[What Did Jaci Think: January]

So, as mentioned earlier, the shape of things over here will be a little different because the shape of the world is different. More first watches for me, fewer actually new films. For obvious reasons, my viewing habits have changed over the last two years, but I’ve been trying to do two things to keep from sinking into exclusively comfort viewing.

First, I monitor the page for films leaving Criterion Channel at the end of the month, & make a watchlist from that, prioritizing women directors, queer films, and world cinema. Second, I look out for remote film festivals (tips welcome!), as well as random free screenings popping up at Eventive.

…so that’s why one of the best new films I saw in January was a Taiwanese film from 1970. So let’s start with that! The End of the Track, a free offering from the Harvard Film Archive, is a raw and beautiful film about grief, class, and my favorite thing, subtextual queerness.

A Criterion highlight was The Official Story, a film from Argentina about the personal costs for a family that took in one of the stolen children of the Dirty War – one aware of it, one in denial.

Between Shadow and Soul, a silent, black-and-white reworking of The Third Wife, was completely engaging and effective in a different way from the lush green original.

I’m Your Man, the “Cousin Matthew as a robot boyfriend” movie mysteriously described by many letterboxd posts as a romantic comedy, despite the fact that … it’s not romantic. I liked it, and it made me think of Ex Machina (which I love) but I just don’t believe you can have a romance where one partner has no desires of their own. I felt like I had watched a completely different movie than everyone else. (The joke about why he speaks German with an English accent is very good.)

& finally, the wildest double feature of The Lost Daughter and Together Together, if you too ever want to experience two polar opposite (but both terrific) takes on motherhood and parenting.

I don’t usually make film resolutions, but this year, since I’m not doing anything else anyway, I thought I’d try to watch a long film every long weekend. And by long I mean over three hours. For New Year’s I finally watched the four hour cut of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, which actually turned out to be a series (imagine trying to sell that!) Still loved it, so precise and strange. Then over MLK weekend I splurged on Happy Hour, spending five hours living in a novel about these four friends. I could have stayed there longer.

In theater highlights include – The Tragedy of Macbeth (I honestly wished I was watching it on an even larger screen than the midsized multiplex house, all those gorgeous Expressionist lines and shadows, an impossible sound stage castle), Licorice Pizza (though I’m still furious about the racist “jokes” here because they were harmful, bad storytelling that overshadowed everything that was beautiful about that movie), Parallel Mothers, and Flee.

& finally, ~BL Corner~. At the end, so normal people can skip it! January saw the end of “Bad Buddy“, a series which I famously anticipated madly and then adored all the way through. It’s absolutely a classic Thai BL with all the soapiness and low production value and unsubtle product placement which that implies, but it also gives us an unusually healthy relationship, great chemistry, a GL side couple (!), and just in general P’Aof making interesting choices inside the genre.

On the other end of things, an anti-rec for “My Beautiful Man“, a super toxic BL from Japan. It’s one thing to have dark themes and complex characters, it’s another when it’s romanticized abuse and straight-up bad storytelling.

& that’s that for January!

[What Did Jaci Think? January]

In theaters!

Midnight Family is a documentary about a family who operate a private ambulance in Mexico City, and through them, it is a documentary about people doing their best in the midst of systemic failure. Relatable! The number of official ambulances is so small that to call it a mere shortage is laughable, and the void is filled by private EMTs hustling their way around the city, trying to get people to pay who can’t or won’t, and when that fails, trying to make a buck on referrals. The whole operation (and family!) is held together by Juan who is something like 17 years old, and Juan for President, honestly; he’s the best.

I was always going to see Underwater regardless of reviews – I mean cmon, a KStew monster movie? – but it is one of those frustrating movies that hints at intriguing ideas, and then consistently makes the less interesting choice. The movie in my head with all those elements – the monsters! dream logic! softboi Kstew! her brothers-in-arms relationship with Vincent Cassel! the cute intern in the rainbow tshirt! Mamoudou Athie being charming! – was much better. All those elements except please cut TJ Miller thanks because who the fuck wants him around? No one. They should have left him in the rubble. (Also a moment here to wave my Cast Mamoudou Athie In More RomComs You Cowards flag, thank you for coming to my TED talk.)

