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.

Complicated movie about a complicated relationship. I’ll bet this is fun to watch a second time. Cynthia seems an awful high-haired rich woman who mistreates her maid Evelyn, but it turns out these two are in a relationship, and Evelyn is ordering Cynthia to order Evelyn around – even providing a script for Cynthia to follow. One or both of them are lepidopterists and/or cheating with the neighbor or the custom-furniture saleswoman. I can’t tell if it has a happy ending – or if it has an ending, or simply loops back on itself. It has sensuous atmosphere in spades – no shit, from the director of Berberian Sound Studio. I like what he does, the hermetic cinephile worlds he creates, but never seem to fall in love with the films.

Sidse Knudsen (Borgen, After The Wedding) is Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna (a tormented actress in Berberian Sound Studio) is Evelyn. Shout out to Buñuel – one of the few auxillary characters is named Dr. Viridiana.

Uses songs by Flying Saucer Attack and Nurse With Wound. Great credits, with Human Toilet Consultants, recording notes on all the insect audio (“Gryllotalpa africana: recorded by D.R. Ragge & W.J. Reynolds on 21st May 1974 at 14:00 hours on a nagra 4d tape recorder and sennheiser mkh 405 microphone in very dim light at 25 degrees centigrade”), and this right after the human cast:

J. Teodoro for Cinema Scope:

Though not used as a one-to-one metaphor, the shadows that will soon enter Evelyn and Cynthia’s perverts’ paradise are telegraphed in The Duke‘s hallucinatory images of butterflies, pinned, with labial wings spread, neatly contained in frames and displayed in seemingly infinite rows, their ornate patterning and careful classification rhyming with Evelyn’s carefully composed erotic scripts – written in an elegant calligraphic hand – to which Cynthia is meant to scrupulously adhere.

M. D’Angelo:

Strickland is clearly a heavy-duty cinephile—Berberian Sound Studio paid tribute to Italian giallo, and there’s a dream sequence here that includes an homage to Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde short Mothlight — and he has a lot of fun early on establishing the parameters of his Eurotrash softcore aesthetic. The movies he’s ostensibly aping, however, took place in an erotically exaggerated version of the real world, whereas The Duke Of Burgundy dispenses with literally anything that doesn’t meet the needs of its story. Other women are seen from time to time, but nobody does anything resembling “normal” work; the entire population appears to consist of amateur lepidopterists, who gather regularly to take turns giving lectures on various species of butterflies and moths.

In a BFI interview Strickland lists influences: Mothlight, Morgiana (1972), Belle de Jour, A Virgin Among The Living Dead (1973), Mano Destra (1986) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

The inclusion of an obscure reference done in an obvious fashion can be precarious in terms of what that reveals about a director’s motivations. At worst, the act of homage is merely posing and diverting attention onto the director rather than the film, but when done organically and effectively, as with both Greenaway at his best and Tarantino, it enriches the film and places it within a wider (albeit self-imposed) lineage that can be rewarding for the curious viewer.

Squeamish British sound engineer Toby Jones arrives in Italy to work on a movie called The Equestrian Vortex, not realizing it’s an extra-bloody horror film. Supposedly he was hired because the film’s director Santini holds him in high regard, but nobody else in the studio could care less, and his requests meet with blank stares and insults, as over the weeks of work he gets more shaken by the company and his work stabbing and snapping vegetables as torture-foley.

Like the 1970’s and 80’s Italian horrors Berberian claims to be recreating (we never see a scrap of footage from the film-in-a-film except its opening titles), this movie cares much more about atmosphere than anything else, and does a great job creating that through image and sound. With Jones playing a foley artist and sound recorder, they knew we’d be paying close attention to the soundtrack, and it’s wonderful. But while the Argento and Fulci movies have overstuffed but ultimately empty stories submerged in their gothic atmosphere, this one mostly dispenses with story and lets its atmosphere do all the talking. In fact, they seem to have forgotten to give the movie an ending. It has a neat build-up, as Toby’s letters from home bleed into his work, a story of a birdnest rampage paralleled in the inner film’s carnage and in editing-room chaos after a wronged actress takes out her frustration upon the audiotapes, but then it peters out after that.

Very nice touch that sound equipment is activated by a black gloved hand in close-up. Shot by Nic Knowland (Institute Benjamenta, Piano Tuner of Earthquakes). I must find Strickland’s earlier feature, a Romanian revenge drama.