Braced myself for Time to be this year’s Quest or Primas, the deeply felt personal story of injustice and eventual healing, but it ended up feeling more like an advertisement for someone else’s cause, something they’ve believed in so strongly for so long that they think you’ll believe it too after a few simple words. Fox Rich’s husband gets out of jail after 20 years, and while our director was producing a short for the NY Times, she brought out boxes of videotapes from the entire prison sentence and beyond, and a feature was born. Black and white film to smooth out the time jumps, perfect piano and string score tying it all together, decades flashing by in single edits. Today, Fox is a speaker, writer, advocate for prison reform, broadcasting facebook live streams while running her own car dealership and raising a bunch of sons – a documentarian’s dream. Time goes by, forgiveness is found, but the legal system is impersonal and indifferent. Garrett couldn’t come, so she sent two producers for the Q&A, which we stayed for. Black Bear Combo opened, a good time. Hampton (Kevin Jerome Everson) was an unexpected pleasure, a few-minute short spotlighting the vocal talents of a student and/or bus driver, direct to camera.

Another Zhao Tao movie set in three distinct time periods with multiple aspect ratios, this one with an unusual synth score. Qiao is with small-time gangster Bin (Fan Liao of Black Coal, Thin Ice), and after she does five years in prison for firing a gun to save his life during an attack, Bin hides from her, leaving his new girl to explain his absence.

Also there is ballroom dancing – that’s Bin with the mustache wearing all black:

Interesting sidetrack where she spontaneously runs off with a man running a UFO tourism company. On the train he confesses he only runs a convenience store, then she abandons him while he sleeps. Back where she started a decade later, she has internalized the gangster ethos and runs a mahjong parlor, while a pathetic, stroke-crippled Bin has slinked back into her life, only to walk out again after she helps him back on his feet. The final shot of Qiao searching for him as seen through her security system has got nothing on Zhao dancing alone in the snow, but what does? I haven’t loved any of Jia’s pre-2010 films so far, but I’m glad I stuck with him, because A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White have made him one of my favorites of this decade.

James Lattimer in Cinema Scope:

Alongside settings and structural conceits, many of these moods and registers seem to have wandered in from Jia’s other works: the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin; the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures; the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart; or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City, to name just a few, while the presence of Zhao Tao, whose wonderfully understated acting style reaches new heights here, equally conjures up all the other characters she’s played over the years. Of all the references to Jia’s cinematic past, the most explicit ones come from Still Life, as Qiao takes the same ferry down the Yangtze as in the previous film, wearing the same shade of yellow and carrying the same water bottle her spiritual cousin Shen Hong did all those years ago, with the same UFO later passing overhead. Despite these similarities, though, everything is different, as what used to be the present has now become the past. This change is visible both in Zhao Tao’s face and in one of the images shared by both films, a shot of a sign on the river bank showing the projected level of the reservoir. One points to a future yet to happen, the other to a past that only exists in memory, the original now buried under so much water.

Geography: they start in Datong in Shanxi, some four hours west of the center of Beijing. After prison, she travels to Fengjie in Hubei province – this makes nearly a right angle south of Xian and east of Chengdu – crossing the Yangtze halfway there. The man on the train is headed for Karamay in Xinjiang, way the hell in the northwest.

Fengjie:

Slightly perverse to watch a movie called Starless Dreams right after A Star Is Born. This doc hangs out with Iranian girls in a juvenile detention center, which is like a hostel with a recess area and crappy food, surrounded by fences. The twist is that some of them make friends here and dread being sent home to their abusive families.

“Ava, why do you seem so down these days” is answered that her brother is getting the death penalty for being caught with meth. Somayeh calmly explains what she’s in for: “One night we decided to kill my father.” One girl’s baby visits and is excitedly passed around. They get into the filmmaking spirit, interviewing each other, asking Mehrdad questions. A girl grabs the boom mic and sings to the dinner table. Another cries when he mentions his own daughter: “She is being raised with love and comfort, while we were raised in rot and filth.”

