At its core, the Wong Kar-Wai film 2046 (2004) is about the anchor of memory and the struggle to move beyond the emotional stasis of ill-fated love. Developed as an associated sequel to his breathtaking classic In the Mood for Love (2000), it’s a poignant and heart-wrenching follow-up that restarts the story of Mr. Chow, an uninspired writer of pulp whose life as an aloof playboy incapable of emotionally connecting with the several women he encounters both in real life and in literature. While a central character from ITMFL is alluded to several times during the film, often hanging over the plot like a ghostly signifier for Chow’s past, one could conceivably view 2046 as a singular film about the pitfalls of timing but I would highly recommend beginning with ITMFL before undertaking the narratively intricate arcs of 2046 (there are countless allusions to the previous film that will function only to confuse the audience).
Mostly set in Hong Kong during the latter part of the 1960’s, Mr. Chow (played brilliantly by actor Tony Leung) is writing a Science Fiction story about the year 2046, a time and place where people go to relive their memories, a place where nothing changes. No one has ever come back from 2046 except for the teller of the tale, a Japanese man named Tak, a kind of stand-in for Chow. Chow’s unsentimental affair with a call girl who lives in an adjacent apartment (room number 2046) is achingly born out of Chow’s loneliness and boredom with his career but she has an earnest and quixotic plan for him that will force him to address his yearning for a past that has come and gone. Both films masterfully depict moodiness and atmosphere like few others in due part to the sensual cinematography of Christopher Doyle and use of melodic music to evoke the interior longing of characters. Prepare for a non-linear plot that jumps backward and forward throughout the film.
It’s that time of the year to look at some of the notable films that have been restored and re-released back into cultural circulation once more. The Criterion Collection once again represents the gold standard in terms of packaging and supplementing these culturally significant works from the past.
1. The Long Day Closes
2. The Vanishing
4. The Big Chill
5. La Vie de Boheme
6. Love Streams
7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
8. Sundays and Cybele
Made during a time when the Hollywood musical was all but dead, French director Jacques Demy’s sherbet-toned, song and dance-fest was about as uncool as it got in the sphere of mid-sixties French cinema when it hit theaters in 1967. It was a Technicolor throwback, a flamboyant and syrupy homage to the Hollywood musicals made during the previous decade. Starring French actress Catherine Deneuve (Delphine), her real-life sister Francois Doreleac (Solange) and American screen icon Gene Kelly, the film is set around a city-wide festival in the uninspiring town of Rochefort. The self-absorbed twins (Delphine is a dancer and Solange is a composer) are bored with their predictable, mundane lives and wish for the riches of celebrity in their artistic fields. Love and romance of course are also on their to-do list. Made in collaboration with sixties It-composer Michel Legrand, Demy’s classic is an energetic and luminous show of treacly schmaltz with its quixotic heart worn unashamedly upon its brightly colored sleeve.
The Japanese film Still Walking is a beautiful portrait of a strained but loving family whose complicated history unfolds over a single day under the specter of death and grief. While this may turn away those who seek out escapist fare in their movie-watching experience, the film avoids the trappings of being too grim. With its un-rushed lyricism and thoughtful pacing, the wonderful dialogue unpacks our characters’ anger, regret and nostalgic yearning for what could have been and what never will be. The film never feels preachy or heavy handed. It simply explores how each family member deals with loss and conflict, often through aloof and insensitive ways that only deepen long-standing wounds. Catharsis is depicted as problematic, messy and much more difficult to bring about than any self-help manual would suggest. The message here is that Hollywood endings have no place in the real world and that’s what you’re going to get with this highly personal work from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Set in a hilly, coastal town, the Yokoyama family meets each year to remember their son and brother who died in a drowning accident some 15 years before. It’s an opportunity to eat (and eat they do), catch up on gossip, visit the grave and introduce the parents to new family members. Fathers and sons will spar over legacies, husbands and wives will recall past infidelities, and a young boy will begin to understand his own heartache within a broader context. Fans of films like Tokyo Story and Yi Yi will enjoy Still Walking’s intelligent slice of life approach to exploring the dynamics of family drama.
