Tag Archives: cinematic playgrounds

Un-Cannes-y Valley: Black Orpheus

Update late 2018: Watching the film again, its vaguely exoticizing view of Brazilian culture is a more important discussion point than I let on in my original review, but as is its frequently scintillating signifying on Greek drama, its navigation of the Afro-diasporic tradition of updating and reconfiguring the Western canon in ways which both appreciate and assess the immanence of European thought by exploring how applicable Western narratives may or may not be to non-European cultures. Plus, it’s intoxicating cinema. 

signifies both on the tradition of carnivalesque inversion of the world in the Carribean and … culture and on social mimicry to … and subvert white forms of …, including conjuring the spirit of classical tragedy and … to …

 

certainly a question for debate, whether … is merely essentializing, or whether, as many Negritude philosophers have debated for decades, there is a way to think-through what were once considered, in an Orientalist manner, “gifts” of … “bestowed” by the non-white world, in a way which takes seriously their critique of Western rationality and ascetic … – their denial of play, rhythm, etc – without …

Original Review:

Black Orpheus opens with a gesture that is both instantly transfixing and entirely pragmatic. A close-up in static of a classical Greek marble bas relief presented with stately respect and disquiet, and then a cataclysm of percussive instrumentation and flamboyant color from a Brazilian festival bursting through the image, almost blowing it up as we are pulled right into the vivaciousness of Brazilian culture and everyday life. It is an instantly lovable, provocative jab at the regal historicism of European art lulled into submission by the weight of relying on the past. It is a pop-art statement to the fire and enticing chaos of Brazilian life. An instant announcement that this film is not going to be your classical Orpheus myth, deriving instead from another artistic and cultural tradition entirely, one brimming with life and present-day presentational zest and movement. Continue reading

Review: Inside Out

Bluntly, Inside Out is not a good film because it explores the inner regions of a child’s mind, nor is this a particularly novel concept. The girders of the screenplay strip parts from many films that rest on the subject of literalizing human emotion.. Winnie the Pooh, in all its facets, including the seminal duo of feature films by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, is implicitly about childhood emotions let loose in the forest of the mind. Eeyore is melancholy, Tigger is a deranged enthusiast and childhood id, Pooh is the curiosity balancing them all on a pin head. The Hundred Acre Wood is Christopher Robin’s free-floating mental space, scratchily drawn with free-floating ambition and tapered-off regions where the harsh scrawl fades into watercolor lightness to symbolize Robin’s emotions eventually trailing off into the great unknown limbo of pure empty whiteness. Continue reading

Un-Cannes-y Valley: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday

handout_18nov13_fe_hous1_copyHas the cinema ever known the pleasures of a greater humanist than Jacques Tati? Charlie Chaplin, who Tati is generally compared to, comes to mind, but Chaplin at his best could draw fangs. His post-silent productions are nasty-minded masterpieces, works of barely-hidden discontent more than whimsical discovery. Tati could poke fun with the best of them, but never ruefully, and anger may not have been a word he knew. Certainly, it wasn’t a word he wanted to room with, or even walk in the same neighborhood as. Chaplin could love his audience or laugh at them, and he sold both as well as any filmmaker ever did. Tati was never not laughing, but always with us, never at us, and his laughs were laughs of love.

His second full-length feature film, 1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, was the introduction of his most famous character, the divining rod for all of Tati’s interests, passions, needs, and impulses: Mr. Hulot, played by Tati himself in a titanic display of physical comedy matched in all of cinema only by Chaplin and Keaton (which is to say, it hasn’t been matched since this film’s release in 1953, except by Tati’s further experiments with the character). The film is virtually plotless: Hulot, a middle-aged, graying man, vacations in a lightly fantastical seaside cottage town, wanders around town, and causes mild havoc. And we smile. The story of Tati is the story of the smile. Continue reading

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Update early 2019:

In my original review I referred to this as cinematic rock ‘n’ roll, but Beasts of the Southern Wild is really more in the spirit of its ancestor, a bayou spiritual. Although it could be accused of wielding the filmmaker’s gaze to exoticize impoverished communities, it doesn’t fetishize its access to marginalized communities, and although it burrows right into the soul of a marginalized child with a fantastical charge, it preserves her opacity and doesn’t flaunt its access to her. Both a lament and an ecstasy, this folksy fairytale inhabits the spirit and follows in the wake of over a century of African-American folktales which both cross-examine the social tapestry, eulogize the lost dreams of the unheard, and catalyze their future aspirations.

