highlights two of their biggest shortcomings in the middle phase of their run (roughly Iron Man 3 through Ant-Man, with Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron and the Civil War (technically Phase 3 but in spirit belonging to Phase 2) being the big ones). This is Marvel’s “We Make Real Movies” phase, where heroes deal with trauma in increasingly dangerous and irrational ways. It’s Marvel’s only real attempt to deal with contemporary politics, albeit at least a decade too late (I mean, it is Hollywood), as the various heroes discover that the government is full of lies, that those lies are used to prop up a global system of never-ending war for the benefit of capital, and that the human consequences for both the people who fight the wars and the people who get caught in the middle of them are incalculable. But, rather than seriously explore these issues, or the contradiction of being critical of this system while also being a multi-billion dollar profit-generating machine for one of  the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world, the MCU films are content to merely touch on them at the most basic level of exposition or sad-face acting, brief pit-stops on the way to another nauseatingly hyperactive bout of fisticuffs or a weightless car (ship, plane, robot suit) chase through empty pixels. Borrowing from prestige television, the movies never really end: individual episodes are merely subsumed into the mass whole, with any glimmer of individuality or self-contained storytelling swallowed up by the need to hype up the next installment (a trend which reaches its apotheosis in Marvel’s unwatchable Netflix series, where every episode of bleak dullness blends into the next in a formless, personality-less mush of moodiness).

But, with Phase 3, things begin to improve. These are the movies I’d mostly skipped when they were released in 2016 and 2017, and so when I caught up with them last summer I was pleasantly surprised to see that Marvel appeared to be moving on from its moody teen years and rediscovered some of the fun of its pre-1990s self. Doctor Strange is a misfire, a rote origin story with a tenth of the imagination that the character should inspire, but the rest of the group (new movies for Spider-Man and Black Panther; bright, goofy sequels for Thor, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy; with Civil War and Infinity War as the big crossovers) are pretty good. Civil War, split between classic superhero vs. superhero stuff that’s been essential to Marvel’s storytelling since the very beginning, and gritty psychodrama is half good (guess which half), while Infinity War is the closest the MCU has yet gotten to the kind of all-star crossover epic these films are supposed to be: bright and fast-paced yet expansive in its world and never too self-serious (despite the whole killing half the universe thing). The others all approach having an individual style, with Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok being the closest the MCU has yet gotten to a true auteur movie, while Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther fights the good fight against the series’ corporately-mandated middle-road politics, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man movies continue to shine in small moments (though they mostly fail in big ones), and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films do a pretty good job of capturing the (mostly safe) weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic adventures.

So, it’s with all that in mind that I found myself watching Captain Marvel, the penultimate film of Phase 3 (Endgame wraps it up next month while another Spider-Man kicks off Phase 4 this summer). And, well, it’s fine. It’s an origin story, albeit one that, like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming before it, avoids many of the clichés of that genre (unlike Doctor Strange). Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is blessedly free of dark trauma, rather she suffers from some kind of amnesia while serving in the Kree army (the Kree being an alien race that figures in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie) in their on-going war against the Skrulls, another alien race, this one with the ability to shape-shift into other humanoid beings. The Skrulls head to Earth in search of Annette Bening’s MacGuffin, and Larson follows them there. She teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (this being set in 1995, Jackson has been digitally de-aged, a ghoulish special effect that hopefully will quickly be dropped from the language of cinema and forgotten for all time) and the two have adventures while on the run from the Skrulls, the US government, and the Kree, led by Larson’s boss and mentor, Jude Law (doing little more than fulfilling the contractual obligation wherein every actor in Hollywood must appear in at least one MCU movie).

Like most recent MCU films, Captain Marvel is at its best in its smallest moments, with Larson’s impetuous quips and her easy rapport with Jackson, who appears to be having more fun than he has in any of his big spectacle movies to date, or at least since he battled a plane full of snakes. Larson’s performance is closer to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in its bug-eyed charm and confidence than any of the MCU’s stiffer, more tortured heroes, and the character should fit easily into the cosmic side of the cycle, alongside the Asgardians and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Which is good, because that’s where the Captain Marvel character belongs: she’s way too overpowered to be dealing with Earth-bound drama. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, mostly known for well-regarded little indie dramas that I haven’t seen like Half Nelson and Sugar, are an unlikely choice for a slightly goofy interstellar epic, and it shows in the film’s lack of visual and aural imagination (1995 was apparently a strip mall in suburban LA playing a “We Love the 90s” mix CD and that’s about it) and its action sequences, which are almost entirely bad. The fist fights (between Larson and Law in the beginning and between her and various other stunt people later) are jumbled to incoherence, which is to be expected, and Larson doesn’t appear to be a natural for this kind of physical performance: she always looks off-balance to me. Her stunt double is probably pretty good, but it’s hard to tell what they’re doing amid all the editing and camera movement. The only halfway decent action comes at the end, with a reasonably well done dogfight and then when Danvers has achieved full power and just turns into a fiery ball of CGI vengeance, ripping through spaceships like a superstar.

