Midnight Diner (Tony Leung Ka-fai, 2019)

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I am, as I suspect many people are, afflicted with an unquenchable fondness for movies about food. Close-ups of meat sizzling, the sound of tea being poured into a china cup, the crispy crunch of vegetables being chopped, it all triggers some kind of ASMR-like pleasure center deep in the back of my brain. Combine that with a rich environment filled with deep brown wood, dark stone tile, golden light and a tinkling piano score, and I’m sold. Midnight Diner has all of this and more–it’s only lack is any glimpse of the greatest food of them all. But fortunately there’s more than enough cheese in its screenplay to compensate.

Tony Leung Ka-fai is The Other Tony Leung. Not the one who starred in Hard-Boiled and Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, that’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai, but the one who starred in Prison on Fire and Centre Stage and Election. Chiu-wai starred in Bullet in the Head, Ka-fai starred in A Better Tomorrow III. They both starred in Ashes of Time and The Eagle-Shooting Heroes. Chiu-wai is “Little Tony”, Ka-fai is “Big Tony”. Chiu-wai starred a couple of years ago in a movie called See You Tomorrow, about a bartender who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. Ka-fai stars in a movie called Midnight Diner which opens this week and is about a chef who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. See You Tomorrow was directed by Zhang Jiajia, and was based on his own story, and is dizzyingly fast-paced, zooming forward and backward in time with egregiously orange images, like Speed Racer meets My Blueberry NightsMidnight Diner was directed by Ka-fai himself, and is based on a manga by Yarō Abe that has previously been adapted into a TV series in Japan, Korea and China, as well as two films directed by Joji Matsuoka. It’s as calm and conventional as See You Tomorrow is garish and unexpected.

Leung plays the chef at a diner in Shanghai that is only open from midnight until seven in the morning. It’s called, in the delightfully direct manner of Chinese movie restaurants, “Midnight Diner”. It’s frequented by a variety of more or less normal people, and Leung tells us their stories in narration. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but only barely so. There’s a boxer who fights with his mom (Elaine Jin) even though they both really love each other. The boxer falls for a nurse who has a daughter in a wheelchair, but his mother interferes (trying only to help, of course). A young executive (Joyce Cheng) panics about the impending arrival of the boy she was too afraid to pursue in high school. Leung’s brother, a local cop, loses his temper sometimes. A young couple from Hunan break up because he wants to make money and go home while she dreams of making it big as a model. A rock star falls in love with a young singer but loses her.

None of it is particularly moving and it’s certainly not original, but it is weirdly comforting to see something this old fashioned. That comfort is only amplified by the rich sensuousness of restaurant set and the cooking scenes. Leung himself very obviously is not doing the cooking (the only time we see a longshot of food preparation is a bit of him cracking an egg, all the other cooking images are close-ups that block the chef’s face), which is kind of funny. And the warmth and closeness of the restaurant are nicely contrasted with the vast neon darkness of the megalopolis at night. Other recent food movies have delivered the same kinds of pleasures, while also managing to tell an interesting story: Ramen Shop‘s exploration of the legacy of World War II in Singapore, for example, or a young woman’s reconciliation with her mother and her life in the city during a year on a farm in Little Forest (in both the two-part Japanese version and the single-feature Korean version). While Leung himself has been outspoken recently in support of the Hong Kong police and against the protestors there, there’s nothing the least bit controversial in Midnight Diner. It’s a conservative movie to be sure, but in the way of the kindly grandpa at the other end of the counter who dresses in tweed and doles out reassuring aphorisms and gently pours you a cup of tea when you’re sad. It’s a nice movie, and it made me very hungry.

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

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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.

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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.

The Case of Hana and Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2015)

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What do you do if you want to make a prequel to one of your best movies, one built as much around the performances of two terrific young actresses more than anything else, but a decade has passed and the actresses are now much too old to be playing the same characters? Well, if you’re Shunji Iwai, you make it as an anime. That’s the case with The Case of Hana and Alice, the prequel to his 2004 film Hana and Alice. Anne Suzuki and Yū Aoi (respectively) reprise their roles in voice form with an origin story for the two slightly odd friends. In most respects, the film is of a piece with the original: both are slice of life films about teen girls, with meandering plots filled with small moments of wonder and mystery. That they could be so similar and yet be made in dramatically different media speaks to the paucity of Hollywood imagination, where “animated” is a genre unto itself (an almost exclusively kid-oriented one), rather than merely one method among many for telling a story.

