The 300 Week 38: If Beale Street Could Talk and Early Reviews from NYFF 2018


Hey, I’m walking here, and welcome back to The 300, my ratty attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be seeing new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its glory. With that much variety (and so many festival films), I hope you see something here you’ll want to check out.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.

Today begins our coverage of the 2018 New York Film Festival. The 56th entry of the venerable NYC film festival officially kicks off on Friday, September 28th with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and runs until Sunday, October 14th. I’ve been attending a lot of the pre-fest press screenings, which make up the majority of this heavy week for The 300. NYFF 56 capsule reviews will continue on The 300 for the next few weeks; full-length reviews for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be up by next weekend.

As NYFF 56 is winding down, I will also catch a few movies at the 2018 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, which runs from Thursday, October 11th to Thursday, October 18th. There are some great films running at this year’s festival, and I hope to catch several of them since the programming at the BHFF is always strong from year to year.

As of this writing, I have 47 movies left to go. I am so tired.

And so, onward.

240 of 300: Ash Is Purest White (2018)
(aka 江湖儿女; Jiang hu er nv)

Director: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan
Country: China/France/Japan
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Wednesday, September 19th

Find someone who looks at you the way the camera in a Jia Zhangke movie looks at actress Zhao Tao. You can tell how much Zhangke loves his wife given the camera’s attentiveness to Tao’s every move, even the slightest changes in a facial expression. That love between director and star translate into moments of exhiliration as well as moments of quiet devastation.

Early in Ash Is Purest White, Tao enters a room full of low-level gangsters to the Wong Fei-Hung theme song, an epically heroic tune that should be familiar to fans of martial arts cinema. We get a sense of Tao’s place in this group of men—she’s not just the boss’ girlfriend, but someone who commands respect in the hierarchy. The song does more than introduce a character in the language of masculine Chinese badassery. It sets a high-water mark for the lives of these people, a level that cannot be maintained or regained once lost.

Ash Is Purest White is about the ravages of time, and how the bonds between people can be undone. The film takes place over the course of 16 or 17 years, and we watch the characters played by Tao and co-star Liao Fan try to hold on to past glories even though change is the way of the world. Like Zhangke’s other films, I feel like I need some greater understanding of Chinese society and politics to really appreciate what is being observed. Even without this context, I could still admire the subtle wonders of Tao’s performance and the underlying melancholy of the whole film.

241 of 300: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)
(aka 地球最后的夜晚; Di qiu zui hou de ye wan)

Director: Bi Gan
Starring: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang
Country: China
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Thursday, September 20th

I was so hyped going into A Long Day’s Journey Into Night that I probably set myself up for disappointment. This abstract love story is a technical marvel for people who love extended takes and painterly shot compositions. The entire second half of the film is a nearly one-hour 3D dream sequence done in a single uninterrupted take, with a few silly and sublime sections dotted throughout. In terms of mood and aesthetics, the film plays out like a collaboration between long-take master Tsai Ming-liang, David Lynch, and gimmick wiz William Castle.

And yet while I admired the technical aspects of the film, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night was devoid of human emotion. The first half of the film is so arch and shadowy about its plot and relationships, becoming downright boring in stretches. If this is a love story, why discard the heart of the romance? Bi Gan’s concerns are more on ideas of heartbreak, and long takes of reflections in water, decaying rooms, and people eating food while crying. Thematically, yes, it’s about love’s impermanence, but I was surprised how inert these observations sometimes felt. Even now, I’m struggling to remember the movie’s plot and all I recall are sequences, shots, and the gimmick of the second half.

242 of 300: A Family Tour (2018)
(aka 自由行; Zi You Xing)

Director: Ying Liang
Starring: Gong Zhe, Nai An, Pete Teo, Tham Xin Yue
Country: Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore/Malaysia
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Thursday, September 20th

The heartbreak that runs throughout A Family Tour has everything to do with the distances between people even when they are close to one another. Gong Zhe plays a Chinese filmmaker living in exile in Hong Kong because her work is too political. She and her family travel to Taiwan to meet up with her mother (Nai An) on a Chinese bus tour of the country. The daughter cannot visit China or she will be arrested, and the mother cannot visit Hong Kong or she will face repercussions back in China. Taiwan seems like a safe neutral ground, but the bus tour company is being observed by the Chinese government and explicitly states that the mother and daughter can’t even be on the same bus. The daughter, her husband, and their child must follow behind the bus in taxis, maintaining the illusion that they are not related.

