The Dumb Resistance

Vice is a bad movie about a very bad person. Because Adam McKay's film is sharply critical of its subject does not make it a good movie. It is obvious, clumsy, admittedly sporadically entertaining, but most of all, bizarrely incongruous, its many moveable parts shoehorned into a film that as a whole is barely coherent. On the one hand, its dramatic scenes feel like the stuff of a highly conventional, super-reductive biopic, a key-moments collection of Cheney's life and career, with every major decision or event compressed into the fewest number of synoptic lines possible before jumping to the next such moment. On the other hand, this series of dramatic scenes–––arranged elliptically so as to ostensibly explain who Cheney is, or what really motivates him, or whatever––are framed by a sub-Michael Moore narration–commentary that is more heavy-handed and condescending than your average left-wing conspiracy-theory amateur doc posted to YouTube; the choice to have Landry from Friday Night Lights break the fourth wall in delivering this narration was utterly ill-considered, and the scene where it's finally revealed who this narrator is in relation to Cheney's story is downright cringeworthy--arguably the dumbest movie-moment of the year if not for the scene with Alfred Molina as a waiter, which is somehow even dumber. Whatever dramatic impact Vice might have otherwise made is thoroughly undermined by McKay's lame stylistic choices.

This is a bit of a shame because some of the film's performances are quite strong, at least as uncanny impressions or amusing takes on well-known people. Christian Bale is eerily dead-on in the same way as Gary Oldman's Churchill, Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher, and Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles. Amy Adams is also good, if basically one-dimensional (though, curiously, her performance is at times more reminiscent of Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton than it is of Lynne Cheney). Steve Carrell's performance works because he hones in on a particular, distinctive aspect of Donald Rumsfeld––his impish petulance––and essentially plays him like a smarter, more evil (if no more socially adept) Michael Scott. Tyler Perry's Colin Powell and LisaGay Hamilton's Condoleeza Rice are fun, one-note touches. Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush, however, is shitty and lazy, impression-acting at its worst that dampens the scenes he shares with Bale, Carrell, et al.

As a piece of pop-polemic, Vice shares a certain cultural space with BlackKklansman, my pick for 2018's best movie. Both films blur the line between past and present, and combine fast-paced popcorn entertainment with explicit political critique. Yet, the qualitative difference between these two films could not be more extreme. It's not just the difference between a great filmmaker and a mediocre one, though that's part of it. It's that Spike Lee earns his film's incendiary coda and its presentist nods along the way with rich, sensitive storytelling; interludes like the Birth of a Nation sequence deepen, rather than distract from, the main drama. A pleasurable movie narrative ultimately gives way to profound despair and anger, and both feel wholly warranted. By contrast, Vice aims squarely to shoot fish in a barrel, and in some respects it fails even at that. When it attempts something like profundity, it feels like a ridiculous self-parody of the twenty-first-century American left.


Secrets stolen from deep inside

Damn! Even better than "Pinot Noir" and "Boobs in California," though perhaps not the one-man geisha opera.
2018: Movies

Terrible year for the world; terrific year for movies, which is some small consolation. Though we needn't overextend the supposed correlation of bad times/good art, the year's best film might've merely been one among many very good ones if not for its galvanizing present-day coda. Of course, I'd trade a great movie for an inferior one together with less harrowing current circumstances, and I'm sure Spike Lee would too, but here we are. Radical resistance art par excellence –– or torridly making out with Amanda Seyfried –– might be all we've got as things stand.

01. BlacKkKlansman (Lee)
02. Zama (Martel)
03. First Reformed (Schrader)
04. Transit (Petzold)
05. Burning (Lee)
06. Roma (Cuarón)
07. Hereditary (Aster)
08. The Favourite (Lanthimos)
09. Microhabitat (Jeon)
10. Ash Is Purest White (Jia)

11. Lush Reeds (Yang)
12. The Image Book (Godard)
13. The Death of Stalin (Ianucci)
14. Support the Girls (Bujalski)
15. Shoplifters (Koreeda)
16. The Third Murder (Koreeda)
17. On Happiness Road (Sung)
18. Mirai (Hosoda)
19. Three Faces (Panahi)
20. Mid90s (Hill)

21. If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins)
22. Fausto (Bussmann)
23. Edge of the Knife (Edenshaw/Haig-Brown)
24. Hold the Dark (Saulnier)
25. Grass (Hong)
26. Cam (Goldhaber)
27. Oh Lucy! (Hirayanagi)
28. The Darling (Lee)
29. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
30. Paddington 2 (King)

31. Spider-Man: Into Spider-verse (Persichetti/Ramsey/Rothman)
32. A Land Imagined (Yeow)
33. Leave No Trace (Granik)
34. The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs (Bodružić)
35. Father to Son (Hsiao)
36. Non-Fiction (Assayas)
37. Sorry to Bother You (Riley)
38. May the Devil Take You (Tjahjanto)
39. Unsane (Soderbergh)
40. Cargo (Howling/Ramke)

41. Verónica (Plaza)
42. Calibre (Palmer)
43. Diane (Jones)
44. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu)
45. Searching (Chaganty)
46. A Quiet Place (Krasinski)
47. Paul, Apostle of Christ (Hyatt)
48. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Moore/Johnston)
49. The Incredibles 2 (Bird)
50. The Endless (Benson/Moorhead)


Holiday complaints dept.