Alice moves into a new house and starts a new school in the 9th grade. She’s immediately set upon by her classmates because her assigned desk belonged to a boy who is rumored to have died the year before, which the students have interpreted as some kind of occult phenomenon. She fights back (ably beating up one boy who tries to torment her) and sets out to solve the mystery of the former student’s disappearance, which leads her to her reclusive neighbor, Hana, who sat behind him in class the year before. The two eventually join forces, with Hana coming up with various schemes to track down the boy’s father and Alice lackadaisically playing along.

This leads to a remarkable yet entirely tangential sequence, as Alice, accidentally following and then befriending the wrong old man, finds herself in a miniature remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru. With several shots lifted straight out of the Kurosawa, she befriends her wistful elder, visiting a crowded restaurant and a swing set with him. It’s a completely inessential sidetrack, having literally nothing to do with furthering the plot, and it’s absolutely perfect. A film about the wonder and possibility of youth taking the time to meditate for a bit on what it means to be old and alone.

The Kurosawa thing makes me think about the connections between Japanese feature film and anime. One of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu’s more famous recurring stylistic features is the pillow shot, a short scene of nothing in particular, a sky, a city street, some power lines. They serve no narrative purpose whatsoever, but they help with the pacing of his films, allowing a momentary breath between scenes, giving the audience a space to think about what they’re seeing. Such shots are also a common feature of manga and anime, individual panels with no story-related content that simply serve to break-up the flow of the narrative, and they’re as anathema to tradition American comic book making as Ozu’s pillow shots are to standard Hollywood editing. In the American tradition, forward movement of the plot is everything, and anything else is a waste of time. This is on its face an absurdly limiting idea of narrative art, but it persists nonetheless (think of all the people out there complaining about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s leisurely pacing as a failure to properly edit).

I don’t know much about anime, but I’ve watched a few series and movies and have maintained subscriptions to both Crunchyroll and Funimation for awhile, despite not really using them as much as I should (as it is with all my streaming services). This summer the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation finally spurred me to watch some of their series: Sound! Euphonium, of which last year’s wonderful Liz and the Bluebird was a spin-off; and K-On!, an earlier series that is also about a high school musical group. They’re terrific, almost directionless shows (K-On! more so than the other: it has an episode that is literally about it being rainy outside, and another about how it’s too hot in the music room) that aren’t so much about growing up or coming of age as they are simply about being young. The Case of Hana and Alice is that kind of movie. And maybe it’s that I’m becoming more and more conscious of the fact that I’m nearer in age to the elderly businessman than I am to the kooky teen girls, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want to miss when it plays for two more shows this Sunday at the Grand Illusion.

Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

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**SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**

I. Prolegomenon: “Once upon a time,” Conservatism, and the Appeal of Nostalgia

This isn’t a review. (Here’s Sean Gilman’s review on this site.) It isn’t a judgment about whether a film is good or bad at a filmmaking level. Rather, it’s an attempt at a primarily thematic analysis. It’s an effort to answer some questions I have. 

I want to consider Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood on two levels: 1) a thematic one, specifically focusing on its construction of, assumptions about, and implications about gender and race — though, as a white person, I am more uneasy about tackling this one, aware that my own complicity in whiteness will always cloud how I observe and understand race on screen — and 2) an emotional one, arguably difficult, subjective territory, but one I think I have to address, given my own overwhelming fury upon exiting the cinema after my first viewing of the film. 

First, then: what is the film saying or implying about gender? About men and about women? I believe Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is, in essence, a conservative film. (And I credit my friend Ben Hynes for using this adjective in reference to the film in a conversation with me and thus, as aptly chosen words often do, doing much to illuminate and organize the clutter of details in the film I’d observed.) And by “conservative” I mean two things: first, a conservative stance is one that is, inevitably, backward looking. It looks to the past as a guide for the future and understands or uses the past to measure the present, which generally fails to measure up. A conservative viewpoint on some level idolizes the past — better days, better times, the good old days. It is inherently nostalgic. Second, the film is conservative in the sense that it not only looks to the past with longing, but it is itself rooted in what I would generally consider (particularly as relative to a “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoint) outdated, regressive understandings of the world and, more fundamentally, of the way the world should be. 