The day before I saw 1917, a man suggested I “broaden my perspective” by seeing more movies about men as if I have not been seeing movies about men for 40 years. And as I watched it, I thought a lot about why Award Worthy Directing means chest-thumping like putting George MacKay through hell and not, say, creating empathy for Amy March.

Whatever. I went to 1917 for Roger Deakins’ cinematography and also for the possibility that at one point one boy would hold another boy tenderly, and both of those things met my expectations. I didn’t care much about the one-shot trick going in, but by the end I found it a liability. The stakes for the film are of course the question of they’ll get to the line in time to stop the men walking into the German trap. But the stakes are really: will they survive? And in a film so firmly driven by one character (obviously they don’t both make it; this is not a spoiler to anyone who has ever seen a war film) there’s an immediate loss of tension. Anyway whatever it’s fine. It looks great. And if it made you curious about MacKay, I recommend Pride and For Those in Peril.

Everything interesting about The Rhythm Section feels like it came from the fact that it was directed by a woman, and everything cliched and dull about it feels like it came from the fact that it was written by a man. There you have it.

Really, the best time I had in the theater in January was the mini Varda retrospective. Viva Varda!

Home viewing!

I bought Swing Kids unseen on the strength of a scene where two characters dance to “Modern Love”, and it was 100% worth it. The story of a dance troupe put together to “improve morale” in a POW camp during the Korean war, it never forgets the “POW camp” part of that equation, & manages the inherent tonal challenges astonishingly well. If you want a dance movie that also stomps on your heart, have I got a movie for you! Also D.O. is terrific in it, so thanks a lot now my queue at MyDramaList is even longer.

On a related note, I’m still spending a lot of time with Cdramas & Thai BL & most of that is embarrassing but some I will tell you about regardless.

Because the universe is amazing there are somehow *two* different comic Cdramas that star Xiao Zhan & various members of XNine *and* have world-building centered on astrology: “Oh! My Emperor” and “Super Star Academy“. (I mean, this is me assuming “Fights Break Sphere”/”Battle Through the Heavens” *isn’t* about astrology and honestly it could be, who knows.)

I’m halfway through “Oh! My Emperor”, a time-traveling historical which I’m finding a bit of a slog but I’ll keep at it because the girl is adorable and XZ as the guy who won’t get the girl is also adorable.

However, I found “Super Star Academy” thoroughly entertaining. It’s basically a high school for kids with superpowers determined by their star signs, and it’s goofy in a self-aware way that was extremely my jam: secondary characters who complain about their lack of characterization, a chase scene that throws every joke at the wall to see what sticks, a person who isn’t what they pretend to be turning out to be a Gemini.

Also, they have great uniforms. Every episode where Xiao Zhan wears a cape is a good episode in my opinion.

What have you been watching?

[What Did Jaci Think? Late November]

* Somewhere Winter was rather the lesser of some multigeneration-spanning romances I’ve seen lately, but I did appreciate that the lead’s devotion to her idol (music star) wasn’t seen as infantilizing as it might in a Western film. It was just another aspect of her worthy of love.

* I am no expert on The Shining – I’ve seen the film a few times but I haven’t read the book – but Doctor Sleep worked for me. It’s better the further it is from Kubrick, but while wrestling with the trauma from that story. Things I particularly loved: Dan working in hospice care, the metaphors for the mind, Rebecca Ferguson using all her wiles as Rose the Hat and being stymied by clever-as-hell Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran). Plus I didn’t check my watch at all and putting Cliff Curtis in a movie gets an extra star from me every time. But way to fuck me up with an evil found family, how dare you.

