Patron Request: ‘Taipei Story’

Taipei Story is the first film I’ve seen from Edward Yang. It’s also one of the ones I hear about least often. This is probably down to its lack of availability in America until very recently, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Discussion of Yang’s filmography is dominated by his meaty, massive epics: The four-hour A Brighter Summer Day and the three-hour Yi Yi, the latter of which was his first breakout hit in the West but was also his final work before his death in 2007. Taipei Story comes in at a more modest runtime, but that’s no reflection on its ambitions. Even early in his career (Taipei Story was his second feature) Yang had a confident enough command of his craft to aim conceptually high.

The film tells the twin stories of a couple with quite different personalities. Chin is a straight-laced businesswoman who is beset by a run of bad news. Her boyfriend Lung is an unfocused baseball-obsessive who seems a poor match for the hyper-driven Chin. Yang takes them places that deliberately twist one’s expectations of them, in a way that’s neither didactic nor punishingly playful. There’s a breezy naturalism to the script, and you see it as well as in the lead performances.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is how Yang’s formal ambitions almost oppose his more realistic screenplay. So much of the film is comprised of shots of two characters where the camera is pulled just slightly back, just enough to emphasize the walls around them. It makes things feel that much more like a set, or perhaps like a stage. The blocking, too, feels very theatrical at times. You get the sense you’re watching a blackbox production more than a film. I don’t mean that at all as a criticism. It’s an intriguingly contradictory approach.

I’m quite curious to see if it spills over into Yang’s later work, or if Taipei Story represents more of an early experimental period. I get the strong sense that he knew exactly what he was doing here, though. There’s little of the wild abandon one expects from a young filmmaker using all the tools at their disposal. This feels like the work of someone much more accomplished and experienced. That, more than anything, makes me want to see what his films looked like after he actually gained that accomplishment and experience. I hope to get the chance to check them out soon. For now, I’m quite pleased with Taipei Story.

Patron Request: ‘Blow Out’

I first watched Blow Out only a day or two after Elliot Rodger murdered 6 people and injured 14 more in the name of misogynist aggrievement. His manifesto and YouTube channel contained lengthy screeds against, among other things, women as a whole. He blamed women for his loneliness and isolation, citing his inability to enter or maintain romantic relationships. His ideas about gender, sexuality, and society were consistent with what, in 2019, we define as “incel” ideology. Straight, mostly white, young men whose alienation and depression are deliberately aggravated by internet cults and personalities.

Watching Blow Out with these killings swirling around in my mind, I couldn’t help but take away mainly a sense of disappointment in the film’s treatment of women. I was frustrated by what I felt was an unnecessary turn towards sex crime villainy in a film that introduces itself as a political conspiracy thriller. I was especially upset by the fate of Nancy Allen’s character in this context. Why, I wondered, did Blow Out have to be about a killer of women? To what end, beyond typically De Palma-esque salaciousness?

I expected to have a much different reaction to the film now, five years later. Beyond just having distance from that particular event, I’ve grown a lot since then in terms of my understanding of myself and my relationship with “problematic” media. I thought I’d be able to appreciate De Palma’s formal strengths more. I wish that was the case, but Blow Out still doesn’t really do it for me.

To be clear, I’m not as distraught by the film’s violence anymore. I think the notion of a government agent callously becoming a serial killer of women in order to cover up a single political assassination is intriguing in concept. De Palma clearly has a distaste for politics and politicians, and the John Lithgow character embodies it. The ease with which he plots to commit a series of rapes and murders merely to disguise the removal of a key witness in a previous killing is chilling. It speaks to the filmmaker’s obvious hatred for political institutions, a necessary trait in anyone making a conspiracy thriller.

