As we tentatively entertain the notion that a corner may have been turned in the nation’s battle against COVID-19, the prospect of returning to some sort of normalcy beckons like the flickering light of a film projector. If and when that happens, there will be a long list of films that skipped the arthouse/indie theater circuit and went straight to streaming. The goal with this column is to spotlight a couple of those worth the time and effort to catch at home, and to point out a couple more that, well, aren’t.
The World of Wong Kar-Wai
Sure, it would be better to watch the “Wonder Woman” sequel or Christopher Nolan’s latest mindbender on a 30-foot-high screen rather than a 30-inch-high one. But the 2020 cinematic event that might make you miss theaters more than any other is the seven-film retrospective of the work of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai. Bursting onto the scene in the early 1990s with vibrant, energetic tales such as “Days of Being Wild” and “Chungking Express,” Wong epitomized the possibilities of Hong Kong cinema beyond genre limitations, and the inherent promise of the city itself on the verge of its return to Chinese control.
Enigmatic behind his omnipresent dark sunglasses, Wong became an icon of postmodern cinematic cool. His meandering, nonlinear narratives provided a sense of play and freedom, set in urban neon landscapes and populated by romantic, sometimes doomed souls. Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong tweaked the language of cinema in ways that have influenced such American filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. Among the stunningly attractive performers who’ve graced his films are Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, and Gong Li.
Wong hasn’t directed a feature since 2013’s “The Grandmaster,” and the most recent entry in this retrospective is an hour-long, extended cut of his 2004 short film “The Hand.” But these films have an eternally contemporary feel, even when, like his 2000 masterpiece “In the Mood for Love,” they’re set in a poignantly recollected 1960s version of Hong Kong. That film, even more than the others, demands to be experienced on a big screen, where its lush costumes, gorgeous leads, and delicate aura of loneliness and hesitant romance can fully envelop a viewer.
But that’s not the world we live in today, and streaming these titles, each painstakingly restored to 4k digital magnificence, is better than nothing. It is, in fact, a powerful reminder of the sort of pleasures we’ve been denied, but which await us on the other side.
The British filmmaker Ken Loach has been telling stories about working people for more than half a century, from his debut feature, 1967’s “Poor Cow” to his latest, “Sorry We Missed You.” He has remained resolutely focused on the struggles of ordinary people to overcome their exploitation by capitalist systems and achieve some measure of dignity in their lives. “Sorry We Missed You” is both timeless and topical, chronicling as it does one family’s encounter with the so-called gig economy. It doesn’t go well.
Still struggling to make ends meet a decade after the 2008 housing crisis, Ricky (Kris Hitchen, in the sort of role that Peter Mullan would have played 20 years ago) decides to take a job as a package delivery driver for a UPS-type company. He soon learns that he won’t be an employee, but rather an independent contractor, which means he needs to get his own van. To afford the down payment, he convinces his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), who works as a home care nurse, to sell her car.
With Abbie relying on the bus to get to her clients, and Ricky working long hours, the family begins to fray. Teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) struggles in school and develops a fondness for spray-painting graffiti art. Younger daughter Liza (Katie Proctor) tries her best to act as though everything is normal, but it’s clearly not. Ricky learns quickly that the ostensible freedom that comes from his freelance status is cold comfort in the face of an unsparing manager and a relentless drive towards efficiency. (In one all-too-realistic detail, the drivers all carry piss bottles with them so they don’t waste time stopping to use the restroom.)
Loach has, at times, been justifiably criticized for descending into political pedantry at the expense of narrative coherence. Here, though, that’s not a problem. Screenwriter Paul Laverty, a frequent collaborator who also wrote Loach’s Palme D’Or-winning “I, Daniel Blake,” occasionally puts one foot on the soapbox, but always holds back and lets his characters embody the story rather than narrate it. The movie takes its title from the cards Ricky and his coworkers leave for customers who aren’t home to receive packages, but it could also serve as a faux-sincere apology from post-industrial capitalism to the workers that it left behind.
Another empathetic look at the plight of exploited labor comes in the French drama “Amin.” Its title character (Moustapha Mbengue) is an immigrant from Senegal working construction and odd jobs on the outskirts of Paris. Amin returns home occasionally to visit his wife Aisha and his three children, but these visits become less frequent once he starts working for a lonely, divorced, middle-class mother (Emmanuelle Devos).
Director Philippe Faucon isn’t out so much to craft a spicy cross-cultural melodrama as he is to demonstrate the way two lonely people from opposite backgrounds can be drawn together by their shared ennui. In fact, the movie could have used a bit more emotional heat, especially as Amin’s wife begins to suspect, from a continent away, that something is amiss. Still, “Amin” is an effective look at the almost Sisyphean task faced by someone striving to make a better life in the face of a heartless world.
Twists and Turns
When they work, plot twists can turn a good film into a great one—see “The Usual Suspects” or “The Sixth Sense.” When they don’t, they only reveal the paucity of a screenwriter’s imagination and/or the limitations of an actor’s range. Each is on display in a couple of new flicks that try to be a little too clever for their own good.
If you want the twist in the psychological thriller “Elyse” unspoiled, do not Google the movie’s title, as the first line of the resulting synopsis gives the game away. Lisa Pepper stars as the title character, the disaffected wife of a presumably successful lawyer (Aaron Tucker). Elyse returns one night from wandering around town to find her husband, her mother, and her nanny’s adult daughter enjoying dinner together. She has a paranoid freakout, and her husband convinces her to see a psychologist, who happens to be played by Anthony Hopkins. Doing his best Anthony Hopkins impersonation, the great actor probe’s Elyse’s disjointed psyche, but it doesn’t help. Unimaginable tragedy ensues, at which point the movie, which had unspooled in an affectless black-and-white, switches to color, because—well, you can Google it if you want to know.
As the mediocrity of the film becomes slowly, then readily, apparent—from Pepper’s unmodulated performance to the flat cinematography from the normally reliable Dante Spinotti—you can’t help but wonder what Hopkins is doing here. Sure, he’s been in some stinkers in his day, but those usually involve either big paychecks or chewier roles. It’s only when the final credits roll, identifying the director as Stella Hopkins, that it makes sense. Sir Anthony also wrote the score for his wife’s directing debut, and Stella’s daughter Tara Arroyave plays the nanny’s daughter. As an example of family support and togetherness, “Elyse” shines. As a compelling look into the mind of a disturbed woman, it…doesn’t.
One of the hoariest tropes in plot twistdom is what might be called the “purgatory gambit.” Our characters have suffered some sort of trauma (car wreck, plane crash, heart attack, etc.), and now things seem more than a little off. Wait, maybe they’re dead and they don’t even know it!
Such unfortunate souls are doomed to “Wander Darkly,” which also happens to be the name of a new movies in which Diego Luna and Sienna Miller play a young, unhappily coupled new parents. One night as they are bickering in the car, they’re involved in a horrible crash. Their bodies die, but their souls continue to exist, proceeding to relive the key moments in their relationship. Each remembers things somewhat differently, and by moving through these emotional episodes, they come to appreciate each other, and life in general, anew. So the next time you’re bickering with a loved one, remember: don’t be like Diego and Sienna! Carpe diem, don’t sweat the small stuff, and, oh yes, don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers.