This is deviating from what's usually on here, but I don't think I've ever shared any writing of my own that isn't about film or film-making. It's sort of the purpose of this site to record all my movie reviews that I do and share them for the few who actually stick around to read them, but I thought I could post something different on here for now. Nobody panic! There's still a film review to be posted in the next two weeks (I know your heart skipped a beat there, but remained assured the bimonthly review stays intact.) Here's some writing that's short-ish, easy-to-follow-ish, and hopefully, good-ish. If not, I'll be returning to my film reviews anyway.
Click here for my most recent short narrative (September 2019), A Fun Thing To Do On King Street.
The children live in Tokyo now, all grown with kids of their own, as they work from sunup and create the lives which their parents envisioned as better than their own. They have educated themselves properly, applied their skills, and have found modest comfort in a moderately-paid desk position. They have raised their youth to do the same, for better or for worse, to ensure the continuity of the family’s success. They have done this, just like those before them and those to come, for tradition, if nothing else. We notice, though, a trend in our children, in the distance they grow from us as they get older. No longer do they feel truly like ours, like we raised them. We give our children the sincere hopes that they grow up in a better world, that they foster a better life for themselves, that they live happily. What should we expect, then, when that wish is fulfilled, and suddenly our children, in the midst of their goals and aspirations, simply forget about us?
The questions of family, of generational connection and disconnection were often posed by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and throughout his heavy, soul-shaking mid-20th century filmography, no film of his has brought itself to the forefront of the human conscience more overtime than Tokyo Story, released in 1953, which presents the dilemma described above. Two elderly parents, five grown kids, and though only hundreds of miles separate them, it feels as if the world has spun them away from each other in a permanent, immovable way. The parents have to ask themselves, do we let our children be, or stand there, yearning, trying to make ourselves seen?
Tomi and Shukichi (two Ozu favorites, Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu Ryu) can’t decide. When they first arrive in the city, their children are already accommodating them just fine at their homes (though the inconvenience is already present via one of the grandchildren’s fits about the changes), and seem dually engaged in their responsibilities and their parents. As the days pass, though, the only person truly focused on conversing with Tomi and Shukichi is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the ineffably performing Setsuko Hara). Noriko takes them sightseeing, where they are dissonant with the modernity and shapeshifting downtown Tokyo. She sits with them in discussion and truly opens up; one can reckon her loneliness from being widowed renders her able to empathize with these freshly neglected parents. It is one of the great, layered performances in cinema, and Hara delivered many throughout her life.
Eventually, two of the couples’ children pay for and send their parents on an excursion to the Atami Hot Springs Spa, but to little avail; the two find it too noisy and claustrophobic, and the next morning, seem homesick. As they get up to leave, Tomi struggles to find her footing. She and her husband dismiss it, but we have no choice than to begin to see the roots of the third act begin to form. As they return to Tokyo, we learn that sending their parents to Atami was crucial for the daughter, Shige, who had a business meeting that we gather could not have transpired with Tomi and Shukichi present. Then, a sequence which packs the first big punch, in which Tomi implores Noriko to remarry, to forget Tomi’s son’s demise. We can feel the tremors of Tomi’s worries: she feels her own passing may be soon, and reinforces the film’s thesis, that we mold our youth, so desperately attempting to let them learn from us. It becomes the film’s most emotional component; two generations, so deeply interconnected but helplessly unfamiliar with the other. It’s as if the young can never see themselves in declining health, with fading skin and trembling muscles.
Tomi falls ill on the train back from Tokyo to their hometown of Onomichi, and once arriving, she dies. As audience members, we may be accustomed to a standard order after a death on film: immediate mourning, crying outbursts, deep vocalized pain. The children of Tokyo Story barely weep. They rush to Onomichi to pay their respects and to see her one last time, and once she passes, they are silent. Numb. Immobile. It’s as if something has bludgeoned them, a feeling of failure -- of what they feel they could have done if they had paid more attention. In fact, one of the children is late due to a business conference, and arrives after her passing, denied a final goodbye.
The funeral scene which follows is one of the most famed in all of Japanese cinema, but I won’t dwell on it here; instead, I find a moment shortly after more striking. Noriko, the daughter-in-law, finds the freshly widowed Shukichi on a patio outside of the funeral home, overlooking the view. He tells Noriko, “It was such a beautiful dawn.” I can’t describe this moment, only that it knocks me out every time I see it. There’s a raw, rugged truth to it. You have nothing to hide after a moment like this. It’s absolutely beautiful, and sixty-six years later, this scene’s power and impact has no expiration date.
