Some movies watched before, during, and soon after the China trip:


The Illinois Parables (2016 Deborah Stratman)

I know I watched it late at night, in Alpharetta, and somehow took no notes, and enjoyed it. Landscapes and history lessons. Sure sounds interesting from the letterboxd writeups! Maybe kinda if General Orders No. 9 was much better, and had been highly influenced by Profit Motive.


Widows (2018 Steve McQueen)

After all the hype – the follow-up to his best-picture winner with an outstanding cast – somehow I lost interest in this by the time it came out, and caught up months later on the seat-back of a plane. It’s overwrought and overstuffed, but undeniably pleasurable in its performances and genre plotting.

I wonder if the male actors were sabotaged in an attempt to draw attention to the heist-gone-bad widows Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez – or if they just misjudged the tone of the movie. Colin Farrell overacts as a cartoon-villain politician, Daniel Kaluuya plays a basic enforcer of a crime boss/politician stalking Viola Davis, and Liam Neeson goes from sympathetic victim to archvillain when he’s discovered by wife Viola (in the movie’s best scene) to be shacking up with the fourth widow after arranging the deaths of his buddies to get away with all the money. Does Viola throw aside spousal emotion for the sake of sweet revenge, killing Liams herself at the end? She does!


Transit (2018 Christian Petzold)

Watched at the Tara, huge, alone. Sicinski’s review says it all.


High Life (2018 Claire Denis)

I took no notes about this, mostly remember the ending of Robert Pattinson and daughter alone on the ship hurtling towards a black hole, and the haunting Pattinson-sung Tindersticks song. These two most recent Claire Denis features have helped offset the brutal unpleasantness of her previous two, and even though this one has its share of rape and murder, it also has beauty and wonder and general strangeness… and that song…


Us (2019 Jordan Peele)

Watched with Pro at Atlantic Station – on the secret screen with its own bar, not that this mattered. I don’t have a firm handle on the symbolism, but it’s a hell of a thriller regardless. See smart articles by Kyle, Monica, Mike, and Carol.


In Fabric (2018 Peter Strickland)

Watched at the glorious Plaza as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) visits a creepy clothing store during sales week, is talked into buying a cursed red dress by a cheerfully coercive saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed, speaking in retail-poetry). Marianne dates Barry Adamson (a Bad Seed!), gets chastised by boss Julian Barratt, and keeps getting injured until she’s finally killed in a car crash. It’s a strange tone overall, kind of a creeping dread mixed with splashes of comedy – but Marianne is a sympathetic character stuck in a crappy job, being intimidated in her own house by her son’s new girl (Gwendoline Christie of Top of the Lake season 2), so the campy horror-comedy gets overwhelmed by sadness. The dress survives, and gets shared by another guy with a crappy job (Leo Bill) and his girlfriend Hayley Squires (of the latest Wheatley and second-latest Loach), misfortune and death follow, but this time the department store burns down during a consumer brawl.

Strickland:

A lot of us filmmakers have had to do the kinds of jobs these characters do: temping, retail. The challenge is to usher those experiences into one’s films without it feeling like a vendetta, because a lot of those experiences are quite ball breaking. It’s more desirable to find humor there, to take characters like [Sheila’s employers] Stash and Clive and make them funny.


Election 1 & 2 (2005/06 Johnnie To)

Watched a couple of HK double-features on the long flight back from HK – on the iPad, tragically, so no screenshots. These are Hong Kong underworld power struggle movies – Lok (Simon Yam, star of at least six other To films) wins the election that Big D (Tony Leung 2: Evil East) thought he’d bought, so Big D revolts and threatens to start a war. Lok placates the dude, offering him the chairman position after Lok’s two years are up, and the two become friends – until the moment Big D lets his guard down and gets murdered.

Part two is more complicated, starring Jimmy (Louis Koo, the movie star in Romancing in Thin Air) as a businessman using his gangster ties to get ahead, but with plans to go straight – until he’s arrested and forced by the mainland government to run as their puppet chairman. Lok attempts to run a second time, which is against the rules, Kun (Ka Tung Lam, a cop in some of the Infernal Affairs movies) kidnaps some of the elders to get ahead, and Jet (Nick Cheung of Exiled) attempts to eliminate the competition. In both movies, the baton signaling the chairman’s power is hidden as a strategic move, then the baton is recovered through scheming and brutality.


A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2 (1986/87 John Woo)

I alternated these with the Election movies, and they’re either good indicators that John Woo is no Johnnie To, or that the 1980’s were a horrible decade for filmmaking. Gangster Ho (Ti Lung of a ton of Shaw Brothers movies) is protective of his cop little brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). He tries to get out, but they pull him back in! A few years later, Kit and Ho and his best friend Mark (Chow Yun-fat) sort-of team up to take down the gangster boss. The movie’s main attractions are guessing where the shifting loyalties will land, and watching Chow Yun-fat overplay his part as the super-cool guy, a schtik that nobody would fall for (jk, he became a massive star from this role and won the best actor award). At least he definitively dies at the end of the movie, so he won’t be in the sequel.

Part two is pretty much the same movie, Ho and Kit versus new gangster Lung (Dean Shek of Drunken Master), but it turns out Lung is being set up, so they all team up against the new superboss. Kit is killed as his baby is being born across town (by Emily Chu, also Cheung’s costar in Rouge the following year). The movie suffers from the lack of Chow Yun-fat’s stupid energy… ahhhh kidding, he appears as Mark’s identical twin brother, a non-gangster who transforms into a Mark-like badass after about twenty minutes.

Alternate prequels were filmed – producer Tsui Hark made the official A Better Tomorrow III, and Woo adapted his own prequel script into Bullet in the Head (in which Simon Yam played a character named Lok, an unexpectin’ Election connection).


Lu Over The Wall (2017 Masaaki Yuasa)

Schoolkid meets a manic pixie dream mermaid – sort of a Walk On Girl-distorted version of Ponyo. Not as thrillingly nuts as Walk On Girl – surprising, since that’s a teen drinking drama and this one’s about a rock music-loving mermaid. She gets discovered, captured, rescued, etc., less interesting for the story than the wavy-jumbly animation style.


Diamantino (2018 Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt)

Loopy, extremely fun cult flick about a massive soccer star manipulated by his scheming sisters, a mad scientist, and a cop who masquerades as his adoptive daughter. Everyone spends the movie trying to catch him out, but Diamantino is too simply sweet to be scheming.

Lead actor Carloto Cotta also starred in Tabu, and appears in Mysteries of Lisbon and all three of the Arabian Nights. I’ve been rooting for Abrantes since his Brief History of Princess X, so glad this was wonderful. I haven’t watched many movies at the Plaza since getting back, but between this and In Fabric, they’ve been extremely Plaza-appropriate.

Had to see this since I also just watched Obsession, another semi-remake of Vertigo. Nina Hoss (star of Petzold’s Barbara and Jerichow), of a rich family, escaped the holocaust but is presumed dead. She has actually had reconstructive facial surgery and looks like a different person, but still obsesses over her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Beloved Sisters and The Pasta Detectives) even though he may have saved himself by giving her up to the nazis.

Most of the movie is the tension of wondering how she could be so stupid to return to Johnny, leading to the very satisfying ending when she reveals her true self, thus claiming her family’s fortune while rejecting Johnny, who has been a slimeball the entire movie.

Petzold also made my second-favorite of the Dreileben trilogy (what’s Dominik Graf up to these days?). The final film by late cowriter Harun Farocki – my only previous experience with him was an essay film better talked about than watched.

A. Nayman:

What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism – the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine – is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions.

A different kind of trilogy, three filmmakers born in different decades each makes his own feature film set in the same town at the same time, rotating around a central event: a convicted murderer escapes from a hospital and kills again.

Quotes in italics below are from Dennis Lim’s great article in Cinema Scope, which is what got me watching the trilogy in the first place.

Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold)

Clean-looking picture. Follows young hospital flunky Johannes. Broken up with Sara, a hospital director’s daughter, he picks up a girl he sees getting dumped by a band of motorcycle thugs and takes her home. Johannes proves to be a bit of a stalker, and Ana sees him following her everywhere, which is why I keep thinking this movie was the chapter entitled Don’t Follow Me Around, but no, that’s the next one. Hard to tell Johannes’s intentions – he seems entranced with Ana, but at the end I wonder if he was using her to get back with Sara. She’s not a good match for him – makes lots of bad decisions then cries about them. Either way, he does end up with Sara after Ana attacks her at a company party, and they go off to Berlin together. Johannes never realizes that the door he clumsily left open at the hospital last week allowed the killer to get free, nor that the killer eventually stalks Ana (just like Johannes has been doing) and kills her as he’s driving out of town.

Petzold inscribes cold, hard truths of class and money into almost every scene, fusing erotic tensions with socioeconomic ones.

Don’t Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf)

A deceptive story with a grainier look and a less driven feel than the first movie. Psychiatrist Jo (Jeanette Hain of that Kate Winslet movie The Reader) is dispatched to Dreileben to assist the police with the manhunt. Jo arrives, stays with old friend Vera and her husband Bruno, who seem to be having relationship trouble. The escaped-killer plot is mostly dropped as she sets her investigative skills towards her friend, discovering that they both dated the same man shortly before they met. Meanwhile, Jo’s work in town is cryptic until halfway through the movie it’s revealed that she never came to work on the killer case, but to investigate corruption, leading to the arrest of six local officers. Once this is wrapped up, Jo does work on the other case, enlisting an artist to bait the killer. Meanwhile, Vera leaves home suddenly, paying a visit to the mutual unseen ex, returning having learned more secrets as the movie reveals that he’s the father of Jo’s daughter. Despite (or because of) its sidetracks, it’s the most richly engrossing of the three movies.

Talky and witty, packed with revealing tangents and glancing micro-observations. Shot by Michael Wiesweg in soft-toned Super 16 – a striking contrast to the crisp, controlled visuals of the other two entries – Graf’s film makes a virtue of skittishness. The distractable camera snoops, wanders, lingers on odd details, and the narrative likewise keeps shifting its attention.

One Minute of Darkness (Christoph Hochhausler)

This one suffers from having nothing much to say. It follows the killer, Molesch (Stefan Kurt, who got to play Albert Speer in a Hitler movie), whose history, escape, various sightings, then capture have already been addressed in the other two movies. Here we see the escape in greater details – Molesch wandering through a back door (left open by Johannes) while in hospital to see his just-deceased mother. Then it’s on to narrow escapes (movie briefly becomes The Fugitive during a bridge scene), police incompetence, and Molesch’s unlikely (but quite typically movie-likely) truce with a runaway girl. And just as inspector Marcus (I love that the music has ringing tones, in tune with his tinnitis) figures out that Molesch was innocent of his original crime, Molesch of course kills Ana from the first movie (after stopping to burn down his dead mum’s house).

[the titular piece of missing surveillance footage] speaks to the impossibility of certainty in the absence of observable evidence, the danger of imposing stories onto what we cannot know for sure. This conundrum is, of course, intimately linked to the de-dramatized cinema of the Berlin School: the fear of narrative as, to quote Hochhausler, something that “contaminates the picture,” a lie, and what’s more, a lie that could become the truth.

Petzold has made at least two films I’ve read about: Barbara and Jerichow. Graf has done a lot of television, including something called Doktor Knock, which is what I’m going to name my metal band. Hochhausler made a few films I’ve never heard of.

Graf was born in 1952, Petzold in 1960, Hochhausler in 1972, and each has a distinct relationship to the now decade-old “new German cinema” that has come to be imprecisely known as the Berlin School. Graf, a respected senior figure and a stalwart of German television, predates the Berlin School’s emergence, and has criticized what he sees as the reticence and passivity of many of the films. Petzold is often identified as one of the movement’s de facto founders, part of the pioneering wave that studied at the dffb in the ’80s and ’90s. Hochhausler belongs (with Benjamin Heisenberg and Ulrich Kohler) to the Revolver-aligned second generation, whose careers have progressed and diverged in ways that reflect the constant sense of flux, born of habitual self-examination, that defines this loose group.

Indiewire:

Dreileben is not an epic story. A term like that is generally saved for adventures that are years long or involve arduous journeying. Instead of offering something like that, these three German filmmakers have given us a very dense, abstruse, enclosed saga; full of knotty liaisons and unsolved conflicts … Coincidences are played with often (some big, some small, some even unnoticeable) and certain elements/traits, such as deafness, carry over to different characters and situations. Rather than composing a grand narrative, the directors went above and beyond to provide a wealth of substance and meaning.