This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of the Fantasia 2021 Titles: The Suicide Squad & All the Moons and the Tribeca 2021 Feature Films: False Positive, Italian Studies, and Last Film Show. Followed by an Interview with Essie Davis conducted by Taylor Baker on her recent role as Bunny King, in the Tribeca 2021 Film, The Justice of Bunny King.
Streaming links for titles this episode
False Positive is currently available to stream on Hulu
Italian Studies, Last Film Show and The Justice of Bunny King are currently seeking distribution and are not yet available.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Queena Li’s debut feature Bipolar is without sounding like an intern at a movie studio writing script coverage. There are bits of Luis Bunuel’ and Maya Deren’s surrealism, bits of Jim Jarmusch’ and David Lynch’s absurdist take on the everyday man, and Ingmar Bergman’s existentialism. But all those combined never feels contrived or derivative of these great filmmakers. Rather, it is the announcement of a filmmaker coming to her own and making a splash.
Li’s film is an absurdist journey of self-actualization steeped in Buddhist philosophy that this reviewer is not familiar enough with to truly comprehend. But that prevents Li from putting her audience in her firm grasp because ultimately the film’s themes of self are universal enough to emotionally attach to. Film notes have described this as a take on the Orpheus myth. Both are about singer-songwriters who attempt to guide home someone who has descended into hell. In Bipolar’s cases, the singer-songwriter, the Girl, is played by actual Chinese-pop star, Leah Dou, and instead of Eurydice, she is guiding home a mystical colorful lobster who has been placed on display in a restaurant.
The film plays like a road trip movie, bouncing between flashbacks of the Girl’s life and the strange characters that she meets. The film takes tangents into the Girl’s fractured past, exposing the terrain of her mindscape. The people that she meets from Buddhist monk to a wig maker are manifestations of her fractured interiority. All this is told in odd non-sequitur philosophical musings which can sometimes feel too self-conscious for its own good but the style from Queena Li is steady enough to keep hold.
Her vision of the Chinese and Tibetan landscape is shot in beautiful widescreen digital monochrome along with the film’s deliberate pace which allows the viewer to get lost in it and slip into a dreamy state. And when there are the moments of neon colors, it is quite extraordinary. Flourishes like a quick montage from the lobster’s point of view is exhilarating in its style and daring.
The English title Bipolar might be the worst thing about the film. While it certainly makes sense to describe the fractured mindscape of the Girl, the baggage of the word distracts from what the film is really about. The Chinese title 只是一次偶然的旅行 (“Zhishi yici ouran de luxing”) means “Just an Accidental Trip” seems like the more apropos title, even with the awkward direct English translation. The textual purpose of this road trip is just a journey to actual self-actualization. As a performer, Leah Dou is a tantalizing and compassionate screen presence, like a young Maggie Cheung, making any hard to grasp freewheeling meandering moments tolerable.
Li is assured in ambition, vision, and most importantly voice. With Bipolar, Queena Li adds her name, along with Cao Jingling and Bi Gan, to the promising new generation of independent Chinese filmmakers.
Bipolar was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s seventh feature length film entitled Bergman Island is in essence a meta fictional island getaway trip to work on new creative projects for a couple. The titular island is called Fårö, Ingmar Bergman’s palatial getaway where he crafted some of his greatest masterpieces, and some of the world’s greatest moving images. The couple Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), are each artists if not artisans working at their next projects, battling through writer’s block, and more conventionally navigating their relationship whilst doing it. Occasionally when a film is meta, deferential and/or (in this case both) referential to previous work I find myself making comparisons to other previous works of art in an effort to reach toward understanding their contents, themes, and ideas to myself or to hold the idea(s) of them in my head from another angle, at arm’s reach rather than up close, or from afar rather than in the room with me. An alliterative title that keeps doing laps in my head is that of a rebranding of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, instead Mia Chris Fårö. Mia Wasikowska joins us in the last third of the film as Chris begins sharing her incomplete screenplay draft with Tony to try and get advice on whether he thinks there’s anything to it. Wasikowska seems to be Chris’s stand in and thus Mia Hansen-Løve’s stand in (If you’re willing to concede that Chris is Hansen-Løve’s stand in to begin with.) Are you losing track of the metaphor? Me too. That’s part of the game with these films within films about films, especially when those films are self aware of the source material.
