This was in Texas, so reads the opening title card of this 2013 film from director David Lowery. It’s a simple opening touch that has a surprising impact, an evocative declaration of the mythic and elegiac qualities of the film to follow. Everything starts out innocently enough, with a young man and a young woman walking through a field at dusk, clearly in love. But the lovers are quickly revealed to be in the closing stages of a Bonnie & Clyde-style romance/crime spree. The man, knowing that the woman is pregnant with his child, surrenders and takes the blame for everything they have done (though what exactly they have done is never quite made clear, the first in a long line of missing details that Lowery chooses not to emphasize). A couple years pass, and the woman has had her child, and the man writes letters to them from prison, before breaking out in the hopes of reuniting. But does the woman still hold dwindling remnants of love towards this man, or has she moved on completely, concerned more with the responsibilities she holds for her child and the awkward, humble affections of a local cop? One thing is for sure, and that is the man is making his way back to her, and sooner or later there’s going to be a confrontation.
All of this is absolutely wonderful, although I should add in the interest of fairness that I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, material that wouldn’t feel out of place in the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel or in the lyrics of the most tender of Nick Cave songs. Between the rhythms of the editing (even though he doesn’t handle the duty here, Lowery co-edited Shane Carruth’s similarly hypnotic but significantly more cryptic Upstream Color), the “magic hour” cinematography from Bradford Young, and the rustic, handclap-heavy score, this is cinematic catnip. And while it would be very easy to just single out the tone of the film as its most important quality, it helps that all four of the main performers (Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine) are at the top of their game (Foster in particular hasn’t made this kind of positive impression since the remake of 3:10 To Yuma). In part because the performances are so perfectly-realized, the film becomes more than simply an exercise in low-key atmosphere, with Lowery never losing focus on his quietly-emotional tale of fading love and shifting priorities over the passage of time. 9/10.
First it was zombies, then it was malevolent town elders. Now, Edgar Wright returns with longtime collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to tackle the sometimes-difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood…and also aliens. Pegg stars as Gary King, an aging loser who still fantasizes about the golden years of his youth. In order to recapture some of that old energy, he gathers together his four old friends (Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan) for a trip back to their hometown, where they will embark on a legendary pub crawl. Along the way, however, they encounter a sinister presence that none of them are prepared for (this is a film that might actually work best for those that go into it completely blind, unaware of the obstacles the group encounters along their pub crawl). The moment when that sinister presence first reveals itself is one of my favorite scenes in the movies this year, a sequence that completely upends what had before been a fairly-calm look at a group of adults quietly struggling with their friend’s state of perpetual arrested development. Once that scene concludes, the film really lets loose, and although there were times when I wished Wright and Pegg had worked a little breathing room into their screenplay, it’s nevertheless quite a wild and fun ride.
Out of the three films in Wright’s “Cornetto trilogy,” this is admittedly the one that might take the most time for me to appreciate fully. It’s not as laugh-heavy as Hot Fuzz and it doesn’t quite hit the same emotional heights as Shaun Of The Dead. But that might be because it takes more risks, with the abrasive lead character and the darker plot revelations, exemplified best in the film’s coda, which takes the characters to a place that could have inspired an entire film by itself. But even though this concluding chapter isn’t as immediately accessible, or completely successful, as the films that have come before, it’s still a welcome breath of fresh air in today’s comedy landscape. It doesn’t fall victim to the worst modern trends , too reliant on pop culture non sequiturs and tiresome, seemingly-endless improvisations by overly-chummy stars. Wright, Pegg and company undoubtedly mine the history of pop culture for their gags too, but they’ve found a way to do so that goes above and beyond the “spot the reference” game their comedy peers so often play (the soundtrack is a good example of this, a carefully-assembled and creative mix of choice Britpop selections from the early ’90s that works as a sort of sly background commentary to the action). Especially for someone like me whose enthusiasm for comedies has gradually waned over the years after sitting stone-faced through films other people inexplicably find hysterical, Wright’s trilogy has been something of a godsend. The World’s End works well as a standalone piece, with its own unique rewards and charms, and it works as a fitting and welcome end to a series of films I’ll continue to love for many years to come. 8/10.
During my admittedly mostly-wasted years as a film studies student in college, there were many classes that seemed to pass by with little to no consequence. I discovered quickly that I was learning more from just exploring the history of film independently at home than I was when sitting at a desk in a classroom. But there were still a few worthwhile experiences to be salvaged from the wreckage, and one of them was a class on film animation I attended in my sophomore year. Along with introducing me to the experimental works of Norman McLaren and, oddly enough, Chris Marker’s incomparable La Jetee, the class illuminated some of the darker recesses of modern Japanese animation, films and filmmakers I wouldn’t have known or cared about had they not been flagged up by my professor. Because of this class, I discovered the films of the late great Satoshi Kon, as well as the less-renowned Makoto Shinkai, whose films I examined closer for a final assignment/presentation. Apart from just being a master of the evocative title (Voices Of A Distant Star, The Place Promised In Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second), Shinkai’s films have a different feel from his contemporaries: much more grounded and nostalgic, with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy, even amidst the fantastical. Strangely, his films haven’t sparked much in the way of widespread interest, and consequently they are not the easiest to get a hold of from all the regular outlets. This might be one of the reasons why I’ve sort of lost track of Shinkai over the last few years, and it was only recently that he popped back into mind and I decided to check in on what he was up to, only to discover he had made another film back in 2011.
