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.

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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 there negotiating that piece, their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which their 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.

Rampant (Kim Sunghoon, 2018)

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Billed as coming from the same studio (Next Entertainment World) as the breakout 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan, Kim Sunghoon’s Rampant has a fine pedigree and a promising premise: what if zombies, but in medieval Korea? Set in what appears to be the 17th or 18th Century, a complex conspiracy works to both topple the sitting Joseon King (and his son the Crown Prince) while also introducing a horde of zombies among the dissatisfied and rebellious populace (rebellious because they resent the neighboring Chinese Qing dynasty’s suzerainty over Korea). This sets the stage for lots of fun fights between mindless armies of bloodthirsty undead and warrior heroes armed with arrows and big swords.

Alas, apparently that wasn’t enough for Kim and his writers, because they’ve decided to pack their zombie movie with lengthy scenes of palace intrigue, discourses on the requirements of filial and fraternal piety, and the true source of governmental legitimacy  (the sovereign or the people). Where the fights scenes are fluid and exciting (these zombies are of the fast-moving variety, though they are vampirically afraid of sunlight), the court drama plays out like one of those palace rivalry soap operas that seem to be ubiquitous nowadays in Chinese television (if not Korean). Rather then the increasing tension of the set-piece upon set-piece constriction of Train to Busan, which spends only a few quiet moments fleshing out its characters and hints at broader themes in-between the fights, Rampant spends the first 90 minutes or so of its two hour(!) run-time acquainting us with the various rivalries at court, with only occasional breaks for zombie mayhem.

That would, of course, be fine if the palace intrigue stuff was the least bit interesting. But it’s rote genre stuff played like serious drama (there’s a hint of an idea about the zombies coming from European traders, and so being a metaphor for Western influence on the country, but it doesn’t go anywhere and more time is spent bemoaning China’s relation to the country instead). It’s basically Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but without the humor. Zhang Yimou’s upcoming Shadow has a similar problem: it desperately wants to be a silly action movie, but it plays its non-fight scenes so straight they simply come off as overwrought, repetitive and dull. But, as with Shadow, the final half hour or so of Rampant, once all the masks are dropped and there’s nothing left to do but kill the unkillable, is a lot of fun. Director Kim stages his fights well, with a hint of CGI wuxia wirefu amid the beige and grey, while lead actors Hyun Bin and Jang Donggun are solid: Hyun as the happy-go-lucky second son of the King turned People’s Hero and Jang especially as the power-hungry villain. And for Hong Sangsoo fans there’s even a special treat: the King is played by Kim Euisung, star of Hong’s first film and featured actor in many of his later ones (and also Train to Busan), and the Crown Prince is played by Kim Taewoo, star of Woman is the Future of Man, Like You Know it All and Woman on the Beach.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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There’s something fitting about the new restoration of John Carpenter’s The Fog rolling onto Seattle screens the day after Halloween. Everything about it is just a little off the beat, a little bit odd. Which is, of course, what makes it, almost 40 years after its release, continue to be one of his better works. It lingers in the back of your brain, long after its brief running time has elapsed. Clocking in at a mere 89 minutes, and taking place over a single 24 hour period in the life of a small coastal community, The Fog is the leanest work of modern Hollywood’s most efficient great director (one of the many qualities that links him to Howard Hawks).

It begins at a campfire, with a village elder (John Houseman in old-timey fisherman drag) telling the story of the tragedy that accompanied the village’s founding exactly one hundred years earlier. Quickly we will learn the truth behind the legend, that the ship that tragically crashed in the fog one night was lured there intentionally, part of a scheme by the great men of the town to steal gold from a rich leper and his diseased companions: they murdered them and built their town atop their ruins. One hundred years later, the dead men return to balance the karmic scale.

Arrayed against the forces of darkness are Jamie Lee Curtis (a hitchhiker passing through town), the solid blond guy she hooks up with, Janet Leigh (wife of a fisherman and leader of the town’s anniversary festivities), Adrienne Barbeau (single mom from Chicago and operator of the town’s radio station/lighthouse) and Hal Holbrook (drunken priest whose grandfather was integral in the murders and whose diary tells the whole secret). They’re all pretty quick to figure out what is happening, though each of them has only a piece of the puzzle. The fog itself, what with its eerie glow and hidden frozen sailors, is pretty obviously the danger.