Captain Marvel is, of course, the first MCU film built around a woman, and much of the film’s marketing has revolved around this fact. People much more qualified than I am should speak to the film’s feminist credibility, or about just how much its representation is worth. It doesn’t seem to me though that it’s as nuanced in its engagement with feminism as, say Black Panther was in its examination of potential responses to institutional racism. Rather it’s content to just assert its heroine’s power as an end it itself. And that might actually be more revolutionary, more joyously liberating than Black Panther‘s middling neo-liberalism. Danvers begins the film as a subservient tool of the patriarchy and ends up burning a bunch of men to the ground before heading out to dismantle the entire social-political system they’ve constructed. It’s a real comic book movie and that works for me.

Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige, 2017)

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Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat is not what you’d expect it to be. Well, at least not after the first 20 minutes or so, wherein the eponymous feline wreaks havoc on the lives of Tang Dynasty courtiers, promising buried treasure in exchange for fish eyes and then turning to murder. That kind of Strange Tales of a Chinese Studio off-beat horror-comedy kind of thing (the cat talks, oh boy is this a talking cat movie). But after the set-up, the horror dissipates and for long stretches of time, the talking cat is absent. And what we get instead is a moving melodrama based on some real history about the fall of the Tang Dynasty, famously beautiful concubine Yang Kwei-fei, and master of drunken poetry Li Po, plus or minus some eunuchs and a magician or three. Our heroes in exploring this mystery are a Japanese Buddhist monk and an unemployed Imperial Scribe/would-be poet, and they live in a world as lushly gorgeous as anything Chinese CGI has yet been able to muster.

The two tones, that of a deeply romantic melodrama and a talking cat picture, should be, by all conventional rules of movie-making, incompatible. And judging by the film’s reaction in the 14 months since it was originally released back in December, 2017, the combination does not work for most (it’s hard to know where to laugh, I suppose), though it should be noted that it did seem to be greeted positively when it played in Toronto last fall, in a supposed Director’s Cut (I have been unable to find out any details on what did and did not change since the film’s initial release). But I’m weird and I loved it. Because I’m perversely fond of history, I loved how the whole long middle section of the film contains almost no action, but is instead just the monk and the scribe talking about what might have happened thirty years earlier, while gorgeous visions of a lost Golden Age play out on screen. It’s that loss that is at the film’s heart: a movie motivated by people who have had a vision of perfection (a woman, a world, a poem) and lost it, and the anguish that can cause. And it’s about the lengths they’ll go to to bring it back, defying the laws of physics and even death itself for that end.

The film’s vision of the present isn’t quite degraded enough for the dichotomy to work, though. Chen is still as decorous as ever (fans of Farewell My Concubine need have no fear: the costumes here are just as decadently lustrous). Even his lost world, which should be significantly diminished even 30 years after the An Lushan Rebellion, possibly the bloodiest conflict of the entire Middle Ages, looks pretty nice. But, maybe that’s to the point: that even in relatively prosperous times, not unlike our own, the lure of the ideal can still be destructively strong. Maybe it’s time to let the old dreams die.

I opened at random my copy of David Hinton’s translation of Selected Poems of Li Po, looking for something to tie into this lovely, sad, weird movie. This is what I found:

Making My Way Toward Yeh-lang in Exile, I Remember Walking
Among Peach Blossoms Long Ago at Autumn River

Peaches in blossom, spring waters high,
white stones appear, then sink away,

and rustling wisteria branches sway,
a half moon drifting azure heaven.

Who knows how many fiddleheads wait,
clenched along paths I once walked?

In three years, back from Yeh-lang,
I’ll resolve my bones into gold there.

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.

Missbehavior (Pang Ho-cheung, 2019)

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This week’s snow has certainly thrown a wrench into my Lunar New year movie-watching plans, but fortunately my kids’ school actually started on time today so I was able to make the long drive to the Pacific Place to catch an early morning show of Pang Ho-cheung’s latest before it disappeared forever. Famous as the director of the Love in a. . . series of films, the first of which, Love in a Puff, was a vibrant breath of fresh air into the mostly moribund Hong Kong romantic comedy genre. Notoriously given a Category III rating (the equivalent of our NC-17) because of its use of foul language, it captured life among the disaffected professionals of an urban metropolis, at once highly culturally specific in its language and references while universal in that its story could take place in any highly developed center of global capitalism. The sequels continued in this vein, along with the fine but unrelated 2014 rom-com Women Who Know How to Flirt are the LuckiestMissbehavior does as well, though it is not a romance but rather an ensemble farce. And while it’s a great deal of fun, it’s Pang’s least interesting, and least essential film to date.