Ozu’s films were often composed of these moments -- the quieter conversations, the defining statements. Ozu and his writing partner Kogo Noda wrote films centered around marriages, notably Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), only to never show the wedding. His poignant Floating Weeds (1959) followed characters in a travelling acting troupe, though we scarcely see them perform. In western cinema, the opportunity for sentiment would be too high to miss these seemingly dramatic moments, but at some point early on with Ozu, no matter which film you begin with, you begin to understand it’s not about where these characters find themselves, but how they got here. Who they had to love, and had to leave, to become who they are in front of the camera. There’s irony in Ozu’s films employing the well-known Japanese actors of the time -- in his work, they never feel like actors. They feel seen, and uncomfortable, and insecure. We feel great shame for watching their failures, and sometimes we are proud of their triumphs after only ninety minutes of viewing them. In the end, they’re here like us, trying to find answers.
Yasujiro Ozu’s work was never seen outside of the Japanese archipelago until the early seventies, when British film scholars began to discover the cinema of Asia. During his life, his contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa found international acclaim with samurai epics and Shakespeare adaptations, while Ozu himself couldn’t find distribution, as decision-makers deemed his work “too Japanese” for foreign audiences. With this label, Ozu finished his career with over fifty directing credits, without a reel of his ever seen outside of his home country. He lived with his mother in a modest house, and despite its impact on his work, marriage never found him (his likely homosexuality may have made marriage nearly impossible in his time). He died mere months after his mother, on his sixtieth birthday. Today, you won’t find a filmmaker on Earth who doesn’t owe some of their craft (and their tears) to his wonderful work, and in 2012, after never having thought his work would be seen the world over, the British magazine Sight and Sound voted Tokyo Story as the third-greatest film of all time, and the best film to ever be produced in Japan.
A beautiful dawn, indeed.
So cold. So empty.
There is nothing to receive from the opening images of Ridley Scott’s Alien other than these primal objectives. As the endless, desolate walls of the spaceship move at a glacial pace, we are reminded. We are barren and alone, we have convinced ourselves, and we’ve only just begun. We are disconnected from our friends and our kind, so much so that years of theirs and years of ours do not show the same way on our faces. We are stricken with an endless, undefined fear, of our oblivion and our isolation. The Nostromo, despite its mechanical sounds and sheer massive size, is relatively uninhabited, and cosmically claustrophobic. If only we weren’t all alone out here. If only there was anything else.
This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien, which is apt to be considered as one of the great horror movies, even though it masks itself in the science-fiction genre and its successor, Aliens, is an unapologetic action flick. And in these opening moments, the methodology which Scott employs is that of a thriller: patience, patience, strike. Sure, we meet the crew, they receive the distress call, go to discover its source, find evidence of extraterrestrial… and so on. It seems to be a basic setup, mundane for any film; and then, when an infantile alien creature bursts through the chest of Kane (John Hurt), in one of cinema’s most visceral, spine-tingling moments, we are already fifty-seven minutes in. It feels like a cheap throatpunch, but it’s all our fault, as now we are nearly halfway through the film’s runtime, and we can’t tune out now.
Surrounding Kane while an alien emerges from his abdomen are his fellow crew members, from Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt to Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto. They bicker, ponder, challenge each other, and we attach ourselves to a piece of each of them. That’s a fraction of why screenwriter Dan O’Bannon holds off on terror for so long: no one can accuse Alien of any stock characters or one- dimensional performances, even down to the xenomorph. When mission control halts operations and makes capturing the organism its priority, Ash (Ian Holm) emerges as their delegate, professing a desire to capture the creature and study it, while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) counters Ash with a pretty reasonable hell-no mindset. No wonder Ripley becomes our protagonist; we share her non-alien-desiring sentiment.
The creature’s plurality of forms, designed by H.R. Giger (a legend in his own right, and who earned an Oscar for this film), is perhaps the most delectable tool at the film’s disposal. It is both upright and wormlike, mobile and stationary with intention. Its acid oozes and melts through steel of the ship. Its screams echo and deafen the atmosphere. The creature has been celebrated long beyond its origin film, and even spawned not only its own franchise, but another in Alien vs. Predator. Schlock as it may be, its cultural significance lies in the initial terrors of the sheer sight of it.
Additionally, the creature appears to have no society, bare communicative skills, etc. Throughout the film, its role as a pure parasite only amplifies: as Ash dies after admitting his loyalty to the mission over his crew members, he cites his reasons: “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Out here, in the corners of the universe, conscience is only a cloud, a barrier to natural instincts, to reproduction and efficiency. To survive as the alien does, you need what Ash calls “structural perfection—matched only by hostility.”
