My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Dash Shaw, 2016)

The debut feature of comic book artist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, begins by firmly zeroing in on the concerns of young adult fiction: the new school year, the character’s social status, and all the insecurities that are inherent in being a teenager. But these early moments soon take backseat to what is basically a disaster film in miniature, inserting small nuggets of character detail and humor into what is a tired narrative. However, the stock scenario does nothing to derail from the wondrous sensibility of the animation, which is relentlessly inventive.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

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…a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

–Rudyard Kipling, “The Explorer”

And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.

And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way.

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer.

–Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”

James Gray’s adaptation of the story of early 20th Century British explorer Percy Fawcett, based on a New Yorker article and subsequent book by David Grann, is as beguiling, beautiful and ultimately confounding as the Amazonian jungle in which it is largely set. Shot on actual film by the great Darius Khondji (Seven, My Blueberry Nights) the film has a granular opulence rarely seen in the Hollywood cinema today, lush details of both the rain forest wilderness and the rich dark warmth of the woods and leathers of English libraries that are overwhelmingly tactile and mesmerizingly immersive, which, combined with the film’s languorously fluvial pacing washes away all the gaps and inconsitencies and oddities in the screenplay, leaving only the impression of the grace and tragedy of the human impulse toward transcendence.

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Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, 2016)

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There is a seemingly inconsequential moment roughly a quarter into Graduation where the protagonist, Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), enters the office of his friend, the police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), and sees two bowls filled with marbles. The inspector explains with no small degree of weary acceptance that he uses them to symbolize two time-based demarcators and to reflect on his current state of affairs. The first represents the amount of days he has lived, and the second is for the amount of days before he can retire at 65, something he quickly states could change based on a revision in Romania’s laws.

This moment of interaction, perhaps the least plot-related moment in an otherwise intensely focused movie, is a kind of key to Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. The Romanian director burst out into the world cinema stage with his 2007 Palme d’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a singularly harrowing and powerful movie about a woman’s struggle to obtain an illegal abortion for her friend in 1987 Romania. In many ways, Graduation functions as an elaboration of that film’s immensely compressed dealings with the nature of bureaucracies and corruption–something, it should be noted, that forms a primary concern for various filmmakers in the Romanian New Wave.

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Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2016)

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Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is as pointless an exercise in nihilistic violence as Seattle Screens have seen in some time. For some reason it’s set in the late 1970s, as a representative of the IRA played by Cillian Murphy (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) attempts to buy machine guys at an abandoned factory in Boston. The deal has been put together by Brie Larson (Room) and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), the latter unrecognizable in turtleneck and beard. The dealer is South African actor Sharlto Copley (Chappie), leading a gang of ruffians, one of whom got in a fight with one of Murphy’s gang of ruffians the night before. When the two men recognize each other, they begin fighting, someone pulls a gun and soon the two sides are, as they say, freely firing at each other. Later some other people will show up and start shooting at everyone, but no one, apparently, knows why. One person will survive, of course, but it doesn’t matter who, or why, or for how long, though the final shot manages the unique feat of cribbing from both Reservoirs Dogs and The 400 Blows.

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Lost Highway ( David Lynch, 1997)

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The following is adapted from a review I wrote back in 2007 for a David Lynch Blog-athon.

Bill Pullman plays a saxophonist who kills his wife (Patricia Arquette) because she was apparently cheating on him, and is so guilty over the murder that while in prison he goes insane and creates another reality for himself, one in which he’s a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Pullman’s fantasy world is something out of the 50s or early 60s of American Graffiti, with its car obsessions, pleasant suburban family, and the cute girl next door (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Unfortunately for Pullman, his subconscious won’t quite let him forget his crime, and soon Getty’s hanging around with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his femme fatale girl (Arquette again). As in a typical film noir, Getty falls for the bad girl, conspires with her to commit some crimes (including a murder or two) and comes to a bad end.

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The Fate of the Furious (F. Gary Gray, 2017)

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Especially in a time where franchises are getting only more complex, more bloated, it is interesting to consider the evolution of such a hugely successful movie series as The Fast and the Furious. Originally a comparatively “small” franchise focused exclusively on street racing, it has ballooned into an insane, globe-trotting mesh of spycraft and ensemble drama. I have only seen the previous incarnation of this series, Furious 7, but it is clear that the franchise has become much more (for better and worse) than its humble origins: from box office alone, Furious 7 grossed twice the amount of its predecessor, for more reasons than the untimely demise of franchise star Paul Walker.

So what step in the series’ evolution does The Fate of the Furious take? Quite simply, it doubles down on the core, car-fueled action. While the previous installment featured no small amount of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay (even bringing Tony Jaa for a fairly small role), Fate is, for better or worse, focused on races and chases. As a result, the movie more than delivers on the requisite amount of vehicular destruction across several countries and types of terrain.