Reportedly put together in just two weeks, Missbehavior is about a group of old friends, all young urban professionals who have grown estranged from each other for various reasons, who band together to help out a friend who is in trouble at work. She managed to misplace her boss’s bottle of breast milk, and every works together to find a replacement by the end of the day so she doesn’t get fired. The plot alternates madcap schemes for milk retrieval with flashbacks that explain how various pairs of the friends became alienated from each other. It’s little more than an excuse for Pang (and us) to hang out with a bunch of fun actors goofing off, and on that level the film is a delight. Occasionally it gets bogged down in lesson-learning and hugging, which feels extremely heavy-handed in a film so packed with ridiculous gags (from wordplay which is pretty funny even in translation to the basest body humor).

Gigi Leung heads the cast and seems the most like a real actor. But the best performance, no surprise, comes from Lam Suet, as the world’s worst waiter. Other familiar faces abound: Isabella Leong, Miriam Yeung, Derek Tsang, June Lam, Roy Szeto, Susan Shaw, and many more.

Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing, 2018)

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A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.

Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a TimeWorm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).

The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.

People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

This film played earlier this year at SIFF,where bopth Evan and Sean reviewed it. But, because of SIFF’s embargo policy, they were only able to use 75 words apiece to do so. I’ve combined those two capsules into this, single review for ease of reference.

Evan:

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.

Sean:

Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)

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Alienation from the Land: The Movie.

The new Frederick Wiseman film is always one of the film events of the year, and this week his new one opens exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. Wiseman, despite his advanced years, has been one of the most productive American directors of the last decade, with a string of documentary masterpieces (La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, National Gallery and In Jackson Heights are my personal favorites from among his post-2008 work) that would be enough to mark him as one of the finest ever to work in that form even if he hadn’t been making films just as often and just as high-quality since the late 1960s.

Monrovia, Indiana starts with and continually returns to the rich farmland and livestock of the Midwest, worked almost completely by machines. Every turn in the editing shows a population disconnected from their past, from their environment. The landscapes, gorgeous skies and verdant croplands alike, are almost completely devoid of human life. The fascinating and weird diversity of Wiseman’s 1999 look at a small American town, Belfast, Maine, is almost nowhere to be seen, as is the vibrant chaos and struggle of Jackson Heights.

Instead bored students listen to a history lecture about the high school basketball stars of the 1930s. City council meetings vainly negotiate against the totalizing onslaught of cookie-cutter development, development literally severed from the land in that it cannot get proper water service to protect its residents from fire. People eat cheap pizza and drink Budweiser and get tattoos and guns and dock their dog’s tails for no apparent reason (in one of the most disturbing film scenes of the year). President Obama’s assertion about clinging to guns and religion is never far from one’s mind as the film continually circles back to the church, but the solace found there, however real (and that shaft of light shining in the penultimate funeral scene has a beauty the minister’s sermon can’t touch) seems hollow. The young are just as bored with God as they are old white guy basketball. The final shot is as perfect a capper as we’ll see this year.

Looking forward to the sequel, Monrovia, Liberia.

Liz and the Blue Bird (Naoko Yamada, 2018)

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter wasn’t the only tear-jerking teen romance to sneak onto Seattle screens this past week. Naoko Yamada’s anime Liz and the Blue Bird, based on a novel called Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda that has already been adapted into two seasons of a TV series and a couple of movies by Tatsuya Ishihara, is playing at the Varsity and the Grand Illusion, where it will be held-over for a couple more shows this coming weekend (the 24th and 25th of November). It’s about the relationship between two girls in the school band. Nozomoi, a flautist, is lively and gregarious, while the oboist Mizore is shy and withdrawn. After a brief prologue, we follow the two girls on their walk to school for practice on a Sunday morning, Mizore following behind, her gaze, at Nozomi’s feet, her legs, and, most of all, her gaily swishing ponytail, brilliantly establishing the obsession that is her crush. The two girls are assigned a duet as a part of the band’s end of the year competition, and their negotiating that piece, and their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which the delicate negotiation of teen love and self-actualization will be realized.

