Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Yu Junsang, Lee Youyoung, and Kwon Haehyo in Yourself and Yours
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Originally released in 2016 but only now finding its way to the United States, Hong Sangsoo's Yourself and Yours takes the filmmaker's fascination with fractured storylines and reshapes it to focus on characters rather than events. The film centers around a painter named Youngsoo (Kim Joo-hyuk) who becomes jealous after hearing that his girlfriend, Minjung (Lee Yoo-young), was seen out having drinks with another man. They break up, but when one of Youngsoo's friends confronts her later in a restaurant, the young woman claims not to be Minjung at all, but her twin sister. 

This sets off a series of events in which Minjung and the mysterious young woman are mistaken for each other, leaving the audience to wonder if Minjung really has a twin, or if she is somehow dissociating from her traumatic experiences. Both women genuinely seem to have no recollection of meetings or conversations held by the other. Does Minjung really have a twin? Or is something else going on here?

Hong never focuses on the mystery - whether or not Minjung has a twin or if it's actually her all along isn't really the point (although it should be noted that the mysterious twin sister is never given a name), what interests him instead is how the ambiguity around her character affects how she is perceived by the audience. Since we don't know who she is at any given moment (or if she is even two different people at all), we begin to focus on how she is responding to events.

Rather than a fractured, elliptical narrative, Yourself and Yours hinges on a fractured, elliptical character; a woman struggling to overcome addiction and alcoholism, who is trying desperately to become a better person. In essence she really is two different people, and Hong deftly explores her attempts to reconcile her past with the future she wants to create. It's one of Hong's most lovingly nuanced works, a film filled with longing and regret that finds great beauty in the in-between moments, the lingering glances and subtle changes in expression that exist between the deceptively mundane dialogue and jaunty score.

Coming on the heels of Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), Yourself and Yours finds Hong in a transitional period, when the filmmaker was grappling with a very public divorce following his affair with actress Kim Minhee during the filming of Right Now, Wrong Then (an event that would greatly inform his next three films - On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire's Camera, and The Day After). There's something deeply wistful about the way in which it deals with being in a relationship with someone you no longer feel like you know - almost as if they're a completely different person. Yet Hong consistently refuses to tip the scales in favor of either Youngsoo or Minjung, instead striving for a palpable sense of empathy for both characters, each attempting to reconcile their own newfound sense of uncertainty with something akin to grace.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


YOURSELF AND YOURS | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Kim Joo-hyuk, Lee Yoo-young, Kim Eui-sung, Kwon Hae-hyo | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas from Cinema Guild.

It has been nearly a year since the release of a Hong Sang-soo film in the United States - the prolific filmmaker often releasing one or two films a year for the last decade. Hong took a rare year off in 2019 (although two of his films were released in the states last year), and although he only has one new film slated for release in 2020 (The Woman Who Ran, which does not currently have US distribution), June will see the release of not one, not two, but three Hong films in the US, with Grasshopper Films taking on 2014's Hill of Freedom and 2006's Woman on the Beach, and Cinema Guild releasing 2016's Yourself and Yours stateside for the first time .

This is, of course, big news for Hong fans, who are currently being treated to an embarrassment of riches; offering up three missing pieces to the puzzle of the filmmaker's expansive filmography. Of course, retroactively seeing how these films fit into the arc of Hong's career is a puzzle box worthy of one of his own elliptical narratives, and both Hill of Freedom and Yourself and Yours offer newfound insights into later films that have already been released in the United States. Hill of Freedom  for instance, feels like a direct precursor to his most recent film, Grass, while sharing similar DNA as 2016's Right Now, Wrong Then, a film that has since proven to be one of the most pivotal of his career.

Hill of Freedom centers around a woman named Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who has just discovered a stack of letters sent by Mori (Ryo Kase), a Japanese citizen who has returned to Korea to propose to her. But she drops the letters and begins to read them out of order, piecing together a fractured narrative as told by Mori. Hong is a master of manipulating the fluidity of time and crafting new narratives from disjointed storylines. At only an hour long, Hill of Freedom a masterclass in narrative economy, showcasing Hong at his warmest and most experimental. It's also one of his funniest films to date, and Hong uses the broken pieces of Kwon and Mori's story to craft something disarmingly lovely, a kind of hodgepodge of romantic longing and misunderstanding that puts the entire relationship into focus by viewing it through a kaleidoscopic lens. It's one of Hong's shortest films, but it's also one of his most incisive, its gentle ruminations expanding far beyond its seemingly modest scale.

