What to Watch on the Small Screen: February 2019

Whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow this year or not, Chicago will probably have to deal with freezing weather for a while yet. Here are some films you can stream while sheltering from the cold:

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

At the beginning of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a group of aristocrats are having a dinner party. Initially, nothing appears to be amiss: the conversation flows smoothly, the food tastes delicious, and everyone seems quite happy. Yet at the end of the night, all the guests find themselves inexplicably incapable of exiting the room.

As a self-proclaimed Surrealist, Buñuel loved making films about the inherent meaninglessness of established institutions and social conventions. That specialty of his is on full display in Exterminating. While it might seem nonsensical, the film’s premise quickly becomes the foundation for a scathing depiction of the upper class, one in which no amount of etiquette and education can conceal people’s base egotism, vulgar desire, and ravenous libido.

Exterminating proves particularly resonant, moreover, when you consider it in the context of Buñuel’s career. Just a year earlier, Buñuel had made Viridiana in his native Spain. That film opened to significant international acclaim, and it even received the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But since the Catholic Church denounced the film as “blasphemous,” it was unable to be shown in Spain, and Buñuel subsequently went back into exile in Mexico.

Given this background, it’s hard not to see Exterminating as a critique of the Spanish government, namely the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco. With their “I’ll do it if you do it first” attitude, the film’s characters embody the civic apathy and self-protectiveness that allowed Franco to rule Spain unchallenged for almost four decades. And with its overt religious symbolism, the film also highlights the way in which the Spanish Catholic Church openly colluded with Franco’s regime. Thanks to all this, Exterminating easily feels like the most personal and passionate of Buñuel’s works.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, Amazon, iTunes

See it for: Like The Exterminating Angel, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows depicts a festive gathering that quickly turns sour. Featuring stars like Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Ricardo Darín, the film will be in theaters starting February 8.

Vive L’Amour (1994)

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a salesman who hates life. Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung) is a street peddler who spends his free time reading porn magazines. May Lin (Yang Kuei-mei) is a realtor who can’t get anyone to buy the houses she’s selling. In Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour, these three people find themselves all using the same apartment in Taipei at one point or another, be it for sex, suicide attempts, or a much-needed midday nap.

On the surface, Vive L’Amour might seem like a mere rehash of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, another, more famous film about modern-day alienation. Stylistically, to be sure, Tsai shares Antonioni’s fondness for long takes and long shots. And as with L’avventura’s protagonists, the characters in Vive L’Amour are taciturn, expressionless people who have no idea how to communicate with one another.

If you look more closely, however, you’ll find that there are several things that make Vive L’Amour unique. First, Tsai grounds the film in the particular sociocultural environment of Taiwan. Set in the wake of the so-called “East Asian miracle,” the film captures the material aspirations and class consciousness that this newfound prosperity engendered in ordinary Taiwanese people. Additionally, it also illustrates the tension between the modern economy’s individualist ethos and the Confucian, family-based worldview of traditional Taiwanese culture.

More important than these analytical insights, however, is the way Vive L’Amour portrays its characters. In Antonioni’s films, the characters are indifferent, to the point that they don’t even have the desire for love. By contrast, Hsiao-kang, Ah-jung, and May Lin all very much want companionship, and the film’s essential tragedy is that they’re either incapable or unsure of how to express that desire. Ultimately, all of this lends Vive L’Amour a sense of poignancy that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any of Antonioni’s works.

Where to Watch: iTunes

See it for: In Rendezvous in Chicago, Chicago-based filmmaker Michael Glover Smith offers a more comedic look at urban relationships. The film will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on February 8 (8:00 PM), February 9 (4:30 PM), February 11 (7:45 PM), and February 13 (7:45 PM).

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tokyo Drifter
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter follows the adventures of Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a yakuza hitman who’s nicknamed “the Phoenix.” Although he’s renowned for his fighting prowess, Tetsu eventually decides to forswear crime and “go clean.” Unfortunately, however, his former enemies in the yakuza world still view him as a threat. So while he’d like to enjoy his retirement, Tetsu instead finds himself fending off one attack after the other.

Watching Tokyo Drifter will probably remind you a bit of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Like that masterpiece of the French New Wave, Tokyo Drifter is remarkably self-conscious. It knowingly exploits and plays up tropes of the gangster genre (sunglasses, cigarettes, and so on). But in a testament to its intelligence, it doesn’t lose sight of those tropes’ artificiality—and it never makes the mistake of confusing them with everyday reality’s dreary banality.

On the other hand, Tokyo Drifter will also remind you of Kill Bill. Like Tarantino, Suzuki is a director who privileges action for action’s sake, even if that means the narrative becomes confusing or downright nonsensical. Deep down, Suzuki knows that you’re watching his movie because, among other things, you just want to be entertained. And in that respect, he easily delivers, complementing suspenseful drama with a color palette that stands out for its fantastical flamboyance.