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can be seen, as most of the best Quentin Tarantino movies can, as a collection of short stories (along with Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill; Jackie Brown is a novel; Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight and Death Proof are plays; I have no idea what Django Unchained is–I haven’t seen it since it was first released and I’m as baffled by it now as I was then, but I suspect it’s a movie). He’s best when he’s building out of small, discreet scenes, rather than trying to follow a single thread through various permutations. The approach allows his movies time to breathe, and lets his actors do their thing. Hollywood is, for its incredible first two-thirds, a series of sketches around two days in the life of three characters: former TV Western star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio; Dalton’s longtime stunt double and best friend, played by Brad Pitt; and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, the young actress who has just moved in next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive with her husband, Roman Polanski. It’s February of 1969, and we know, but they do not, that the night of the Manson Family murders is only six months away.

Hints of that fateful night to come, one of those events that has transcended its own tragedy, like the Stones at Altamont, to become a symbol of the End of Something (Old Hollywood, the 60s, Innocence), abound through this first two-thirds: we see Manson’s young followers digging through trash and hitch-hiking through Hollywood; Charlie himself shows up looking for the former resident’s of Tate’s house; Pitt even takes a trip out to the Spahn Ranch with one of the Manson girls (played by Margaret Qualley, from Fosse/Verdon). But more time is spent away from them, with each of the principals going about their day. Tate takes a trip into town where she spots a movie theatre playing her latest movie, the Dean Martin Matt Helm vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Pitt works on DiCaprio’s house and reminisces about the time he beat the crap out of Bruce Lee while working on Green Hornet (Mike Moh does a very funny Lee impression). DiCaprio works on a TV western pilot, where he tries his best to act despite a hangover and depression over the state of his career (he’s considering an offer from Al Pacino to go make Westerns in Italy). It’s these stories, which have nothing to do with Manson but everything to do with Hollywood and Tarantino’s vision of it, that make the movie something special.

I’m toying with the idea of seeing them as three parts of a whole theory of Hollywood. DiCaprio as its heart: as an actor he’s highly emotional, it’s what allows him to achieve greatness in his performances, but it also sends him into rages and funks when he fails. Robbie’s Tate is all wonder and joy, a dream of youth and beauty and exuberance. Her sitting in a dark theatre, listening to the laughs her performance gets is maybe the warmest, happiest moment Tarantino has ever filmed. Pitt is all technique and skill, the muscle that makes it possible for DiCaprio to function (in work as well as life: he’s his driver and does odd jobs around his house, like fix the TV antenna). Supremely aware of himself and his own capabilities, he has all the quiet confidence in himself that the other actors (including the preening Lee) lack. He’s the Marlboro Man, a masculine ideal. And not so hidden within him is the threat of violence. He’s naturally attractive, but absolutely capable of murder, an uncomfortable dichotomy which will be put to the absolute test in the film’s final third.

Quentin Tarantino is the best director of actors of his generation. In any other hands, a movie like this, packed with famous names playing famous names, steeped in a historical place and time marked by wild behavior and wilder fashions, would degenerate into farce. Think of the wig acting of a movie like American Hustle, where brilliant performers are buried beneath a whole lot of noise and nonsense. Tarantino understands quiet as well as any mainstream American director. He has the patience to let the camera rest on an actor while they work, taking us inside DiCaprio’s head as he shows us the difference between mediocre acting and great acting. This might be my favorite Brad Pitt performance, at least since True Romance. He gets the swagger of a man who isn’t needy enough to be a movie star, who loves his dog but will without hesitation break your nose if you wrong him, exactly right.

There’s much more to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it can wait until sometime later, after everyone has a chance to see it. Suffice it to say that I think it’s Tarantino’s best since Jackie Brown, and, going by imdb dates, it’s without a doubt the first great movie of 2019.

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

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Don’t let the title fool you: in fine Hong Kong tradition Chasing the Dragon II has no relation whatsoever to Chasing the Dragon, a 1970s-set crime epic starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau that came out a couple of years ago. The only thing the two movies have in common is that they’re crime films and that Wong Jing and Jason Kwan (as cinematographer and co-director) are to blame for them. Wild Wild Bunch is set on the eve of the Handover, in 1996, as Louis Koo is sent undercover as a bomb-maker to ensnare kidnapping kingpin The Other Tony Leung. He’s a Hong Kong cop, working in cooperation with the Mainland police, to catch badguys in Macao. Wong Jing has for forty years now made a career out of pandering to the basest pleasures of the genre film fan. He’s the most prolific bottom-feeder in Hong Kong, incorrigible master of cheap, tasteless sensationalist cinema. His comedies are silly and crude, his action films bloody and bombastic. Now finding himself in a new socio-political environment, he seems to be doing his best (such as that is) to appeal to a whole new audience: the Chinese security state.

