Film Comment

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2016

Review: The Mermaid February 22, 2016

After only 12 days in release, Stephen Chow’s comic fantasy The Mermaid became China’s top-grossing film of all time, at $375 million and counting. It is a testament to the remarkable and enduring popularity of Chow, an actor and director who has risen from Hong Kong “nonsense” comedies to become one of the most bankable names across Asia. Receiving a slow U.S. rollout from Sony Pictures, The Mermaid has all of the Chow hallmarks: it is an ebullient underdog story punctuated with cartoonishly violent slapstick, here pitting a group of militant mermaids against the developers who are destroying their habitat.

Interview: Adam McKay February 1, 2016

Last month, the man who had Will Ferrell plop his nutsack on a drum set in Step Brothers was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award for The Big Short, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s chronicle of financial meltdown. What looks like an unlikely path to respectability for writer-director Adam McKay is actually a logical extension of his subversive talents. McKay has always been smart about being dumb, ever since co-founding the improvisational comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, right on through his sneakily satiric features with Ferrell. And what could be dumber—and more ripe for subversive scrutiny—than the market-bubble demolition of the U.S. economic infrastructure?

 

2015

Festivals: To Save and Project at MoMA November 3, 2015

The history of film is a history of loss, of studio archives dumped into the Pacific and nitrate prints melted down for silver. That is why the Museum of Modern Art’s festival of film preservation, To Save and Project, feels like a yearly miracle. Now in its 13th edition, it celebrates the work of film archives the world over, and though the fest has slimmed down from previous years, it still offers a cornucopia of heretofore unknown pleasures that range from silent German monster movies and Clara Bow comedies all the way to experimental documentaries and Canadian pulp pastiches.

Rep Diary: Nancy Carroll September 17, 2015

The coming of sound made Nancy Carroll a short-lived star. One of the first women to sing and dance on a studio sound stage (Abie’s Irish Rose, 28), Carroll was recruited from the New York City theater, where she had been performing since her teenage years. A vibrant presence in early talkies, she saw her career decline through the 1930s, where, rightly or not, she earned a reputation of being “difficult.” She bristled at being stereotyped as nothing but a musical ingénue, but that’s almost the only part studios would give her. Following a few flops, Carroll’s stint as a leading lady was over by 1936.

Review: Office September 14, 2015

“Are you fine being a corporate slave? Are you fine working until you drop?” Though the lines sound like a quote from the recent New York Times exposé of Amazon’s punitive workplace policies, it’s actually the chorus to a peppy tune in the new Chinese musical Office, directed by Johnnie To. This boldly designed experiment creates a Lucite world of total visibility: offices, homes, and restaurants are all rendered as translucent cubes through which the panicky financial sector circulates, burning off stress through song. Office follows the machinations of a multinational corporation trying to go public in 2008, just as Lehman Brothers was going bankrupt. The lives of everyone from the chairman down to the entry-level drones are sent into upheaval as the world economy flushes down the tubes.

Festivals: NYAFF June 24, 2015

Nearing its 15-year anniversary, the New York Asian Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center has established itself as a cultural subverter. Eschewing the art-house fare that populates the prestige fests, the NYAFF promotes the artistry of genre, giving slots to martial-arts badminton movies (Full Strike), hip-hop musicals (Tokyo Tribe), and classic Hong Kong bullet ballets (City on Fire, with Ringo Lam in town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award). These are the types of films promoted in NYAFF’s promotional trailers and that have driven its continued success. But hidden within this year’s 54-feature lineup are a group of serious-minded, adult-themed dramas that were some of the strongest titles available to preview—the kind of films it’s now difficult to make in Hollywood. These are movies too mainstream to premiere at Cannes and too tame to appeal to the VOD/DTV market, and therefore unlikely to get distribution beyond their borders.

Rep Diary: Early Japanese Talkies June 1, 2015

“The proverb says that beautiful people do not live long, but it also seems that good people have short lives. Naruse, Takizawa, Mizu-san, Inoue Shin—they all died much too soon,” Akira Kurosawa wrote in Something Like an Autobiography. “I must say the same for directors Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Sadao Yamanaka, and Shiro Toyoda. For them too, I have to say ‘Good person, short life.’ But I am probably just being sentimental about those I have lost.”

The men whom Kurosawa was mourning were all filmmaking pioneers who worked throughout the transition from silent to sound film. While nearly all of Hollywood had embraced sound by 1930, in Japan the change lasted through 1936 and was a period of restless innovation. The Early Japanese Talkies series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening a diverse sampling of this pivotal period, spanning the major studios of Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory).

Notebook: Karl Ove Knausgaard on The Idiots May 11, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle lays bare every facet of the writer’s life, from his favorite bands to the humiliating details of his sexual failures. Perhaps the only thing we aren’t privy to are his opinions on cinema, which is why it was such an unusual pleasure to hear him talk about Lars von Trier’s 1998 film The Idiots, shown as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Print Screen series.