When put together, these two aspects of Tokyo Drifter allow it to operate on multiple levels. At times, the film seems like a piece of “lowbrow,” decidedly superficial entertainment. But at others, it plays like something more sophisticated, offering self-aware, highly astute commentary on the way genre conventions both heighten and appeal to escapist desires. In Suzuki’s hands, amazingly, this seemingly self-contradictory combination of registers works, and the end result is undoubtedly one of the most unique action films ever made.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, Amazon, iTunes

See it for: If you like Asian action movies, there are a couple things you can do this February:

  • The Music Box Theatre screens Jackie Chan’s Police Story 1 & 2 from February 1 through 7.
  • Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel is an action film based on the Japanese manga of the same name. It opens on February 14.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter
Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

In David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Laura (Celia Johnson) is an English housewife who leads a seemingly idyllic existence. Happily married with two children, she has the freedom to spend her days reading books, going to the movies, and meeting up with friends. But everything starts to fall apart after she meets Alec (Trevor Howard), a successful doctor with whom she quickly, unexpectedly falls in love.

Before anything else, Brief Encounter is a love story, a moving, if undeniably tragic, portrait of futile passion. As a product of the 40s, it can feel a bit melodramatic, and it occasionally leans too heavily on the stereotype of the “emotionally distressed woman.” But Johnson and Howard remain eminently believable, capturing the hidden agitation of two people who find themselves involuntarily attached to each other.

In a larger sense, moreover, Lean’s film can also be interpreted as a portrait of the British psyche. It exposes the emotional repression that underlies the paradigmatic image of the British as brisk, no-nonsense pragmatists. And given that it takes place on the eve of World War II, the film carries historical insight, illustrating the self-deluding façade of grandeur that the British clung to in the twilight of their empire. Put simply, this may be a prototypical romance film, but it abounds in ideas that go far beyond the boundaries of its genre.

Where to Watch: YouTube (free), Amazon, iTunes

See it for: It might sound a bit bleak for Valentine’s Day. But Brief Encounter will ironically leave you and your loved one with a heightened appreciation for open, honest communication—something that Laura and Alec simply never mastered.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) was a 15th-century Russian artist who’s still renowned in Russia for his religious iconography. The three-hour film bearing his name recounts a heavily fictionalized version of his life, featuring eight “episodes” that provide snapshots of his career, his personal experience with Christianity, and the historical environment he worked in.

In one sense, Andrei Rublev belongs to a tradition of films (Diary of a Country Priest, Ordet, Ida, First Reformed) about the challenges of faith. As depicted by director Andrei Tarkovsky, Rublev is a man who believes in people’s inherent goodness, and this shapes his conviction that Christianity should be merciful rather than strict. Yet over the course of the film, Rublev’s worldview is sorely tested by the self-interest, greed, and casual cruelty he sees in the world around him. In keeping with this, the film’s long takes and long shots compellingly capture the singular, quiet agony of Rublev’s existence, the overwhelming despair of a man who becomes all too aware of human fallibility.

Beyond this examination of faith, Andrei Rublev also offers larger insights into Russian history. Tarkovsky’s vision of medieval Russia is an anarchic wasteland, a barren wilderness where vague notions of “Russianness” don’t stop people from betraying and killing each other for self-advancement. Against this backdrop, moreover, the film makes Rublev out to be a frustrated individualist, depicting the way his personal approach to art lost out to the functionalist collectivism of his contemporaries. Combined, these two portrayals indirectly shed light on why Russians eventually proved so amenable to Lenin’s ideas—and perhaps more relevantly, why Russia remains unable to embrace democracy even now.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, Amazon, iTunes

See it for: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away is a three-hour biopic of the German artist Gerhard Richter. An Oscar nominee, the film will be released on February 15.

La Ciénaga (2001)

La Cienaga
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Mecha (Graciela Borges) is a 50-something woman who lives on a pepper farm in northern Argentina with her husband and teenage children. Her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) lives in a nearby town with her own husband and four rambunctious grade-school kids. Put crudely, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga follows the two families as they interact with each other over one summer.

Among other things, La Ciénaga is a showcase of Martel’s ability to suggest emotions. By turns still and mobile, the camera skillfully conveys the characters’ moods as they swing between ennui and excitement. The film’s soundscape, moreover, masterfully evokes an atmosphere for each of the story’s settings: the aimless lassitude of the countryside, the pell-mell chaos of Tali’s hometown, the impersonality of a metropolis like Buenos Aires, and so forth.

All of this provides the framework for a narrative where “nothing happens”—in a good way. Like the best stories of Anton Chekhov, La Ciénaga is a work where the unsaid matters so much more than what is made explicit. Initially, the characters might seem impassive, even indifferent. But as the film moves forward, we realize that their calmness is just a façade, a front that masks illicit attractions, suppressed grief, and overwhelming feelings of jealousy and impotence. Thanks to Martel’s direction and a series of stellar performances, particularly from Borges, La Ciénaga thus stands as a window into the contradictions and psychological intricacies of human nature.

Where to Watch: Amazon, iTunes

See it for: While La Ciénaga portrays two families of bums, Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family portrays a family of wrestlers. Starring Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Dwayne Johnson, the film opens in Chicago on February 22.

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Andrew Emerson