Still, I found myself less than interested in De Palma’s style. While I certainly respect his idiosyncrasies and specific flourishes, he just doesn’t really excite me personally as a film artist. That’s not to say that I think he’s untalented, or even that Blow Out is a poorly directed movie. I just don’t really vibe with what he’s doing with, for instance, lens use or editing. As I’ve gotten older, I think my tastes have narrowed down past my ability to fully appreciate De Palma. Maybe that’s me being unfair. It’s just the way I look at him. I want to see in De Palma what so many other people do. Maybe someday I’ll see a film of his and he’ll finally click with me. Blow Out is still not that film.

Patron Request: ‘In This Corner of the World’

My patrons know me well. I knew nothing about In This Corner of the World going in, and I was delighted to discover that it’s something akin to an animated Nobuhiko Obayashi film. Besides the obvious medium-mixing creating stylistic parallels, its primary concerns — of the rough transition from wartime Japan to peacetime and the impact of the atomic bomb on the national psyche — also appear in a large number of Obayashi works. There are particular scenes that feel directly inspired by comments and observations made by Obayashi in interviews. I don’t know enough about the film’s production to say whether or not it was directly inspired by him, but the connections seem quite strong to me.

As I said, the most obvious similarities are stylistic. In This Corner of the World tends towards the straightforward for long stretches of its runtime, broken up by instances of war violence and tragedy. It’s mostly in these dramatic breaks where the film introduces a playful inclination to mix mediums. Obayashi, of course, does this with more directly cinematic elements like color palettes and green-screen. This film, being animated, uses watercolors and crayons and splotchy acrylics. At first it seems to disguise the violence being depicted through a childlike lens. As the film goes on, though, it seems more that it represents a necessary psychological distancing on the part of the central characters from the attacks they are subjected to. Viewing something through an abstracted lens makes the horrors easier to stomach, not for us the audience but for them the characters. It’s a graceful touch, and one that grants the film new emotional depth.

It’s thematically, too, that the film recalls Obayashi. In a recent interview about his latest film, Hanagatami, the director recalled having been told as a child by his neighbor that if Japan ever lost the war, the man would gladly help young Obayashi honorably kill himself. There was an ingrained notion in his generation that the country would rather commit mass suicide than allow itself to be conquered. When Japan didn’t just lose, but surrendered, Obayashi was surprised to learn that such an event never came. People just went on with their lives. He said he felt betrayed by the older generation, not because he wanted to die, but because he felt they had misled him into a nationalistic fervor that would never be followed through on. I saw this reflected in main character Suzu’s outburst of fury upon learning of Japan’s surrender. She lost most of her family and one of her hands to the war, only for her country to (from her perspective) decide none of it was worth it.

In This Corner of the World isn’t so didactic that I’d call it an anti-war film. Obayashi tends to be much plainer about his intentions in this regard, even as his style trends much further towards the avant-garde. There’s no broad moral lesson imparted by this film. Instead, it ends on a note of quiet hope. War takes everything from us, but once it’s over, perhaps we can pick up the pieces. Perhaps post-war life is not just possible but necessary, a societal obligation. We are responsible for picking one another out of the rubble and learning how to live together again. In This Corner of the World is a sweet, gentle, and elegantly made film. It’s one I foresee sticking with me for some time.

Patron Request: ‘Hard Boiled’

I can’t think of a movie with a better opening shot than Hard Boiled. A man pours a drink, downs it in one go, does a classic post-shot exhale, and all of a sudden pulls out a clarinet and starts to jam. On its face it’s a silly opening, but a no less electric one, a perfect establishment of the film’s typically John Woo tone. You can’t even really call it “absurdity” because for Woo, it’s all quite familiar territory. This is what you come to his films for, and Hard Boiled doesn’t disappoint.

I will say that I missed the homoerotic tension between Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in The Killer, and that’s not least of the reasons that I think I prefer that film overall. Tony Leung has terrific chemistry with Chow, but it’s missing the spark between him and Lee in Woo’s other film. Part of it, I think, is that Hard Boiled loses the cop/criminal dichotomy that made The Killer so exciting. In Hard Boiled, both men are cops, though one spends much of the film undercover and the two have to play at being enemies. It lacks that inherently tense dynamic of two men whose similarities and bond belie their opposing positions on “the law.”

