(Cinemas/VOD) DETENTION (2021) This film is based on the previously featured videogame, but unless you played said game, it’s unlikely you would know it despite the fact that it mostly adheres to the original game’s story and visual design. Many of the sets are surprisingly detailed recreations of the game’s 2D environments, and Gingle Wang is a fantastic swap-in for Fang (ostensibly the protagonist, and I will fight you about that), but the script is rich enough that it doesn’t feel like an horror point-and-click game adaptation.
Yes, it takes a few liberties and makes a few feints — some characters stick around far longer than they did in the game — but it’s a far more nuanced and complicated expounding on the game’s narrative and characters, and it even improves on the already fantastic creature design.
Personally, I played the game first and then immediately watched the film and felt very rewarded. There are a number of easter eggs that aren’t just there to point at, including how deftly the film handles the game’s multiple endings.
I’ll note that there’s also a mini-series available via Netflix, which I have yet to watch.
(Arrow/kanopy/VOD) I’ll keep this one brief, the recommendation: TETSUO: THE IRON MAN was Shinya Tsukamoto’s breakthrough film and a visceral 67 minutes of inventively kinetic cyberpunk body horror with a banging soundtrack from Chu Ishikawa (RIP).
(DVD/Blu-Ray) Back in May I posted about MUBI teaming up with the Music Box Theatre — a Chicago arthouse theater — for a two week ‘Back on the Big Screen’ event. (The previously recommended MATINEE was also part of the programming.) The sole film I didn’t recognize was Ming-liang Tsai’s GOODBYE, DRAGON INN, so I immediately bought a ticket without reading anything about it, apart from a sentence fragment I accidentally skimmed while patching up my Music Box Chrome extension: “It’s the final show at Taipei’s enormous Fu Ho movie palace”
The screening was surprisingly well-populated for a Monday matinee in early June — a good sixty, seventy or so folks, all vaguely socially distanced and mostly masked. Maybe more? I’m poor at eyeballing an audience but, given that two weeks prior, I was the sole person at a Wednesday matinee, it was a solid crowd.
That said, based on what I overheard upon exiting the film, a good two-thirds of them walked away feeling disappointed, expecting something far more gripping or narratively substantial than they received. Obviously, I don’t hold the same opinion.
GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is first and foremost a mood piece. Apart from the film that plays throughout the bulk of the piece (DRAGON INN, 1967), there’s very little dialogue in the film. A young man enters a film palace screening its final film before closing. A black cat scampers down the hallway. A woman with leg braces clomps around, doing her last daily rounds, stepping across leaky spots in the deteriorating building. She brings food up to the projectionist, who is missing from the projection booth. Said young man encounters a small number of individuals during the screening, some who may be real or may be ghosts. One particularly memorable individual is a woman who loses her shoe while endlessly cracking enough sunflower seeds to flood the theater stairway. The young man leaves. The woman closes up shop. The projectionist leaves. The woman follows.
In other words, GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is comprised of atmospheric vignettes of theatergoers and theater operators. It has the barest of narrative arcs, and few specifics about the characters that inhabit the theater, and even those specifics are inferred instead of explicitly stated. It’s pure cinema in that it shows, it doesn’t tell, which is obviously why it was brilliantly part of MUBI’s programming. While it’s not to everyone’s taste — after the film, I grabbed a drink outside at a local bar and couldn’t help but hear two folks bitch and moan about how boring the movie was — this sort of visual longform work is catnip to me, and I feel very lucky to have been able to attend the screening, and very thankful that MUBI did program it instead of a film that may have been more popular, but certainly would have been far less interesting.
(This is yet another case where the film is not available to stream, and hunting down a copy for a region one player can be costly and very difficult, so I’ll wink and suggest a YouTube search instead.)
(VOD? I’m just going to give the barest of details, because the less you know going in, the better:
CENSOR is the directorial debut from Prano Bailey-Bond; it’s a thriller that takes place in mid-80s Britain — at the height of ‘video nasties’ — and protagonist Enid (an exceptional Niamh Algar) works for the British censor board to filter out potentially ‘crime-provoking’ material, mostly horror and exploitation films.
It’s an extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up. I watched it as a double-feature with IN THE HEIGHTS — what I expect will be my strangest double-feature this year — and despite all of the spectacle and splash of HEIGHTS, I couldn’t stop thinking about CENSOR. It’s a film tailor-made for over-scrutiny, and it’ll be a very long time before I forget the ending.
(Criterion/VOD) 444 days. That’s how long it had been since I’d been in a theater. I’m finally fully vaccinated, so yesterday I rode the bus for the first time in almost as long to visit the Music Box Theatre to see the only film I could catch there: Haifaa Al-Mansour’s THE PEFECT CANDIDATE. Thanks to the Chicago Transportation Authority, I arrived late. The lobby was empty, apart from one employee who glanced at the ticket on my phone and instructed me to leave on my mask at all times during the film.
