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Haiku Review: ‘Columbus’

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It’s that post-Christmas-pre-New Years holiday stretch, which means you need safe but solid movies to burn through with relatives. Are they tired of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 2’? Do they like the most *gentle* of gentle coming-of age dramas? Then BOY have I got a staff pick for you.

Columbus posterArchitecture buffs
Look at some buildings, bone once
Sounds bad but it’s not!

A note before we really dive in here: ‘Columbus’ is a tedious movie. Let’s be super-clear about that upfront! It’s not boring, which would imply disinterest. But baked into the DNA of this relatively doable 105 minute (which easily feel like 170) movie is this “take your time” philosophy that, if you’re not onboard, may put you right to sleep. But this is sort of the point? (Editor’s note: GREAT REVIEW ALREADY, HENDOG.) What I’m trying to say is 1) the tedium feels pretty deliberate 2) it’s hardly a bad thing and 3) it may actually be the most powerful thing about this movie. Beauty in tedium! In an era where everything happens now, yesterday, that’s sort of nice.

The plot’s about as complicated as a napkin, if you’re still reading:

John Cho’s famous architect father has just fallen into a coma, drawing his son to Columbus, Indiana (Not Ohio! This isn’t important), a city he doesn’t want to be in. That is until he meets would-be-college-student Haley Lu Richardson (she was the friend in ‘Edge of Seventeen’), a girl who’s clearly meant for more exciting things but sticks around this architecturally significant city to help out her addict mom. Will these two very attractive people learn from each other? Will the buildings grow in metaphorical import throughout the movie?

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 5.44.23 PM

Let’s be real — you already know if this thing’s for you or not. One look at that poster up there was probably all you really needed to render a decision; more words from me aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. BUT if, like me, your cinematic Achilles heel is “movies that are sort of like ‘Garden State'” and you thrill at the prospect of watching two people look at stuff and muse about their place in the universe…well, consider this review a safe space. You’re home.

Roger Ebert once noted that “movies are the most powerful empathy machines in all the arts,” which is really just a pretty way of saying that movies, done right, give us access to other people’s perspectives. In performance, in cinematography, in editing*, you get to understand “what it’s like” for someone who isn’t you. Sometimes that means following a coked-out Henry Hill on the most paranoid day of his life; sometimes that means joining Haley Lu Richardson on her guided walking tour of a place she clearly wants out of yet can’t seem to shake. In ‘Columbus’, it’s not boredom; it’s careful, empathetic storytelling.

*in all the different aspects of filmmaking. It’s just continuing through to “…in costuming, in catering” might have been too much

I’m not gonna lie to you guys: Jin (Cho) and Casey (Richardson) do spend the bulk of this movie walking around and talking about buildings. BUT within those meandering conversations and lingering glances is some assured filmmaking that a) knows who its characters are and b) like its characters, doesn’t announce its ambitions so loudly. ‘Columbus”s charms sneak up on you.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 3.19.21 PM

The director, Kogonada, got his start editing video essays about the masters of film: Ozu, Godard, Hitchcock, Kubrick. What’s striking about his videos — besides the refreshing lack of narration — is their emphasis on cinematic language. Most film analysis of the YouTube persuasion obsesses over what stuff means, the narrative coherence of this or that movie. Kogonada’s more interested in the way cinema condenses or expands time, the way shot composition can tell you as much about a character as any big chunk of dialogue. You know, all that esoteric shit your film major friends try to impress you with.

Back to ‘Columbus’ — on the one hand, yes, this is a film that really, really loves wide shots of modernist buildings…

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 9.24.55 PM

…but what if I told you that it’s that juxtaposition of the formal (buildings) with the emotional (people talking about the buildings) that gives this thing cinematic life? That what occasionally feels like architecture porn is a feature, not a bug? Would you still call me “up my own ass” then?!

………….

CONTROL is the word of the day here. Architecture is made of it; Jin and Casey aren’t. Directors like Kogonada try to maintain it at the same time they know how limiting it can be to the “empathy machine” they’re trying to construct. And that deliberate push and pull is what elevates this thing from “less quirky ‘Garden State'” to its own unique artifact, a movie-going experience that seems boring but is anything but. I’m not saying you’re going to rewatch ‘Columbus’ on TNT years from now and think “FUCK yeah, been missing that movie with the buildings”… but maybe?

 

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