Review: Shadow (2018)

Zhang Yimou is among the world’s most masterful visual artists, beginning his career with vivid, colorful period pieces and eventually mixing in gracefully choreographed combat sequences; Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the best action films from last decade. Shadow reverses his usual tendencies in a fitting way; the color is drained by limiting its set and costume design to shades of black and white while still being filmed in color.

This is a film of contrasts; in its color scheme, in its story, even in its structure. Everything about this movie’s design is very deliberate; the question isn’t whether it achieves its artistic goals, but whether those goals actually add up to something beyond their concept.

The flaw of this film’s affinity for stark contrasts is that it’s a story divided in two halves; political intrigue slowly leads into stunning combat. By dividing itself down the middle, the first half begins to feel like a narrative dump. The best slow films usually support themselves with stunning cinematography, and Shadow seems like it would have much to offer with such strong visual design – but because these sets are so artificial, not much is added by lingering on the image.

There are a few moments of training in this first half, but it naturally carries little stake. Much of it is people simply talking, setting up conflict that will later be resolved. Perhaps if all this didn’t feel like mere set-up for the true meat of the film, it would be more entertaining in its own right. It’s an exposed backbone to the full picture.

Thankfully, halfway through Shadow, the action finally kicks off and Zhang gifts us with a film that reminds us why he captured our attention all those years ago. Stark contrast is carried into the combat style, protagonist Jingzhou bringing an umbrella to a sabre fight in a battle of feminine grace versus blunt masculine force. As absurd as this sounds, the final result is surprisingly cool; this whole back half is loaded with stunning sequences exploring what these weaponized metal umbrellas can do.

Every element of the design has pay off here; the contrast of colors is highlighted by the sudden addition of spilled blood, while the heavy set-up grants these fights some serious stakes. The brutality of this film actually caught me off guard; this is a story of vengeance and backstabbing, and the final sequence is legitimately difficult to sit through.

As such, I almost want to say that brutally slow build-up is worth it; but there are other slow openings that I adore. The problem isn’t that Shadow‘s opening is slow, but that it’s tedious. The image itself is more engaging than how it’s captured here, and everything about its design works better in motion. It could have cut down quite a bit of time and only gained from doing so.

Shadow is a stunning action film with an unfortunate amount of build-up, but the final payoff is worth the tedium, especially when it moves into the chaos of its final act. Few films are as simultaneously graceful and horrific. Though it might not reach the heights of Zhang Yimou’s classics, Shadow is still a more evocative action film than most.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)

Long Day’s Journey into Night is as disorienting as films come, shifting in and out of the past and present, dreams and reality, with little to help differentiate. There’s a girl and a gun, and that’s all we really need anyway.

This is a film defined by its structure, essentially a film in two distinct acts. This transition is separated by the title drop, which pops up over halfway through the film. The first half is one of restlessness, capturing the atmosphere of tossing in your sleep with dreams that don’t quite connect as your subconscious wildly struggles to fill in the blanks. The Tarkovsky influence is obvious; if you think the similarities to Mirror are mere coincidence, writer/director Bi Gan makes sure to include a sense with interior raining to drive the point home.

Such disorientation can sometimes be more unpleasant than not, and with Bi Gan borrowing so much from slow cinema philosophies, the first act can feel like a chore. But much like Cuaron’s Roma, there’s a purpose to the tedium; Gan is lulling us into a false sense of understanding before flipping into a completely different mode.

It’s the back half of Long Day’s Journey that justifies the whole experience. Like the first, this segment is marked by a distinctly dreamlike atmosphere; but if the first half is defined by a dream you can’t make sense of, the second is marked by growing awareness – yes, this is a dream, but Luo is gaining control.

Bi Gan employs an impressive technical feat to capture this atmosphere. This entire sequence is one enormous long take, traversing from a cave down a mountainside into a remote village, making sure to feature precise actions just to highlight the seeming impossibility of such a daring act. The opening vagueness is replaced with the blunt; it may be difficult to line up how these two halves line up, but the on-screen action in this sequence is more easily digested. If it lacks clear narrative logic, there’s heavy emotional weight.

Like the best surrealist works before it, Long Day’s Journey is a film that demands to be puzzled over; it gives an immediate sense that something has been missed, something that can be etched out with just the right level of care and attention. This is a film that gives back what you are willing to put into it.

This is an admittedly difficult film to review; I’m struggling to wrap my head around what I experienced here. While I’m unsure of certain plot points, I can easily say this film carries an overwhelming atmosphere of great beauty. So many shots carry a resonance even if I can’t fully place what they mean; never before has a title drop left me so shaken.

While it’s easy to emphasize the back half, the first half is similarly lined with mesmerizing moments. The opening shot implies an impossible physical location; a conversation on two sides of a fence is suggested to be at a prison but the background suggests an endlessly open area; a scene as a man cries while eating an apple in full hits with a surprisingly emotional punch. Bi Gan commands a stellar visual language.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of those challenging films designed with a very specific audience in mind; but if you belong to that cinematically-inclined group, this is likely to leave quite an impression. By abandoning narrative cohesion, Bi Gan has crafted a film with an evocative, almost mystical atmosphere.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace is one of those mythical works of cinema that will forever be known as much for its troubled production and release as it is for its quality. Released over 40 years after being recorded in 1972, this is a simple concert film, a look at Aretha Franklin as she records both the best selling album of her own career and the best selling gospel album of all time.