Maybe then it clicks. We’ve been watching one of the most distant, hostile films ever made in Hollywood, only for the film to tell us that’s the key. To survival in remote conditions. To success, when not alone out here. It’s a similar sentiment to Scott’s next film, Blade Runner, again considered a genre-hybrid and elusive masterpiece. In that film’s finale, the “Tears in the Rain” speech is eerily close to Ash’s; the purity and perfection of the Replicas are akin to that of the Xenomorphs. Survival, destruction, and reproduction. We should only hope that us humans keep our imperfections.
It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered, to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.
So begins In the Mood for Love, a film about time, about change, about the past and the future, and the crowning achievement of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Wong, at the time of the film’s release, was the hottest name in world cinema (and, some would argue, the most prophetic). The quote is an excerpt from the piece which inspired its creation, Liu Yi-Chang’s Intersection, a novella which depicts random city-goers of a modern society cross paths and intertwine; and though Wong’s film swims in shallower waters than its source (running less than ninety minutes and featuring very few actors besides the two protagonists), its uncompromising depth often catapults it into discussions of the best films of our very young millenium.
The film is set in Hong Kong, in 1962. Though the story is simple enough to find itself in any place, has any city changed as rapidly or shifted as fundamentally over the last half-century than that of Hong Kong? The metropolitan wonder seems to shift itself inside-out every five or so years, deeming the people who inhabit it confused and lost, beckoning for roots and looking to the recent past for answers. Two of these people are Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan (the effortless Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung), neighbors, new to us and to each other. They pass by each other, their own intrinsic daily intersections, on a small and tucked stairway near their apartment complex. Each of them toil with spatial separation from their spouses. Wong, among many other stylistic traits, has a way of framing characters with geometry and enclosed area clearly defined: actors may stand directly center below a doorway or through a window, their own space of performance. It’s a remarkable quality in a world so distinctly cinematic, but still carrying a feeling that these shapes are the only glue holding it all together.
The two neighbors eventually begin to discover the veiled significance of each other, as they are both pawns to their spouses’ extramarital affair. Their discovery is slow, insignificant; not reactive or nearly as quick to adapt as the shifting city around them, the two begin to grieve with one another by mimicking the affair. Chow plays along as Chan’s husband as Chan postures as Chow’s wife, in a dazzling few sequences wherein they may just be falling in love via the reconstruction of the love they’ve lost. In modern interviews, critics and the filmmaker himself have aptly compared it to Vertigo, Hitchcock’s film about pure desperation to fabricate a lust far removed, though Wong’s version certainly forgoes the manic and permeates the subtler side of the trauma. Are they really in the mood for love, or are they in a crisis to have to envision it?
The loss, ultimately, may not be of their love, but of something else -- their society. When Wong’s career began in the 1980s, he kept his eye in the back of his filmography on one specific year: 1997, the year Hong Kong was to be returned from British rule to Chinese sovereignty. This sudden exchange of cultures (informally known as the Hong Kong Handover) haunted his work, but by In the Mood for Love’s release in 2000, the new expiration date was already in view: 2046, the year most mark as the time China will end its “One Country, Two Systems” principle and fully develop its rule over Hong Kong. Wong’s worries continue on here, as the new lovers’ hotel room is 2-0-4-6. Later, in fact, Wong would make a sci-film with the number as its title.
The working title, before the film played at Cannes and began to etch its own legacy, was Secrets. Watch the film, in its humble runtime. See the most densely-populated city in the world vanish, as a 1962 version of it feels desolate, yearning, incomplete. See the sequences, not possibly longer than thirty or forty seconds, of the two lovers brush their arms as they walk in separate ways. Sometimes they nod to each other. Sometimes not. Sometimes they even speak to each other a little bit. Understanding the title Secrets, we can see that under the small stairway in the cramped urban apartment complex, it’s not about whether to speak, but what could be said.
We had an atypical year for the movies.
Besides Black Panther, a phenomenon which fit the critical acclaim-box office megahit venn diagram, most Hollywood heavyweights fell flat, among them First Man, Aquaman, Ready Player One, Venom, Vice, to name a few. Instead, this last year proved strong for the smaller, independent markets; intimate character studies and audience heartwarmers usually won out over typical blockbuster fare (compare A Star is Born’s domestic $400 million intake to Solo: A Star Wars Story’s $390 million, for instance). The notion of art-house, niche films winning mass public affection may not be a coming trend (or they wouldn’t be niche), but for every Marvel, Pixar, or even the outstanding seventh Mission: Impossible (which finds its way on this list), there were an equal amount of smaller, less noticeable movies, which through their audacity and craft proved their voices were loud as any.