The last part of Oskouei’s youth/crime trilogy – True Vision award in 2016, the year before we started attending T/F, playing with Cameraperson, Kate Plays Christine, The Other Side, and a bunch we haven’t caught up with.

Reliably a month behind on the blog, this was the first movie we watched in 2019. I maybe shouldn’t have read a (different) James Baldwin book right before watching this, since his language is never going to come through in a movie, but Jenkins tries hard to replace it with rich visuals. He gave the movie a “happy ending” which is that Fonny sees his family on weekends while doing years in prison on a trumped-up rape charge, so I wonder how he ends up in the book.

Our young couple is KiKi Layne and Stephan James (of the new series Homecoming). Her parents are Regina King (voiced both brothers in the Boondocks cartoon, played wives of Ice Cube, Will Smith and Cuba Gooding in the 90’s) and Colman Domingo (the Bishop’s accuser in Red Hook Summer), with sister Teyonah Parris (star of Chi-Raq, Coco in Dear White People). Fonny’s parents come over for the big announcement and get in a major fight – the movie has some surprisingly badass insult dialogue. Fonny’s restaurant bud is Diego Luna, Dave Franco plays a decent white(ish) landlord, and on the day of the crime they are hanging out with Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), who presumably betrays them in exchange for a deal on his own arrest. Cops do not come across well in this movie, nor in most movies. Despite the cops, the prison, the rape, the uncooperative witness, the systemic abuses – the movie is pure loveliness.

Vince Vaughn’s measured descent from tow-truck driver to drug runner, into a police shootout, to prison, to max-security prison, to “the prison within the prison,” to ultimate revenge and death. Heads get stomped, but in grimy low-light, so not even as graphically as in Dead Man – overall this was less brutal than I expected from the reviews (which may have been written by people who missed Bone Tomahawk), and funnier too. Vaughn plays an intriguing mix of characters we’ve seen before: smart and smartass, the extreme badass who will do anything to protect his family, willing to turn on his own colleagues to protect police but later destroying any prison guard who gets in his way, always calm and patient.

Don and the gang:

Somehow this is the first Vince Vaughn movie I’ve seen since Made in 2001. I didn’t recognize Don Johnson as the Gary Oldman-looking warden, or most of the other actors. Geno Segers (a cannibal in Bone Tomahawk) is one of the idiots working for the big bad (Dion Mucciacito). Jennifer Carpenter (the lead’s sister in Dexter) is Vince’s wife, kidnapped by the big bad and threatened with an evil abortionist if Vince doesn’t cooperate. Messages are delivered by a calm Udo Kier, who gets killed by family friend Marc Blucas (Buffy’s boyfriend in season 4-5). Tom Guiry (Smalls in The Sandlot) is a torturer guard killed by Vince. Mustafa Shakir (Big Mike in The Deuce) is a decent guard who Vince attacks when trying to act dangerous to escalate his sentence, and Clark Johnson (news editor in The Wire season 5) was in there somewhere, probably dead or at least badly hurt. Just missed the top-ten in this year’s Skandies (The Salesman is the last of the top twenty that I haven’t seen).

Just another business day for Udo Kier:

A process movie, which shows you what is happening, letting you guess about the why. Extremely precise in framing and editing, focusing as much on objects as people. I’m generally sympathetic to Bresson films, having loved A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and have been underwhelmed or confused by some of his others, so wasn’t sure how this one would hit me… and it’s a masterpiece.

Schoolboy Norbert owes money, so his buddy Martial pulls out some counterfeit cash, which they change at a picture frame store. Later, the frame shop owners get pissed at their employee Lucien for accepting the phony bill, and conspire to pass it off to a workman Yvon Targe (Christian Patey, later of Adieu Bonaparte).

Yvon is caught passing the fake bill at a restaurant, unaware, starts a fight and gets in trouble. The frame shop owners pay off Lucien to lie in court, and Yvon loses his job. Lucien loses his job as well when he’s discovered to be pocketing money, then robs the shop and starts stealing ATM cards, is eventually caught. Norbert is also caught, and his mom pays off the frame shop to hush the scandal.