It’s still a fun movie, of course. The action is far more heightened than The Killer, with more wild stunts and expressive images. Chow’s face totally caked in white dust, suddenly splashed with bright red blood. Blood seeping around the edges of a book and leaving perfect right-angled stains on a library table. Blood splattering against a sterile hospital window. Really it’s just a whole lot of blood, when you get down to it. Woo really understands the dramatic potential of the stuff in a way so many gorehound directors don’t. His blood is so striking because of how he uses it in clever juxtapositions with clean and serene settings. There’s nothing grimy or gritty about the world of a Woo film, just the actions of the people who live in it.

As I said, I prefer The Killer for certain elements, but Hard Boiled is just an absolute blast. Woo once said that while critics loved The Killer because “it mixed the action with the art,” it was “movie lovers” who adored Hard Boiled. I wish I could quibble with that assessment! I like the latter film quite a bit anyway. It’s just the tiniest bit of a comedown.

Patron Request: ‘The Outsiders’

My associations with S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders are entirely filtered through my memory of middle school English classes, which is to say that those associations aren’t entirely positive. You don’t need me to tell you that the way American public schools teach you how to approach art is, at best, misguided. I remember the insistence on pulling very bland and basic metaphors out of a text. A represents B, that sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, this led to me thinking of those books as rather bland and basic as well. That’s the prevailing memory with which I went into Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders. Turns out, it wasn’t a fair one.

To be clear, I don’t think this is the best Coppola film I’ve seen. I prefer the wild abandon of his later work, something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the Godfather-era prestige projects. There’s only a dash of the formal creativity he’d fully commit to in more recent years in The Outsiders. What’s there, particularly the instances of superimposition and brief distortion, are exciting and intriguing. But while this isn’t as austere as something like The Godfather or The Conversation, it’s still a bit plain.

The real standout here, of course, is the cast, comprised almost entirely of future stars. Matt Dillon is the clear MVP for me, beautifully embodying the tug between Dallas’ heartfelt paternal instincts and his more childish commitment to petty gang feuds. It’s a fiery performance, but one tempered by a genuine love for the younger kids in his care. His anguish at the death of one of them, and the consequences of his subsequent rampage, is the bloody heart of The Outsiders. More than Ponyboy’s loss of innocence (that rubber-stamped theme we learned about in middle school) the film made me feel for Dallas, a man who lost his long ago. So much of that is down to Dillon’s outstanding performance.

What I think is really admirable about the film is how Coppola refuses the melodramatic or the heightened. The image of these two warring aesthetics (sorry, gangs) can seem a little silly, and it’s easy to imagine a version of The Outsiders that leans into this and ends up resembling West Side Story minus the music. This might not have been a bad thing! But it would have been the easy thing. It’s easy to treat such big, loud emotions as something a little beyond reality. Coppola takes them entirely as real, and it’s to the film’s benefit. It’s true that it still seems a little absurd. But it’s the type of absurdity that arises genuinely from teenagers. That’s the key idea that Coppola hits on with The Outsiders. Yes, the way they see the world may seem ridiculous. But that doesn’t insulate them from tragedy.

Patron Request: ‘Redline’

Perhaps my expectations were skewed, but I was sort of expecting more racing in this movie about a big race. For all the discussion I’d heard about Redline and its bold art style and its experimental animation, I found that its narrative plays things far too safe. So much of the film’s runtime is taken up by a plodding second act, where the characters do little except hang around and wait for the race to start. While the alien designs and bizarre sci-fi cultures are amusing and cool, it’s not quite enough to buoy such an extended section. I wanted a thrill ride that never stopped to breathe. I got something far more restrained than I was promised.