I walked into the theater which, under normal conditions, can house over a thousand people. I stumbled through the darkness, trying to seek out my favorite seat, only to find it roped off to enforce proper social distancing. I found the closest seat with some leg space and settled in, trying to catch up with the film.
A few minutes later my eyes had adjusted, and I realized I was the sole person there.
Granted, this was a mid-afternoon screening of a two-year-old feminist Saudi Arabian film (just now receiving a U.S. release), but still. This was the first time I’d ever been the lone viewer for a Music Box screening, much less for a film playing in the main theater. It’s a miracle they’re still operating, but I’m glad they are.
If you aren’t familiar with Haifaa Al-Mansour, she’s often cited as ‘Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker’. WADJDA (2012) was her breakthrough film, but she’s also helmed American films such as MARY SHELLEY (2017) and NAPPILY EVER AFTER (2018). THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is the first film of hers I’ve seen, and I’m quite excited to dive into her back-catalog.
THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is about a woman doctor in a small Saudi Arabian town, Maryam, who lives with her father — a recent widow and musician — and her two sisters, and she aspires for more. The street leading to the hospital she works at isn’t paved and is a consistent mess — people are constantly being wheeled through mud — and incoming patients often outright refuse her, even if they require emergency care, solely because she’s a woman.
Due to a confluence of religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she’s unable to attend a medical conference in Dubai, which she’d hoped would serve as a way to work her way into a better position, and due to similar religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she ends up inadvertently applying to run for election to govern the town.
What follows is a relatively straight-forward, definitely disheartening, activist film that completely hammers home the gender inequality in Saudi Arabia while still being a thoughtful portrait of a family trying to repair themselves after the sudden death of their mother. Al-Mansour inserts a number of deft character touches, such as Maryam’s brand-new car, which she retains the plastic on the seats, but the car’s wheel wells are covered in mud because of the shoddy road. The sister dynamics are especially nuanced, with the younger sister outright rejecting her older sister’s attempts to make a difference, and the older sister being a savvy, confident, semi-supportive entrepreneur working within ‘the system’.
Was this film the one I imagined would be my inaugural post-vaccinated filmgoing experience? No, but I’m glad it was. It represents everything I’ve missed about cinema in the pandemic: the ability to walk blindly into a tale of another space and then leave the theater feeling altered.
(kanopy/VOD/YouTube) Sure, F.W. Murnau directed NOSFERATU, FAUST, as well as one of the greatest melodramas ever with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, but my favorite film of his is THE LAST LAUGH.
THE LAST LAUGH is an extraordinarily depressing story of a hotel porter’s fall from grace starring Emil Jannings, an actor exceptional at portraying broken characters. While the tale is simple, it’s not simply told, as Murnau puts forward all of his talents with his ‘untethered camera’ as possible. Briefly put: the aging hotel porter (Emil Jannings) loves his job, loves the limelight of the front door and accommodating the hotel’s guests. However, his boss deems him too old and re-assigns him to be a washroom attendent. Despite the very slight story, it’s an expressionistic marvel, pure cinema, with Murnau’s camera visually and emotionally gesticulating all over the place, eschewing title cards except for one which is displayed upon Jannings falling asleep in his newly anointed washroom attendent’s chair. (Yes, yes, one might construe the following as a spoiler):
“Here our story should really end, for in actual life the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue.”
The last fifteen minutes of the film consists of an orgy of food, montage, and lower-class well-wishing. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
The full film via YouTube (it’s in public domain, but there are restored editions out there that are worth your hard-earned cash):
(kanopy/Mubi/VOD) THE TURIN HORSE is the last film from Béla Tarr (probably best known for WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES or, if you run in my circles, for the approximately seven hour long SATANTANGO). I tend to doubt it’s the last, as he’s still directing documentaries and producing shorts, but the film — which was co-directed by his wife Ágnes Hranitzky — certainly has a sense of finality to it.
It’s a gorgeous black-and-white piece, told over the span of roughly two-and-a-half hours, totals 30 shots and it moves at a glacial pace. It’s about a father and daughter, and the father happens to own the horse that was whipped so many times it made Nietzsche have a breakdown.
It’s an existential marvel, but, well, that’s not exactly what I remember it for. What I really remember are the boiled potatoes and, when I see a boiled potato, I think of this film.
If you don’t have the time for this masterpiece, may I suggest this 1m44s edit?
(kanopy/Prime/VOD)? With the recent handwringing about theaters potentially going out of business due to the pandemic, a lot of folks focus on the communal experience of shared spectacle and of whiplash moments, but few discuss how the darkness of theaters also allow us to nakedly indulge in other emotions with strangers.
Case in point: THE FAREWELL. (Warning, some small spoilers ahead, but really, they aren’t.) I watched it solo on a balmy Friday night, late in July 2019. There was a fairly sizable crowd and, while we laughed and tensed up at every well-crafted moment, it was the end — and I don’t mean the epilogue — that brought the entire room to tears. As the taxi drove away, everyone was audibly sobbing, men and women, myself included. (Although, I admit, I’m a soft touch when it comes to tears.)