The Raptors, with a league-best record and one of the top five players in the league, not getting a Xmas-day game this year is ridiculous and just plain poor decision-making. Instead, we get the shitty Knicks sans Porzingis getting (inevitably) obliterated by Milwaukee, ugh. Raptors–Bucks (Kawhi vs. Giannis!) would've made for an infinitely superior game for anyone who cares about great basketball, including discerning New Yorkers. Or, for narrative: Raptors at Spurs as a much better late-slot match-up than Portland–Utah––both small-market teams with no legitimate superstar save Dame; Donovan Mitchell's not quite there yet, and as much as I like and respect Rudy Gobert, I strongly doubt that many kids outside Utah, and maybe northern France, unwrapped Gobert jerseys this morning.


2018: Music

01. Mount Eerie, Now Only
02. Robyn, Honey
03. Prince, Piano & a Microphone 1983
04. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
05. The Carters, Everything Is Love
06. Ariana Grande, Sweetener
07. Soccer Mommy, Clean
08. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
09. Mitski, Be the Cowboy
10. Lykke Li, so sad, so sexy

01. Drake, "Nice for What"
02. Soccer Mommy, "Your Dog"
03. The Carters, "Apeshit"
04. Ariana Grande, "Thank U, Next"
05. Robyn, "Missing U"
06. Childish Gambino, "This Is America"
07. Drake, "God's Plan"
08. Travis Scott, "Sicko Mode"
09. Cardi B, "I Like It"
10. Miley Cyrus & Mark Ronson, "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart"


Your car's a dump and you're broke

(Does Borders still exist?)
2018: 25 Performances

There are still some ostensibly key things I haven't seen yet, so I'm holding off on a year-end films list, but here's this for now; subject to revision, but really solid as is.

01. Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
02. Jeffrey Wright, Hold the Dark
03. Mary Kay Place, Diane
04. Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White
05. Regina Hall, Support the Girls
06. Toni Collette, Hereditary
07. Michael Jq Huang, Father to Son
08. Steven Yeun, Burning
09. Jeon Jong-seo, Burning
10. Madeline Brewer, Cam
11. John Cho, Searching
12. Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here
13. Koji Yakusho, The Third Murder
14. Topher Grace, BlackKklansman
15. Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
16. Steve Buscemi, The Death of Stalin
17. Cedric Kyles, First Reformed
18. Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed
19. Martin Freeman, Cargo
20. Kim Min-hee, Grass
21. Esom, Microhabitat
22. Jang Jieun, The Darling
23. Jay Pharoah, Unsane
24. Claire Foy, Unsane
25. Josh Hartnett, Oh Lucy!




This is eerily ominous –– and in itself just plain awful news.


At long last...

The real Wellesian event of the year is on Criterion, not Netflix.

(Now, please – if anyone reading this has any sway – put out beautiful Blu-rays of Beau Travail and The House of Mirth!)


He's much older now with hat on drinking wine

Great piece, by Lindsay Zoladz, on what is probably the greatest pop album of all-time; and another terrific one, by Steven Hyden, on the deeply idiosyncratic career that followed said greatest album.


Words Matter

These are extremely important points that must be firmly asserted, ad infinitum if necessary (at present, it's obviously, urgently necessary), and more world leaders should follow Macron's lead in explicitly rejecting the casual use of "nationalism" as an innocent, interchangeable synonym for "patriotism." It is not; even without "white" as a prefix, nationalism is an ideology (not a mere sentiment, like patriotism) that directly motivated many of the most horrific acts of the past century. It is true that the meaning of some terms blur over time: most people today probably cannot explain the difference between a "democracy" and a "republic," there is no real correspondence between these two ancient political forms and the present-day Democratic and Republican parties, and the word "liberal" carries totally different connotations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, respectively. But nationalism –– like fascism, communism, and imperialism –– still always refers, in essence, to something very specific, and deeply sinister, even if its manifestations have varied across time and space.


"It's like they're doing the right thing. It's like they're doing the right things with all the instruments."


She still has a flame-gun (for the cute ones)

Not sure yet what I think of Wanderer (still sorting that out), but why not a Cat Power top twenty in the meantime? Her run from '95–2003 was amazing, and those records hold up beautifully; what's come since then is more hit or miss...