2014

Festivals: Migrating Forms December 10, 2014

The Migrating Forms festival of film and video is a cinephilic matchmaker, joining the hands of art-gallery devotees and repertory cinema denizens in moving-image harmony. Whether it’s gallery installations or genre entries, shorts or features, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry try to give everything equal pride of place. This year’s edition features work by 30 artists from 12 countries, ranging from Rachel Rose’s microscopic ruminations on mortality to Cory Arcangel’s deep browse through the Subway sandwich chain’s bizarre online empire, while also finding room for the scrappy postapocalyptic sci-fi of Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan.

Review: Dumb and Dumber To November 14, 2014

Twenty years off has not dimmed the dimwittedness of Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), the morons of Dumb and Dumber and now its sequel. Though their faces have become riven with wrinkles and folds of fat since their debut in 1994, age has granted them not wisdom but instead short-term memory loss, allowing them a kind of radical freedom to forgive each other’s formidable flaws. The only thing they never forget is their affection for each other, lending their infantile bond a sweetness that is central to Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s bodily-fluid-rich oeuvre.

Rep Diary: Shark Monroe & To the Last Man November 12, 2014

Every film contains its own private history: of career trajectories, artistic temperaments, and the texture of its landscapes. When the film is lost or unseen, that history goes dark with it. The To Save and Project film preservation series at the Museum of Modern Art is an annual attempt to preserve and illuminate some of what has disappeared from view. On a single evening during the 12th edition, I discovered William S. Hart putting his persona to the test in the high-seas adventure Shark Monroe (1918), slotting his phenomenally popular Western stoicism into different kinds of action; and Henry Hathaway shepherding nascent stars Randolph Scott and Shirley Temple in the pre-code B-Western To the Last Man (33), a sprightly Romeo and Juliet–Zane Grey mash-up shot in the California mountains.

Interview: Lawrence Block September 12, 2014

In 1976, the alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder solved his first murder as an unlicensed private investigator. He continued closing unsavory cases for 35 years, a restless witness to the changing fortunes and crime rates of New York City. Scudder is the fictional creation of Lawrence Block, a prolific storyteller and a master detailer of the bars, diners, and subways of New York, those mute witnesses to so much death. Block has written 17 Matthew Scudder books so far, tracking this brooding sad sack through Alcoholics Anonymous and his deepening relationship with lover (and prostitute) Elaine. The books add up to more than a series of closed cases, and to something like an entire life lived.

Rep Diary: Forgotten Faces August 19, 2014

Seventy-five percent of Hollywood’s silent film output is lost forever, dumped in the ocean, burned as scrap, or consigned to some other form of ignoble oblivion. Every discovery and restoration, then, arrives as a miraculous gift. Such is especially the case with the 1928 crime melodrama Forgotten Faces, one of the highlights of this year’s Capitolfest, the annual showcase of classic film in Rome, New York.

Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival June 23, 2014

Entering its 13th year, the New York Asian Film Festival is no longer a brazen upstart. Now it’s something of an institution, having migrated from the dank cinephilic swamps of Anthology Film Archives to the rarified air of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, where this edition runs from June 27 to July 14. But it has retained its proselytizing spirit, stumping for disreputable genre titles past and present and giving them the gala treatment.

Review: Gebo and the Shadow May 28, 2014

A wayward son returns home, bringing doom with him. “I am he that causes suffering . . . and laughs,” João tells his struggling family upon returning after an eight-year absence. He is the specter of a ruined past and the promise of an empty future, a human void that engulfs those around him. Like most every new film from 105-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, Gebo and the Shadow is in close contact with death, and the 2012 film, made when he was a spry 103 and now receiving a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives, comes closest to the abyss.

Interview: Jim Mickle May 27, 2014

Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have rat plague to thank for their thriving movie careers. Mickle, a writer-director, and Damici, a writer-actor, collaborated on three horror features before making the shaggy-dog neo-noir Cold in July.

Rep Diary: Broken Lullaby April 7, 2014

The only Ernst Lubitsch sound film that is not a comedy, Broken Lullaby is widely considered his worst feature. The earnest antiwar drama received favorable reviews upon its release in 1932 but languished at the box office.

Festivals: The New York International Children’s Festival [on post-Miyazaki anime] April 2, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki is a serial retiree, having announced the end to his anime career numerous times before. But his press conference last September seems definitive, making The Wind Rises the final film from the most iconic animator since Walt Disney.

ND/NF Interview: Ramon Zürcher [The Strange Little Cat] March 26, 2014

Building mysteries from the stuff of everyday life, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat consists of a constantly shifting set of contradictions.

Review: Non-Stop February 27, 2014

Liam Neeson continues to pistol-whip his way across the globe in Non-Stop, this time on a flight from New York to London.

Review: Pompeii February 21, 2014

The corporate overlords in Resident Evil: Retribution constructed CGI simulacra of major cities to test the death rate of their viruses. Pompeii could be another room in the Umbrella Corporation’s virtual killing grounds.

Film Comment Selects: Blood and Guts Preview February 17, 2014

The genre film is a recombinatory art, experimentally joining disparate well-worn elements. It has made Frankenstein mingle with everyone from Abbott & Costello to Aaron Eckhart’s generously oiled abs.

 

2013

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues December 18, 2013

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are comedy’s premier purveyors of pop surrealism, and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is their most dream-like film since 2008’s Step Brothers.

Rep Diary: Footloose Widows & Queen of Aces August 13, 2013

The history of silent slapstick focuses on the man-child genius of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, but rarely touches on feminine pratfall pursuits. Unheralded comedians Louise Fazenda and Wanda Wiley were given their due by programmers Steve Massa and Bruce Lawton at The Silent Clowns film series in New York City, which screened the cross-dressing Wiley short Queen of Aces (25) and the Fazenda gold-digging feature Footloose Widows (26) in pristine prints preserved by the Library of Congress.

Rep Diary: The American Serial: 1914-1944 February 4, 2013

The first image I saw upon entering Light Industry’s 12-hour marathon of American serials was of a couple dangling over the edge of a mountain. This literal cliffhanger from The Perils of Pauline (1914) heralded the adrenaline-pumping series of death-defying stunts to come. Over 30 serial productions were represented in 16mm, one single-reel episode apiece, roughly spanning the genre’s history from 1914 to 1944 and shown in chronological order.

2012

Interview with Nina Hoss December 21, 2012

Barbara is one of the finest suspense thrillers of the year, and most of its tension is expressed in the impassive face of actress Nina Hoss who plays the title character. A doctor at a rural hospital in East Germany planning an escape while under the vigilant eye of the Stasi, Barbara now lives a life characterized by watchfulness and fear, and she hides her inner turmoil behind a mask of affected indifference.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey December 13, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a movie of firsts, if not especially auspicious ones. It is the only production to spread out a 300-page novel over three films that will total close to nine hours, necessitating a Part One script choked with exposition. Then there is the debut of the controversial 48 frames-per-second format in which director Peter Jackson shot the movie, which doubles the amount of information that normally passes before a viewer’s eyes.

Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning November, 26 2012

For the sixth entry in a formerly moribund direct-to-video cyborg franchise, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a remarkably ambitious movie.

Restorative Properties: More on MOMA’s To Save and Protect October 30, 2012

With over 75 restored features and shorts from 15 countries, the 10th annual “To Save and Project” series at the Museum of Modern Art has been a constant source of discovery. While the election year occasioned a spate of president-themed programs, including Super 8 home movies from the Nixon administration, and D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, I spent my time with ebullient Hollywood pre-codes, silent spectacles, and early Japanese experiments with sound.

Interview: Glen MacPherson, 3D DP September 9, 2012

FILM COMMENT spoke with Paul W.S. Anderson’s frequent director of photography, Glen MacPherson, who has shot all three of Anderson’s 3D features: Resident Evil: Afterlife (10), The Three Musketeers (11), and Resident Evil: Retribution.

Personal Repertory: DVD on Demand July 31, 2012

DVD purchases have been declining since 2008, endangering one of the major sources of profit for studios. One of the fringe benefits of this sales freefall has been their efforts to monetize their moldering film libraries.

New York Asian Film Festival June 27, 2012

The New York Asian Film Festival, now in its 11th giddy edition, provides a yearly education in the varieties of bodily fluid expulsion. With a gleeful disregard for good taste, the NYAFF presents a wide-angle view of genre films throughout Asia, from bile-drenched gross-out comedies to the arterial geysers of martial-arts films. It has something for every deviant taste, even sumptuous art-house fare, for those more into tears than blood and sweat.

Festivals: Migrating Forms June 1, 2012

The fourth annual Migrating Forms festival of film and video is about the movies and nothing but the movies. Blessedly free of industry schmoozing and PR white noise, the fest, programmed by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, carries on the DIY spirit of their predecessor, The New York Underground Film Festival (1994-2008), by booking a dizzyingly wide range of work.

Together at Last: The Whitney Biennial 2012 Film and Video Program April 23, 2012

Until this year, Whitney Biennial film programs have felt like hastily arranged afterthoughts. Video artists would be granted their white-box loops, but filmmakers outside of the museum circuit would be sparsely represented. The 2012 edition came as a pleasant shock by including 15 directors, who, for one week each, would present their work in a dedicated screening room.

Interview With Bela Tarr February 2, 2012

Instead of a golden watch, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is giving Béla Tarr a complete retrospective for his retirement, along with a theatrical run of his magisterial final film, The Turin Horse. The bleak (and bleakly funny) maestro of modernist black-and-white ruin, Tarr turned the post-communist landscapes of Hungary into elemental playgrounds of loneliness and decay.