A Brief Impression of The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

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Rewatch confirms what I’ve suspected for awhile: this is Martin Scorsese’s very best movie . . . poor Newland Archer, always thinking he’s the smartest person in the room when in fact he’s the dumbest . . . and what rooms, those sweeping tracking shots, rooms cluttered with objects, the conspicuous wealth of the 1870s, generated on the backs of the wholly absent poor . . . a world of unimaginable riches and power, so seductive, its occupants entirely unaware of its exceptionality: a simple matter of fact that their universe is the way it is because they are destined to lead it, their system of unexpressed rules governing their every motion . . . Archer thinks he understands it, and looks down upon those he doesn’t understand, those poor simple women who lack his self-awareness, his understanding of the ritual . . . his late realizations that not only is he caught in a web of conspiracy, that his darkest secrets are public knowledge and, ultimately, that his apparently vacant wife his a far more deft manipulator of the levers of power than he could ever hope to be . . . Archer ultimately refuses freedom, he’s old-fashioned, preferring to live in his constructed reality (ala Shutter Island or Solaris), lacking the imagination to step outside the social order imposed upon him . . . Day-Lewis and Ryder are brilliant of course: he taking a character that should be insufferable and making him a tragic hero, a foolish, arrogant prig who fails in every pathetic scheme, yet is ultimately almost admirable in his refusal to be anything other than what he is; she hiding May’s depths behind bright eyes and a sunny smile, never cracking but always twisting the knife, bending the world with a will far stronger than Archer can imagine . . . Pfeiffer might be a weak link, saying her lines as if she’s always out of breath, but perhaps that’s just the way Archer sees the Countess, her eyes betray a steeliness and wry arrogance that belies Archer’s view of her as the embodiment of his desires for sex and freedom . . . in a film so much about the unspoken rules and systems that underlie an excess of conversation, actors that play on multiple levels are essential, and no actors contains more multitudes than Daniel Day-Lewis . . . Scorsese captures it all of course, the beauty (that shot of the light house on the shore!), the isolation (that cube mansion in the middle of an undeveloped Manhattan) and the seductive power of the objects that surround them, the food, the cutlery, the hands of stone, such a luscious prison . . . and the dissolves, oh wow, the dissolves . . .

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This Week in Rankings

It’s been almost two months since the last rankings update. In that time I posted my annual Top 100 Films of All-Time list and covered the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. On The George Sanders Show we did our annual Top Tens episode, covered the release of Johnnie To’s Office on location and recorded two podcasts in Canada. At Seattle Screen Scene we had extensive coverage of the festival as well, and before that I wrote about the Jackie Chan/John Cusack film Dragon Blade, M. Night Shyamalan’s welcome return The Visit, the bittersweet Chinese film Go Away, Mr. Tumor, Joe Swanberg’s  mediocre Digging for Fire, Korean action film Memories of the Sword and two terrific American romantic comedies, Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short comments or capsule reviews for them can be found over at letterboxd.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming) – 8, 1939
Voyage in Italy (Roberto Rossellini) – 3, 1954
The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey) – 3, 1968
Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph) – 10, 1985
The Civil War (Ken Burns) – 9, 1990

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese) – 1, 1993
The Mirror (Jafar Panahi) – 7, 1997
The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung) – 16, 1997
The Transporter (Corey Yuen) – 33, 2002
Transporter 2 (Louis Leterrier) – 57, 2005

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) – 15, 2009
Weekend (Andrew Haigh) – 35, 2011
A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk) – 11, 2014
She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich) – 19, 2014
Regarding Susan Sontag (Nancy D. Kates) – 77, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott) – 87, 2014
The Dream of Shahrazad (Francois Verster) – 98, 2014
Love is All (Kim Longinotto) – 108, 2014
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 1, 2015
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin) – 3, 2015

88:88 (Isiah Medina) – 6, 2015
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke) – 9, 2015
Arabian Nights Volume 2: The Desolate One (Miguel Gomes) – 10, 2015
The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen) – 11, 2015
Li Wen at East Lake (Luo Li) – 12, 2015