01. "Rockets"
02. "Nude as the News"
03. "Say"
04. "Fool"
05. "Ice Water"
06. "Still in Love"
07. "No Sense"
08. "Cross Bones Style"
09. "I Don't Blame You"
10. "I Found a Reason"
11. "Top Expert"
12. "Names"
13. "Enough"
14. "Maybe Not"
15. "Satisfaction"
16. "Great Expectations"
17. "American Flag"
18. "Colors and the Kids"
19. "Lived in Bars"
20. "Wonderwall"


VIFF: Best of the Fest


01. Transit
02. Burning
03. Microhabitat
04. Ash Is Purest White
05. Lush Reeds
06. The Image Book
07. Fausto
08. Three Faces
09. Edge of the Knife
10. Grass / The Darling

01. Mary Kay Place, Diane
02. Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White
03. Michael Jq Huang, Father to Son


01. Ash Is Purest White
02. Shoplifters
03. Transit
04. Mirai
05. Lush Reeds

also reviewed:
*Edge of the Knife
*The Sisters Brothers
*Wangdrak's Rain Boots
*The House That Jack Built
*The Darling
*No. 1 Chung Ying Street
VIFF, pt. 6: Parts Unknown

A Land Imagined For those who felt that Crazy Rich Asians presented a too homogeneous, rose-colored image of Singapore, Yeow Siew Hua's film is the perfect, murky antidote. Part police procedural, part story of foreign migrant workers hired to literally expand Singapore (via land reclamation), A Land Imagined is the pointed opposite of jet-set luxury porn: Its protagonist, a young migrant laborer from China, can't get any sleep in his hot, bedbug-infested dorm room in a Chungking Mansions-like housing block, and so spends his nights playing video games and finding air-conditioned relief in a neon-lit, 24-hour internet cafe. It's his exhaustion--tired eyes staring blankly at a computer screen for hours on end--that serves as the catalyst for the narrative's quick turn toward the surreal. Not all of the ensuing plot pieces ultimately fit together in a coherent way (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and Yeow's dependence on the idea of land reclamation as a metaphor for Singapore's uneven economic ascent is effective yet a touch heavy-handed (especially when one character explicitly spells it out). But on the whole, this is an impressive and provocative movie, likely to reward to repeat viewings.

Fausto Andrea Bussmann's film-poem is even harder to describe in concrete terms than Godard's latest, and it's nearly as good (!), though, upon reflection, I'm really not sure what Goethe has to do with any of it. Set along Mexico's beautiful Oaxacan coast, it's about the ways in which stories, myths, legends, etc. can be creatively projected onto the physical/natural world, creating webs, or constellations, of meaning, yet never (in Fausto's case) at the expense of the essential, intractable mysteriousness of that landscape. Or that's my take, anyway. The program note mentions "colonization, greed, and the limitations of human perception," which didn't occur to me, but sure--this is an uncommonly open film, in the very best sense.

The Darling If local cinephiles have ever found themselves hoping for a Hong Sang-soo film set in Vancouver, this black-and-white gem by Lee Seung-yup will likely be the closest they'll get. Featuring a terrific lead performance by Jang Jieun as a well-known Korean actress venturing around the Lower Mainland in relative anonymity, Lee's film is as funny, charming, and occasionally moving as Hong's signature work (its unambiguous model), if not quite as formally sophisticated and subtly inventive.

Microhabitat Jeon Go-woon's wholly wonderful and remarkably assured directorial debut takes place in Seoul, not Vancouver, but it nonetheless presents a serious dilemma with which Vancouverites can acutely identify: the increasing challenge of finding decent, affordable housing in a city that is ostensibly growing ever-more "liveable." Centering on a problem too infrequently considered in films (or TV shows) set in urban locales other than New York, Microhabitat finds both droll comedy and low-key tragedy in the either/or decisions imposed by a tough market: choosing between life's small pleasures and personal living-space (hence the film's title), layering up indoors to avoid a massive heating bill in the wintertime, switching to an inferior brand of cigarettes as prices inflate yet again. When the couchsurfing protagonist tells her friend that she's saving up for a deposit and holding out for a place with cheaper rent, the friend replies, "Seems like you're living a fantasy." But few recent fictional films hew closer to real life.