Even once the eponymous race begins, the film keeps cutting away to military war rooms and enemy soldiers, breaking up the tension of the competition so severely that it doesn’t even seem to matter until the final minutes. I know that this film was made in a pre-Mad Max: Fury Road world, but it’s disappointing that the filmmakers didn’t feel confident enough to just make a 90-minute race sequence. When the film does focus entirely on racing, it’s exhilarating. The way the animation bends and stretches around the incredible speed of the drivers, suggesting that even an entirely hand-made visual medium strains to depict them, is outstanding.

It does lack the specificity of expressionism in the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer, its most obvious contemporary. That film’s experiments feel more deliberate, an explicit attempt at something rather than Redline’s more freeform style. I prefer Speed Racer by a wide margin, but I can’t criticize Redline for thinking outside the box. I just wish they’d thought a little further.

Still, there’s so much to like about this film. I already mentioned the design work, and it’s probably my favorite aspect. The film’s imagination seems limitless, unshackled by any kind of consistent sci-fi aesthetic. Aliens in Redline can look like anything. I so admire the creative freedom on display in this film. While I’m not entirely in love with the art style, the designs are tremendous.

I so wish I could be fully on board with Redline. It’s a hair’s breadth away from being a movie I could unreservedly love. There are certainly bits and pieces that I feel that way about. As a whole, though, there’s too much dragging the film down, too much fat untrimmed. There’s much to admire in Redline. It’s a shame that the whole film isn’t one of those things.

Patron Request: ‘Perfect Blue’

While Satoshi Kon was best known as a director for his surreal, often abstract imagery, I find his debut film Perfect Blue more interesting as an editing exercise. There are plenty of striking images here, to be sure. What’s far more striking to me, though, is the way the film uses the cut to depict the typically Kon-ian theme of the blurred boundary between reality and fiction. He uses edits to fool the audience into thinking there’s a clear divide between the two, with main character Mima often snapping out of her disturbing fantasies with the abruptness of a smash cut. Here on one side of the cut is illusion, here on the other side is the real world. This is what the film leads us to understand.

Later on, this begins to break down, and it becomes less and less clear which side is which. In one extended sequence, Mima spends several days blacking out while shooting scenes for her TV show, each time waking up in her bed with no memory of the previous day. The nature of her role on the show becomes intermingled with her real-life paranoia over a stalker known only as Mr. Me-Mania. The edits in this sequence introduce and replace possibly imagined elements with such a matter-of-fact rhythm that it’s difficult to piece together if any of it is real or false. Kon would show off his penchant for visual stylization in later films like Paprika, but it’s here in his earliest feature that he shows off an equally profound talent for manipulating film grammar.

What I find just as compelling is the film’s take on the Japanese film industry, and how it thrives on depicting sexual violence against women. In order to make it as an actress, Mima is expected to film a horrific rape scene. She convinces herself that she’s happy to do it, that it’ll just be pretend, but it’s shooting this scene that directly precedes the first splinter in her psyche. It’s a deeply upsetting scene, both for the content of the show-within-a-film and the casual callousness of the mostly faceless cast and crew. The actor playing Mima’s rapist does whisper an apology in her ear, but there’s no indication that they’ve endeavored to make her feel comfortable or safe. Her humanity is of no concern. It’s no wonder she starts to feel depersonalized. No one in her life seems to care about her as a person more than they care about her as a commercial (and fetishized) object. Her sense of self is gradually drained away, until she’s left reading a fake online diary purportedly written by her to discover what she did the day before. I know a lot of trans people who have a trans reading of Perfect Blue, and I imagine it has something to do with Mima’s confused sense of identity in the film’s later sections. She’s not herself, she’s only pretending to be. It makes the film’s final shot, where she looks in a mirror and declares, “I’m real,” surprisingly triumphant.

I liked Perfect Blue quite a bit. It’s not my favorite Kon work (that would still be his TV series Paranoia Agent) but it’s got just enough of the touches I love from him. He’d only ramp up those touches later in his career, so it’s interesting to see a version of Kon that seems somewhat restrained, mostly for the better.

Patron Request: ‘The Third Man’

For some reason (the reason is that I’m stupid) I always thought The Third Man was directed by Orson Welles rather than just starring him. I think my brain mixed it up with Touch of Evil. This doesn’t really have any bearing on the review. Just wanted to establish context for me actually knowing very little about movies.

What I found most immediately striking about The Third Man, beyond the near-constant dutch angles and bizarrely uptempo score, is the similarity in the structure of its first two acts to Citizen Kane. Both films feature an unassuming writer picking up the pieces after the death of a titanic personality by interviewing many of the people whose lives he touched. There are even one or two direct references to Kane. It feels at times like a pulpier riff on Welles’ film, bringing the detective elements of the story more to the forefront. The circumstances surrounding Kane’s death were a mystery only inasmuch as they represented the general lack of public knowledge about the man’s life. Harry Lime, on the other hand, was quite well-known; it’s the actions that caused the death itself which are obscured. It’s not a perfect parallel by any means. It’s just something that jumped out at me.

While the film’s unswerving dedication to its tilting cinematography is certainly admirable for the time, it comes off to me now as a bit overcooked. I wish director Carol Reed had come up with some other ways to express the film’s disjointed tension. As it stands, it plays the exact same trick over and over and over again. It’s not a bad trick! It’s just wearying after a while. I know I’m going to come across as a jumped-up know-nothing youngster, and that’s fine. This is just my personal reaction.

Orson, of course, is killer. Without question he is the best thing about the movie. He brings so much light and life into the thing with just the briefest initial glance. It’s like the film is infused with tremendous electricity from the first frame we see his face. That sly, cocksure, uptilted grin instantly transforms the film. It’s his movie from that moment on, even when he’s not on-screen. I expect he conquers even the first two-thirds on repeat viewings, when you know exactly what he’s going to bring to the table. I could talk about Orson all day. I just love him so dearly.

That being said, I wish I had more to say about The Third Man. Besides Orson, it doesn’t really intersect with a lot of my cinematic interests, at least not in the current moment. It’s quite a good film, obviously. It’s just not one that strikes me in any particularly interesting way.

Patron Request: ‘Frank’

If my Letterboxd rating is anything to go on, I actually liked Frank a bit more on rewatch than I did back in 2014. Only a bit, though. I also found aspects of it more troubling than I did five years ago. It’s not a very good film. But it’s the sort of film where I can very clearly see all the directions where it could have gone disastrously wrong, and didn’t. That’s something I can’t help but find myself appreciating.

It’s a story of eye-roll-inducing familiarity. A true outsider artist and his compatriots are tempted to sand the edges off their work for the sake of mainstream recognition by an ambitious new addition to their crew. In this case, though, the film takes on the perspective of that ambitious new addition. It follows Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon from his initial awe at the impossibly unique creative energies of Michael Fassbender’s Frank and his band to his eventual destruction of it through pushing them to change their sound in advance of a SXSW gig. It’s interesting, in theory, to watch as Jon’s desire to be liked by his new bandmates devolves into a desire to be liked by a widespread fanbase. The film does a decent job of seeding this idea from the beginning, with Jon facetiously bragging to his 18 Twitter followers all about the songs he’s “writing.” He’s clearly, from the beginning, a guy who cares more about being liked by as many people as possible than about making something personally meaningful. I quite liked the film’s handling of his arc, thin as it was at times. I especially liked that Frank hands its ending over to the reconciliation of the people Jon screwed, leaving Jon nothing to do but walk away. The film has a generous spirit that way.

Where things fall apart, and they do, is in the way the film deals with the subject of mental illness. I suppose it’s not all disastrous. The explanation for Frank’s insistence on wearing a big head at all times isn’t much of an explanation at all. There’s no deep dark trauma in his childhood that made him this way. It’s just how he’s always been. Jon and others have fun mythologizing Frank because of his outre appearance, but there’s no secret history here. He’s just Frank. The willingness to let someone’s mental health just be a part of them, without narrativized explication, is absolutely a good thing.

The problem is in the way the film treats “mental illness” as a nebulous concept and not an umbrella term. Frank “has mental illness” because of his head thing. Another bandmate, Don, “has it” because he used to have sex with mannequins. Jon brazenly assumes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara is mentally ill because….she’s a little mean, I guess? It doesn’t conceptualize mental illness as anything beyond “a thing you have or are that makes you kooky.” It makes the film shallow and borderline offensive. Frank has nothing of value to say about mental illness. In fact, it has nothing to say at all. It’s just a term to be bandied about to add a little gravitas to the characters’ quirkiness. It’s a truly terrible approach.

Still, I can’t help but admit that it could have been much, much worse. Frank is fine. It only ever toes the line in its most dangerous aspects. It’s not a good film. But was it ever going to be? I think when you’re working with such a tired premise, this might be as close to greatness as it’s possible to get. It’s sort of commendable that they made it this far. Perhaps this is too generous of me. But I’m a generous girl.

Patron Request: ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Was there ever a better match between artist and character than Orson Welles and John Falstaff? Both of them portly men of good humor, who delighted in life and friendship, beloved by those around them even when their prodding goes too far, boisterous and charming and ever engaging in trickery and falsehoods. It’s almost as though Welles formed his personality based on Falstaff. This would make his on-screen work in Chimes at Midnight a sort of performance-within-a-performance, or perhaps a literalization of his projected real-life persona. More likely is that Welles was the man Welles was always going to be, and that he saw in Falstaff a kindred spirit of unlikely familiarity. It’s easy to look at many Welles films and see the magnum opus in each, to find it each one a complete statement of artistic intent. Chimes at Midnight, though, feels more personal than most. This is Wellesfinding drama in himself.

I don’t want to be too literal in my analysis here. The relationship between Falstaff and Hal has been likened to the relationship between Welles and Hollywood — each of the formers once a darling of the latters, both were cruelly rejected after a fashion. I find this a little too pat, personally speaking. I don’t feel comfortable ascribing to Welles such an obvious metaphor. Still, one sees in Falstaff’s gleeful thievery Welles’ excitement at managing to fund his own work, a prospect which was tremendously difficult for almost his entire career. Even Chimes at Midnight itself paused production while Welles went in search of more funding. One imagines Welles chatting up investors with the same chortling, back-slapping amiableness as Falstaff does with everyone in the tavern, making himself irresistible as a cunning way of staying alive.

Welles just seems so at home in this role. He was one of the greatest screen actors of all time, but he never seemed more natural than he does here. Even speaking such elaborate and flowery Shakespeare dialogue, you get the sense that this is what he’s like all the time. It’s fun to compare it to his ostensibly more “real” performance in F for Fake. They feel cut from the same cloth. You can see the same sly smile on his face throughout both films. You get the same sense that you’re in the hands of a master trickster, but one who only wants to see you have a good time. Welles plays Falstaff as he played himself, and as by all accounts he was off-screen.

And of course, do I even need to say that his direction is outstanding? It seems redundant when discussing a Welles film. I was awestruck by those hazy shafts of light pouring into the castle, how they seemed to suggest Falstaff himself penetrating Hal’s doubts. Or how about the incredible battle scene, which sees Welles take on a rare sequence of melee action as though he was born to do it. The shots of dying men slopping around in the mud are unsettlingly grim. It shades Falstaff’s antics during the battle with a bit more uncertainty. We delight in his goofery, yes, but should we in the face of so much carnage and despair?

I adored Chimes at Midnight. It’s such a typically Wellesian entry in his filmography. Putting aside his phenomenal direction and the obvious greatness of the Shakespeare source, it’s just nice to watch Welles be himself for a couple hours. I get the same thing out of it that I get from F for Fake. It’s as simple as that I love watching Orson Welles, whether he’s on screen or behind the camera. He’s one of cinema history’s most enjoyable presences.