In broad outlines, the plot of Wild Wild Bunch makes sense: undercover cop keeps getting trapped in suspenseful situations, including bomb diffusing and car chases. And certain moments do stand out: Wong and Kwan have a knack for the hyperbolic image (one of a bad guy dying in a car, metal rod jammed though his head, futilely grasping at a $1,000 bill on the other side of the windshield, is something I haven’t seen before), but almost every scene in the film if looked at with even minimal scrutiny reveals itself to be utter nonsense. My favorite: PRC cops set up a roadblock for escaping bad guys on the wrong side of an intersection, allowing the crooks to simply make a left turn to avoid them. This is the kind of joyous laziness we’ve all come to expect and, if not exactly love, then at least tolerate out of Wong Jing.

In the film’s final moments, spoilers ahead here, though God knows how anyone could spoil a Wong Jing movie, Koo leads Leung across the border, into the arms of the Mainland military, which, despite their ineffectuality at blocking roads, is otherwise vast, powerful and ruthless. This could easily be read as a paean to the PRC’s no-nonsense efficiency (as well as their habit of extraditing people from supposedly autonomous jurisdictions), but there might be something else going on. Because, for all his loucheness, Wong has always been just a bit more clever than he appears. It’s not hard to project Wong himself (and thus the old, weird Hong Kong) onto Tony Leung’s character, a loud, cruel man of greed and familial loyalty, dressed in white, throwing tattered bills in the air in a gesture of joyous release as he raises his arms in surrender to the Mainland cops. The film fades to black and then returns, and instead of the final credits we get a brief series of images scored to what passes these days for Chinese rock music. Leung is escorted out of his prison cell, while we see images of his past, open skies and roller coaster rides, he is taken to the side of a dusty road and executed. And then the credits roll.

SIFF 2019: Lynch: A History (David Shields, 2019)

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If this movie was nothing more than a collection of randomly-edited clips of Marshawn Lynch doing stuff, it’d still be one of the most entertaining films of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. But like its subject, there’s a lot more to Lynch: A History than catch-phrases, crotch-grabs, and motherfuckers getting their faces run through. Director David Shields, an English professor at the University of Washington, is best known as the author of the acclaimed Black Planet, a look at race and the NBA through the lens of the SuperSonics 1994-95 season. Lynch appears to be a follow-up to that story, using the football player, and his contentious history with the media, as a way to explore the confluence of race, sports, and the media. Like Lynch himself, at various times gregarious, silly, hilarious, taciturn, guarded, shy, and angry, the film heightens the contradictions of a systemically racist society that elevates young, physically gifted black men into multimillionaire role models while attempting to control their every means of expression.

Entirely made up of archival film clips, hitting all the highlights, on the field and off, of Lynch’s public career, the film situates him in a long history of Bay Area radicals, Oakland residents from Jack London to Bobby Seale to Tupac Shakur. We get clips of African folklorists discussing trickster gods intercut with classic hilarious Lynch clips (like driving the cart around the field at Cal, or drinking a fan-proffered bottle of Fireball and throwing Skittles to the crowd during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory parade). We get all the amazing runs (deeply-profane fan videos of the Beast Quake are always welcome) and all the self-righteous whining from the media about Lynch’s refusal to answer their stupid questions. About the only great Lynch content I noticed was missing was when he played Mortal Kombat with Rob Gronkowski.

Marshawn Lynch is one of my all-time favorite athletes, I’m thankful to have been closely following the team for his entire Seahawks career, and so of course I’m happy to see these clips again. But thanks to Shields’s expert editing and contextualizing of Lynch’s life and the coverage of it, it’s impossible to watch all this without questioning our own complicity in American racism. The obvious morons of the sports media world, the guys that call Colin Kaepernick dumb for example, make for easy targets (we’re all Randy Moss glaring at Trent Dilfer). More difficult is trying to understand just how much of our enjoyment of Lynch’s surreal weirdness and his other-worldly physicality on the field is based on his conforming to the limited and limiting roles (clown, thug, angry youth) available to black men in the public eye. Possibly as disturbing is the broader question of whether a life lived in that public eye, as it has been for star athletes for a long time and as it increasingly seems to be for the rest of us, can ever possibly be authentic and not just an amalgam of adopted roles and stereotypes, and if that’s always been the case anyway, regardless of the omnipresence of panoptic media.