Yvon takes a darker turn, gets hired as a getaway driver and caught during a bank robbery, his daughter dies while he’s in prison, he attempts suicide, rejects help from Lucien (who is caught trying to escape) and is eventually released. Yvon immediately steals from the hotel where he’s staying, then apparently follows a woman home, is allowed to stay with her and her father, and kills them both with an axe, then turns himself in.

Adrian Martin for Criterion:

Bresson told his stories in astoundingly matter-of-fact ellipses or leaps in time; only the most significant moments of information and sensation counted for him. He fragmented the spatial relations of each location and incident, making the world both a fiercely angular labyrinth and an abiding, disorienting mystery.

Based on a Tolstoy story. Bresson tied with Tarkovsky for best director at Cannes, the palme going to Imamura. Great Cannes interview on the disc – Bresson always gives the best answers. “The question is null and void” … “I can’t explain a film. It explains itself.”

Second weekend afternoon in a row I’ve watched a mid-1950’s true-crime drama. It’s not intentional, they’re just the shortest movies I’ve got. Newsreel-style intro tells us about a wave of riots protesting poor conditions in American prisons, featuring real footage, then cut to cell block 11 (the punishment block) in a California (?) prison where the inmates have decided to join the trend, holding their captors captive and calling for the warden and the press.

A tight, tense little movie which mostly comes down on the side of the prisoners – most of them, anyway. Master negotiator Dunn ends up fighting for control with Crazy Mike. Dunn gets an audience with the press, then Mike throws a knife into a guy outside. The next morning some lower-security cell blocks escape and join in the action. The cops contemplate blasting a hole in the cell block wall, which would also kill the guards held within, but ultimately the governor caves.

Warden (left) with Commissioner:

Politics: the first black guy who opens his mouth gets knocked out by Dunn. One of the ringleaders’ demands is that the young naïve guys be kept away from “certain prisoners” – I assumed they meant the crazy violent ones like Mike, but the commentary says it’s code for The Gays. And the warden basically wants the same things as the prisoners, has wanted it for years, but his hands are tied by tight-fisted state politicians.

Victory! I think that’s Crazy Mike at left, Dunn in center:

Noble Leader Dunn was Neville Brand (Eaten Alive and The Ninth Configuration), Evil Leader Mike was Leo Gordon, who had served time at San Quentin, and played Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson. The Warden: Emile Meyer (the priest in Paths of Glory, corrupt cop in Sweet Smell of Success), Commissioner Haskell (the governor’s stooge who gets knifed): Frank Faylen of 99 River Street and The Lost Weekend, and the injured, sympathetic hostage guard: cartoon voice actor Paul Frees. Written by friendly-witness commie Richard Collins, an early work by Siegel a couple years before his Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

C. Fujiwara:

The film had its origin in Wanger’s own experience as an inmate. After shooting agent Jennings Lang in a jealous rage over Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett, Wanger was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to four months, which he served at a minimum-­security prison north of Los Angeles. He emerged so appalled by the experience that he set out to use his access to mass media to arouse the public in favor of prison reform … With [Siegel] at the reins, Riot becomes not just a social-problem film but a ferocious depiction of human beings pushed past their limits.

A straightforward journey film. Vargas is released from prison, then rides and walks and canoes to deliver a letter to his friend’s wife and to find his own daughter, slaughtering a goat on-camera along the way.

Final moments alive for this goat:

I’d read that Alonso’s first three features were more realistic than the crazy-looking Jauja (also a journey movie where a solitary man looks for his daughter) and was afraid they’d be a drag to watch, but I needn’t have worried. Wish the DVD had looked better, though.

