Thursday, October 28, 2021

Just Made It Fit: Days and Prisoners of the Ghostland

The Brattle's schedule came out before I booked my trip to Washington, DC, so I did, in fact, spend a fair amount of time hemming and hawing about whether or not I wanted to fly 450 miles to see baseball the same weekend that would likely be the only time that these two movies from singular filmmakers would be playing in the area, let alone at one of my favorite venues (over and above "is it wise to get in a metal tube for a couple hours, for any reason, in 2021?"). Eventually, I settled for tweaking the dates on the trip so that I would return on the second-to-last day of their run. DC-to-Boston is only a couple hours on a plane, and I scheduled it for a reasonable hour, so I wasn't even a little wiped out when I headed to Harvard Square.

Oddly enough, the Brattle's Covid capacity was kind of perfect for Days, because it's a movie you want to see in a theater - it's gorgeous and has a couple of moments when it's nice to hear/feel other people react - but maybe not a packed one where you're sensing another person's presence that close to you or even accidentally touching hands. Movies about isolation are odd things - they don't feel quite right in theaters but feel like an attack when you're at home - so it's oddly appropriate to have a little of it imposed upon you to watch this one.

(I do wonder how many storyboards were necessary for this movie, though. A couple dozen? Fifty? More, but half of them for one scene?)

After that, it was a little bit of hanging around for Prisoners after that and, I'm not going to lie, it's not great. I think part of it is that I can just never get into the sort of disconnected-but-taking-stuff-in mindset that a lot of weird movies seem to require; if I'm noticing the cool stuff, I'm also noticing the bits of the plot that don't work. Maybe it's never going in for alcohol or weed or something. I'll probably get a copy on disc anyway - Sono/Cage deserves a second look and you want to encourage crazy stuff on 4K - but it's a bit of a letdown.

Still, between this evening and the double feature a couple days earlier, I had a week of movies by Justin Chon, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Sion Sono, right before the start of Nightstream, which isn't a bad run at all.

Rizi (Days)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

As much as I've enjoyed the work of Tsai Ming-Liang in the past, I purchased my ticket for Days based on a gorgeous still that came across my Twitter feed a few months ago. I eventually got that image, and it was part of a shot that was impressive itself, so, hey, success. Nevertheless, there were times leading up to that scene when I wondered if the filmmaker was having a laugh at his audience's willingness to embrace nothing happening, afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes, but Tsai eventually earns that inaction.

It opens with a middle-aged man, Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) staring out a window, watching it rain, and Tsai holds that shot, as he tends to do throughout the film; then takes a bit of a nap in his bath, Elsewhere in Bangkok, the younger Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) prepares dinner for himself, a process that involves starting two or three fires in clay mounds. They go about their relatively solitary business until they inevitably meet, with Non hired to give Kang a massage in a hotel room booked especially for the purpose.

The film opens with an on-screen advisory saying that the film is intentionally unsubtitled, which depending on one's mindset can seem almost taunting at first, not just doing something pretentious and unconventional, but drawing attention to it. The actual effect is the opposite; it lets Tsai keep the audience's focus on the "action" and imagery rather than the bottom quarter of the screen without having to force the already-taciturn characters to be unnaturally silent. They're not saying of consequence, and it comes across whether you speak Mandarin or not. It's counter-intuitive, but Tsai has been doing this sort of thing long enough to know what he's up to.

Not every bit of deliberate minimalism is so obviously effective; those who have seen some of Tsai's movies before will not be shocked that he lets his scenes breathe, to put it mildly, even and especially when not much is happening. It's not that Tsai doesn't make some good use of this - he and cinematographer Jhong Yuan Chang frame some beautiful shots, and the frequent rain on the soundtrack is enveloping but not oppressive. Scenes go on long enough that one can't help but study them and the two men at the center. Kang is sphinx-like, often still, not particularly active until he starts prepping his hotel room for the massage. Non isn't exactly fleshed out, but one can see him concentrating on immediate concerns, not quite easy-going but pulling back a little as he gets set to do his job. The massage itself is almost comic in its elongation - a lot of attention paid to one particular area - and it's hard not to think back to that opening disclaimer when Kang is suddenly not talking, really, but making expressive noises.

During and after all that, one does eventually get to a sort of understanding of how numbed and repressed Kang is, only able to feel anything with a lot of groundwork and effort, only to see that sensation drain away almost immediately, though some of the film's most gorgeous moments happen in that window, as the camera pulls out and the city seems alive and full of connected people, even if it doesn't last. There's art in how that realization presents itself after two hours of impatience, blooming and fading until Kang things are back to where they started.

Its time on the big screen came and went quickly, but I'm not sure I could have watched it with a remote control in my hand; it demands one's entire attention but also encourages one's mind to wander until a viewer finds the thing that interests them in a scene. It likely works best in a theater because of its isolation, although there is more than enough striking imagery to make it an interesting watch at home.

Also at eFilmCritic

Prisoners of the Ghostland

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

I don't know that there is ultimately more to Prisoners of the Ghostland than Sion Sono playing with cross-genre apocalyptic imagery and Sofia Boutella eventually reminding viewers that she moves better than just about anyone else on film. A more straightforward movie might not need more, but this one is so buried under messy world-building and thick accents that would have been comically but comprehensibly dubbed over in the 1980s crud it imitates that it's hard to enjoy the sheer weirdness on display.

It takes place in the sort of future where one can see Hero (Nicolas Cage) and Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) robbing a bank with the aesthetics of an Apple Store in one scene and then in the next see Hero caged up in the remains of a "Samurai Town" amusement park run by a local warlord - or "Governor" (Bill Moseley) - who offers him a deal: His foster daughter Bernice (Boutella) has gone off into the badlands, and Hero is the man to do it, outfitted with a special explosive costume that will blow off his arms if he tries to raise a hand to her, for example. Of course, rescuing her means overcoming his own demons, finding her amidst a village of cultists who believe complete nuclear annihilation will come if the town clock strikes the hour, and dealing with how she's retreated so far inward that she can't even speak, which is a problem because unless her voice resets it, the suit will blow Hero to smithereens rather than let him escape.

Director Sion Sono has been a mainstay for fans of Japanese cult cinema for decades now, in part because he has been so prolific that he would often have not just one movie at an annual genre festival, but two or even three (or that one would be a four-hour anything-can-happen thrill ride) and in part because he seemed to grow more energetic as he aged, setting a faster pace and filling his films more to bursting. This is his English-language debut, but his stamp is nevertheless all over the film: Even the silent or withdrawn characters have big personalities, he'll happily jump over anything that seems to be just marking time between the fun parts, and he'll give the viewer striking new sights regularly. He doesn't write the screenplay, and while at some points that hardly seems to matter - he's jumping from idea to idea and basically using it as a skeleton to play with images of the apocalypse and how they are used in film - at others one starts to wonder. The Ghostland is a jumble of genre archetypes, and mashing them together even if they don't quite fit is what these movies are often about, but his instincts don't always match the story by Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai. When a filmmaker as eccentric and talented as Sono creates something from the ground up, he knows how to skip to what feels like it should come next even if it leaves important information and events out, but he's seldom able to find that sort of rhythm here. It's the sort of chaos that highlights how little the whole thing seems to be fleshed out, rather than a pinball machine which rapidly redirects the audience but also has them wondering what the next bit of action will be.

The light shows he sets off are nevertheless often pretty good, of course. He and his crew build environments that always seem a bit more interesting than one might expect given that the basic idea has shown up a lot. There's just enough functioning neon in Samurai Town (and other decorations just beginning to show signs of wear) that the seemingly pre-apocalyptic bank is just within reach of making sense, for example, an outpost of the rich among those trying desperately to hang on. The mix of different forms of madness in the Ghostland never settles into one metaphor, but why should it? Some people facing the collapse of everything they know are going to worship false prophets, some are going to wrap themselves in a cocoon until they become mannequins, and others are going to try and turn back time. Sono and company aren't going to go particularly deep on any of these ideas, but the different forms of madness are both more and less overwhelming.

It also doesn't hurt that he's got Tak Sakaguchi and Sofia Boutella on-hand for when things start getting crazy. Tak is on-screen as the Governor's bodyguard with a troubled conscience, but he's doing just as much work behind the camera (under the name Toshiro Takuma) as Sono's action director. His signature quick movements and ability to handle a large crowd of extras are a good match for the director's fast pace and willingness to try anything. Boutella, as usual, makes great use of having entered show business as a dancer; whether being twisted and still in the way the average person without exceptional body control can't be early on or cutting through the action in the way few others can at the climax.

Nicolas Cage, meanwhile, is enthusiastic if not nearly so physically accomplished as those co-stars, and while many fans of his greatly enjoyed his relative restraint in Pig, even those who don't find his collaboration with Sono as a reason for giddiness would still be excited about his diving into a movie this crazy. The thing is, it seems as if Sono is as much a fan of Nicholas Cage as any other cult film nerd and more or less expects the magic to happen on its own, but Cage does actually need to be directed. This performance has moments of inspired madness but also plenty where Cage doesn't seem to know what variety of ham the scene needs. He's famous for his commitment to even the most out-there parts, but there's not a whole lot for him to commit to where Hero is concerned. There's no core for him to bring to the surface in garish fashion.

It's almost as if these two strong personalities were too deferential to the other when they needed to butt heads or have one clear vision. It's not enough to make Prisoners boring or not worth watching once - it's got too singular talents involved for that to happen - but if this is the only time that Sono and Cage work together, it will go down as one heck of a missed opportunity.

Also at eFilmCritic

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