That film is Children Who Chase Lost Voices, an adventure story about a young girl who journeys into the subterranean realm of Agartha, a world that supposedly holds the key to bringing back the dead. Unlike Shinkai’s past films, which have stood apart from other contemporary works both in style and in content, this one owes a clear debt to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, particularly the films Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke. There’s nothing terribly wrong with using those films as inspiration, but the obvious connection makes the end result somehow feels less personal. Shinkai certainly isn’t lacking in imagination, and the animation is frequently stunning, but he hasn’t quite mastered the finer points of storytelling in the same way as Miyazaki (particularly in the motivations of the main character, which are never really made clear, with some early scenes hinting at hidden depths that never materialize). Still, even with this film’s shortcomings, I’m glad that Shinkai is back on my radar, and his new film out this year, the once-again brilliantly-titled The Garden Of Words, will not go unseen by me for very long. 7/10.
It has been a long wait for the return of Wong Kar Wai, absent for the last six years from the cinema screen, and even longer since his last successful outing. Now he has returned in full force, with this examination into the lives of Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), two people absolutely devoted to the study of martial arts in 1930s China, each a master of their own technique. The passage of time is not particularly kind to either of them though, and despite their mutual respect and possible love for each other, events in their lives lead them down their own separate paths. The former achieves great fame and respect at the height of his powers, but eventually loses his family and is forced to emigrate to Hong Kong, where he reinvents himself as a martial arts instructor. The latter successfully learns and masters her family’s legacy, but finds it usurped by an outsider, leading to a fateful decision to take it back, but at the cost of passing it down for future generations. By contrasting these two people, Wai brings up questions about the value of preserving legacies, and whether or not that kind of thing truly means much of anything as generations continue to pass by.
This is the dominating message I took away from the cut version released in American theaters, at the moment the only version of the film I have seen. It’s missing somewhere around 30 minutes of footage, and while the whole thing still holds together quite nicely, there are some sore moments that stick out. Certain edits seem suspiciously abrupt, and the overall structure feels a little odd, with Ip Man the main focus through the first two-thirds, only to step aside for Gong Er in the final stretch. Most egregious are the moments of informational text inserted unnaturally into the film. These inserts rarely if ever contribute anything positive, oftentimes just reiterating information a focused viewer could assume anyway (at one point, Ip Man sells off his clothes to feed his family, and immediately after the scene text pops us to inform us that Ip Man was forced to sell off his clothes to feed his family). The worst moment comes near the end, when a quick reference to Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s most famous student, directly leads into an apparent “cameo” scene that drew audible chuckles from the audience in my theater. The inserts make the film seem more like a traditional biopic, which is unfortunate because it clearly has larger ambitions than just working through the “greatest hits” of a historical figure. The good news is that, even with all of the changes more often than not striking false notes, this is still unmistakably a Wong Kar Wai film, one that showcases all of his unique strengths as a filmmaker, along with the added bonus of wonderfully-choreographed fight sequences. It’s a significant return to form after the wafer-thin English-language effort My Blueberry Nights, but I just have a lingering feeling that all the changes have turned a great film into merely a very good one. 8/10.
This is the first film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground, a set of four films from English director Basil Dearden that, in one way or another, tackled potentially-incendiary topics during a considerably more conservative time period. That willingness to challenge social conventions is apparent almost right from the outset of this 1959 film, which opens with the quick and callous dumping of the dead body of a young woman. Shortly after, the viewer is introduced to a pair of police investigators, who will methodically move from lead to lead in an effort to find the culprit. An unexpected element is added in, however, with the appearance of the dead woman’s brother, who is black. His introduction, and the reveal that his sister was actually a light-skinned black woman, introduces a racial element to the film that comes to dominate the action as the investigators move forward.
What I found most impressive about Sapphire is the way it uses the conventions of its genre, the police procedural, for incisive social commentary on the racial attitudes of 1950s Britain. The actual procedural elements are fairly by-the-numbers, although there is a special kind of interest in watching the detectives methodically move closer and closer to solving the case. The film is much more remarkable for its constant questionings of the racial status quo. Hardly anyone is let off the hook; the two investigators, one of whom clearly harbors more extreme prejudices, are constantly put in situations that challenge their preconceptions. Elsewhere, when the dead woman’s former roommate speaks out against her landlady’s prejudicial remarks, the landlady retorts by asking the roommate if she had told her parents that her roommate was black when she introduced her to them, to which she has no answer. Understandably, the film is very much of its time, and consequently it works more as a kind of historical document, a window back into a different era with different attitudes. But for some reason I doubt many modern genre directors would be willing to push the limits as much as Dearden did here. Maybe the issues evoked in this film are still as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. 7/10.
Top five first-time viewings in August 2013:
The Act Of Killing
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
The World’s End