* End of the Century is a lovely film about a two men who hook up in Barcelona and realize they’ve met before, 20 years ago. The film explores the past and the what-ifs if they had stayed together and for obvious reasons doesn’t make any attempt to de-age the actors. In fact, the camera almost relishes their signs of aging, giving the effect of the men walking through their own memories.

* The Good Liar should’ve been a half hour shorter and a tight noir, and that cut would be easy to make: just remove everything having to do with Berlin. Spoilers from here: the twist, such as it is, is obvious from the beginning if you’ve seen a movie ever, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a surprise. What I had a problem with was not the twist, but the motivation for it. Why can’t she double-cross him because she’s wicked herself? No, there had to be Big Motivations like Nazis and murder and sexual assault. It’s exhausting. Just give me Helen Mirren as a wicked lady please and thank you.

* Marriage Story destroyed me. Sometimes I like to be destroyed. Let me have this, Twitter!

* Two Tigers was better than I expected, a buddy comedy about a kidnapper and his victim. The kidnapper isn’t too great at his job, the victim isn’t too bothered about being kidnapped, and together they help each other deal with elements of their pasts to get themselves unstuck.

* I’ve also spent a frankly embarrassing amount of time watching Thai BL shows lately (for which I blame Douyin, which pushed shippy videos of the leads into my feed) & it got me wondering what the appeal is for me (aside from the obvious.) Here’s what I think: they’re soap operas where men spend a lot of time talking through their feelings (non-toxic masculinity!), the characters inhabit largely queernormative settings (any homophobia I’ve seen has been internalized), and Asian men are portrayed as sexual beings and worthy of desire (this is also obvious, but still rare in Western media).

Or maybe it’s just that the world is a garbage fire and I would like to spend my few remaining days watching pretty boys kiss. Probably all of the above.

[What Did Jaci Think? Early November]

* Terminator: Dark Fate. With the caveat that I have limited Terminator experience – I’ve seen the first one and maybe the second but that’s it – I loved this queer as hell update. Mackenzie Davis as an enhanced human from the future, here to team up with butch & fierce Linda Hamilton to save Natalia Reyes and also humanity? While landing some punches on ICE? Yes, thank you, more please.

* Synonyms, the story of an Israeli immigrant in Paris attempting to renounce his identity didn’t entirely work for me, but Tom Mercier’s lead performance as Yoav was one of the breakouts of the year.

* I was spoiled for Last Christmas before I ever saw the *trailer* thanks to the surprising percentage of Romancelandia that shows up in my Twitter feed, so when I did see the trailer I thought “yep, that reads.” And they were right! It completely worked for me – sweet and funny and seasonally cheesy – but if you require a traditional HEA from a romcom, it isn’t an experience for you. A small note on this one: I loved how sharp the script was: even throwaway lines on minor characters had zip. Well done, Emma Thompson. And I just continue to want All Of The Henry Golding movies, so get on that, world. Golding as a spy! Golding in space! Golding in a coffee shop AU! I’ll stop now.

* Originally scheduled for release at the end of June and bumped to the end of October for technical – read, censorship – reasons, Better Days is a story about school bullying, revenge, and hope. After a classmate commits suicide less than two months before their Gaokao exams, Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) becomes the next target of (the sickeningly well-done) bullies. After the system – both school and police – fail her, she turns to Liu Beishan (Jackson Yee) for protection. It’s a rough journey – they’re both children really – but it ends with hope. One of my favorite films of the year; I’ve already seen it twice. Side note: Zhou’s killing it in excellent on-screen partners from Jackson Yee to Takeshi Kaneshiro (and of course Ma Sichun in SoulMate, also directed by Derek Tsang).

* Pain and Glory is a gift from Almodovar, a story about an aging director looking back on his life and grounded by a gentle and beautifully physical performance by Antonio Banderas – his little shoulder-shimmy after doing a shot is art. It should work for anyone but especially if you’re also a creaky Almodovar fan, which I am.

* Charlie’s Angels. Five stars for relentless misandry and Kstew being queer as fuck. It’s not perfect and not all the jokes land but you know what else that’s true of? Most films about men.

[What Did Jaci Think? SIFF2019]

Some things from SIFF that I feel like mentioning, in alphabetical order:

* Banana Split. The new girlfriend and the old girlfriend become friends and try not to let the boyfriend know about it. Teen girl friendships are my kryptonite, guys. It’s unfortunate it hit at the same time as Booksmart. We need both movies (and obviously we need movies where the girls aren’t white). A festival note about this: the director, Benjamin Kasulke, is better known (to me) as a cinematographer, & this film’s cinematographer, Darin Moran, came with the film as well, which meant a lot more lighting discussion than we usually get. It was a nice change.

* A Family Tour. This was the best film I saw at SIFF this year, a heartbreaking story of a filmmaker who has been banned from mainland China. The family syncs a trip for a film festival with her mainland-residing mother’s bus tour in Taipei, but in order to avoid drawing attention they stage accidental meetups and pretend to not be related. The fraught reunions are made all the more tense by being set against the backdrop of holiday-making.

The story is based in experiences of the filmmaker, but gender-swapped, which means we get that rarer depiction of the female filmmaker, as well as to see her husband in the role of family project management and provider of emotional labor. Lovely and layered.

* Fly Rocket Fly. Look. I hated this documentary. It’s about a bunch of jackass Germans going to Zaire to blast off rockets, & the movie thinks it’s some sort of badass rebel tale, but instead it’s a super racist documentary about a herd of jerks. There were something like 40 Germans and 200 Zaire people involved in creating a self-sustaining village and building and launching the rocket, but not a single Black person is interviewed in the entire documentary.

The film undermines itself a little – often white interview subjects will go on about the hard work they did all alone, only to have the picture cut to archival footage of Black people doing the actual labor. But with the lack of Black interview subjects I believe this undermining is accidental. You cannot tell me that no one in Zaire had an opinion on how the project impacted them and their country. For some it might even have been a positive impact, but we’ll never know because the film does not value those people or their labor.

* I Do Not Care if We Go Down In History As Barbarians. The second-to-last film I saw at festival and it knocked my goddamn socks off. A Romanian film, it’s an often-comic picture shot in the tone of a documentary as a theater director puts together a public theater event recreating the 1941 Odessa massacre. Apparently an inability to grapple with one’s own history is not a purely American problem, who knew. Vital and timely.

* Little Tickles. Based on Andréa Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman stage show, this film uses stage elements, dance, and terrific editing to tell a hard story of surviving childhood sexual abuse and remembering one’s own story.

* Maiden. Thrilling (and moving) documentary about the first all-female crew to enter (and, spoiler, finish) the Whitbread Round the World Race. I challenge you to watch it and not fall in love with every one of these badass women.

* Retrospekt. A fragmented tale as a domestic violence support worker attempts to fit her own story back together after a traumatic brain injury, one of my favorite things about the film was actually the soundtrack – a borderline operatic English score commenting on and against the action.

* Top End Wedding. A crowd-pleaser of a romcom from Australia, a pure delight, and much better than it needed to be.

* Vai. A similar concept to last year’s Waru, this is a film comprised of eight short films, all about a Pacific Islander woman named Vai, from girlhood to elder. They’re different women in different indigenous cultures, but spiritually the same woman, with the same characters moving in and out of her life. Beautifully done.

* The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. A documentary about giraffe researcher Anne Innis Dagg, one of the first Westerners to study animal behavior in the wild, it’s fascinating but also infuriating, as she returns from South Africa to be thwarted at every turn by male-dominated academia. You watch something like this and you just want to scream at all the knowledge we’re missing because white guys gonna white guy.

ALSO WE SHARE A BIRTHDAY. Well, I was excited about it.