Quintín on the opening:

Alonso went on location with a cameraman and shot a scene – actually, one long take – of the main character holding a knife in his hand, leaving behind the bodies of his dead brothers: a mysterious, intriguing sequence with sophisticated camera movements and a sense of tragedy. The blood theme was there, as were the dead of the title. It was a highly remarkable, virtuoso shot. And a shot that made money. Shown to foundations, producers, sales agents and TV buyers, this homeopathic sample allowed the movie to be finished.

“If you’re doing a revolution, you should have the guts to kill a person.”

Theoretically, this kind of thing is right up my alley: four-hour, long-take, wide-shot foreign film-fest fare with an elliptical ending. But I dunno, I feel like it made its point in a few dialogue scenes scattered throughout, and the rest of the movie was either waiting around, or following a relentlessly grim plot to its lack of conclusion.

Crime and Punishment, but Fabian (Sid Lucero of Independencia) is our Raskolnikov who does the crime, and Joaquin is his neighbor who receives the punishment. It’s hard to know if Fabian is tormented by his crime, or if he’s just an asshole – after all, he seems equally tormented in the first hour of the movie before killing the moneylender woman and her daughter as he does at the end. After the homicide, the middle half of the movie follows imprisoned Joaquin, locked up with a bunch of not-bad guys and one violent psychopath named Wakwak, and Joaquin’s family led by Eliza (Angeli Bayani of Ilo Ilo and Lav’s Melancholia).

Prison visit:

I think Eliza’s sister Ading isn’t too bright, so Eliza is caring for her two kids and the sister, barely making ends meet by selling vegetables. We think a turning point has come when washed-up Fabian finally confronts Eliza after four years, guiltily giving her the cash he got from selling his murder-scene loot, then coercing his former law professors to take up her husband’s case. We assume the movie’s heading towards Fabian turning himself in (as did Peter Lorre and Markku Toikka). Instead he takes his war on society to a new level, visiting his family home only to rape his sister and kill his dog. Meanwhile Eliza visits her imprisoned husband for the first time in years then dies in a bus crash on the way home. Then Fabian goes for a boat ride, the end.

Played Cannes UCR with Stranger by the Lake and Bastards and Manuscripts Don’t Burn – semi-comprehensible stories with unpleasant characters were in vogue that year.

Fabian sleeping with his best friend’s girl:

Eliza fails to find sympathy from the doomed moneylender:

B. Nelepo in Cinema Scope:

An angry narrative by any definition, Norte portrays a country accursed, whose curse, by extension, spills over onto its people; around this curse, furthermore, the backstories of two families weave a subplot of marked importance. In order to prove that their family was doomed to fail from the start, Fabian torments his sister at the end of the movie (the girl is also in a cult, which seems to be a common practice among Filipinos: see Century of Birthing). Their parents, as it turns out, had moved to the US, leaving the kids in the care of hired help. Joaquin’s wife blames his subsequent misfortunes on herself for not letting him work abroad. Rejecting those who have left, the country is twice as harsh on those who have stayed, a theme Diaz has developed before, particularly in Butterflies Have No Memories.

M. D’Angelo:

If Fabian and Joaquin are meant to be distinct individuals, the film is “merely” endless and pointless; I very much fear, alas, that Diaz intends them as class representatives, in which case it’s insultingly schematic verging on outright stupid.

V. Rizov:

Diaz is a formidable talent, eliciting flawlessly naturalistic performances and exhibiting casual visual panache. At 250 minutes, Norte is extremely watchable, and there’s the rub: it’s reasonable to expect transcendence at that sustained length, but instead we get a relatively straightforward tract on political abuses, Christian dogma and social inequity in Filipino society.


The Day Before The End (2016, Lav Diaz)

Also watched this short I found online. Not sure that Norte justified its apocalyptic subtitle, and this short is no Last Night either. Nice b/w photography but not too fun – I think I prefer narrative Lav to experimental. People are rehearsing Shakespeare in public, then wading through torrential rain. This has an IMDB entry, and its description is better than the actual movie: “In the year 2050, the Philippines braces for the coming of the fiercest storm ever to hit the country. And as wind and waters start to rage, poets wander the streets.”

yelling Shakespeare in unison: