TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
*** Nina Wu is a struggling actress living in Taipei. When her agent nabs her an audition for a plum role in a '70s espionage thriller, she hesitates after learning it requires full-frontal nudity, though ultimately goes through with it. She earns the part, but discovers that the on-set environment is dangerous and brutal—the director is abusive in his quest to elicit Nina's best performance, and the (mostly male) crew members do nothing to intervene. As Nina begins to unravel, repressed memories leak through the cracks, and she questions how she actually got the role in the first place. The answer is horrific, almost as horrific as the fact that Nina Wu is inspired by true events. Written by and starring Wu Ke-Xi in the titular role, this darkly surrealist character study takes inspiration from Satoshi Kon's 1997 anime masterpiece Perfect Blue, and is a mesmerizing exploration of the myriad ways in which trauma completely alters one's mental health, one's identity, one's entire world. As Joan Didion said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," which is exactly the coping mechanism Nina chooses. Though the film is occasionally a tad unfocused, it still retains a serrated sharpness, leaving an unforgettable scar. NR. MIA VICINO. On Demand, Virtual Cinema.
Do Not Split
*** Frontline crisis journalism has long been a staple of the Oscars' Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. Unmercifully, the world never quits offering new topics. While Portlander Skye Fitzgerald's Hunger Ward would beat out the rest of the 2020 nominees for its sheer, don't-look-away portraiture, Norwegian journalist Anders Hammer's Do Not Split presents a more gripping reportage of Hong Kong's past two years. Between February 2019 and last June, a bill was proposed to allow extradition of criminal suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, and a controversial anti-sedition law was passed, which allows China to establish a national security agency in the former British colony. All of that time, Hammer's camera is guided on a tear-gas tour of a region protesting for its soul. The police brutality, flash bangs and thousands of young activists risking their futures should look familiar to any American viewer. But it's the earnest ingenuity of the Hong Kong protesters on increasingly treacherous political ground that renders Do Not Split a must-see, with its coordinated umbrella charges and rooftop escapes. Now, months after the film's completion, and with Beijing having recently granted itself authority to simply veto Hong Kong elections, the doc stands as a tribute to how ruggedly civilians will fight for a region seemingly lost to their past while still living out their wildest hopes for the future. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Virtual Cinema.
*** The Parisian take on the Irish goodbye, a French exit amounts to quickly and silently ditching a party. That's the Price family's move when their New York accounts run dry and mother Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) and son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) flee to France. There, they can hole up and spend their last cash stacks while the movie around them cycles through genres. Based on a 2018 novel by Portland author Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers), French Exit is mostly a roving gabfest, and a wonderful showcase for lioness-in-winter Pfeiffer, who savors Frances' boozy Lucille Bluth-esque contempt in dialogue exchange after exchange. By contrast, a kindly naturalist at his acting core, Hedges can't quite handle the playful yet biting artificiality. Still, French Exit simply tries on enough hats (love triangle, supernatural mystery, mannered comedy) that no one leaky crack sinks the ship. Azazel Jacobs' film is by far at its best in skewering wealth's absurdity, namely when Frances overpays a private detective to find a psychic to find a cat. Its more serious elements tend to drag, but there's a curiosity and empathy toward the Prices' ridiculous position. A onetime trophy wife (with no husband) and her trust-fund son (with no trust fund) are free of most everything: the good, the bad and any definition but mother and son. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. AMC Vancouver Mall, Liberty, Living Room.
*** According to director Francine Parker, the White House itself called up American International Pictures in 1972 and, poof, this vérité document of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland's anti-war variety show evaporated from theaters. The presumed reason for the censorship is still the most important historical detail within F.T.A. (standing alternately for "Free" and "F*ck the Army"). Those were the flames Fonda, Sutherland (both fresh off Klute), songwriter Len Chandler and their touring troupe tried to stoke with this satirical counterprogramming to the USO. We witness thousands of soldiers thwarting their base commanders to attend, and concurring with the vaudevillian skits and musical numbers skewering a war that would "flatten" Southeast Asian nations "to save" them. While the unearthed documentary's chief drawback is its sense of preciousness for the actual live show—maudlin folk ballads deserve their own wing in the Diminishing Returns Hall of Fame—it also demonstrates a real-time attentiveness to the Vietnam War's countless exploited parties: Black GIs, women in the Air Force, unionizing Okinawan workers, Filipino independence movements. Even if the harmonies and high kicks didn't turn the Hueys around, F.T.A. is a convincing testament to the theater kid's particular tools of discord. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Virtual Cinema.