It’s not clear to a final delineation of comprehension exactly what Hansen-Løve’s point is at the end of the film as Wasikowska’s Amy fades and Chris returns running through a field to hold her daughter. But the spirit of the idea, the ghost of the understanding is there. We spend time throughout the film learning of Bergman’s successes and failings, at one point in a dinner conversation Chris essentially asks, “Do you think he could have been the artist he was and also been a better father?” This is in reference to him having nine children from six mothers before the age of forty, to which her dinner companion scoffs in a jovial laugh and says something to the effect of “Do you think you can direct 24 films not to mention plays before 40 and spend your time changing diapers?”. There’s the ghost of a sacrifice there that Hansen-Løve herself is tackling, through Chris. What is more meaningful? The “work”? Or the family? And perhaps more deeply why can’t the family be the work? These aren’t revolutionary questions or ideations, they are eternal, Bergman himself explored them, but not in the same ways. In that way Hansen-Løve’s film isn’t just an homage using his name, it’s building on the foundation that predated Bergman but accenting itself on the very body of his labor. Revitalizing it in a way, paying deference in another, and more interestingly acknowledging the intimate relationship between an artist and an observer of the art as a relationship itself. Something that Chris herself seeks from Tony during her recounting of her screenplay whilst he receives phone calls, and treats it less deferentially than we’ve seen Chris treating Bergman’s work up to this point. What’s interesting though is it’s not a pointed finger from Hansen-Løve teaching a lesson about the absent minded husband not paying proper attention to his wife. Half a dozen times before this falling action we’ve seen Chris blow off Tony or not take his pieces of work seriously. It’s not that one is right or wrong, so much as acknowledging the intimacy that comes when someone truly connects with a piece, or pieces in a way that maps not only onto their identity but how they express themselves in the world.
All that serious thematic content may make it sound more dour and more stern or observational than it actually is. There’s a scene where Krieps’ Chris walks into the bathroom she and Tony share, the one from Scenes from a Marriage and she simply brushes her teeth. But as she’s brushing them she begins seemingly unprovoked to chortle with laughter, eventually reaching a near hysterical level. It’s not something everyone in the theater got to share, not most, not half, not even an eighth of an at capacity Vancouver Playhouse Theater understood the inside joke of. But those of us(maybe you, dear reader) who’d borne witness to some of the history of that location had a different elatory experience with Chris. The very idea that she was brushing her teeth in the same bathroom where Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s Marianne and Johan shot their masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage is simply hilarious. Fårö itself but especially the room Chris and Tony share, is practically a religious site for cinephiliacs, of which Hansen-Løve is clearly one. There’s shared history and through that shared emotions.
Hansen-Løve through Chris inquires as to the religiosity of Bergman himself, she and seemingly Hansen-Løve herself learned on her own trip or through her own study that he believed in ghosts before he passed. This idea of a ghost isn’t overtly dug into, it’s at the corners, the creases of the film, the backgrounds, a figure passing in front of window, or perhaps a Hansen-Løve surrogate named Chris played by Vicky Krieps having a joyful one might say soulful laugh at the very premise of brushing her teeth in the same bathroom Scenes from a Marriage was shot in.
Family ties us all together. Even with a strenuous relationship, family is always going to be a part of your life. Such is the case in Lee Seung-Woo’s Three Sisters. The eponymous three sisters gather on their father’s birthday. All of them carry scars and memories from their upbringing and the different lives they lead now. The only person keeping them from having a “normal” day is their little brother, who always seemed a bit “off” to them. He goes on to unravel their secretive past, which ends up amounting to nothing.
A common theme in Seung-Woo’s film, grand ideas and a longing to be profound, but juvenility and its flair for the pedantic weigh on this film like an anchor, not letting it move anywhere. The plot is the most intriguing part of the film, and that outstayed its welcome within the opening minutes of the film. Moon So-ri, Kim Sun-young, and Jang Yoon-ju do their best with what little they are given, I would love to see them given something far meatier and see how they elevate it. Their work here should be greatly commended, and at the same time condemn Seung-woo for not given these fantastic actors enough to work with.
Even the gorgeous cinematography, combined with the fantastic trio of So-ri, Sun-young, and Yoon-ju, and the melancholic score by Park Ki-heon are not enough to make Three Sisters worth a watch. I wish it was, I was very much looking forward to seeing this and it let me down. I wanted to love this film, I wanted to sing its praises, it seemed so interesting and cool. Unfortunately what I was given was a pedantic, childish film that has big aspirations and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Apartment complexes are places of relatively constant change. There might be a few tenants in any given building who’ve resided there for what seems like forever, but otherwise, tenants tend to come and then leave, all their belongings, pets, dramas, and peculiarities in tow. The Girl and the Spider, a poetic and precisely assembled German language art film, co-written and directed by the brothers Roman and Silvan Zürcher, isabout such moments of flux, and the emotions, dreams, and tensions exposed and discovered in periods of instability.
Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of one flat and into another, leaving her roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius) behind. A radiantly blue-eyed, cryptically expressive twenty- or thirty-something year-old , Mara is the focal point of The Girl and the Spider, but as the setting alternates between two different apartment buildings, myriad other flat dwellers, cats, dogs, and spiders included, win the Zürcher’s attention. Mara doesn’t help Lisa settle into her new place so much as she idles and observes as handymen, Lisa, Lisa’s mother, and neighbors come in and through Lisa’s new flat, introducing themselves to one another and exchanging glances and remarks that range from benign to hostile and flirtatious. The tone of communication between characters often changes on a dime. For example, one moment, Mara, for no easily discernible reason, is rudely declining to shake the hand of a woman neighbor who stops in to say hello, only to then, shortly thereafter, appear receptive to the woman’s furtively romantic advances. This is to say that the Zürcher’s aren’t operating in the domain of conventional drama or straight-forward storytelling, and they’re all the better for it.
Very much of a piece with The Strange Little Cat (2013), Roman Zürcher’s feature debut, The Girl and the Spider is a film of beguiling ambiguity and delightful idiosyncrasy. Carefully modulated acting is the first mark of the Zürcher’s unique film direction, but what further distinguishes their formal signature is their methodical framing, their lyrical focus on ordinary spaces and objects, and their musical sense of rhythm. At transitional moments in the film, a classical score accompanies montages of the items and household animals strewn about the flats that Lisa is moving in and out of. A yellow box cutter on a bathtub’s side, a blue sponge on hardwood floor, a cigarette sitting on a balcony ledge, a spider crawling up into the corner of room; some, if not most of the things are of minor narrative import in any obvious sense, but the Zurcher’s compositions suggest their worth considering all on their own. The Zürcher’s are formalists of the mundane, and very, very fine ones at that.
The Girl and the Spider Trailer
The Girl and the Spider was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
What happens when there’s a global epidemic and the film you’d been planning to shoot can’t be shot? For Sean Baker the answer to that question is Red Rocket. A long gestating idea that’s been percolating around his mind since researching for his 2012 film Starlet which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. In Sean’s own words Red Rocket is a story about a narcissistic suitcase pimp(though it sounds like you can’t be a suitcase pimp without the narcism) who’s more than just “kind of a piece of shit”.
Red Rocket starts out with a bruised Mikey Saber passed out in the back of a car headed from California to Texas. We don’t know who he is, why we’re entering the story with him now, or anything about him besides his visibly rough circumstances. Baker, true to his filmmaking core, is sharing a slice of life film with us again. This time it’s the life of an ex-pornstar and his return to Texas City, Texas. But once again Baker’s film is predicated upon characters on the margins of society, eking out an existence where films other his so rarely look.
After walking an unknown distance Mikey knocks on the door of a ramshackle home to request shelter from Lexi, a woman he seems to have a history with. Her mother Lil, played by Brenda Deiss, also lives with Lexi. It seems these two have been through this sort of thing before as they protest and run through the laundry list of reasons why he’s no good and can’t stay. So, naturally he stays, promising to pay for rent just as soon as he gets a job. Which he needs an extension on because he can’t go apply for jobs looking all beat up like he is now.
After surprisingly applying seemingly everywhere all around town Mikey goes to an old connection of his to see if he can deal marijuana for her again like he did when he was a kid, and slowly Mikey goes about building up a clientele and providing a high quality product that rather than take up the meat of the story with, Baker eschews to the margins of his narrative fabric with details visually shown without fanfare like Mikey always lugging around with his backpack which we know is full of bud or discussing the act of dealing itself but in very few scenes do we actually see him dealing. He is selling so much in fact that he’s able to pay for the month’s rent at once instead of weekly, which gives Lexi, Lil, and Mikey reason to celebrate. So naturally they go down to the local donut shop for the biggest coffees they serve and as many donuts as either Lexi or Lil desire. This is also the moment Mikey meets Rayleigh, a 17 year old girl who works the counter of the donut shop on Wednesday’s after school.