The Ten Best Films of 2018:
Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Burning falls on a key principle that its director, South Korean master Lee Chang-dong, often employs: patience. Though boasting a runtime in the 150-minute range, the quiet thriller waits on action or major plot points, instead choosing to focus on its characters for much of the film. Among these characters is the lead, Yoo Ah-in, in an illustrious career performance. The film’s pace lets us soak into the movie as it slowly becomes our atmosphere, before the harrowing third act, which leaves you no room to breathe. This one won’t leave your mind.
The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
An impeccable comedy from first frame to last, The Death of Stalin oftentimes looks at power, and the insane drive of the elite to receive more of it — though unfortunately for the citizens of the Soviet Union in 1953, the elite are all incompetent buffoons. If a mock-historical period piece in Russia doesn’t appeal to you, maybe Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor leading a “unanimous” vote wherein everyone half-wanders their hands like nervous grade-schoolers will convince you.
First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
Faith is nothing new in movies, but rarely is it depicted this well. Paul Schrader, a legendary filmmaker and critic of the 1970s movie brat area, delivers wholly on his decades-long commitment to serving cinematic chills and goosebumps, only this time it comes not on the streets of Manhattan at dusk, or in feudal Japan, but instead a reformed church in New England. Ethan Hawke as the Rev. Toller gives the year’s most-accoladed performance and his character’s self-reflection drives one of the most soulful narratives of any film on religion and faith, what drives those things, and why we so often look to them for guidance.
Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
Hereditary is the most horrifying film in years. If you’re an easy scare, turn away quickly because there’s no hope for you in this dark, uneasy universe. What makes this film so unique is its absolution of grief and dread; in most horror movies, we get “breather” scenes, filler of dialogue or lightweight conversation to both keep the audience engaged but provide them a chance to relax for a moment. Director Ari Aster doesn’t agree with this style, instead choosing to shoot his movie away from the Hollywood sets and glamour and uproot the cast to a remote area of Utah to build the set from scratch and tear it down once filming wrapped. It’s an ingenious choice, one that ensures us general discomfort and terror even when we don’t see smiling shadows in dark corners or watch the use of bird heads as arts-and-crafts (*this movie is insane and this entire paragraph is a warning*).
If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Barry Jenkins, though making only three features in an eleven year span, is proving himself to be a truly masterful storyteller. I’m not sure any living filmmaker, especially in American film, captures the fleeting moments that make us human better than him. In Beale Street, a movie so full of heart that it seems it’s been playing in the background of your mind your whole life, Jenkins truly reveals his evocative skills. His films make the intangible expressions and feelings of his characters vivid onscreen, a gift that provides a deep pulse to a darker, grittier surface.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Is this the end of action movies? Watching M:I — Fallout for the first time in a glorious IMAX setting, you might have to ponder the question. Tom Cruise (who is ageless as ever as he jumps from planes and scales mountain walls) and Chris McQuarrie put it all on the table for this seventh film, making it easily the best sixth-sequel in film history -- unless, that is, the serial films of the 1920s suddenly feature Ethan Hunt being chased through the city of light on a motorbike, but that’s unlikely. You thought Mad Max: Fury Road was full-throttle? That’s cute. Twenty minutes into this one, around the time Cruise and Henry Cavill lead a visceral fistfight in a Parisian nightclub bathroom, you’ll probably change your mind.
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Academy award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón has one of the great oeuvres of American film in recent years (ranging from the third Harry Potter movie to the space thriller Gravity), but in the personal and wounding Roma, the filmmaker crafts a recollection of growing up in Mexico City as a child. What he brings to the film is an incredible sensitivity to the locale and to the protagonist, a domestic worker played by the stunning Yalitza Aparicio. Roma is available on Netflix, but I implore you to see it on the big screen, where the skies are twice as gleaming and the heartbreak is twice as impactful.
Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
This movie is just insane. It just is. There’s really few other ways to prepare a viewer for the visionary sci-fi/comedy Sorry to Bother You, besides maybe a brief hallucination complete with proto-centaurs, capitalist commentary and razor-sharp ingenuity. It’s a ride from start to finish, and the hip-hop figure Boots Riley, at forty-seven years young, writes and directs his debut with a little bit of knowledge of traditional film “rules”—but a lot of dismissal of them as well, a welcome sight for one of the year’s best screenplays.