SIFF 2019: Storm in My Heart (Mark Cousins, 2018)

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Mark Cousins’s latest documentary is explicitly labelled an experiment. Struck by the fact that both Lena Horne and Susan Hayward were born on the same day (June 30, 1917) in the same city (Brooklyn, New York), he wonders if by juxtaposing two of their films, watching them side by side simultaneously, we can learn something about them, and by extension about women in Hollywood and America in the middle of the 20th century. And so he plays them, with Hayward’s A Song in My Heart on the left side of the screen and Horne’s Stormy Weather on the right. Occasionally, Cousins will offer up details or trivia in text on a blank quadrant of the screen, biographical info about the two stars, or about the films. Both films were made by the Fox studio, the Hayward a biopic about a woman who sang for the troops during World War II, despite having severely injuring her leg in a plane crash; while the Horne is a loose collection of musical numbers built around a light comedy plot, like an Astaire-Rogers film with an all-black cast. I defy anyone watching Storm in My Heart to pay attention to Hayward when Horne and company are on-screen.

Stormy Weather is, like the same year’s Cabin in the Sky at MGM, a marvelous compendium of all the talent Hollywood refused to utilize because they had the wrong skin color. Leading the way is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the legendary tap dancer who, at 65 years old (but certainly not looking it) stars alongside Horne as a hoofer working his way up the stardom ladder. The movie is almost entirely made up of musical numbers, with Horne singing a bunch, but also Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and in one of the consensus greatest dance performances in film history, the Nicholas Brothers. A Song in My Heart, on the other hand, is about a pretty singer who sings prettily who somehow must find the will to sing just as prettily after her injury. She proves an inspiration to the troops, because if a rich white lady with a full-time live-in nurse (Thelma Ritter, naturally) can sing with one properly working leg, then what do an entire generation of men traumatized mentally and physically by the ravages of war have to complain about.

We don’t learn much about Hayward or Horne from their films, but we do learn a little bit about Hollywood. When Stormy Weather ends, there’s still a half hour of A Song in My Heart to go. I didn’t see it in a theatre, but I bet if I had, there would have been an audible groan from the crowd. Cousins, delightfully, helps pass the time until Hayward’s movie ends by throwing on a Cuban short film Horne sang the soundtrack to in 1965 called Now. It’s a series of still images from the civil rights movement: protests and police crackdowns and marches and lynchings, with Horne singing a rousing anthem of revolution to the tune of “Hava Nagilia”. It too has about a thousand times more energy than any random Hollywood biopic.

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)

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Whatever film festival I cover, I always like to find time for a movie about music and/or dance. This year’s music movie is a biodoc about Miles Davis, produced for the PBS American Masters TV series. As such, in no way does it attempt to explore the limits of the form, or give us anything more than an illustrated history of its subject (unlike previous festival favorite art docs like Ballet 422 or any random Frederick Wiseman film). But its limitations being what they are, it’s a solid enough piece of work. A kind of Miles 101 for a general audience, distinguished by wall-to-wall music and excellent use of archival photographs and home movies.

We follow Davis’s life from birth to death, hitting all the musical high points along the way, and making time for the low points of his personal life as well (mainly drug and spousal abuse). First person narration is read in an imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp by actor Carl Lumbly, repeating Davis’s words from interviews conducted by Quincy Troupe during their writing of Davis’s autobiography. Musical luminaries serve as talking heads, along with a few of Davis’s friends and wives and children. The film is at its best when it gets lost in the music, highlighting with ease what made Davis’s tone and style so uniquely special, ably distinguishing him from his peers in bebop and charting his evolution from post-war New York all the way through the 1980s. As much time is devoted to the later work as the early hits, which is nice to see for once in a music doc. So many tend to focus on a small slice of an artist’s work, Birth of the Cool embraces the whole of Miles Davis though.

And that includes his personal life, the failings in which the film does not excuse, though some of the interviewees might seem to do so. His second wife, Frances Taylor Davis, is the most affecting interview, recalling with equal poignance the good times and the bad ones. The question underlying it all–what do we as fans, as a society, do with a genius artist who does unequivocally bad things–is never really answered. I don’t know that it can be. I do know that Miles Davis, flaws and all, is probably the greatest American composer of the second half of the 20th century.

Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)

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

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

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