It’s a simple story built out of small, perfectly crafted suspense sequences. And while a lot of the horror movies of the era, including Carpenter’s own Halloween, seem to be designed in response to second wave feminism and The Pill, with their Final Girls surviving while their more promiscuous friends get the knife, The Fog is part of another strand of New Hollywood horror, one inspired more by the crises of the 1960s (the Vietnam War and its attendant atrocities in particular) and a kind of generational awakening to the sins of America’s past. Nightmare on Elm Street about a suburban lynching, Poltergeist about building suburbia on the graves of our ancestors, and so on. The Fog equates the foundation of the American community with the literal theft of capital, a town built on blood money. But then Carpenter complicates it further. In the film’s final moments, the priest reads the next few pages of his grandfather’s diary and finds out that the conspirators were actually betrayed: they never even got the money they were trying to steal. Their murder was ultimately pointless, their conspiracy undermined from within. But they founded the town anyway. That’s America for you: immoral, cruel, murderous, hypocritical, and totally incompetent.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)

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Shot over several years while he lived in Hale County, Alabama working as a teacher in the area, RaMell Ross’s debut film Hale County This Morning, This Evening is without a doubt one of the essential documentaries of 2018, and it plays this week exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s an interesting companion to What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, one of the highlights of this year’s Vancouver Film Festival (Seattle release date unfortunately unknown). Both are portraits of Southern, African-American communities, but from vastly different perspectives. As much as Roberto Minervini did to embed himself with his subjects and befriend them, he is necessarily an outsider, an Italian immigrant in America. And his film is more focused on rhetoric and event than on individual moments or the environments of the communities he’s depicting.

RaMell Ross, on the other hand, is documenting people he lived among for years. He’s filming from inside the room, and Hale County is made up of the kind of off-hand, minor moments that make up life, often devoid of any kind of narrative context (though there is a spine of a story about two young men, one of whom goes to college while the other stays home after high school). His tendency is toward the impressionistic (unlike, say, a Frederick Wiseman film), structured as much by image as theme. Ross even gives Apichatpong Weerasethakul a “creative advisor” credit, to give a hint of what the film’s rhythms are like. Though it’s world is far from dreamlike, it does have a certain potent magic. The presence of landscape (and its absence in the film’s interior spaces) is as deeply felt as any film of the year. Still, Hale County is no less political than Minervini’s film, of course, in its expressed intent to reconfigure stereotypical images of African-Americans, and in reclaiming the land they live in (the white residents of which were documented in the 30s by Walker Evans). Simply showing the way people live, in all their joy, wonder, tragedy and fear, is a revolutionary act.

Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018)

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In July of 1917, 2,00 deputized citizens of Bisbee, Arizona, under direction of the county sheriff (and almost certainly the copper mining interests that ran the town), rounded up at gunpoint 1,200 striking mineworkers, members of the IWW, marched them four miles out of town, loaded them onto boxcars, and transported them into the New Mexico desert, to be left to die in the middle of nowhere. The one-hundredth anniversary of this event, and the town’s attempt at reckoning with it, is the subject of the latest film from documentarian Robert Greene, which opens today at the SIFF Film Center.

Questioning the nature of truth as it is presented in non-fiction film is the guiding mission of Greene’s work, in acclaimed films like Actress and Kate Plays ChristineBisbee ’17 too is explicitly about the recreation of historical events, as the town organizes a kind of dramatization of the Deportation (as it has come to be known), with various townspeople, some of them fairly recent arrivals to the community, some with family members who fought on either side (or both sides) in 1917. We meet the various locals who will be taking part in the reenactment, and learn a little bit about their current lives, though the emphasis is on their thoughts about the strike and its bloody conclusion.

That the consciousness of an American community has not changed much with regard to labor rights in the past hundred years should come as no surprise. But even some of those who say they still support the mining company’s actions notably feel pangs of regret as they watch their fellow citizens rounded up and shipped away. There’s a lot of good old fashioned American excuse-making on the pro-capital side, especially ubiquitous is that most despicable of all arguments: that the actions of these cruel men were on some level acceptable simply because they believed they were doing the right thing. I don’t know where this idea comes from (I suspect Evangelical Protestantism, but I can’t say for sure), that what you do in life doesn’t matter as long as your intentions are good, that any evil is justifiable in the name of belief, but it is long past time it was discarded. Let us send it to the desert to die.

