Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
- Paraguay Remembered
In 1968, French filmmaker Dominique Dubosc began his career making 16mm documentaries about peasant family life in Paraguay. The country was over a decade into Stroessner’s violent rule, achieved by a coup, that lasted well into the late 80s. Forty years later, he was invited to the cinematheque in the capital city of Asuncion, allowing his first revisit in decades. Paraguay Remembered, his diary of that trip, which played at Anthology this month, approaches the present with reflection. “I sank back in my memory,” he narrates over a POV shot aboard a boat wading a river thought to be much deeper when he was younger. Cinema as both a tool of and commentary on memory propel Dubosc, especially as he becomes aware of his subjectivity complicating his audience’s objectivity—black and white scenes of the street corners, lifelong friends, and the landscapes seen in his early works, which only occasionally switch to color, demonstrate the difficulty of looking upon the familiar in a purely present gaze. The use of black and white is employed when revisiting the remnants of that perpetual state of siege: an airport once stamped with Stroessner’s name and the decaying planes used to dump sleeping bodies into the water, or a view from Dubosc’s hotel room of administration buildings that housed torture. Compare that to the similarly chromatic photos of an area prison, circa 1989, shown to him with descriptions more horrific than the content; one account of a soldier doing push-ups in the freezing rain before being crushed to death darkens the image of his burial. Images like these hang in nearby galleries where friends laugh and converse, and later, on a television in a mall while Coldplay’s own autocratic lyrics (“and that was when I ruled the world”) blast overhead. How do we consume this pain, these memories, correctly? More pertinently, how much do we err in prioritizing our personal experiences over the strife of others?
- John Wick: Chapter 2
Like any good sequel, Chapter 2 widens and deepens the hyperviolent criminal mythology of its predecessor. It’s not satisfying enough that Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad, with a larger budget and sleeker toys, up the insanity of the first film’s bloodstorm of knuckles, blades, and bullets, but in taking the action from the 2014 film’s garages and safehouses to subway trains, stations, and outdoor concert venues, the duo trace the wide reach of the criminal organization that made John Wick (Keanu Reeves, patchy beard and all) the boogeyman of an assassin that he is. Though encroachment on familiar territory begins Chapter 2—the brother of the previous film’s Russian boss (a delightful cameo by Peter Stormare) faces another instance of his soldiers stealing Wick’s car—that structure is destroyed when Wick’s house is burned to the ground. It’s incentive for him to perform another One Last Hit—this time, a sister of an Italian gangster, who’s footing the bill—before becoming the bounty. Not only is Wick’s trip to Italy a chance to cement any of Wick’s Western influences (Franco Nero, everybody!), but it allots more threads of martial arts and John Woo to intervene, plumbing the depths of mythical lineage. Though the risk of deflating the breathless momentum began by the first film constantly looms, Chapter 2 stays steady, loading up moments both quiet and chaotic with knockout visuals.
In her debut feature, Agnieszka Smoczynska revives two mythos not often done justice in cinema: mermaids and pop stars. She is aware of the truncated lifespan ordered for both; some icons disappear so quickly, they may as well turn to seafoam. She is also aware that what you’re born with can be both a great boon and hinderance, as experienced by the naive Srebrna (Marta Mazurek) and her more world-weary sister Zlota (Michalina Olszanska): “Silver and Gold,” two man-hungry sea witches who get a band together through their siren song, making for one of the shortest and most satisfying audition prologues in existence. It’s an electro-thump musical of longing and sadness, anchored by a struggle with national identity that spreads the bass of the theatre to the butt of your seat. Taking influence from the mystics of old—as seen in the storybook images through the opening credits—to 90s and early 2000s music videos, The Lure is one of the most seductive starring vehicles for a nonexistent diva duo in years.