In his 2014 review, Richard Brody compared Hill of Freedom favorably with the work of Alain Resnais, an observation with which I concur. But to me it most resembled the early work of Eric Rohmer, whose legendary Six Moral Tales took similarly askance views of human relationships in comparatively brief running times, their ideas laced with more conflict and pain than their sometimes lighthearted exteriors suggested. Like Rohmer and Resnais, Hong guides this small-scale wonder with a hint of mischief and a knack for deconstructing narratives and reconstructing them into something new and wonderful, a rearranged puzzle where all the mismatched pieces somehow fit together perfectly to form a new and fascinating whole.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HILL OF FREEDOM | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Ryô Kas,e Moon So-ri, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Eui-sung | Not Rated | In Koren w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas everywhere from Grasshopper Film.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Photo by David Lee. Courtesy of Netflix. © 2020 Netflix, Inc.

There are few filmmakers whose filmographies feel as tailor made for our moment in history as Spike Lee's. From Do the Right Thing to Bamboozled to BlacKkKlansman, Lee's films are filled with a sense of urgency and righteous anger that continues to be relevant even decades after their release. Take, for instance, his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a slice-of-life look at simmering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood on a sweltering summer day that culminates in the murder of an unarmed black man by the police. It's a shattering film, one that, tragically, hasn't aged a day, featuring themes so up-to-the-minute it could have been released this week and been every bit as essential and vibrant as it was thirty years ago.

The arrival of a new Spike Lee joint in the midst of massive national upheaval born out of yet another murder of an unarmed black man by police officers seems somehow providential, a necessary artistic reminder of the violence waged against black bodies by the government of the United States of America. Da 5 Bloods, now streaming exclusively on Netflix, is Lee's take on the Vietnam War, centering around four black veterans who return to the Jungles of Vietnam nearly 50 years after their original tour to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade.

But the body of Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman) is ultimately just a pretense - the real reason for the pilgrimage of the surviving five "bloods" is a buried treasure of gold bars they were once tasked with retrieving for the US government, but instead made a pact to bury it and return one day to use the gold as reparations for centuries of slavery and institutional oppression. Retrieving their lost gold isn't as easy as they thought, however, as they are forced to reckon with the still-painful legacy of America's intervention in Vietnam, and the use of black soldiers as an arm of American imperialism while the government continues to perpetuate institutional racism against black people at home.

Da 5 Bloods is a blistering homage to films like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, allowing Lee to use the language of quintessentially American genres like the Vietnam war film and the western as a tool for critique of American sacred cows. Lee cuts through the haze of false patriotism to examine not only the war's legacy in Vietnam but on its legacy of trauma for the black soldiers who were sent to fight in the name of a country that cared little for them, fighting a lost cause for no reward and little gratitude. The mission at the heart of Da 5 Bloods is an attempt to reclaim agency, but it runs afoul of the dark and tangled legacy of American imperialism. The film is ultimately a descent into madness with the corrupting power of money at its center, mirroring mounting paranoia of Sierra Madre and the creeping insanity of Apocalypse Now.

Nowhere is this transformation more indelibly realized than in the performance of Delroy Lindo as Paul, a Trump-supporting veteran whose desire to atone for the sins of the past is as strong as his desire for personal gain - his refusal to reckon with the real legacy of the war driving him to a kind of madness that recalls Marlon Brando's searing performance in Apocalypse Now. And yet Lee, despite clearly holding political views that are diametrically opposed to the MAGA positions of Lindo's Paul, refuses to judge the characters. Instead, Paul is another piece of the tragic tapestry woven in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and you can feel Lee grappling with its calamitous effects both for the black community and for the soul of the nation as a whole. It's not only a powerful, elegiac tribute for the black soldiers who served in Vietnam, but a haunting and complex examination of the war's dark legacy, both for America and for people of Vietnam.

