VIFF 2015: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, 2015)

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 Part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. This review is by Vancouver-based critic Neil Bahadur.

The most ambitious film so far from the great director Jia Zhangke, working in a gorgeous, cyclical structure that it might make it too easy to disregard the film’s more provocative aspects. Jia has been obsessed with the globalization of China since day one, but what is different here is the syphoning of aspects of contemporary China into three broken segments, each of which purport to be a narrative-driven family melodrama. But what seems youthful naivete is rather the fading of a culture, what seems disillusionment of middle-age is the economic collapse of the world we live in today. . . so the earnestness of the film’s final third is the only response possible to the removal of culture entirely. Jia’s 2025 is a fairy-tale world, a complete fantasy wherein this (actually very conventional) three-act structure, surrealism is fully integrated into this narrative sense. And because of the disparity between this part and the first two, this approach disconcerts rather than shocks or provokes. The movie is a series of Brechtian devices which exhaust themselves, and so the only option left is to wear its heart on its sleeve.

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Two Screwball Comedies: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) and She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich, 2014)

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The third of Noah Baumbach’s collaborations with actress/writer Greta Gerwig, following 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha, Mistress America is their best film yet, and possibly the best work Baumbach has ever done, with or without her. For the first time in his career, he’s made a film that feels loose, free from the strained serious grasps at artistry that have plagued his career from the beginning, ranging from endearingly awkward in his debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming to really kind of irritating in what nonetheless remains his most critically successful film, The Squid and the Whale. A pure screwball companion to While We’re Young, the 2014 film that graced Seattle Screens just a few months ago, the two films form a hilarious portrait of our culture’s obsession with a certain kind of youth, a Manhattanite companion to Sylvia Chang’s brilliant exploration of Hong Kong womanhood, 20 30 40, in which the idiosyncrasies of three women of the eponymous ages are compared and contrasted. Where While We’re Young followed an older couple’s attempts to match coolness with a much younger pair while also somewhat clunkily exploring the interplay between authenticity in life and authenticity in art, this one focuses on a college freshman’s infatuation with her older future stepsister, a free spirit who makes New York seem as magical as it should be, while much more deftly exploring the oft-contentious relationship between an artist and the people who inspire their work. In both cases, the idyllic figure is a creative powerhouses in their early 30s, stable enough to enjoy a certain standard of living, but not so rooted as to avoid taking risks. It’s the age of sitcom heroes. Gerwig is a powerhouse as always (she’s already a three-time Endy Award winner, for her work in the Baumbach films and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) dogged in pursuit of her ideals and not nearly as ridiculous as she might first appear, her effervescence contains unfathomable depths and Lola Kirke is excellent as the younger woman, wide-eyed but with a steely determination that’s more than a little unnerving, the coldness of youth. There’s no fat in the film, it’s Baumbach’s tightest, most-focused work, for the first time he demonstrates the ease, the lack of apparent effort that marks a truly virtuosic film. The lengthy set piece at a Connecticut mansion is a classic of screwball escalation, as Baumbach ably piles a Sturgesian array of characters and relationships into a few crowded rooms.

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More consciously seeking to recreate an old Hollywood vibe is the latest from Peter Bogdanovich, the refugee from the first golden age of cinephile directors who has found film work increasingly hard to find in recent years (this is his first theatrical fiction feature since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow). In fact, his new film is pretty hard to find as well, with an under-the-radar nationwide release (it opened on Seattle Screens with little fanfare last week at the Varsity, we’re it continues on a reduced schedule this week), a far cry from his generation-defining 70s masterpieces like The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? or Paper Moon. Combing a theatrical farce reminiscent of his 1992 film Noises Off with the cosmic screwball romanticism of his 1981 masterpiece They All Laughed, She’s Funny That Way is a story told by a young woman (Imogen Poots) to a reporter (Illeana Douglas), the story of how she was discovered and her life changed from that of a hooker (with a heart of gold, naturally) to star of stage and screen. The story is wildly improbable, its reality questioned every step of the way by the reporter, but so seductive in its interconnections and coincidences as to be irresistible. The conflation of cinema as real life is charmingly seductive (print the legend), and the myth-making power of star cameos only adds to the glowing unreality. Familiar faces abound: contemporary icons like Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, older relics Austen Pendleton, Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepard, and up-and-comers like Poots, Will Forte and the always marvelous and perpetually under-utilized Kathryn Hahn and Rhys Ifans. Douglas herself provides a link to the old world the film idealizes: her grandfather Melvyn, in a different Lubitsch film, told Greta Garbo an even better joke than the one from Cluny Brown that serves as a key line for Owen Wilson’s character. While the film isn’t as existentially radical as They All Laughed, in a weird kind of way it’s Bogdanovich’s Hong Sangsoo film. Like with the greatest modern director of romantic comedies, She’s Funny That Way questions the very nature of the cinema’s relation to reality, reveling in the idealized illusions while simultaneously undermining their spell by pointing out their unreality. But where Hong relentlessly deconstructs his narratives, laying bare their artifices and exposing the lonely needs that drive us to invent them, Bogdanovich the classicist is content to faithfully recreate the form of the old (his zooms are subtle and patient, not Hong’s wild, drunken lurches), with nothing but a sly wink to the audience to remind us of the precariousness of our ideals. We know it’s all a lie, but we happily dream away nonetheless.

Mistress America is now playing at the Guild 45th, SIFF Uptown and Cinemark Lincoln Square.

She’s Funny That Way is now playing at the Varsity Theatre.