There’s an inherent drama and sadness about this situation once the political situation and mechanisms of distance are outlined. As a semi-autobiographical account of director Ying Liang’s own experiences, certain scenes seem especially raw. He cleverly plays with blocking and composition to emphasize the emotional spaces between characters and the political divides imposed between them. It’s a quietly sad movie, and quite well done.

243 of 300: Burning (2018)
(aka 버닝; Beoning)

Director: Chang-dong Lee
Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon
Country: South Korea
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Thursday, September 20th

I love Alfred Hitchcock and I love Haruki Murakami, so why did I think Burning was just okay? Maybe the hype has something to do with it. The film has been widely lauded on the festival circuit as a triumphant return by director Chang-dong Lee, a masterpiece in the form of a slowly evolving suspense thriller. The movie centers on a love triangle between an awkward country nerd (Ah-In Yoo), a whimsical young woman (Jong-seo Jeon), and a worldly traveler she meets while abroad (Steven Yeun). Class resentments and jealousies build between the two men, and the final half of the movie is all about sexual obsession, sinister implications, and how we fill in blanks about uncertainties.

Yeun makes a dashingly good implied antagonist, and I think everything surrounding his character is impeccably done. My issues may be with our dorky protagonist and the woman in the triangle. Starting with the latter, she is the quintessential Murakami manic pixie dream girl. She’s flighty, she’s quirky, and she seems to only exist as a means for the men in the story to explore their identity. To that extent, she has little identity of her own outside of their lives, which is a shame given Jeon’s performance. (Though maybe this is an extension of the two men treating her like an object, not a person?) This may also be an issue with “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story this is based on which I read several years ago but can’t remember anything about. I still love Murakami, but he often struggles to write women with a sense of dimension.

That brings us to our dorky protagonist, who is ambitionless, easily distracted, and maybe not particularly bright. He’s got a lot of emotional and psychological baggage he keeps to himself, and he is also a total creeper. He fancies himself a writer, but doesn’t seem to be that well read. The Murakami pixie dream girl is supposed to be a pretext for self-discovery, but our protagonist is not particularly interested in deep self-reflection. He might not even be capable of it. There’s a telling moment in the latter half of Burning when our protagonist breaks into this woman’s apartment and masturbates while lying in her bed. He fantasizes about her spooning him and helping him jerk off. His love for her is just dim onanism; he does not love her, but he likes the fact they slept together that one time.

But maybe that is the point. I’m going to need to let Burning linger a bit more because while I was a bit disappointed on first viewing, I also keep thinking about the film and how it explores ugly aspects of masculinity, from male obsession to sheer toxicity. Perhaps the mode for this exploration was by implication; fittingly, there is something missing.

244 of 300: Too Late to Die Young (2018)
(aka Tarde para morir joven)

Director: Dominga Sotomayor Castillo
Starring: Demian Hernández, Antar Machado, Magdalena Tótoro, Matías Oviedo
Country: Chile/Brazil/Argentina/Netherlands/Qatar
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Friday, September 21st

Something about Too Late to Die Young, a Chilean coming-of-age film set in the early 1990s, seems to merge the work of Lucrecia Martel and John Hughes. Writer/director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo has such wonderful control over the long-take like Martel, and also an observant eye for class distinctions and female desire. We noticed how gazes linger and get a sense of longing and lust from the performance and the duration of the take. The film is set at a time of political change in Chile, and also a moment of sexual awakening for out troubled protagonist played by Demian Hernández. She carries herself like Winona Ryder by way of Molly Ringwald.

Seeing Too Late to Die Young after a lot of other long-take movies made me realize that I enjoy long takes that seem to reveal new information, or are composed of multiple individual shots that are stitched together into a single one. A single static shot could communicate two or three things once a character leaves the frame or when a pan is finally completed. Even though I might be unfamiliar with the specific political transitions of Chile during this time, I was at least captivated by the craft of the film and those always familiar teenage feelings.

245 of 300: Hotel by the River (2018)
(aka 강변 호텔; Gangbyun Hotel)

Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Joo-Bong Ki, Min-hee Kim, Joon-Sang Yoo
Country: South Korea
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Friday, September 21st

Hotel by the River is the second movie I’ve seen by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, and I think his movies may not be for me. He’s been called “the Korean Woody Allen” given his writing style, prolificness, and recurring troupe of actors. His films are light and pleasantly observed, and feel like they were written in about two weeks to a month and shot in about 10 days.

That’s certainly the case with Hotel by the River, a jaunty, witty, and just a little sad movie about a writer holed up in a hotel during the winter who senses his impending demise. His sons come to visit, and he has a chance encounter with two women who are dealing with their own separate issues. The movie feels like it’s offering some parting words of wisdom, and observations on the connection and disconnects that occur when we get to a certain age. It’s probably my favorite of the three Hong films I’ve now seen, though I go back and forth on if I liked it or just sort of liked it.

246 of 300: Variety (1983)

Director: Bette Gordon
Starring: Sandy McLeod, Richard M. Davidson, Will Patton, Luis Guzman
Country: USA
Seen at Roxy Cinema Tribeca (New York, NY)
Saturday, September 22nd

Variety is an overlooked and underseen gem of low-budget feminist filmmaking from the early 1980s. It works especially well now as a time capsule of scumbag New York City. Christine (Sandy McLeod) takes a ticket booth job at an adult movie theater in Times Square. She wanders the porno shops and sleazy streets, at first curious about the seedy world she now inhabits and then eventually overtaken by it. One of the porn movie posters featured in the film is for Laura’s Desires, and it serves as a key into the larger focus of Variety. The movie is called Laura’s Desires, but the content of so much porn is about men’s desires overwriting the desires of the women in the films. Throughout Variety, Christine is a woman wandering alone in traditionally male spaces—XXX movie theaters, porn shops, the docks late at night. She even becomes a Hitchcock-style obsessive (a male role) as she follows a skeevy guy who shows interest in her. The implied danger is the confusion of men’s desires for her own desires, of doing things only for men and not for herself.

There are moments in Variety when Christine recites the plots to porn films in a monotonous voice, as if reading a grocery list. The descriptions of sex do nothing for her but they make her pseudo-boyfriend uncomfortable. One of her later porn monologues is fantastical and strange—like porn by Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington—and she is more excited by this surreal sexuality that is her own than any of the previous monologues; meanwhile, her boyfriend plays pinball, not hearing a word she’s said. That difference between male and female desires, and ultimately in male and female power dynamics, is why Variety will linger with me for a while.

In addition to the fascinating subtext and sleazy Edward Hopper painting imagery, Variety is also notable for an early screen appearance by lovable and dependable character actor Luis Guzman. He’s already got his schtick in place.

247 of 300: Mandy (2018)

Director: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache
Country: Belgium/USA
Seen at IFC Center (New York, NY)
Sunday, September 23rd

Mandy is metal as f**k, and feels like a melange of VHS-era movie influences. I’ve described it to friends as a hypermasculine metal concept album. Mandy might pair well thematically with Burning as a double-feature since both movies are about modes of masculinity, and what people do when someone is no longer present. Mandy and Red (Andrea Riseborough and Nicolas Cage) have a loving relationship, but it changes when cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) tries to make Mandy one of her slaves. The film goes on to illustrate a Margaret Atwood saying: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” While the first half of Mandy is idyllic and then creepy, the second half of Mandy turns into a gory black metal revenge movie that’s equal parts Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and Ken Russell. Cage gets a scene to Cage-out as he bleeds and chugs booze while wearing nothing but tighty-whities and a hockey jersey with a tiger on it.

I didn’t enjoy Panos Cosmatos’ previous film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which looked great but felt really boring and empty to me. I enjoyed Mandy a lot more because it has so much personality behind the images. But even still, I think I only like Mandy rather than love it completely because the pastiche overload. Cosmatos constantly nods to so much other material like a list of things for 80s kids to recognize. There are dream sequences straight out of Heavy Metal, and a throwaway commercial mid-film is a mix of Boglins and My Pet Monster. They’re funny, but they feel like such mannered affectations.

The fact I’m thinking about the signification of these bits rather than just enjoying them is strange to me. I might just be overthinking the cultural footnotes of Mandy, or I may be wondering if the narrative texture they’re meant to provide gets in the way of the texture that is already there. This is both an odd and yet fitting thing for me to notice in a movie that features a chainsaw fight against a Cenobite motorcycle gang.