Loyal to reality without being a simple duplication, Beasts of the Southern Wild porously flows from naturalism to fantasy without necessarily mapping the two in any Manichean fashion. Although it’s a little too preoccupied with its own inexorable fantasy at times, it’s seldom (or never) precocious, and, increasingly, it strikes me not as entombed within appropriated affectations but as inspired by an incredibly pregnant, overflowing history of marginalized populations reclaiming cultural (and pop-cultural) space denied them in manifold ways. It’s a tender but tough film, strange but not estranging, and it floods our synapses with a poetry that dredges-up submerged epistemologies from the past without forgetting how swampy its truths, and ours, are. Or how raging, tangled, and torturous the currents of the present can’t but be.

And what currents! The film is a vaporous tapestry, its restless vulgarities and energies diffusing into the ether, resulting in a film that is weighty but never weighted-down, always able to fluidly outflank any potential distrust with sheer, uncynical cinematic sublimity, shaded and even shadowed by gusts of self-awareness, premonitions of a wider world. It dazes us with its earth-ravaged beauty, somehow both transcendent and realist, exorcizing so many implacable spirits and unsettled energies, from Hurston to Baldwin to Malick, all of whom make perhaps strange bedfellows, but all both kindred in their dialectics of mysticism and materiality, spiritual and secular radiance, and Beasts of the Southern Wild summons their collective ethos and stays true to their spirits partially by disobeying them and materializing its own adjacent but not adherent attitudes.

It also shares those authors’ sometimes offhand toward the comingling of the personal and the political. Although it certainly inclines toward anarcho-syndicalism, or at least letting alternative communities be on their own terms, it doesn’t demonize the government so much as construe them as a foreign, monolithic interloper, with all the connotations that entails. It’s certainly aware that the government’s interventions into marginalized communities tend toward the palliative, at best, and the prejudicial and paternalistic, at worst. Although Beasts is mostly a parable of personal becoming, it’s also a plea to reconsider the hegemony of an empathetic but sometimes unthinking system which, the film ponders, cannot colonize all walks of life.

Original review:

Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like fightin’ words to the modern motion picture industry, a line in the sand with aesthetic-less lo-fi indies and sanded-off, corporate Oscarbait on one side, and Beasts carnivorously lurking on the other. It is above all a very instinctive motion picture, primordial and sensuous and rebellious in a way that eschews the intellectual, the analytic, and the rational for a burst of bedlam and commotion that feels, if not entirely structurally sound, all the more emotionally true for how close it comes to bursting. It’s cinematic rock ‘n’ roll. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies opens with an ebullient, maddening, playful, oblique, and altogether disconcerting cinematic treatise on chaos and order in the modern age: a group of men in a bar tentatively organized into a disassembled, flat-footed ballet that approximates with gusto and drunken flair the orbiting of the planets around the sun. It is a fully alive, alert gesture of cinematic visualization, and a humble one; for the maddening questions Tarr is known to cryptically tackle, he lays his meditation bare in this opening scene. The universe, he wants us to know, may be fundamentally chaotic, may be fundamentally ordered, he doesn’t know, and he wants to find out. Continue reading