Autumn Sonata (1978) is a masterful portrait of the kind of personal conflict embedded within family relationships fraught with regret, shame and disappointment. The great actress Ingrid Bergman (who only worked with Ingmar Bergman once) puts in a fantastic performance as the aging classical pianist who tries to reconnect with her two adult daughters, both of whom she has emotionally neglected over the years in pursuit of her career. Racked with guilt, Bergman clumsily attempts to express her deep feelings of regret and love for her eldest daughter (played by the great Liv Ullman) over the course of a long awaited visit. A brilliant a depiction of the corrosive discord between a parent and child, Autumn Sonata’s evocative power revealed that Bergman was still a master at the melodrama by excavating both he and Ingrid’s personal challenges with mediating family, love, art and career.
There’s just not enough time to compose a lengthy review of some of the great and not-so great feature films, television series and documentaries that I’ve caught over the past month, so instead, I’m handing out a grade and an abridged appraisal.
Bastards—A grim, pointless waste of time from French Director Claire Denis (C-)
Hateship Loveship—Continued proof that former SNL star comedian Kristin Wiig should keep looking for dramatic roles (B)
Orphan Black—Yes, lead actress Tatiana Maslany was robbed of an Emmy nomination for her multiple roles in this great BBC-produced show about clones (A)
Requiem for the Big East—For college basketball fans who grew up in the 1980’s and recall watching these legendary teams, this ESPN documentary will rouse a healthy dose of nostalgia (B+)
The Bridge—in keeping with the very trendy, neo-noir subject of serial killing and the relationship between detectives charged with solving the mysteries (see: True Detective), this cross-border drama explores the messy dialectics of national politics, the consequences of drug/human trafficking and the tension between rich and poor (B+)
Captain Phillips—nothing here was particularly new, assuming you followed the story when it originally unfolded, but it still remains a dramatically compelling, well-paced action film that will jump-start your adrenalin (A-)
Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of the New Yorker—a satisfactory if not condensed portrait of an eccentric visionary and his creative collaborators who developed a unique and lasting publication (B)
Palo Alto—a drained, vacuous sketch of the psychic ennui of rich, white teens whose lives gravitate around sex, drugs, video games and pathetic, exploitative adults (D)
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theater, whose trustworthiness has been seriously questioned. Film audiences should be wary of gleaning truths from the narrator’s account of the movie's unfolding and plot details. Here are some films that have employed the unreliable narrator approach to storytelling to great effect.
Last Year at Marienbad
The Usual Suspects
The Great Gatsby
Before falling into obscurity, the slice of life documentary Cousin Jules was well-received by critics in the early 1970's. Restored and released again, this wonderful film takes viewers into a world that to contemporary eyes appears primitive and exotic in view of our high-speed, high- tech, consumer society. Back in the 1960’s, those who lived off of the land in provincial France led slow, ordinary lives connected to the earth and to long-established practices. They made their own tools, harvested their own food and wine, ground their own coffee without electricity, accessed water from a well, and in general, lived off the land with a kind of raw independence and austerity that is almost unheard of in today’s postmodern society, one defined by ease, speed and consumerism. The film features Jules, a blacksmith who is short on conversation but whose mundane tasks are mesmerizing as they are without pretense or excess. The viewer is taken inside the routine rituals of everyday life, slowly, tenderly and without artifice or without a structured plot and yet the film feels fresh, a kind of poetic meditation on the nobility of craftsmanship and the humdrum ways of life that have been largely automated.
Last year, the Danish film The Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It's the story of the social and individual price of a child's lie. Good natured Lucas works at the local elementary school, beloved by the school children and adored by his hunting buddies, Lucas finds himself at the center of a police probe after his best friend's daughter claims that Lucas abused her. As the town rallies behind the girl's claim, Lucas finds himself socially disconnected from the small town and the target of violence. The film tackles the subject of mob mentality and how quickly a faleshood can function to demonize an innocent person. Driven by a strong performance by the lead actor, The Hunt is an excellent film worth checking out.