Arriving right now, in this moment, with reparations at long last becoming a mainstream idea, with the legacy of systemic racism and America's complicity in its perpetuation coming to the fore, Da 5 Bloods feels like a necessary lightning rod. It may not be the kind of film that changes hearts and minds, but its examination of the Vietnam war (and American cinema) through a modern lens puts the conflict in a fresh perspective that feels fundamental to our current era in time, reminding us all that the current unrest didn't happen in a vacuum - but is part of a greater system of injustice that has been mounting for centuries.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


DA 5 BLOODS | Directed by Spike Lee | Stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Lê Y Lan, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman | Rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Friday, June 12, 2020

SPRING NIGHT, SUMMER NIGHT

(J.L. Anderson | USA | 1967)


Flicker Alley takes a rare foray outside the silent era with their latest Blu-Ray release, J.L. Anderson's rarely seen 1967 film, Spring Night, Summer Night. Originally set to open the 1967 New York Film Festival, the film was instead pulled in favor of John Cassavetes' Faces and recut by its distributer into an exploitation film called Miss Jessica is Pregnant.

The subject matter of the original film is certainly ripe with lurid possibilities - in which half-siblings Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and Jessie (Larue Hall) navigate the hothouse climate of economic depression in a depressed Ohio mining town, eventually finding themselves drawn to one another in unexpected (and ultimately taboo) ways. Anderson was a film professor working on a budget that would have made a shoestring look extravagant, and as a result Spring Night, Summer Night is often rough around the edges, its Italian neorealist roots stemming as much from its naturalistic aesthetic as from its nonprofessional actors. And yet there's something inescapably powerful about Anderson's observational style. His characters aren't well-spoken, they come from a poor, economically depressed town with few options and even less hope. That they find this small bit of happiness is a miracle in and of itself, and yet the discovery that Jessie is pregnant threatens to tear everyone apart. The non-professional actors lend a kind of hangdog weariness to their roles. Unable to find a place in the world, they carve out their own, and Anderson treats them with dignity and respect, refusing to judge them for the choices they make.

I was reminded in part of Dan Sallitt's 2012 film, The Unspeakable Act, which handles similar subject matter with comparable grace. It's easy to see how the film could be co-opted by producers with much seedier ideas who want to lure in curious audiences, but Spring Night, Summer Night is in fact something much more poetic - a hardscrabble yet deeply empathetic exploration of the seemingly hopeless outlook at the citizens of a small town with few economic prospects or room for personal growth, and the judgment and attacks lobbed at those who seek to carve out their own slice of happiness in order to survive. While I'm not convinced it's a long-lost masterpiece, Spring Night, Summer Night nevertheless represents the resurrection of an important piece of American independent cinema, a jagged, piercing look at small town life and the ruinous effects of economic depression that feels more relevant than ever.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available from Flicker Alley.




MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM

(Michael Curtiz | USA | 1933)

Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum is an early Technicolor horror film that was later remade by as the arguably more famous House of  Wax in 1953 starring Vincent Price.  The 1933 film featured Lionel Atwill (Son of Frankenstein) in the Price role as a demented sculptor named Ivan Igor whose partner burns down his beloved wax museum in a misguided insurance scam. Determined to rebuild, he is soon at the center of a string of disappearances as he tracks down unwitting victims who bear striking resemblances to his original figures. He becomes obsessed with his assistant's fiancee, Charlotte (Fay Wray), whose uncanny resemblance to his original Marie Antoinette figure leads to a shocking unmasking of the true nature of Igor's house of horrors. 

The early two-strip Technicolor process lends a kind of otherworldliness to the film, bathed in sickly greens and lurid, pre-code horror paranoia. Its pacing is a bit wonky, but Curtiz creates an often intensely unnerving atmosphere through sheer silence. With no musical score to guide the audience, we're often left adrift in Igor's madhouse, conjuring up some truly haunting imagery that has been beautifully restored on the new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

In his six years as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Pete Davidson has often been one of its most divisive figures. His very public struggle with mental illness has shone a light on important issues alongside a few tabloid-fodder romances and controversial jokes. His uneven and often irregular appearances on the show have given the impression that Davidson is somewhat difficult, and yet the producers and the cast have admirably stuck by him through thick and then.

So the fact that Davidson is at the center of a new film from Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Vigin, Knocked Up) was met with some incredulity from those who were already skeptical of his work. But The King of Staten Island bears little resemblance to Davidson's sometimes scattershot appearances on SNL. In fact, it often feels like an exorcism, a semi-autobiographical therapy session designed to put Davidson's checkered past behind him. "The movie is like my love letter to my mom and trying to end that part of my life." Davidson said in a recent interview. And indeed, “The King of Staten Island” imagines an alternate world in which Davidson doesn't discover comedy while paying tribute to those people that shaped his life.