Quentin Tarantino: Kill Bill

Rare is a film of such purity as Kill Bill, and rarer still is a film of such purity that is never less than fully confused and unsure of itself. From beginning to end, Kill Bill is entirely the artwork of an unabashed enthusiast and filmmaker, but it is a deeply perplexed film, perhaps intentionally so, and perhaps to its unmitigated benefit. Purring like a kitten on the surface but deceptively self-critical underneath, Tarantino’s most violent film also has more to say about violence than any of his films. It is a work that is simultaneously enraptured in love with itself and tearing itself apart in disharmonious hate, and thus certainly his most fascinating, conflicted piece yet. This doesn’t make it necessarily better or worse, but it may make it his most worthwhile film, especially because it never once allows us the confidence of our views in it. We can’t even really be sure if Tarantino “gets” it, and auteur theory isn’t going to help us one lick, unless of course it’s there in the background reminding us that Tarantino just can’t make an uninteresting film– even when doesn’t have a clue himself. Kill Bill can’t make an argument that Tarantino understands his own particular brand of proudly filmic anti-film commentary on the nature of cinema and violence. It may be him missing the forest of his own genius for the crimson-red trees of flailing arms and heads. But what a forest. And what trees.
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Review: Sin City

Because I reviewed the sequel…

Robert Rodriguez, try as he might, will probably never be a great director, but he is at least a director capable of great passion and investment in messy products when he gets around to it. His greatest films (and admittedly, his worst, but that is what happens when we are in the company of a very personal director) are generally those which see him in full control, although Sin City is something of an exception. It is perhaps his best film, but saying that Sin City is one of Robert Rodriguez’s best films doesn’t exactly address the extent to which it is a Robert Rodriguez film. Certainly, it is probably the furthest from his traditional wheelhouse of any film he has yet made, largely because it is a trade-off of his own alternately candy-coated and drained-out latin-tinged aesthetic for the hard-edged noir of Frank Miller’s sort. Beyond this, while Miller’s garish chiaroscuro could only come from the heyday of the amoral 1940s or the dark and dreary 1980s (bleeding over into the early ’90s, when the Sin City graphic novels began in earnest), Rodriguez knows only the exploitation films of the 1970s and pop-and-fizzle children’s movies of the atomic ’50s and bubblegum ’60s. Add in the fact that Rodriguez, whether hyper-saturating them to the point of bursting in Spy Kids or muting to a tactile sweat in Desperado, is a director of color, and Sin City is defined primarily by the absence of color, and what you’ve got is a genuine experiment. But how close this film in particular apes Miller’s style – we’re talking lengthy recreations of shot-by-shot panels and direct copies from the books – begs the question of whether it really is Rodrigeuz’s in the first place.
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Terry Gilliam: Brazil

The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.

Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
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Terry Gilliam: Time Bandits

With no new long-term features hoping about The Long Take for the time being, I’ve decided to do a few short features on directors of my choice. Each should take about a week, focusing on some of their more notable films and trying perhaps to capture their essence as a director. These will mostly tackle directors I haven’t much explored yet, and will probably take on directors with a sort of noticeable aesthetic or sense about them so that their films achieve a cohesive singularity while still retaining individual wrinkles. For my first feature, I’ve decided to look back through the cinematic works of Terry Gilliam, who I think we all can agree is one of the most unique directors of the past several decades to say the least. Enjoy!

It’s a good thing ex-Python animator Terry Gilliam dreamt up Time Bandits in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I cannot tell whether he did so before the sci-fi/fantasy push of the late ’70s and early ’80s, or whether the thought of Star Wars and its success wandering around his brain and taking up air pushed him toward the inklings that would birth Time Bandits, but once, and perhaps for the only time in his life, the stars aligned for Gilliam. His previous film Jabberwocky, his first solo directorial effort, was released in 1977, and this early year, still trapped in the high-minded cynicism of the mid-’70s, was not kind to Gilliam nor to fantasy as a whole. Really, the world wanted nothing but to double down on angst and paranoia during those hard times. They wanted cinema to comment on society, to explore it. The late 1970s presented a new option: the long-lost history of the cinema as escape. And in escape, it too would comment on how society needed the cinema, and why the cinema would always be there for it.
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75th Anniversary Film Favorites: Fantasia


phaseIn honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.

Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank.

Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
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