This is an interesting document – it seems most of the truly legendary musical acts of the 20th century have at least one major cinematic work, and we have finally been graced with Aretha’s. It’s clear from looking into the production issues that a lot of time and effort was poured into making this presentable. But I can’t help but feel there’s something lacking – as nice as it is to see Aretha perform, it feels all too basic.

This film falls more on the Stop Making Sense end of concert films, sticking almost entirely on the performances. What makes Stop Making Sense one of the all time great films is how Talking Heads incorporates visual ideas into their performances – the slow addition of band members through the beginning, David Byrne’s massive suit, his frankly bizarre dancing. Amazing Grace lacks that visual spark, largely consisting of Aretha either sitting at a piano or standing at a podium. There are a few fun audience shots here and there, but that’s to be expected.

Standard isn’t too big of a sin – Aretha Franklin is one of the best musicians of the 20th century, and simply having such a recording is important for historical purposes. But I’d say this is far from one of the great concert films – it doesn’t help that, while being her apparent best selling album, Amazing Grace isn’t exactly what I think of when I think about Aretha Franklin. It’s so singular and niche, it really doesn’t capture the scope of her career. As Reverend James Cleveland says near the start of the film, Aretha Franklin could bring her energy to pretty much any song – there is power here, even to a non-religious person, through her phenomenal skill as a vocalist. But everything is so sedate in this setting that I really wish we could have a similar film where she tackles her popular classics.

Because it stays so focused on the music, there isn’t much information to be gained. The Reverend and her father both speak a bit about Aretha’s life, but it’s all rather simple information.

I don’t really have much more to say on this one – if you want to not just hear but see Aretha Franklin perform, this seems like the perfect release. But I’m not sure how much weight I would put on it otherwise. Because it chronicles a rather specific part of her career, I couldn’t imagine using this as an entry point for a new listener, which I could with something like Stop Making Sense. For Aretha, I think it’s best to give I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul a spin – Amazing Grace is simply a fun extra detail for those who really adore The Queen of Soul.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Cold War (2018)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a study of life in post-war Poland, following two lovers who would never fit in among the communist society that formed. This is romance at its extremes, two self-destructive people trapped inside a brutal machine.

Cold War runs largely off the vibrancy of its characters. The story starts with Wiktor Warski recruiting peasants for a folk music project. He becomes immediately enamored with Zula, a beautiful young woman who begins by attempting to ride the coattails of a more vocally-talented woman and is soon exposed as a city girl. Despite this, Wiktor casts her and they begin an increasingly desperate love affair.

The narrative structure is straightforward, its cruelty all the more palpable due to the simplicity. There’s so much at play here – two artists restricted in their freedom to create, but increasingly difficult to cheer on as more inner flaws are exposed. Cold War plays with our ability to sympathize.

What really sells Cold War as an important film is its stunning black and white cinematography, framed in a square ratio as if to announce that this is indeed an art film. Each image feels as if it could have fallen out of some old photo album. Pawlikowski has a tendency to allow his central images to sit just off-center, drawing our attention to the full picture. He’s dedicated to a conspicuous lack of symmetry.

There’s something disconcertingly fatalistic about the film, which holds a certain power but might not have landed with me as intended. Perhaps I lack the cynicism to be snared by its message – Cold War hits like the bleakest kind of Bergman movie. But walking disasters like these characters certainly exist – this is a film that seems to lack personal resonance despite carrying all the signifiers of a great work of art.

But with a title like Cold War, I suspect that feeling is intentional. The concept of giving up on everything but a single person should leave us cold. They are relatable and not – I’m sure many people have experienced a love that might have bordered on obsession at some point, but to carry it as far as Wiktor and Zula is madness.

Cold War is undeniably a well-crafted film. The actors, the cinematography, the staging, the sound – from a formalistic perspective, this is easily one of the most impressive films of 2018. It never wastes time, saying so much in less than 90 minutes. Its design is purely mechanical – cold.

But I’m wrong to suggest this movie is entirely cold – it’s filled with the fire of passion. In fact, I think contradictions are a key element of this film. People madly in love go out of their way to harm each other while beautiful camerawork lingers on dirty scenes – this is love framed against rubble. Perhaps this is less about love and more about trying to find something, anything to be passionate about in a world where expression is limited and constantly surveyed.

To put it plainly, I walked away from Cold War not knowing what to make of it – though its narrative was succinct, the meaning behind it is layered. These are the films that carry a lasting impact, and I’m certain this will be a work I look back on in a year with a stronger perspective. I’m already eager to revisit it, which is a rare state for me. But at this current moment, I can only say it’s a beautiful film that didn’t resonate quite enough to hit me now.

4 Stars Out of 5