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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On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

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First, what On the Beach at Night Alone is not. And because Hong often, though not always, makes films in pairs that profit from their proximity, let’s take Yourself and Yours as the template from which to trace the variations. The newest of his new works is not a particularly labyrinthine construct. Yourself and Yours arguably employed Hong’s loopiest structure in some time, with no intradiegetic scaffolding—a la Hill of Freedom—to guide the narrative’s many double helixes and lacking the log-line neatness of Right Now, Wrong Then’s rewind to be kind backpedaling. Yes, On the Beach at Night Alone redeploys the bifurcation that defined Hong’s biggest hit, but it hardly counted as innovation when he used it there either; Hong has long displayed an affinity for warped mirror halves. And anyways, the chapters that split On the Beach at Night Alone in two are, if taken at face value, drawn more sharply on geographical and temporal lines than metaphysical or meta-fictional divisions (though more on that later).

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The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

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“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

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The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.) 

Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)

Before Ava DuVernay, before Dee Rees, before Gina Prince-Bythewood, before Kasi Lemmons, there was Julie Dash. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust earned its place in the history of film by becoming the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to gain general theatrical release and distribution—and it earned that place in the shockingly recent year of 1991. It is a remarkable piece of work not only for its place in cultural history but also for its distinctive aesthetics and for the story it tells: a story of hope, grief, and transition set among the Gullah people, a group of African Americans living on the islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Somewhat isolated from the continental United States, as the film’s prologue tells us, the Gullah retained elements of their original African languages, values, and ways of life long after African culture was violently suppressed in the lives of mainland African Americans. Dash tells a graceful, dreamlike story of one Gullah family reuniting in 1902 before departing for life on the mainland—and for a nation on the brink of modernity.

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VIFF 2016: Nine Behind (Sophy Romvari, 2016)

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This guest-review was written by Vancouver critic Josh Hamm.

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define… [and] preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

– Simone Weil, The Need For Roots

Sophy Romvari’s debut short film is a mature, fully formed contribution to cinema; a film imbuing the trivial and mundane with the weight they deserve. The opening sequence of shots almost channel a Yangian rhythm: an extended take captures a young woman, Nora, (Noémi Fabian) in her routine and establishes the mise-en-scène with a slow pan; a cursory glance at the bookshelf conjures up images of the past and present on film, of a woman enraptured by the silver screen. The soft sounds of a bubbling kettle and the slow drip from the sink into a pile of dishes as she pours a cup of tea and settles into her chair and grabs a phone, her leg an almost abstract reflection on the front of the dishwasher– there’s fully formed minutiae and sense of a person through a mere two minutes of seemingly unimportant actions. Yet they also have the steady rhythm of ritual and home-brewed comfort.

Still, Nine Behind is not a film about ritual, or the mundane, per se. It’s propelled by the woman’s conversation with her grandfather in Budapest (the title presumably referring to the time difference between there and Vancouver), a one-sided dialogue that reveals a filial ache for connection and tradition; a yearning for a nostalgia-filled future.

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2016 Year in Review: Part 4

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And here we are, the end of the end. Only two brave writers left standing, willing to take on my weakest questions. It’s all a bit deflating but so was this year. If you missed the past three days of erudite discussion, please head here.

Q: We’ve talked about the disappointment of blockbusters but what about genre pictures with more meager budgets? La La Land is playing now and receiving fairly positive praise despite the burden foisted upon it by the media to singlehandedly revive the Hollywood musical. This year saw its usual share of modest westerns and the occasional horror surprise. For my money, Green Room was a solid siege picture that I’m eager to revisit now that I think it presciently captured my emotional state on election night. And the Coens’ wonderful Hail, Caesar! was a great genre picture because it was a picture about genres. What do you think, which genre was best served in 2016?

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2016 Year in Review: Part 3

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Our autopsy on the still-living body of 2016 continues with a discussion about the year’s best performances. Our previous entries tackled themes and surprises.

Q: As a rank-and-file auteurist, I often fail to adequately acknowledge onscreen work when writing about film. There are exceptions of course. I was quick to acknowledge Zhao Tao’s generous performance as one of the great strengths of Mountains May Depart. I am thankful that wonderful film saw a belated release in Seattle because I can include it in my year-end write-ups (especially since I am woefully behind in the bumper crop of Oscar bait currently invading theatres). Which 2016 performances stood out to you?

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2016 Year in Review: Part 2

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All week long we are taking a look back at the year in film. Yesterday’s discussion of cinematic trends can be found here.

Q: Going into a new year, we all have the films we are eagerly anticipating, but when we look back twelve months later it’s often the surprises that stick with us, the films we knew nothing about or didn’t expect much from that end up making the biggest impact. What film(s) snuck up on you this year, be they works by first-time directors or someone you wrote off long ago, that you will cherish in the years to come?

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2016 Year in Review: Part 1

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To wrap 2016 up in a neat little bow before drowning it in the river, we decided to convene a virtual round table with several Seattle Screen Scene contributors. As expected, everyone wrote way too much so this discussion will be parceled out over the course of the week.

Q: Film nerds are often looking for patterns in the chaos and the end of the year always brings out the think pieces on the cinematic themes of the last 12 months. This year was no different. Dispatches from VIFF highlighted a preponderance of poetry in film, with Paterson, Neruda, and others. Recently I liked connecting the quest for love in Knight of Cups and The Love Witch through Tarot cards. What other patterns or significant trends did you notice this year? Anything flying under the radar of the hive mind? 

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The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)

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An enigmatic woman descends upon a town, drifting in like a sultry, slinking fog. She moves into a room in a Victorian mansion, where she cooks up home brews of potions and soaps, some of which she sells at the local hippie enclaves. Other mixtures end up in the bodies of lustful men who fall madly in love–or just simply go mad–for this femme fatale in knee high boots and miniskirts. This is Elaine. She’s the heroine of Anna Biller’s latest feminist phantasm, The Love Witch. It’s groovy and gaudy. It’s the second film of the year to track the doomed pursuit of love through the Tarot, the first being Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. A wallop of a double feature these two would make.

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