Mikey skeezily begins to build a relationship with Rayleigh who urges Mikey to call her Strawberry instead of Rayleigh. “That’s what my friends call me.” Mikey begins grooming this 17 year old girl immediately. Going to great lengths to convince her that he’s a hotshot agent from LA. Which leads to one of the funniest running gags in the film, Mikey tossing his bike in the back of Strawberry’s mother’s truck to drive him “home” which is a large and luxurious house that stands starkly against the ramshackle exterior of where he currently hangs his hat. He feigns walking to the door as she drives away and as soon as she turns the corner he turns around and begins pedaling his bike back to the home he’s sharing with Lexi and Lil. Whom Strawberry doesn’t know even exist.
Trey Edward Schults mainstay collaborator Drew Daniels serves as cinematographer for Red Rocket. His images are as sumptuous and bedecked in a shading of light and shadow as ever. Images that simply reek of excellence. If you were to put some of the night time exterior bike riding or truck sequences alongside the truck sequences from Waves it would be hard to tell which shot or sequence belongs in which film. Baker serves not only as Director but Editor of the film, per usual. He experiments more with comedy and horror conventions than I’ve previously seen in a way that while cartoonish breathes a different sense of movie magic into his film that previous entries haven’t had, at least not the films from him that I’ve seen. Which also makes some of the harder to chew on details just a bit more bearable. There’s a great deal of significant events, reveals, and plot generalities that sharing in detail would remove the quality of the experience from, so for now I’ll leave the details of Red Rocket at that. Red Rocket feels familiar but treads ground rarely explored with great craftsmanship and tonal command. As Sean Baker said when he introduced the film to us, “It is a dramedy so if you feel like laughing, please laugh!”
Stop motion animation has always been my favorite medium within animated storytelling. There’s a level of passion that is shown throughout stop motion animation that I appreciate above all else. From Wes Anderson’s entries in this genre to the Laika films, sans the occasional miss, stop motion has always always connected with me, including this film. Before this feature was released, director Phil Tippett released three shorts that cover roughly the first half of this film. These shorts were only a glimpse at the wonderful world that Tippett had crafted.
This world is very reminiscent of The Dark Crystal combined with Lord of the Rings. Explored by characters that do not speak, but words are not needed. The visual storytelling crafted is worth more than any words could conjure. You feel every speck of dirt, every footstep in the ground, the entire journey is felt. Which elevates it and adds an emotional core, all without speaking a word. A testament to Tippett’s mastery of his craft.
The film is not perfect though, the runtime of the film is relatively short, but it does begin to outstay its welcome. If 15-30 minutes were taken off the film it would be perfect. However, these moments that extend the runtime of the film are unnecessary to the story, such as the overextended opening take showing the world, I feel as though it would’ve been smarter to show the world as the assassin goes through the world as well. He is played as if this is his first time experiencing it and yet we feel as though we know more, instead, it should be the other way around. Even still, this is another fantastic stop-motion film and it was a joy to watch it.
Another year means another entry in Hong Sang-soo’s ever expanding oeuvre. In Front of Your Face is a sparse feature that, like most of Hong’s films, lulls the viewer into a sense of malaise to the daily trivialities of life, before the revelations change the context of the entire film. This has become quite a feature to many of Hong’s films, and really speaks to his interests in how we as people are able to go through the mundane when there is something earth shattering inside.
For most of the film’s 85-minute run time, In Front of Your Face follows Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong), an actress who returns to Korea from the United States. She spends the first half of the movie with her sickly sister, Jeongkok (Cho Yunhee), who is letting her stay in her apartment. The film moves at a leisurely pace, as a sort of a hang out film. They have breakfast, go on a walk, spill soup on a blouse. The interactions feel so mundane, less patient viewers might start squirming.
This very well might be the secret to Hong’s power as a filmmaker. Subtle tension becomes clearer as the film progresses especially with little flourishes, such as Sangkok’s internal monologue popping up from time to time allowing for little revelations. The grainy digital filmmaking that Hong applies also creates a sense of awkwardness between the two.
The second half of the film revolves around a meeting between Sangok and a filmmaker (played by Hong’s frequent stand-in Kwon Hae-hyo) who was enamored with Sangok’s previous acting work. Here the tone shifts. Instead of a tension of a secret held, there is a romantic tension between every pleasantry between the two. Hong is always at his best when filming two people drinking, slowly letting their guard down.