Davidson stars as Scott, a twenty-something aspiring tattoo artist from Staten Island who is drifting through life, a constantly burden to his harried mother (Marisa Tomei), mostly content to sit around, smoke pot, and play video games while the world by without him. His father was a firefighter who died in a fire years earlier (Davidson's real-life father was a firefighter who died on 9/11), and Scott has grown to resent that he didn't get to grow up with his father present. But when his mother starts dating another firefighter, Scott is forced to confront his demons and the years of pent up anger that have led to his aimless lifestyle, with its broken relationships and fleeting connections, and at long last seek a more fulfilling life.

The King of Staten Island is perhaps one of Apatow's most mature and accomplished works, more in the vein of Funny People and This is 40 than Trainwreck or Knocked Up. It's funny of course, but there's a sense of wistful melancholy at work here that really sets it apart. Apatow creates a fully realized, lived-in world of slackers and everyday heroes, paying tribute to the unsung working-class heroes like firefighters and nurses who spend every day making a difference without any recognition or reward. In that way, The King of Staten Island plays like Davidson's tribute to his family and his hometown, a tip of the hat to the people who made him who he is, and an apology of sorts for being so difficult.

The film may be a comedy, but there's something deeply moving about its portrait of quiet working-class heroism. Davidson isn't so much overcoming his circumstances as stepping up to them, honoring the regular men and women who gave him opportunities he never appreciated. Apatow adopts an observational, conversational style, crafting a wise and warm comedy that isn't so much full of set-ups and punchlines as it is naturally flowing humor that comes out of its fully drawn characters and realistic situations. Apatow has always been a strong comedic voice, but The King of Staten Island is disarmingly strong; a perceptive and smartly written (by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus) love letter to Davidson's family that feels like a comedic revelation. It's time to start taking Pete Davidson seriously.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND | Directed by Judd Apatow | Stars Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, Maude Apatow | Rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images | Opens Friday, June 12, On Demand.

Indie filmmaker Dan Sallitt hasn't made a feature film since 2012's The Unspeakable Act, but the long-awaited arrival of his latest film, Fourteen has unfortunately arrived in the middle of a global pandemic that has narrowed the already small audience for his films.

A film critic himself, Sallitt is well regarded in the film critic community, and The Unspeakable Act  was very popular amongst the denizens of Film Twitter, myself included. But Fourteen is a somewhat trickier animal, its somewhat arch rhythms and cold characterizations make it much more difficult to warm up to. It's a film of strong theory, but often somewhat emotionally distant. The film centers around a pair of young women in their late twenties who have been best friends since they were 14 years old. Mara (Tallie Medel) is a teacher's aide constantly seeking work as an elementary school teacher. Jo (Norma Kuhling) has more stable employment as a social worker but is more emotionally troubled. She's irresponsible, unreliable, and often flaky; whereas Mara, less successful by societal standards, seems more well-adjusted to her somewhat unstable millennial lifestyle, constantly fluctuating between jobs and romantic partners.

Fourteen takes an almost neo-realist look at the ebbs and flows of their lives through the years, skipping forward through time in the blink of a single cut, that is nevertheless deeply rooted in the language of American independent cinema. Sallitt is a precise observer of human behavior, and his portrayal of a friendship forged by the forced proximity of middle school put under the pressures of real life, is consistently filled with wise insights into the nature of human connections and the general ennui of millennial life, seeking stability where there is none to be found.

And yet one can't escape the feeling that despite its meticulous construction, Fourteen feels more rooted in ideas than in emotions. Its portrayal of two friends on diverging paths who no longer share the same connection they once did often feels painfully accurate, and Sallitt deftly avoids unnecessary dramatic embellishments, but it's difficult to settle in with two characters that feel more like millennial archetypes that living, breathing people. There are some undeniably lovely grace notes here (Mara relating the story of her friendship with Jo to a friend later in the film is an especially devastating moment), but the film's somewhat elliptical nature often holds the audience at arm's length. It's a keenly observational study of human friendships that can't quite stick the landing, its denouement never quite fully conveying the heavy weight of what we've just witnessed. The ideas are there, but without an emotional grounding it feels more like a theoretical exercise than a fully realized film.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)



FOURTEEN | Directed by Dan Sallitt | Stars Tallie Medel, Norma Kuhling, Evan Davis, Willy McGee | Not Rated | Now playing in virtual cinemas nationwide.