*** Short films (even the kind nominated for Oscars) are rarely the domain of big-name actors, let alone movie stars of Oscar Isaac's caliber. But exceptions are often made for family, and director Elvira Lind casts her husband in a gentle, understated part in The Letter Room—one that runs counter to Isaac's preternatural suave. In fact, Richard the prison guard has more in common with modest, disquieted Tony Shalhoub roles than Isaac's X-Wing fighter pilots and folk singers. Obscured by a broom-bristle mustache and frumpy uniform, Isaac slowly unfurls the morbid curiosity resulting from Richard's "promotion" to the prison's communications department. Essentially, the new gig just means he surveils all correspondence leaving and entering the pen. Lind's 30-minute short manages to subvert the guard-with-a-heart-of-gold setup in a few unexpected ways (watch for another well-placed cameo) as the power disparity between captors and captives shifts. In fact, confoundingly, the letter room may be the only carceral context in which the playing field levels. If everyone knows full well they're either snooping or being snooped on, personal letters become fictions, then fan fictions, then forgeries. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime, Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Virtual Cinema.
*** This nine-minute short is the pinnacle of 2020's Oscar-nominated animated shorts. But if Opera tells us anything, beware of pinnacles. Patient and haunting, Erick Oh's conceptual film comprises one drooping pan down a pyramid-bound society, and then one pan back up. Resembling a pagoda in some areas and a spectral Richard Scarry illustration in others, the structure is populated by thousands of minuscule and identical beings, but their boundaries are clear: a ruling force at the top, undergirded by intellectual and professional strata, with laborers at the bottom. Best seen on a 100-foot screen or with your nose 6 inches from your TV, Opera is intensely allegorical, though it's difficult to pin down for what exactly. The castes, exploitations and cyclical violence found in most every modern civilization? No answer seems too big. Whatever the inspiration, Opera is a technical stunner. A viewer could watch it 10 consecutive times and snatch some new fleck of detail from, say, the second box on the left, seven levels down. The macro-simplicity of countless stick figures milling around a triangle only enhances the themes as ambitious as Mother! and disturbed as Brazil. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Virtual Cinema.
** Finally premiering after some 40 months of frantic reshoots and studio dithering (and, sure, virus-related postponements), Chaos Walking was an anticipated adaptation of Patrick Ness' beloved YA sci-fi trilogy. But the film slunk into theaters this month under a cloud of negativity not unlike the roiling miasma of doubt and aggression bedeviling the 23rd century humans who inhibit its "New World." Crash landing on the distant planet as a scout for a second wave of immigrants, Viola (Daisy Ridley) stumbles into a rough frontier community only to find all the women settlers are dead. Meanwhile, the men have become afflicted by a phenomenon dubbed "Noise" that renders mental activity visible, though the look of each one's mind varies. Naturally, Viola's arrival spurs various reactions. The town's mayor, David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), wields his psychic shroud as a means of deception, while farmboy Todd (Tom Holland) is cajoled into aiding her escape and veers between a hectoring chorus of thoughts that range from self-recrimination to lust since this is the only woman he's ever seen. Thankfully, these three lauded actors aren't asked to do much more than lean into their signature affects: Ridley's unsinkable resolve, Prentiss' simmering menace, and Holland's adorably brash neuroses. Compared to the relentless world-building of recent tween-targeted dystopian franchises, there's a quiet confidence that downplays batshit-crazy sci-fi elements to encourage a sense of discovery. Alas, as the film repeatedly stresses, it's never the thoughts that count. PG-13. JAY HORTON. AMC Vancouver Mall.