24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
The posthumous work from an artist who died on July 4th two years ago, 24 Frames is a loving ode to the simple aspect of movies: pictures moving rapidly and continuously, at 24 frames per second. Kiarostami chooses twenty-four photos he has taken over the years, and uses effects to interpret the moments before and after the shot was taken. The result is a surprisingly moving and pure love letter to an art form by an artist whose work made him one of the great icons of his time.
You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Joaquin Phoenix stars in possibly the most polarizing film on this list, a thriller-noir hybrid that descends from the New York streets down to hell and back. Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman whose paranoid tendencies and unchecked aggression leave him often as wounded as those he’s hired to take out. When a series of events leave him confused and suspicious, he enters a realm of the worst a city has to offer. Director Lynne Ramsay photographs the metropolis underbelly better than nearly anyone, and the visceral, nail-biting climax directs the viewer to one of the most shocking moments in recent movie history.
“Or so the story goes,” he claims, attempting to reconstruct an image or an idea which has been lost. The man is named Brooks Otterlake, and in the opening vignettes of The Other Side of the Wind, the late Orson Welles’ notoriously unfinished film, he gives a brief voiceover, hazily recalling in the setup what has possibly happened, and what we may see in the following two hours because of it. Fitting, as the entire saga of how the film was saved, labored upon, and released through Netflix after closing production forty-two years ago is itself a towering kind of reconstruction: attempting to complete and honor the vision of one of cinema’s greatest artists in history, and the scaffolding he left behind. After Welles’ death in 1985, the movie and its parts had a most rocky trajectory, one that included the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, sections of footage being lost, and a heap of estate-asset balderdash (or so the story goes). The conflict itself contextualizes the miracle that a streaming service in the Bay Area could hunt for a film in the way that those in the Bay Area centuries ago did for gold.
And gold it has certainly been seen as. Upon the most recent revival efforts, headed by Welles’ close friend Peter Bogdanovich (who acts in the piece, and provides that opening narration) and producer Filip Jan Rymsza, the momentum had finally started to surface, and through crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo, and numerous clamors by filmmakers-turned-activists, the movie’s final parts began to take shape. Surviving cast and crew gave their notes and recollections, Academy-Award winning mixers, editors, and production specialists were assembled, and Michel Legrand, a legendary jazz composer known for his work on the French New Wave films of the 1960s, was hired, based upon a single note Welles gave way back when about the possibility of a jazz score.
The movie’s existence incites more than just mere appreciation; it’s a testament to the love of those who fought for it. As ephemeral as the medium of film may itself seem, the methodology of how to resurrect it is becoming swifter. In Welles’ time, he needed a fortune to maintain his work and keep it alive -- now, we are seeing regular people donate a coffee-cup price to an online campaign and altogether yielding an unfinished film to reach completion. The technologies are indeed changing -- not just of how we make movies, but of how we save them. So, then, it is only natural that the question then shifts to what we choose to save, and why we may choose it. It’s the question that binds us to why we watch movies in the first place, and what strange human component it must be that implores us, urges us, to remember movies, and to want to keep them alive.
The finished film itself, though a miracle, is read best as most expected it would be: an experimental vision, an abridged depiction of a story without any real end; a half-genius, half-frustrating collage rather than a traditional three-act bravura. It is often far from easily digestible, partly due to the inevitable incoherence of the pieces picked up over many years, but also partly to odd coincidence -- who knew a script about an unfinished film made by a dying Hollywood legend would turn into exactly that? The autobiographical pieces are certainly present, as Welles tells the story of an American expatriate director returning to Hollywood for a comeback (though I can’t imagine anyone, including Welles, considered him needing a comeback), but it’s more of the uncontrolled that sticks. Likely most notable of these oddities is the director’s death at seventy years old from a car crash in the film -- indeed, Welles was seventy himself when his own fate was decided in fall of 1985 from a heart attack.
Are these oddities, spooky as they may be, really all that haunting? Orson Welles, as a director, lived between the smoke and mirrors. Before he even set near a film camera, he rose to national notoriety in 1938 for the War of the Worlds radio drama, said to have sparked hysteria and widespread panic from audiences who didn’t realize the recording was fictional. He continued this thematic tightrope in his film career, employing innovative technical schematics to match his cunning misdirection, a quality that would lead to his final completed film, F for Fake (1973). A film about magic and misconception, surely, but more directly aimed at raising an impending question for the growing television-avid and film-consuming world: what is real life, what is a movie, and how are they different? Why are they different?
And after all, what is the point of completely separating the two?
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.