Stories like that of Bisbee are increasingly necessary, not simply for their obvious parallels to the political issues of the present day (Bisbee is only a handful of miles from the Mexican border, and Deportation today has all kinds of new though not-so different resonances). Somewhere in the immediate post-war era, with the mass expansion of public education at the high tide of Cold War propaganda, America lost a sense of its own labor history, of the crimes committed by capital in the creation of our communities and our nation. As the great factory and mining towns that built the foundations for our national wealth have been abandoned over the last 40 years (Bisbee in most respects looks identical to the mining towns my parents grew up in in Northern Idaho), whole generations have been adrift, without a coherent narrative to explain how things got to be so bad or what we can do to get from here to a better place. Watching the residents of Bisbee grapple with basic truths about capital, its exploitation of labor and its manipulation of racism in the creation of an all-white community (the vast majority of the deported mine workers were Latino or Eastern European), one can, with hope, see the beginnings of a reborn class consciousness.

But compared to Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), which similarly reenacted a historical event and mixed in coverage of the past with discussions among the performers about their own feelings regarding the events they were depicting, highly energized, engaged and informed discussions of labor, sexual and racial politics as they stood in the last century and continued into the present, one can see just how much our educational system, our culture, our politics, have let us down. We’re playing catch-up, but it’s starting to look like we might finally be back in the game.

VIFF 2018: Mirai (Mamoru Hosada, 2018)

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In 2012 Mamoru Hosada released Wolf Children, one of the finest animated films of the decade. It followed a young mother’s struggle to let her children go as they age, to become their own people, separate from her (that one of them chooses a human life while the other heeds the call of the wild and runs off to live as a wolf like his father is only tangentially relevant). With Mirai, Hosada addresses much the same issue from the opposite perspective, this time we see the child’s point of view as he grows form a wholly ego-driven individual into a member of a family, a continuum of people that extends not just horizontally to his sister and parents, but also backwards and forwards in time, to the people his ancestors were and the people he and his sister will become.

He’s not a werewolf this time (though he does have a talent for canine imitation) rather he is subject to a series of fantasies that grow out of the trauma of the arrival of his younger sibling, and the shattering of the idyllic existence he’d led as the center of the universe. He sees the family dog anthropomorphized into a fallen prince (an initial act of empathy that mirrors his own loss of place). He meets an older version of his baby sister, and he has an adventure with his great-grandfather. In interacting with these people (which may be mere figments of his young imagination or could be the manifestation of some supernatural power, it amounts to much the same thing) he learns perspective: that other beings are just as conscious as he is, that the world and the people in it are both distinct from him while also forming an essential part of him, a vast web of humanity with a center that might belong to him, but then again, it might not.

Mirai is as fanciful as anything Hosada has made, with a trip to the geometric horror of a train station a particular highlight. But like Wolf Children, as well as his version of The Girl Who Leapt through Time, it is fundamentally grounded in the every day, which in this case means a whole lot of parent humor, for which I am, no doubt, a sucker (I happen to have a self-centered, train-obsessed boy in my home as well). Hosada expertly fuses fantasy and slice-of-life anime, following in the tradition of the best of Studio Ghibli (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart), as well as any director of his generation.

VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

VIFF 2018: Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt, 2018)

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A soccer player strides across the field. Beautiful, dumb and happy, he tells us his story in a wide-eyed narration. A Candide lost in a world far too corrupt for his dim intelligence and brilliant soul. In the opening moment we get to see the world, the game, through his eyes. Not one of screaming lunatic fans or hulking, hostile opponents, but of giant fluffy puppies cavorting in slo-mo through cotton candy pink billows of cloud.

Circumstances, as they do, intrude on this perfect, pre-verbal vision of the world as it might be, and our hero, Diamantino, is sent into a tailspin of awareness, first by an encounter with refugees lost at sea, then by the death of his beloved father. Rather than center their film on their naive hero’s growing consciousness, as in, say, Daisy von Scherler-Meyer’s Party Girl, in which club kid Parker Posey grows into an existentialist librarian, directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt instead put poor Diamantino at the center of a complex and farcical conspiracy involving his evil twin sisters, a pair of undercover cops, a Brexit-like campaign (but for Portugal) and a scientist who walks in water and tries to clone our hero (to make the perfect soccer team) but with gender-confounding consequences. His only ally is one of the cops, whom he adopts thinking she is an orphan refugee boy.

The conspiracy plotting is ridiculous, reminding me of the half-assed terrorism sub-plot in the film within the film of Spice It Up at best and the grotesque anti-comedy of Edgar Pêra’s Cinesapiens short at worst. A few of the jokes land, especially when the directors find new uses for familiar musical cues like the “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold or Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”. But the film rarely again reaches the heights of its first few magical moments, yet every time they bring us back to Diamantino and his pure, foolish soul I’m won over again. He’s truly the hero we need in our dumb, degraded, beautiful world.