248 of 300: Cold War (2018)
(aka Zimna wojna)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Country: Poland/France/UK
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Monday, September 24th

Cold War is a doomed love story that unfolds over a few decades in just 88 minutes. While the shots linger and the takes are sometimes long, director Pawel Pawlikowski propels the film with a sense of wistful romance, which is how so much of the surprise and beauty emerges. Pawlikowski dedicated the film to his parents, which makes me wonder so much about their lives given the fates of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). She is a talented singer and he is a composer and musician. They fall for one another after the end of WWII, and are split up by politics and circumstance over the course of the next few decades. Yet somehow they are drawn to each other again and again. Love and coincidence (especially in art) have such peculiar and similar forms of magnetism. The passage of time reminded in some ways of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy; we catch up with the characters after years have passed, with some things changed but other things still the same.

The black and white imagery of the film is wonderfully lensed by Lukasz Zal, with some memorable images of faces, landscapes, and the chance effects of wind. Cold War should also be praised for its musical choices. We start the movie listening to simple Polish folk tunes, which are earthy and earnest. As Soviet interests take over the musical troupe, the songs change and feel more operatic, choral, and neoclassical, which are fitting modes for government propaganda. There’s also the freedom of jazz and rock and roll when out of Soviet control, and the sadness of French torch songs as good love, like champagne left out too long, turns sour.

I think Cold War will wind up somewhere in my top 15 films of the year. Cold War is Poland’s official Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

249 of 300: Grass (2018)
(aka 풀잎들; Pul-ip-deul)

Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Gi Ju-bong, Jung Jin‑young
Country: South Korea
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Monday, September 24th

Grass feels so dashed off, even for a Hong Sang-soo film. It centers on a woman at a coffee shop eavesdropping on other conversations and occasionally typing out her observations on a laptop. She’s lonely or wants to be alone, but secretly longs for connection. It’s fine, though there’s not much there visually or philosophically to sustain interest, even for just 66 minutes. I may give Hong another two movies to figure out where I stand with his work.

250 of 300: Happy as Lazzaro (2018)
(aka Lazzaro felice)

Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Adriano Tardiolo, Luca Chikovani, Alba Rohrwacher
Country: Italy/Switzerland/France/Germany
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Monday, September 24th

Happy as Lazzaro goes in such unexpected directions, which is its greatest stregnth. It begins as story about the oppression of Italian workers at a tobacco farm. They are misled and kept ignorant to the outside world by a group of aristocratic grotesques. Our title character played by Adriano Tardiolo is a kind but dimwitted man who is helpful to a fault. I thought I knew where the story was going, but by mid-film, Happy as Lazzaro transformed into a work of picaresque Italian fabulism. Think Italo Calvino and Pinocchio but with major Marxist and Christian overtones.

I don’t want to give anything away since the pleasures of the film involve the way Alice Rohrwacher lets this fable/parable unfold. Despite the limited scope of the story, I think Rohrwacher has her eyes trained on the the crisis of poverty brought on by global capitalism. Yet I while I love the moxie and imaginative gall behind the plot of the film, I’m not sure I love Lazzaro so much as I admire it. Maybe part of my reticence has to do with how unerringly kind Lazzaro is even to those who don’t deserve it. I wonder if that’s a subversive message about the title character and his brand of goodness. Not even someone saintlike is made for the prevailing economic systems we have now.

251 of 300: Ray & Liz (2018)

Director: Richard Billingham
Starring: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer
Country: UK
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Tuesday, September 25th

Ray & Liz is like the British version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo. We get to live in the squalor of a Thatcher-era home where the unemployed title characters neglect their children and succumb to drink, loneliness, and despair. Pet rabbits poop all over the couch, a kid collects pet snails, and the dog pisses by the front door on unopened mail. Gummo had its spaghetti scene in the bathtub, and Ray & Liz has its own slightly less stomach-churning equivalent: pickled-beet sandwiches on a grimy kitchen counter. What makes the ugliness so jarring is the slow, artful opening shots of an elderly man, and his gaze out an apartment window that lasts a day. The contrasts of a unfortunate life.

