Tag Archives: stunningly gorgeous beyond belief

Midnight Screening: Flash Gordon

It’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts. 

It’s the most depressing kind of thing to discover a film that is popular only for its theme tune, only to watch it and realize that the theme works primarily because of the film it accompanies, and that it is the images and sounds of that film in unison that dance together a most magic dance. Wait, did I say “depressing”? I meant absolutely positively exciting and inspiring in the most enchanting possible way, although it is also depressing in the sense that I am confronted with the fact that we remember Queen songs these days more than we remember totally singular, inspired filmmaking. For, terrible as it is in many ways, there are aspects of Flash Gordon that are inspired in a way I cannot even begin to describe. Continue reading

Stocking Stuffer Reviews: Holy Motors

holy-motorsLeos Carax took 15 years to make his next film, but he fashioned one of the decade’s most alert contributions to the history of cinema in the process, fundamentally tackling the idea of fiction entertainment and providing the most damaging, cantankerous commentary on the perils of acting and voyeurism you’re likely to find this side of the 21st century.

This inscrutable, willfully difficult monstrosity begins with an old man (Denis Lavant) waking up in his archly stuffy, bourgeois home to ride a limo to work. Well, presumably to work. Well, it is to work, but that’s besides the point. His driver (Edith Scob) informs him he has nine appointments for the day, and with tepidness he skulks right in. Then he scrapes on some makeup with precision and vigor, pulls off his hair, and the fun begins. His first stop involves a motion capture hootenanny, Lavant dressed to the nines in lightbulb sensors and a fellow, female, participant doing a dance with him that alloys the sensual and the robotic. From there he’s a monster, decked out like the Lucky Charms guy gone bad and cheekily beckoned forth by Akira Ikafube’s original Godzilla theme. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Ratatouille

If Ratatouille suffers in any meaningful way, it is simply because it does not redefine the possibilities of cinema like its immediate successor Wall-E, a contender for film of its decade and one of the two greatest American animated films since the original Disney Golden Age (yes, the original Golden Age, the one that ended in roughly 1942 and saw Disney fundamentally reorganize the state of film no less than four times).  That aside, it is an impeccable work, and although I suspect the if is more definitive, that is damning as enormous, transcendental praise.

Brad Bird came to Ratatouille with two films under his belt, the incomparably underrated tribute to ’50s genre cinema The Iron Giant and the morally questionable but zippy and whiplash recreation of American comic book history The Incredibles (if I felt Bird was some sort of radical, subversive genius, I might claim this film a mockery of the rampant elitism and individualist bootstraps twaddle inherent in Superhero lore; they don’t call it America’s Modern Mythos for no reason). Yet, while Brad is not looking to stoke the flames of film technique to redraw the lines of the form, or to indict that which he invests time in to with the fury of a New Wave auteur, what he is absolutely interested in, capable of, and brilliant at, is having fun with classical cinema given to new airs. With Ratatouille, he channels his talents into classical Hollywood fluff and has a grin on his face so big it’s ready to jump of and kiss the audience while he’s doing it. Continue reading

Review: Ida

It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.

The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent,  chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down. Continue reading

Review: Summer of 08: Wall-E

In a nearly dialogue-free sequence blanketed together by long-shots that cut only when absolutely necessary, capturing feeling and physical space with stunning, sparing clarity, we learn just about everything we could possibly need to know about the state of Wall-E‘s world with an awe-inducing elegance that casts its gaze on inspired little moments of action and (mostly) inaction. We are also treated to the finest cinematic homage to bright, feeling, humanist silent cinema snark this side of …well, the heyday of silent cinema.  While Pixar’s follow-up film, Up, pulled out all the stops for a life (or two) in a minute, Wall-E is wonderfully content to just chill and explore its world a little in the most wonderfully non-narrative fashion, invested less in “arc” than in the little visual moments that define character. The opening scenes of the film are, quite literally, just a slice-of-life drama, except there’s nothing alive to be found. There’s just a robot, and his name is Wall-E.

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Review(s): Laika, Part One (Coraline)

It’s an easy thing to see the success of Coraline the film resting squarely on Neil Gaiman’s shoulders. Indeed, his sly storybook writing is the base of the film’s narrative, which sees young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) stuck in the day-to-day doldrums of a dreary, lifeless existence in suburbia. Every detail of narrative is very much Gaiman-esque (which, if not yet coined, most certainly will be soon enough). One day, Coraline finds a portal to another world, alike in some ways but different in many others, as though it was built by the same architect in an altered state. There she meets her “other” parents, alike in every physical detail except one: black buttons sewn in where eyes once were. Emotionally and mentally, however, the new parents are polar opposites. While her old ones are overworked and uninterested, her new mother and father spend every waking moment perfecting Coraline’s world. It’s a dream come true, but young Coraline is about to discover that behind every dream lies a nightmare waiting to burst out. Continue reading

National Cinemas: My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi).  It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.

My Neighbor Totoro

Jake and DefneMy Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Update 2019: Another viewing, and I’m still convinced that the central enigma of Anderson’s style is that it still feels as much like a reckoning as a refuge: for everything he asks of us, there’s as clear a sense that he is hiding more from us, and from himself. His brutally mannered style often feels like overprotective personal authoritarianism, the kind of excessive formalism of a director composing his characters’ worlds with an absolutist sense of extreme mastery. To that extent, this film’s style is actually more authoritarian than ever, the cleanliness of Anderson’s lines (both geometric and linguistic) all the more shielding and unyielding, all the more unforgivingly sculpted down to the most atomistic level. And, as with all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom not only externalizes its characters expressionistically but defines those characters by their willfully expressionistic selves: at first blush, they simply refuse to not choreograph their very souls for us, to adorn their walls with markers of their core being, using style as a shorthand for self rather than asking us to figure out anything about them.

Moonrise Kingdom makes this manifest in the narrative as well: more than ever, his youthful protagonists’ childlike replication of emotional maturity and sensible domestication have the automatic quality of predetermined conclusions, children unthinkingly performing what they’ve been programmed to by adults. If Moonrise Kingdom is autobiographical, not necessarily at the level of narrative event mimicking his personal life but at the level of formal embellishment exposing his soul, then this becomes the first film where Anderson’s style finally peers back into itself to explore its own self-construction, and, more importantly, the nervousness underlying that construction. Perhaps because it meditates on the character Anderson might be or might become, it does feel as though Anderson’s aesthetics have stopped excessively signposting his characters and begun to tease out what they themselves don’t (or can’t) signpost for us. The effect of this is arguably to turn Anderson’s toyboxes into tragedies.

Rather than reassuring our own desires to manicure our personal images and govern our own personal spaces, his film (and his follow-up, The Grand Budapest Hotel) finally seems to actually delve into the chaos of the mind beneath the flattened diorama exteriors and precious costume shelters. The latter no longer seem representative of his characters’ souls but, rather, indicative of their anxieties, no longer expressing who they “are” so much as what they either refuse to admit or don’t realize they can’t admit. Their symmetrical equipoise (as domineering as ever in Anderson’s cinema) seems less the tyrannical domain of a dictator-director and more an admission of guilt on Anderson’s part, an acknowledgment of a cloistered soul whose personal directorial style has sometimes existed to protect him (and us) from recognizing our collective arrested development, from admitting to that which we can’t control, style, and comport with.

Moonrise Kingdom thematizes this tragic sense of self more eloquently than any previous Anderson film, evoking a greater sense of melancholic loss, of personal absence, his characters’ wounds starting to open for us to see. I, for one, still can’t tell that it doesn’t just amount to an overgrown child tidying up his soul with compositional tableau and cleansing his mind with figurines corralled, guarded, and stabilized rather than excavating his inner-self and exposing his raw nerves for us. In other words, Moonrise Kingdom tunnels so far down into Anderson’s personal underground warren that one can’t tell whether he is exposing new light or just hiding from it. But it certainly doesn’t feel like personal exhaustion, which is where I thought Anderson was heading circa 2010, and that alone suggests a director who still has crevices worth exploring.

Original Review:

And the story of Wes Anderson not so much reinventing or adding to his aesthetic but reigning it in continues.  When we last left him, he’d staved off a career of middling recreations of his first few films by turning to animation. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s return to live-action filmmaking, he seems to have learned a fair bit from his previous effort about loosening up and introducing a little fluidity and naturalism into his rigid formalism. The whole film is consummately Anderson-like – it would be a pale-faced lie to introduce this film as Anderson changing it up. But there’s a less suffocating air to the whole thing, more room for Anderson’s precision to breathe and infuse the wide open spaces of the New England vacation-land the film calls home. If Fantastic Mr. Fox was Anderson unhinged, this is him sitting back and relaxing, more comfortable than he’s ever been with himself and letting the wind take him any which way. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Edited and updated in mid 2015screen-shot-2014-01-15-at-12-47-19-pm

Sunrise was one of “those” films. By those, I mean the films which changed cinema, which defined “before” and “after”. While the case is often made for Citizen Kane as the singular production which advanced what film could do the furthest for its time period, Sunrise is perhaps the only film to seriously challenge that claim. F. W. Murnau, the expressionist master behind classics such as Nosferatu, brought his talents to America here, and to tragic romance. In doing so he not only created an ethereal, transcendently romantic vision of the world, but he transformed what film meant for that world.

The narrative of Sunrise is simplicity itself. It’s a story of love and temptation, intentionally rendered universal through characters whose names are literally types. They are “The Man”, “The Wife”, and “The Woman from the City”. The first and the second are married, while the first and the last are having an affair. These two plot to end the marriage and run off together, having “The Man” take “The Wife” to the city on a vacation from their country abode and drown her there. When the time comes he finds he cannot continue with the plan; the trip to the magical chaos and clutter of the city only rekindles their love. Assumed tragedy later strikes and causes “The Man” to grow angry and even potentially murderous, but love looms large in Murnau’s vision and he isn’t about to give up his puppy-dog mythos of the world without a fight. Continue reading

Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 Turkish drama Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems like it was made for me. A glacially slow, wistfully poetic film about finding visual beauty in mundanity (or is it the other way around?) that primarily focuses on the formal elements of film, such as camerawork and editing, at the expense of a conventional narrative, it aims to fill big shoes set out by directors long-gone, but whose mark on the film world is undeniable: Tarkovsky and Antonioni to name the two most obvious. High praise, but if you’re expecting a “but” … you’d be wrong. Amazingly, Ceylan overcomes any burden placed on him through comparison to past master-directors here, not by creating something truly unique but by learning from the best (his Sight and Sound Magazine Top 10 films list plays like a who’s who of languid art-house auteurs) and essaying their strengths for a time period sorely lacking in such provocative, deeply felt filmmaking. Continue reading