The worst comparison anyone has ever made about Hong’s movies is that he is like Woody Allen. The comparison is there because Hong often has stand-ins for himself, but while Woody Allen is steeped in his own self centered neuroses, Hong’s films are buoyed by melancholic musings of daily human interaction. They just happen to always be about actresses and directors, the people that he knows best. Even though Hong works at such a prolific pace, there is grace in his films. The title In Front of Your Face is the perfect encapsulation of the thesis of the film. And for viewers, Hong presents it right in front of their face. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to receive it.
Valdimar Jóhannsson solo directorial debut Lamb is a mountainous pastoral film that details the lives of two farmers. Maria and Ingvar, played by Noomi Rapace(Millennium Series and Prometheus) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason whose films most American audiences won’t know. Maria and Ingvar have barns full of sheep, a barnyard cat, a shepherd dog, and underlying the film–no child, no one around younger than them. We’re introduced to Maria and Ingvar as they deliver lambs in one of the barns on their property. The scene is one of truly bringing life into the world as the ewe is actually bearing each lamb into the world.
The wilderness, wind, and fog surrounding the land takes on character in the film, as the fog is essentially the first character we’re introduced to. It’s ideas of separation, isolation, and mixed realities breathes a tonal consistency to the film that saturates it allowing Valdimar control of how we as audience experience what is presented. Looking with the characters themselves through fog.
Maria and Ingvar take one of the lambs they deliver inside that first night. They nurse it, and put it in a crib with blankets, and somehow the lamb loses it’s four hoof bearing legs overnight in exchange for human appendages. Two hands and two legs. It’s a full faced absurdist piece of magical realism that goes essentially unquestioned despite Ingvar’s disapproving brother’s arrival into the film. Pétur turns up one night as it appears he has many times before, seeking shelter from his brother and Maria. Though he disapproves he doesn’t question the occurrence.
Valdimar Jóhannsson crafts an uncompromising tale, one of absurdism, lust, taboo, and folk tales. But fails to arrive at any particular tier of excitement, intrigue, or affection. We simply witness as bystanders the events of the film rather than being affected by them. That doesn’t take away from his atmospheric prowess creating a place we feel we can imagine, but it does take away from me carrying Lamb further than the drive home from the theater.
Lamb is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
Two years ago, Zhang Yimou’s One Second was pulled at the last minute from the Berlin International Film Festival. Many assumed this was due to last minute edits by the Chinese censors regarding the film’s content. This is especially surprising considering how Zhang has been criticized by contemporaries such as Jia Zhangke of being too sympathetic and a “sellout” to the Chinese government. Zhang was tasked with directing the opening ceremonies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It is easy to see why One Second could wrinkle Chinese authorities. Even in its current form, the political undertones are strong. Set during the Cultural Revolution in 1975, outside a desert town in northern China, a fugitive (Zhang Yi) escapes from a prison farm camp. His mission is to locate a film canister that contains a newsreel with the final known photo of his daughter. Before he is able to get to the canister, an orphan teen, Liu (Liu Haocun), steals the canister from the delivery man for reasons of her own. This starts a cartoon like back and forth between the two that makes up much of the first half of the film.
The second half becomes more sentimental as the two, learning of each other’s motivations form an alliance of sorts as the reel makes the town albeit in a rough state. This begins the saccharine love of cinema portion of the film, as the whole town is recruited to clean and unspool the roughened footage so that everyone can gather to watch a screening of the famous Chinese film Heroic Sons and Daughters.
It seems like every great filmmaker wants to make a film like this – one about the magic of cinema. Zhang relishes the images of the flickering screen on the faces of the rural townsfolk, hearkening back to other movies of this ilk like Cinema Paradiso. Zhang, himself, openly calls this film a love letter to cinema. Mileage may vary on this aspect, but Zhang certainly knows how to tug at the heartstrings.
Ultimately, the heart of the film, and like most of Zhang’s best films, is the coming together of two lost souls. He shoots the film with his signature expansive style, especially in the desert, implementing the grandiosity of his wu xia epics to this emotional intimate story. If all of this seems warmly nostalgic, underneath the central performance of Zhang Yi also contains a profound anger.
As it currently stands, we have no way of knowing how the original 2019 film was reedited. But the film still contains notes of subversion albeit subtle. Propaganda in songs, dress, the anonymity of character names, and the casualness of authority overpowering town folks and prisoners all points to the painful history of the Cultural Revolution. The nostalgia is certainly tinged by the darkness of Chinese history.
Still, much like Zhang’s recent body of work, his proclivities to sentimentality can be overpowering. Zhang is ultimately a cornball, albeit one with an unbelievably cinematic eye.