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Your Name. (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

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Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime smashed records across Asia last fall, becoming the highest grossing Japanese film in the history of China and Thailand, the second highest grossing Japanese film in Japanese history (behind Spirited Away), the worldwide top-grossing anime ever and the eighth highest grossing traditionally-animated film of all-time. Finally opening across North America this week, it has a chance to add to that record, and I think we’re all pulling for it to raise that extra $20 million it needs to overtake Pocahontas. Like his highly-acclaimed short features 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) and The Garden of Words (2013), it’s a story of two young people attempting to forge a connection. Romantically, yes, but also metaphysically. Apparently caused by the appearance of a comet close to the Earth, country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki begin switching bodies: sometimes they wake up inhabiting the other, sometimes they don’t. This is bewildering, but eventually they figure out its rhythms and turns out to be quite fun. And funny: Taki’s teenaged boy obsession with his own (sort-of) breasts is perhaps the film’s truest note. Things reach a crisis point when the comet reaches its closest point and the body-switching ceases, sending each character in desperate search of the real-life other, complicated by the fact that they keep forgetting the other person’s existence.

Your Name. isn’t quite as other-worldly gorgeous as those two earlier films (they’re the only two other features I’ve seen from Shinkai), it’s combination of hand-drawn, computer and rotoscoped animation is a little more conventional, just as its plot and approach to narrative is a little more familiar. 5 Centimeters per Second was a trilogy of vignettes about a couple who loved each other once but where split apart by geography, and their attempts and failures to reconnect over a lifetime. The Garden of Words was about the Platonic love between a depressed teacher and a fifteen year old student. Your Name. unites these two in splitting its heroes in both time and space, human connection being so difficult that truly achieving it involves breaking the known laws of physics. The tragedy of the film comes from the loss of memory: human brains are unreliable and fungible, and the omnipresent devices with think makes us more interconnected are even more fragile. Tradition and ritual though unite us with a past we cannot comprehend. Mitsuha is part of a long family line of makers of braided cords, who specially prepare a kind of saké as an offering for an unnamed god. They’ve forgotten the reasons for the rituals, but they perform them nonetheless. Where every other device of history and communication (cell phone, history book, museum photograph) fails, the braided cord, explicitly a metaphor for the dense and incomprehensible construction of space-time, persists.

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog, 2015)

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Werner Herzog’s biopic of British archeologist Gertrude Bell premiered more than two years ago at the Berlin Film Festival to poor reviews, and is only this week making its way onto American screens. Why this should be is not immediately clear, the ins and outs of which international art house films make it into domestic distribution is far too complex a matter for my mind to comprehend, but I believe it involves some combination of corporate nepotism, the star system and random chance. The stars in this case are what make the film worth watching, as Nicole Kidman can enliven even the deadest of features, and this might be her most heroic effort in that vein to date. There’s almost nothing of Werner Herzog in the film, though there might have been once: Bell superficially appears to be his kind of a hero, obsessed with a harsh landscape, driven outside the bounds of society to do something remarkable, but at nearly every level the film feels compromised. Herzog is the only credited writer, but this has all the hallmarks of a film written and edited by a committee.

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

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Making its way to Seattle last week for an unheralded run at the Pacific Place, then quickly dropped to a single show in town and shunted off to Tukwila’s Parkway Plaza was the latest film from the most singular artist working in mainstream American film today. As with every Terrence Malick film since his reemergence with 1998’s The Thin Red LineSong to Song has been met with baffled derision by much of what passes for the Hollywood intelligentsia, that dense Ouroboros of movie reviewers, Oscar bloggers and self-appointed box office gurus that pass as journalists in our debased world. The complaints are familiar, cheap and lazy, ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick doesn’t make movies like They expect movies to be made. Unable to conceive of possibilities beyond their narrow imaginations, his refusal to conform is viewed alternately as pretension or incompetence (see for example Christopher Plummer’s whining about Malick during The Tree of Life‘s Oscar campaign that Malick didn’t know how to edit films, a complaint (I believe, perhaps uncharitably) ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick cut out most of Plummer’s performance in The New World). Malick doesn’t make conventional movies, and it’s easier to snark about twirling and poetry (the nerve!) than it is to wrestle with what he does make.

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Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

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For a film as surprisingly dense and multi-faceted as Personal Shopper, it is first important to consider exactly what comprises the work. It is at once a subtle exploration of grief and a glimpse into the unknown, a thriller at times bordering on horror and a relentlessly lowkey experience that borders on parodying the cliches of a normal viewer’s notion of a French arthouse film, and a movie that both embraces and rejects what ultimately becomes the film’s driving principle: spiritualism. Yet it manages to reconcile these differences to some degree or another, and the credit must be given to two incredibly well-matched collaborators: director and writer Olivier Assayas and his new muse Kristen Stewart.

It should be noted that this is Assayas’s second film with Stewart, following his previous film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). There, Stewart played the assistant and essential foil to Juliette Binoche’s veteran actress, but in this movie she stands alone, quite literally by herself for much of the narrative. Her character is Maureen, a personal shopper living in Paris for a diva model named Kyra who is often heard (through handwritten notes) but only seen in one short sequence. Maureen is also an amateur medium, introduced in the opening minutes wandering the home of her recently deceased twin brother in the hopes of receiving a sign from the other side.

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