More muted and intimate than the other high-quality Japanese animated films that have played here this year, specifically the bombastically inventive Night is Short, Walk on Girl and the generationally-expansive Mirai (coming soon to a multiplex near you), Liz and the Blue Bird is no less breath-taking, both to look at and in narrative. Interspersed throughout the slice of life real-world story are the girls’ imagining of the eponymous fairy tale, given a story-book smudginess and an orange and yellow glow that contrasts sharply with the steely blues of the classroom interiors and rainy sidewalks of the city. But most of all it’s Yamada’s focus on small gestures and behaviors, the way Mizore tugs at her hair when she’s nervous, or how the camera, when adopting her point of view, tends to face downwards, like it’s afraid to face the world, that marks Liz and the Blue Bird as one of the most keenly observed romances of recent years, animated or otherwise.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

John Carpenter seems to be the most prominent living horror director, even if he hasn’t made a film since 2010. His presence in the modern landscape of the genre is mostly due to his legacy, and the permanent mark he’s left behind with his films, from classics like Halloween, which defined the slasher genre, to cult films that have marked generations like They Liveand Big Trouble in Little China. His presence is unavoidable on the landscape of horror to this day, from his constant touring in support of his fascinating musical abilities, to his more active association with films associated with his brand, like the new Halloween, a continuation of the original, directed by David Gordon Green, for which he served as executive producer and score composer.

Although his fourth theatrical outing, The Fog, was commercially successful (more due to the very low budget it had), it was far from being critically well-received at the time, and even if it warranted a lackluster remake in 2005, it still remained one of the least discussed films in Carpenter’s filmography until recently. Now, thanks to a restoration done by Studiocanal in 4K and a re-release through Rialto Pictures, there’s a way to re-experience or enjoy for the first time on a big screen the Lovecraft-inspired and Stephen King-flavored horrors that are still completely owned by Carpenter.

The film opens, fittingly, with an old man telling kids some ghost stories, which fits the overall tone of the film, which follows the events of the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay, a coastal town in California. In the same way as the old man tells these old tales, we are introduced to a voice that seems to narrate the life of the town, DJ Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau), who has a radio station at the lighthouse that she also commands. Her tone, verging on eroticism while at the same time assured of her position of power (she’s “above” the town, as she’s on the lighthouse, and at the same time separated from it), accompanies various characters that will eventually come together under the threat of the fog.

And it’s the DJ, from her vantage point, who is the first to see the threat of the fog, as it approaches a nearby ship, just as midnight strikes. Through clever parallel editing, all of it linked through her voice, we see many supernatural events happen around the town, from the discovery of an old diary written by one of the original settlers of Antonio Bay, to the shattering of all the windows on a truck, all of which builds up to showing what’s behind the bright fog that envelops the coast: vengeful ghosts that a hundred years ago were killed by the founders of the town, and not only that, were robbed from the gold they carried on their ship, which eventually was used to build the church and the rest of the structure of the village.

So, the film becomes more an exploration on the subject of moral living, which resonated with me in ways that I wouldn’t suspect. What’s our responsibility to our ancestors, colonizers who killed or displaced people that originally lived there? Is there any moral dwelling possible in colonized territory? Now, of course, in the story of The Fog, the vengeful ghosts weren’t actually living in the territory of Antonio Bay, but it’s as if it were the cause. We see the next night a massive event in which the founders are honored on the 100th anniversary, and knowing what we already know, we can feel the rage of these ghosts as they maim and kill and gut people, maybe not strictly related to the founders, but it’s their way of exacting revenge on a town that doesn’t know on which crimes it was founded, and even celebrates those who committed the murders.

Visually, the film is a treat, and even with the low budget it manages to create a chilling atmosphere that goes beyond the idea of just pumping lots of fog onto exteriors and interiors. There’s a blue tone that, I assume, the new restoration will hinge on to bring forward the spooky imagery of the shadowy figures that in a brute manner slit throats, decapitate heads and dismember bodies. Much like in Halloween, Carpenter conjures a sense of dread out of the emptiness of the frame, devoid of human figures–we often just see empty streets, houses and the church from outside, slowly being surrounded by the bright fog, just as we see the sea, flowing, coming and going. We only hear the tones of Carpenter’s magnificent score, as if it were the fog itself, creeping into the frame, slowly building toward the final confrontation.

What one appreciates more about a film like The Fog is that although it is only 85 minutes long, it seems to live beyond the opening crawl and its final frame, the town exists beyond this horrifying event, and what helps build that is a sense of place, which is built through the landscape shots as well as the assured nature of the performances, where we seem to know everyone from the moment they open their mouths and that’s because they know each other beforehand. The only progression the film has, as it barely even has what one could call a character arc, is with the two characters that meet each other on the midnight of the anniversary, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins.

Beyond their travels, in which they first find each other (him, a truck driver, her, a hitchhiker looking for a ride) and then find out what’s happening in the town, the film is pretty much free-form, as it seems to be made out of patches of lived life in town, a special day that is, but one that is given its sense of normalcy through the voice of the DJ that keeps on commenting through the night, through the attacks and even is confronted with the ghosts themselves as she is both at a point where she can give information to others, but at the same time is alone and isolated, incapable of defending herself. It’s that lived-in quality what gives the supernatural a child-like wonder that makes it one of the most fascinating horror films of the 1980s.