Office (Johnnie To) – 13, 2015
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan) – 14, 2015
Taxi (Jafar Panahi) – 15, 2015
Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang) – 16, 2015
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo) – 17, 2015

Port of Call (Philip Yung) – 19, 2015
The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan) – 20, 2015
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry) – 21, 2015
A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung) – 22, 2015
45 Years (Andrew Haigh) – 23, 2015

Go Away, Mr. Tumor (Han Yan) – 24, 2015
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin) – 26, 2015
The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán) – 27, 2015
Topophilia (Peter Bo Rappmund) – 29, 2015
Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One (Miguel Gomes) – 32, 2015

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu) – 33, 2015
Greed; Ghost Light (Kim Nakyung) – 34, 2015
The Exquisite Corpus (Peter Tscherkassky) – 35, 2015
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce) – 39, 2015
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) – 44, 2015
Wondrous Boccaccio (The Taviani Brothers) – 45, 2015

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena) – 49, 2015
Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg) – 50, 2015
Magicarena (Andrea Prandstraller & Niccolò Bruna) – 51, 2015
Memories of the Sword (Park Heung-shik) – 52, 2015
What Happened in Past Dragon Year (Sun Xun) – 53, 2015
It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting) – 57, 2015

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc-jin) – 58, 2015
Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee) – 59, 2015
Tandem (King Palisoc) – 61, 2015
The Transporter Refueled (Camille Delamarre) – 62, 2015
Argentina (Carlos Saura) – 63, 2015

VIFF 2015: The Last Five Days

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival


I’ve been home from Vancouver for almost a week now, still suffering from the cold I catch there every year (something unhealthy about not eating properly, drinking copious amounts of caffeine and sharing breathing space with hundreds of other people ten hours a day for a week). Since my report on a few films from the First Four Days of the festival, we covered a number of movies on a second episode of The George Sanders Show, namely Right Now Wrong Then, The Assassin, Taxi, A Matter of Interpretation, Landfill Harmonic, The Dream of Shahrazad and Arabian Nights. Of the 29 features and 4 shorts I saw during my nine days in Vancouver, there are a few more standouts I want to mention.

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is one of the more polarizing films of the year. It marks a radical shift in Jia’s formal technique, abandoning the long-shot/long-take aesthetic that has made him one of the preeminent examples of 21st Century Asian Minimalism. Instead, working with his longtime cinematographer, the artist Yu Lik-wai, Jia films in a conventional mainstream style: the camera moves, he edits within a scene and we get close-ups of the actors. This is in keeping with the broad melodrama of the story’s construction. A schematic story of a love triangle told in three different time periods, Mountains is the most baldly emotional movie Jia has yet made. His first use of close-ups reveals what we long-suspected but that the old long shots tended to obscure, namely that Zhao Tao is one of the great actors of her generation. Her performance here is nothing less than phenomenal. In the first story, set in 1999, she’s the pivot point of a love triangle with two men, one a poor coal miner, the other an aspiring capitalist. She ultimately chooses the rich man, which leads to the shattering heartbreaks of the second chapter, set in 2014, a story itself split in two halves, first about the miner (and his wife), then about Zhao and her now-estranged son, who is sent home to attend his grandfather’s funeral. The third story, set in 2025, follows the son, now emigrated to Australia where he has forgotten his Chinese past, the language, and even his mother. He connects with another Chinese immigrant, his much older teacher (played by Sylvia Chang), and the Oedipal nature of their relationship is no less subtle than the boy’s name (he was aspirationally christened “Dollar” by his ludicrous father).

This third section has come under fire (usually under the vaguely racist rubric of “Jia can’t direct in English”) for its obvious schematicism and the artificiality of Dong Zijian’s performance as Dollar. I suspect this is largely a category error, that we’re used to Jia making withdrawn, somewhat obscure films like Platform and Still Life, films whose equally schematic melodrama is hidden behind long takes and a lack of emotionally direct dialogue. The issues Jia is addresses are not new, no one has more obsessively followed the dislocations and disruptions of the Chinese family in the wake of the imperatives of modern capitalism than he has over the past 20 years. But as with his previous film, A Touch of Sin, a series of violent short stories loosely related to the Chinese action film tradition (though not really wuxia in particular), he’s now addressing those issues in a more conventionally generic mode. The mix of reality and surreality has long been a part of Jia’s work, from the flash animation and theme park environment of The World to the alien craft and bridge light romanticism of Still Life, resting uneasily alongside documentary footage of China’s changing landscapes (see also his actual documentaries 24 City and I Wish I Knew, which audaciously mix actorly performances into their real life accounts), it’s only now that the surrealism has overtaken an entire narrative. And there is no filmic form more surreal than the classical melodrama. And, if you’re paying attention to the world today and where it’s headed, it only seems logical that the absurd is the only true way to capture it. This is Jia’s lunatic masterpiece.

Sylvia Chang is terrific, as usual in Mountains May Depart, even better than she is in Johnnie To’s Office, which she co-adapted from her own play. But that’s not all she’s had for us in 2015, she also directed Murmur of the Hearts, like Mountains a family melodrama taking place across multiple time periods. It stars Isabella Leong, making a long-awaited return to the screen after several years in retirement following her marriage in 2008 (don’t miss her in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Isabella from 2006). She plays a young woman dating an aspiring boxer. The boxer has vision problems, and Isabella, an artist, is haunted by memories of her parents, who split up when she was a child, which also separated her from her brother. We also meet the brother, now a tour guide on the small island off the coast of Taiwan where they grew up. Chang deftly weaves together the characters’ present lives and memories of their parents with a splash of magic realism in the form of a mermaid and a quite fashionable ghost/bartender. It’s a more conventional art house movie than Mountains, in that it’s the kind of Taiwanese film that seems rather inexplicable for the first 40 minutes or so and, as everything becomes clear and all the various connections are resolved, becomes deeply moving as the story comes together with a satisfying click. It isn’t as meta-cinematic as the other Chang-directed films I’ve seen (the very good Tempting Heart and 20 30 40), but it’s warm and sweet and quite lovely, a nice flipside to the acidic Office.


Yet another Chinese film blurring the boundaries between past and present is Kaili Blues, from first-time director Bi Gan.  A middle aged man, a doctor, helps watch over his nephew while his brother, the boy’s father, gambles and gets himself in trouble. When he learns that his brother may have sold the boy in another town, he heads out to bring him home. But what he finds there is an inexplicable kind of temporal loop, chronicled in a breath-taking 40+ minute single-shot, as the man, his driver, the driver’s girlfriend, a local band, and various other characters wander around a river spanning village.  The doctor’s past, and that of his fellow doctor, now an elderly woman, seemingly come to life in the village, along with his nephew’s future. There’s no apparent rationale for the loop, it’s simply a world where the past, present and future exist together, an endless cycle repeating itself, or the infinite possibilities of an unknowable universe. It was the most satisfyingly confounding film of the festival and an audacious debut, one that in past years would have earned its director a Dragons & Tigers award.

Moving away from China but sticking with the experimental, I lastly want to mention a trio of films. Portuguese director Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance is a semi-narrative short about smugglers waiting in the Galician borderland while cops lie in wait for them. Patiño films the whole thing in negative, but not black and white, rather mind-blowingly colored. Purples and yellows dominate the inverted landscape, with gorgeous drops of rain bursting from a stream, while the people stand still, haunting the otherworldly spaces. It’s a documentary vision of our Earth as filmed from the land of ghosts. I’ve never seen anything like it. Paired with it was Topophilia, by director Peter Bo Rappmund. Painstakingly assembled out of thousands of still images covering the length of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, it’s a fascinating rumination of the effect of technology on environment, and the way the two seem to meld together. With an eerily assaultive soundtrack largely built out of the sounds of the pipeline itself, the impact of the machinery on the natural world is undeniable, and yet, the natural world goes on all around it, taking no notice. Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead is another film about machinery, chronicling the life of a massive transport ship as it traverses the Mediterranean. Here gives us the kind of otherworldly closeups familiar from Leviathan, while putting more emphasis on the ways the ship technology dwarfs the humans that work within it. A long final section echoes with recordings of the workers as they call home, leaving messages, talking to distant wives, mothers, children, living ghosts in the machine.