VIFF, pt. 5: Little Earthquakes

Grass Robert Christgau wrote the following about Sleater-Kinney's All Hands on the Bad One: "Locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967." I mention this because what was true of the Stones in 1967 and of Sleater-Kinney in 2000 is also true of the mind-bogglingly prolific and consistent Hong Sang-soo in 2018. It's worth noting that Christgau made this observation at the start of a CG blurb for an album that almost everyone liked and almost no one regarded as S-K's best. Similarly, among Hong's recent work, Grass lacks either the total, caustic impact of On the Beach at Night Alone or the effortless, ebullient charms of Our Sunhi. It also feels fairly minor compared to Lee Chang-dong's Burning, another Korean film about the process of creating fiction and the writer's relationship to the world around him/her, except in Grass the Elusive Woman (of course, the ever-terrific Kim Min-hee) is the writer in question (and arguably, unlike On the Beach..., the on-screen director-surrogate), rather than the enigmatic object of the writer's interest. All that said, its pleasures––the crisp black-and-white photography, the way DP Kim Hyung-koo films people talking to one another, Hong's alternately funny and incisive dialogue, a young couple heatedly arguing and then gradually reconciling while Pachelbel's Canon in D Major plays on the café stereo––are genuine and abundant, especially for a movie that clocks in at a super-lean 66 minutes to Lee's 148.

Father to Son Roughly halfway through Hsiao Ya-chuan's intimate character study, it occurred to me that this might well be my favorite film of the festival. Hsiao's film is wonderful to look at, beautiful and elegant in an unforced way, and so vividly detailed. Hsiao served in the past as Hou's assistant director, and the Taiwanese master's guiding influence (a line in the opening credits reads "with the support of Hou Hsiao-hsien") is evident throughout the film's excellent first half or even two-thirds, although Hsiao's movie is warmer and more character-focused than most of Hou's films of the past twenty years. Alas, at a certain key point in the narrative, Hsiao's movie becomes overwhelmed by the soap opera-like melodrama that it had earlier treated in a more restrained, naturalistic manner. With this shift toward the histrionic, the filmmaking itself also seems suddenly clumsier and more artificially stylized, with obvious cross-cutting between moments in the present and flashbacks shot in an antique-looking black-and-white, pointless slow motion, and over-use of the musical score for unnecessary emphasis. It's a real shame, but we're left at least with half, or even nearly two-thirds, of a great film.

Diane My ultimate impression of this fictional debut from critic/programmer-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones is more or less the same, except that it stays great (in a distinctly Kenneth Lonergan-like way) for a little longer into its runtime, then when it careens downhill it's more abrupt and jarringly incongruous in scope and tone with what had preceded it. Nevertheless, Mary Kay Place, giving one of the best performances of the year, is superb from start to finish. Even where Jones's narrative choices in the film's final twenty or so minutes feel dubious or false (I shouldn't say more), she redeems the material with an extraordinary level of commitment and grace.


VIFF, pt. 4: Believe the Hype

Burning Like the books of the Bible in medieval exegesis, Lee Chang-dong's film can facilitate an enormous range of readings, from the literal (an ambiguous psychological thriller, via Murakami via Faulkner) to the tropological (it's really a story about repressed homoerotic desire) to the typological (the characters are stand-ins are for elements of fictional storytelling: it's really, really an allegory for the internal violence of the creative process, à la Vertigo) to the sociopolitical (actually, it's about simmering, or "boiling," class tensions in the shadow, or earshot, of the DMZ, playing out in an age of increasing political extremism). Some books/chapters/verses/scenes seem to particularly invite (or permit) readings on one of these levels, while others seem open to several at once. Even at its most literal, Burning seems like at least two different movies, split down the middle by an extraordinary, long scene that doesn't feel like it's necessarily part of either what preceded it or what follows it. Of course, as with biblical readings, interpreters of Lee's rightly lauded film have to work with what's there; but--in both cases--there's a lot there, so much so, in fact, that a very loaded text can, in effect, be treated almost like a tabula rasa, or a new document in Microsoft Word, inviting a would-be novelist to shake off his writer's block and get on with the business of creation.

The Image Book Near the end of his latest video essay, Godard reflects that our civilizations (i.e., the West as well as the Arab World, which Godard pointedly contrasts with the more limited Western conception of "the Middle East," much like his sharp distinction between America and the United States in In Praise of Love) come directly from the religions of the book, through which the word became sacralized and thus reified (a friend, afterwards, referred to John 1:1, but I think Godard, like Derrida, has never fully settled on the Johannine primacy of verbum vis à vis imago). This is not an original observation, but in the context of Godard's restless sorting out of the complex relationship of image and language across modern history and of the affects of visual art and literature (both essentially image-making) employed by cultures at liminal fins des siècles, it's a mournful observation--post-biblical history as, in a certain sense, fait accompli, the longed-for utopia evoked by Godard having not only failed to materialize, but (maybe) having been doomed from the get-go. If cinema, for all its polysemous potential to complicate the fateful, scriptural marriage of word and image, offered a kind of Plan B, but also ultimately failed to subvert (or liberate us from) the fixed subject-object representation whereby power is reiterated and reproduced, this is why Godard turns (again) to the Brechtian "fragment" as a last refuge of that malleable, polysemous potential--a last gasp as guttural as his octogenarian smoker's cough.