The movie is ugly and cruel, and the characters are almost all terrible people. And yet I think Ray & Liz succeeds in being exactly the sort of movie it’s meant to be: a document of desperate living. There are brief, fleeting moments of humanity in this film, and all of them involve people who are not the title characters. That makes the brief joys stand out more. This isn’t a pleasant or enjoyable movie at all, but I wouldn’t call it awful either. It is ugly by design, and captures the lives of people without any sense of hope or prospects for upward mobility.

252 of 300: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Country: USA
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Tuesday, September 25th

As Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, adapting James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a fascinating contrast. Whereas Moonlight was laser-focused on the life of Chiron in tightly constructed moments set years apart, Beale Street is more of a diffuse ensemble piece that drifts back and forth in time. The film even breaks the facade of fiction to incorporate real-word images in black and white. I found myself liking Beale Street for its performances and lyricism, but also trying to get my head around its overall structure and form. I want to watch it again. Knowing what it is and where it goes, I may be better able to appreciate the formal decisions made from beginning to end. Then again, maybe I should have taken the lengthy Baldwin epigraph at the front of the film more seriously; just pay attention (and succumb) to the rhythm of the drums.

Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film centers on the relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). She’s pregnant with his child, but their love is put on hold when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman. We first see Tish and Fonny at the beginning of the film, wearing gorgeous shades of blue and yellow, as they share a lovingly shot walk together. They ask each other if they’re ready for what’s coming, which seems like sort of innocuous thing lovebirds say when they’re out together. In hindsight, the exchange doubles as a warning. Can this love be sustained in the face of racism and forced separation? Are you ready for that? The film’s interpersonal drama and larger cultural concerns are hinged on that question.

Beale Street is partially narrated by Tish, who recites lines straight from Baldwin’s book. Sometimes they work, like when describing the crime at the center of the story. Rather than depicting any of the violence, we are simply shown the survivor of the attack standing before the city, not injured or vulnerable but simply a person in a place. There’s a lyricism and a darkness in how the brief scene plays, and it works because of how the text and the image inform each other through a disjunction. Other times, the voiceover seems unnecessary. When Tish meets with Fonny’s mom, the narration feels like pure exposition that outlines the nature of their relationship, but all of this is conveyed in the dialogue and the performance.

My feelings about Beale Street seem to hinge on the difficulty of turning this diffuse ensemble story into a simply formed film; the challenges of adaptation are always interesting to consider, I guess. But even as I go back and forth on a few formal and structural choices Jenkins made, the craft and the acting in the best scenes of Beale Street is remarkable. The moment Fonny and Tish walk together in the rain is one of the most breathtaking images I’ve seen in a film this year; their first night together is incredibly orchestrated, with Nicholas Britell’s buttery strings swelling for the romantic expectation and then quieting for the isolate, sensual intimacy of two enthralled people making love. When Beale Street works as it does in those and other carefully observed moments, it is absolutely sublime.

253 of 300: 3 Faces (2018)
(aka سه رخ; Se rokh)

Director: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei
Country: Iran
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Tuesday, September 25th

Jafar Panahi continues to make films despite his house arrest in Iran, and they remain subversive works of trickster political art, blending fiction and non-fiction filmmaking as well as a DIY aesthetic. Panahi and Behnaz Jafari play themselves. They’re summoned to a remote village by a distressing cellphone video in which a young woman appears to commit suicide because her parents won’t let her study acting.

So much about 3 Faces is obliquely stated, played like a deadpan comedy with an absurdist wit. Yet the film is an unmistakably feminist work about roles for women in Iranian society. Seemingly throwaway lines about bull’s testicles and a preserved foreskin help reveal the reverence for boys and males in society, while women are disregarded. Rather than take center stage, Panahi acts as a wise observer, even noting that women have a better idea of how to handle certain situations than men. In those terms, some of the more powerful moments in 3 Faces occur when Panahi lets Jafari do her own thing, making spaces for women to thrive, to discuss, to be people with room of their own.

While I quite enjoyed it, 3 Faces would be a bad place to start with Panahi’s movies. It relies on knowledge of his other films to really understand the unconventional format and filming choices. There are also nods to the films of the late Abbas Kiarostami that could enrich your appreciation for the movie. One scene inspired by Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry helps set up one of the most poetic shots of the movie, which underlines the aspirations of women in the village if not given space to thrive.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.