VIFF 2015: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin


If you wanted to design to film perfectly and specifically for me, it would probably be something like The Assassin. A film by my favorite contemporary filmmaker, one from whom I spent months earlier this year studying and writing about in detail for a theatrical retrospective, working in one of my favorite film genres, the one I’ve spent the better part of the last three years exploring. There was simply no way this wasn’t going to be a movie I liked. But since whether a critic likes a film or not is easily the least interesting aspect of any decent review, thankfully that task is quickly disposed with and we can proceed to more interesting concerns, the what and why of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest, his first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, is set in the late Tang Dynasty period, starring Shu Qi as a young woman who returns home after ten years as a killer-in-training to wreak vengeance on the local ruler. The film follows a typical wuxia plot structure, with motivations gradually revealed and complicated, schemes exposed, punctuated by regularly occurring fight sequence set-pieces. But Hou has adapted that structure to his own unique rhythm, presenting a languid, patient narrative of long takes exploring lush sets and landscapes. It’s the stillest action movie there’s ever been.
In tone the closest analogue in Hou’s previous work might be Millennium Mambo, a hypnotic film that could seemingly spin on forever. Right up until the director’s credit came on screen, I kept expecting another hour of narrative. I had no idea how much time was passing, or what the shape of the story was, until it ended. This is one of the distinct pleasures of some of Hou’s best work, from The Time to Live, The Time to Die to Goodbye South Goodbye to Flight of the Red Balloon. Looked at in total, however, the plot could easily be that of a late 70s Chor Yuen film (but not at all a Chang Cheh film, for a number of reasons, the gender of the protagonist and the ultimate optimism of the work first among them). It’s just that Hou refuses to match the pace of the film to the complexity of the story. He teases out exposition in long dialogue scenes, but shoots those scenes with such intricate beauty that it’s hard to pay attention to the words being spoken when the pictures are so fascinating. An example: a long, central scene between Chang Chen’s governor (the target of the assassination plot) and his favorite concubine explains much of the Shu Qi character’s past and the volatile tangle of competing interests that lead to his family breaking off Chang’s engagement with Shu in favor of another woman, a humiliation which lead to Shu’s exile. It also demonstrates the bond between Chang and the concubine, which motivates a further complication in the plot, as Chang’s wife has a murderous scheme of her own. But rather than the actors, who form a loving triangle in the center middle distance of the frame and remain mostly still, our eye is drawn to the edges of the frame. The left is dominated by a line of three flames, reflections of candle lights that appear to have no on-screen referent; the right by a curtain that billows in and out throughout the scene, blown by a similarly unsourced wind, shrouding the actors in gauze when it blows in, revealing them in crystal clarity when it blows out. You get so lost in the image, it’s easy to miss the thread of the plot.

But plot there is (this is not, as my pal Neil so tweeted, a film “about a bunch of veils and curtains”). Hou’s films, from The Boys from Fengkuei on, have a distinctly languid place, regardless of how much actually occurs in the narrative. Flowers of Shanghai is an opium dream of a film, one in which there’s almost no dramatic action, a fair amount in dialogue and a torrent of emotional churning under the surface. A City of Sadness is a multi-layered, multi-character historical epic. Millennium Mambo and The Puppetmaster are narrated tales, one about the entropic life of a club girl in modern Taipei, the other a 50 year biopic about a man caught up in the sweep of history. In mood and pace the films are the same, with long single take scenes of apparently mundane and occasionally inexplicable behavior drawing us into the feel of the protagonists’ world, an effect amplified by the highly subjective nature of the narration. That subjectivity is the essential element in all of Hou’s films, as he is ever seeking to capture an individual’s experience of the world, and to inspire a deep empathy in the audience. His films eliminate any sense of moral judgment: whatever bad or dumb things his heroes may do, he doesn’t allow us any distance from them. We are inside them, left to understand their lives as they do. The Assassin is no different in this respect. Its dense plot of maneuvering factions in the present inspired by the secret schemes of the past is revealed slowly, like Flowers almost entirely in dialogue. Our identification with Shu Qi’s hero is established in a new way, however. Rather than linger over lengthy shots of Shu at work or in repose, as in Mambo, we instead observe things as she is observing them. Not strictly from her point of view, but often Hou will show us a long scene of character interaction only to cut at the end to Shu observing silently from some hiding spot (invisibly ninja-style in the rafters, for example). Her motivations remain opaque through the length of the film, right up until the very end we don’t really know what she wants or how she plans to go about achieving it. Of course, when that “Directed By” credit does appear on-screen, everything makes perfect sense.

What she ends up achieving is a bold rejection of the traditional wuxia narrative, the first major development in the genre in decades. This century’s art house wuxia films have all taken the form of homage, usually to King Hu. A mix of spectacular and (more importantly perhaps) spectacularly shot action with a bit of Buddhism and above all a devotion to a code of honor that demands personal unhappiness, films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and The Grandmaster follow the strictly established rules of the genre, which itself is as old as cinema and reaches back through centuries of Chinese literature. For all their technical facility, they remain merely highly polished variations on Hu’s work from the 1970s, while lacking the sense of experimentation that makes films like A Touch of Zen or Legend of the Mountain so unfathomable to this day. There hasn’t really been anything new in the genre since Hu’s titanic pair of of Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979. That is, until now (unless you count Tsui Hark’s various variations on the genre, which add to the traditional form outlandish special effects, breath-taking speed and an anarchic wit. At their core, though, they’re still traditional narratives). Obviously in adapting his highly idiosyncratic style to the genre, Hou was bound to come up with something interesting. But I’m surprised at how much he actually bent his career-long aesthetic. In The Assassin, Hou cuts within a scene, he uses different film stocks and aspect ratios (it’s all in the archaic 1.33 ratio (which emphasizes the verticality of traditional Chinese painting, the influence of which is felt strongly in the landscape scenes, aided immeasurably by the natural beauty of China’s landscapes and fortuitous fogs rolling in to mimic the vast negative spaces so distinctive in that art form), like last year’s Horse Money and Jauja, but for two flashback shots, on slightly grainier film stock, which are 1.85, possibly to accommodate the shape of a long musical instrument), he has insert shots, and the camera moves into the frame, all techniques he’d abandoned 30 years ago when he moved from mainstream romantic comedies into art house minimalism. But as the demands of wuxia changed Hou, so did Hou change wuxia. There are fight scenes in The Assassin, but they are quick. Elegant and brief, they are over before the heroes of a Lau Kar-leung film would be even a little bit warmed-up. The de-emphasis on action is vital: Shu Qi is an assassin who rejects assassination, a wuxia knight-errant who rejects the world of violence, the jianghu. She rejects everything that defines a wuxia hero: the whole Confucian edifice of blind obedience to ones master, of defining honor as the strict following of a code that has little to do with morality or even common sense, the reification of abstract concepts over basic human happiness (the film also enacts a recurring opposition in Hou’s work, that of the country and city, as Shu leaves the lushly ornate interiors of imperial life for the rough open skies of the country and an itinerant village existence). The fact that she’s a woman isn’t especially unusual, there have been female warriors in wuxia stories for centuries, and they’ve been consistently represented on-screen. But usually they behave exactly the same as the male characters, while occasionally falling victim to romantic desires as well. Shu avoids the tragic fate of a Zhang Ziyi character by doing something Zhang never could, despite the obvious evils or inhumanity of her various masters. Shu, in explicitly rejecting everything the wuxia ethos stands for, turns the wuxia hero from a tragic figure into a truly inspirational one. She’s the first one I’ve ever seen that actually succeeds in reinventing the world, in making it a more perfect place.