“You’re a collection of your favorite shit,” writer-director Jordan Peele said of his influences following a well-met preview of Get Out. It took place at BAM, which is hosting the Peele-curated “The Art of the Social Thriller,” a selection of films that lurk through his first horror film: Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Given Peele’s identity as a black male in America, it’s just as true that one is a collection of one’s not-so-favorite shit. The societal pressures on marginalized groups, and the mental strain imposed by what should be spaces of comfort, may make for great art and entertainment, but the toll they take on real lives is nothing trivial. By the time the opening title appears, it’s established that social order is mercilessly maintained—a grim harbinger for the film’s remainder, and a necessary truth for the reality it reflects. The film was made during a time erroneously termed by many as “post-race,” reminding that the aggressions, micro or larger, made by white superiors never disappeared. A biracial couple could still be looked upon with prejudice, no matter how well-meaning the perpetrator could be. That’s precisely what happens to Daniel Kaluuya, who meets his white girlfriend’s parents in a trip that awakens various traumas. The fetishization, scrutiny, and exploitation of people of color—particularly through theories of genetic inequality—are indicted here to horrifying, and often hilarious, effect. But the impact of Peele’s satire depends entirely on the audience. When you see it in a theatre, pay attention to the demographics in attendance. You’re bound to see a difference in reaction.
A variety in audience reaction, especially if the audience was a mix of black and white, was a concern for James Baldwin as well. A stunning novelist, social critic, and intellectual, Baldwin understood cinema as an extension of race matters; he wrote a screenplay about his friend Malcolm X, and wrote extensively on films like The Exorcist as metaphors of a collective fear towards black people. In one segment of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, excerpts from Baldwin’s writings on fellow civil rights figurehead Sidney Poiter are read by an atypically mellow yet fierce Samuel L. Jackson. Baldwin notes how the act of Poitier’s character saving Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones drew a divisive response—one of disbelief from black people, one of validation for whites. In an era where allyship and integration still can be performative, Baldwin’s observations haven’t wrinkled. Nor has the bulk of I Am Not Your Negro’s text, taken from an unfinished manuscript for the novel Remember This House, plus various other works lent by the Baldiwn estate. While most reactions have revolved around how much Baldwin’s words aid our understanding of Ferguson and Trayvon Martin, what struck me most was his composure. Here was a man put upon to aid the more privileged with insights into the black experience, and to see him face to face on television with a white Yale professor regarding the persisting inequalities makes one yearn for a time when political and social discourse was accomplished without the distance provided by satellite feeds and live feeds.
Best New Old Movie: Anatahan
It continues to happen to the best of them: past a certain point in a career, be it from lack of general interest or just pissing off the wrong folks, a director doesn’t get the pull they once had. Though his filmography will forever be synonymous with the rise of Marlene Dietrich, directing her in Shanghai Express and The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg deserves recognition for his self-sufficiency. He was known for being a difficult personality to contend with, and maybe that’s part of why Anatahan (1953), his final film—presented by Kino Lorber at the Metrograph in a new restoration—was not only directed by Sternberg, but co-written, produced, shot, and narrated as well. With non-actors, zero Hollywood funding, and a post-production that ran years, the struggle of making Anatahan could have proven a bloated disaster. But seeing this true story is a singularly peculiar experience: a marooned battle crew, at World War II’s end and beyond, spend years creating a new microcivilization on an island. Jealousy arrives when a lone woman—Akemi Negishi in a star-making turn—is discovered, and primitive behaviors percolate. Though clearly shot on a backlot—the fake island setting hearkens to the chapter serials of wartime—the artifice helps keep the focus on the film as a tightly wound parable about barbarism, arrogance, and the need to invent situations in order to perpetrate those qualities. And though connivers and assailants come home heroes, a few spend the rest of their days digesting the indelibly horrid truth.
Dud of the Month: Fifty Shades Darker
Only in certain cases would I say to avoid a film at all costs, and Fifty Shades Darker is not one of them. This movie became my Valentine’s Day plans, being a single fella with a group of friends looking to loudly drag the latest and, as of yet, most ambling chapter in the Fifty Shades saga. Despite my distaste for laughing at, not with, screenings, James Foley’s confectionary box of entry-level bondage, women throwing drinks in each others faces, and a questionable selection of MMA and Riddick posters had it coming. For a film grinding on the promise of kink, everything about Darker was pure vanilla. Whether it’s the doctor’s office version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” or the decision to make Christian Grey fuck with his pants still on or nearly all of Anastasia Steele’s underreactions to whatever happens to her, Fifty Shades was trash, and the month was better for its existence.