Obviously, we were saddened for Billi, for her grandma, for the front that the family felt forced to put up, their regret at not being able to be truthful and have proper closure. However, as the camera revealed the rest of the family inhabiting the cab, it felt like we were also crying for those around us who had lost family, who knew what it was like to experience unreconciled grief. The theater became a shared funereal experience, one that simply wouldn’t have happened in a brightly lit room with a giant LCD screen.
While the film’s epilogue staunched the tears a bit, there remained a somber feeling in the air as we numbly walked towards the exit, barely looking at one another, perhaps a bit embarrassed, perhaps a bit raw. It’s these sort of experiences I’ve missed the most during the pandemic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
(hoopla/kanopy/Shudder/tubi/VOD) One of the other ‘uncool’ Chicago film fests is the European Union Film Fest, which takes place at the Siskel Film Center. Even I often forget about this one, but back in 2010 I caught wind of this weird Greek film from unknown-to-us director Yorgos Lanthimos (who would go on to direct THE LOBSTER and THE FAVOURITE) that sounded like a batshitcrazy modern New Wave-ish film, and my wife — being Greek — was also intrigued, so we immediately pre-ordered two tickets..
We arrived at the Siskel and were happy to already have tickets, because it was completely sold out — the line wound completely around the upper second floor — and the audience consisted of 80% older Greek couples, clearly there to support Greek film. I whispered to my wife: “Do they know what they’re getting into?”
I say that because most Greek films I’ve attended with my wife have been in-offensive crowd-pleasers, whereas DOGTOOTH actively, -aggressively- is not. It’s a film about shelter, about not letting go, about manufactured culture, about language, about emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and even heavier subjects. I was surprised to see that Shudder (a streaming service solely geared towards horror) picked it up and I realized, why yes: it is a Haneke-esque horror film, and not just an incredibly dense, fucked up family drama.
I exited the theater feeling dazzled and bruised, and fully expected the crowd we entered with to have turned against it, especially since they were very quiet during the screening — even the funny parts (of which there are many) — but no! They were ebullient about it! To this day I don’t know whether they liked it (much less enjoyed it — this isn’t a film you ‘enjoy’) but it was a singularly memorable screening for a brilliant film.
(Acorn/AMC+/Sundance Now/VOD) SLINGS & ARROWS is the story of a Shakespeare theatre troupe in a small Canadian town that’s a barely disguised facsimile of the Stratford Festival theatre troupe and — wait, no! Come back!
Yes, on paper it sounds like something you’d fall asleep to watching PBS on a Sunday afternoon, but the show is far more intriguing than that. Created by Mark McKinney (KIDS IN THE HALL — oh, do I have your attention now?), Susan Coyne (MOZART IN THE JUNGLE), and Bob Martin (MICHAEL: EVERY DAY), it’s really about actor-turned-theatre director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, best known for DUE SOUTH, but was also in the core seasons of TALES OF THE CITY), prone to mental breakdowns, finds himself haunted by the death of his mentor Oliver (Stephen Ouimette, who did voices on the previously mentioned DOG CITY!), who was hit and killed by a car after a very lackluster opening night of the festival’s latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Given that Geoffrey’s ramshackle arthouse theatre had just been closed and he was out of a job, he’s approached about taking over where Oliver left off: to helm the upcoming production of Hamlet. Geoffrey reluctantly agrees, mulling over radical changes to the production when Oliver appears in front of him, chiming in regarding his significant changes, driving Geoffrey closer to the brink of madness than he felt he already was.
(Yes, this mostly occurs in the first episode. It’s an intense show.)
Given that it was a TV show that often consisted of watching actors rehearse, or prep for rehearsal, you might think that the cinematography would be dull or perfunctory, but it’s always engrossing, and the camera rarely stays in place (except when it knows best to do so).
From the actors to the writers and directors, the entire show is a love letter to the messiness of theatre, both on the stage and off. It’s one of the most heartfelt and earnest dramas I’ve ever seen, and is chock full of complicated characters, and even features a litany of swans.
If you needed any more convincing, despite the fact that the show has barbs out for Stratford, my wife and I did trek up there some years ago — mostly because we were very enamored with SLINGS & ARROWS, but also the concept of the company — and we caught a brilliant production of MOTHER COURAGE, as well as a spectacle-laden KING LEAR with Colm Feore as Lear (who also appeared in SLINGS & ARROWS!) If Stratford still exists after the pandemic, I can’t recommend it enough, as it’s a perfectly relaxed vacation if you’re into theatre. I’m sure the swans will be waiting for you.
Season One Trailer:
If you’ve already watched SLINGS & ARROWS, the cast & crew just had a COVID reunion that ACORN has made available for free, which will almost assuredly make you want to re-watch the show: