I Am At Your Service

Continuing my little mini-movement of my writing from the confines of a facebook group to this here blog, this one being a little more relevant given the recent death of the filmmaker. I’ll probably want more to say since I certainly don’t feel I exhausted what is one of the most radical movies experiences I think happened in my lifetime, but for now this will suffice.

We got “ok boomer” and we got “Old Man Yells at Clouds” and we got several more memes to indicate the unveiling of a new generational divide and the deep truth that old people are fucking bitches sometimes. It seems like a natural response towards changes to dig your feet into principles or behavior you’ve embedded into yourself regardless of how it conflicts with the shift of time. Young people are champions at this stubbornness but old people have it down pat.

One such bitch that we happened to give a camera to is Jean-Luc Godard and while that bitch-ass bitch attitude of his is released in ways that are often unproductive, toxic, and hurtful, there are times where it’s turned to the cinematic artform itself and the wrestle that ensues ends with the medium turned on its head in the most exciting way. This was present in his canonised peak of the late 1950s into the later 1960s and I think this is even more present in his current time. If the late cinema of Godard’s contemporary Agnès Varda was her using cinema to reconcile her age with a medium that allows her to exercise a young soul, Godard is barely trying to reconcile his age with a medium that stayed fresh and dynamic without him. And in my opinion, it has led to some exciting and introspective attempts to construct a personal language out of the new tools available to him.

Enter 3D, the hottest fucking toy that the past decade has re-introduced in manner more vital than the previous 3D boom of the mid-1950s. And it’s only one of a few things Godard and his new regular cinematographer Fabrice Aragno decides he wants to figure the fuck out of in this new age of filmmaking he’s living in, although it’s not the only thing since he’d already messed with prosumer cameras in Film Socialisme and surround sound with Notre Musique. And so with all that sort of curmudgeonly attitude about both cinema as an experience and as an art, he goes ahead and starts demolishing it and dissecting it on-screen.

The result is the most physical non-action-movie experience I think I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Jean-Luc Godard’s entire career ethos seems to be making us aware of how we register movies as pieces of each other – whether putting his focus on the editing or the subject or the color or the genre elements, it’s always something he wants us to notice in a pestering way – and the movie he made with Aragno just translates that to the modern advent of film technology: how do our eyes register entirely different information, how does that now change with movement on certain degrees, does this technology really add anything to the observation of nature, what about something we shouldn’t be looking at like a hairy ass or a penis or a breast or a vagina, what about something that we absolutely are physically unable to look at like an out of focus object, can we replicate the inconsistent positioning between our eyes, and so on. And then there’s the sound mix: ok, now we are forced to look in this direction but hear something in that direction, does it amplify off-screen sound (especially VIOLENT off-screen sound), was that a fart joke? Yeah that was a fucking fart joke.

I know this sounds like homework to a degree, but it is exhilarating to me: the concept of playing into the limits of a medium and then pushing further and seeing what happens when it crashes over and over (and oh how many times it can crash). This is certainly an experiment that has been replicated (there’s no way Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE exists without this movie and it’s a lot more pleasant, but Williams has also been making 3D shorts before this movie and this isn’t even Godard’s first tango with 3D), but the angry energy of this movie jazzes it up enough to make it all fresh and vibin’. It’s a fun and joyful movie in spite of the sort of anger that animates it somehow, but I think this is so of most Godard movies: he may not be having a good time but we are.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a pretentious movie from a pretentious filmmaker. But you kind of have to be pretentious to look at something and say “I am going to break that down as to render it useless”. And you can’t back out on that attitude, you gotta follow through on your arrogance if you want to succeed in creating a brand-new cinematic language out of it (something I’m never not going to be excited by and a thing that I think Godard is only met with Terrence Malick’s post-Tree of Life movies in attempting). After all, even if the plot is the last thing you should be paying attention to, the conversations and monologues had about technology’s growing place in collapsing the way people communicate together even face to face is insistent that something’s gotta give and these shining new toys demand a new vocabulary to work with them.

Which is probably why the movie in question was called Goodbye to Language.

People Like Us

For a little bit of meta-blogging, I’m phasing myself out of a facebook group I’ve been in and some of my contributions to that group involved some long-form writing that I’m a little bit proud of and would like to share outside that group’s confines. As such, below is the first of what will be several posts this month migrating my writing from there to here.

Depending on the results at the night of which I write these words (Author’s Note 1 Dec 2022: this was written the night of the 2020 Presidential Election), who knows if we’re in the mood to think about some small utopic town in Texas? But somethings just have to be grappled with for some and I’ll wrestle with your conscience while you wrestle with your partner.

Just to get full disclosure out of the way: I’m barely certain that David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories – the only movie that the frontman for the former band Talking Heads ever directed – is actually a good movie and don’t have any illusions of it being a great one by the metrics I go by. Byrne, co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley, and editor Caroline Biggerstaff don’t seem to have spent enough time thinking about how to connect all the wonderfully fascinating ideas and concepts they have about this one isolated Americana town of Virgil, Texas. More particularly, Byrne appears to see making a feature film as no different that making a bunch of music videos and though those music videos are marvelous eye candy as shot by the great Ed Lachmann with subtly depressive tones of bright blue and pink and of course Byrne is a phenomenal songwriter (and anybody who needs to see the light on Talking Heads must run to the masterpiece Stop Making Sense immediately), it doesn’t make for feeling like we ARE watching a whole. Just pieces.

And this kind of prevents me from feeling like the creation of Virgil as a place – the very raison d’etre of True Stories – is as complete as I could be satisfied by. The knowledge that we are watching setpieces instead of living in an environment and the full lack of even atmospheric thoroughline between those setpieces.

And yet… True Stories is a movie that I am deeply in love with ever since I had first seen it 3 years ago, coincidentally a few months before I visited Dallas in flee from Hurricane Irene (and funny enough almost bought a DVD copy from the Movie Trading Company in Beltline before reminding myself a Criterion edition was being hinted at the time). Another visit to Dallas years later would see me deliberately visiting locations where I knew it to be shot.

Works about America as a concept interest me greatly (the Western lover in me insists on this) and works especially about America as a concept made by foreigners interest me most of all (such as Wim Wenders’ work or Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series). They make me recognize that as somebody who isn’t born of this land, there is a way to examine it while feeling of a part of it in all but birthright. Calling David Byrne a foreigner is something of a stretch given that he’d moved to Baltimore by the time he was 8, but that is a couple of years older than I was when I came here and her took much longer to get his American citizenship than I did (in fact, he was still solely a Scottish citizen at the time he made this movie). More importantly, the energy and attitude of this movie looking in on the town of Virgil is explicitly that of an outsider and that’s what encourages us to have an exploratory attitude. Byrne’s music had already by this point given away his desire to dissect what is in motion about a community or a society or even just a connection between two people with a sense of distance that somehow doesn’t feel tragic (in one of the rare instances of Armond White’s mouth not spewing reactionary bullshit, he observed a yin and yang between Prince’s desire to turn the sexual into intellectual and Byrne’s desire to turn the intellectual into the sexual, which I absolutely believe songs like “Wild Life” lead into and hey look at that… there’s a Prince homage in that scene). True Stories has given him an opportunity to apply that fascination – something that almost always spilled over to interrogating modern life’s focus with consumerism and Rockwellian domestic fantasies – to a different medium and try to see what that medium allows him to do. Apparently, it allows him to turn it on its head by choosing as a subject a land ostensibly rural that also ends up indebted to a single computer company Varicorp, something I feel could be treated as more cynical than it is (though at the very least, Byrne, Lachman, and Biggerstaff treat Varicorp as a sterile environment) or to have long dolly shots through the malls that Byrne’s lyrics so previously had curious musings on.

It also allows him to populate this community with quite a crew of characters, like John Goodman’s breakout performance as the gregariously yet melancholy Louis Fyne or late monologuist Spalding Gray’s chattering civil leader Earl Culver (who will apparently talk the head off of everyone but his wife, played by Annie McEnroe) or Tejano musical icon Tito Larriva’s suave psychic, not to mention a bed-resting Swoosie Kurtz or Jo Harvey Allen’s compulsive liar. I expect that most of Tobolowsky’s background as a phenomenal and deservedly beloved character actor went into creating these people, but apparently they also came from a bunch of eccentric news clippings that Byrne collected and put against a wall from his time touring with Talking Heads and his wondering about what if… these stories were all true? And even with performances that distinguish and live in these characters – Allen and John Ingle’s conspiracy theorizing preacher in “Puzzlin’ Evidence” particularly hint at the darker side of Virgil (though I honestly think the playfulness of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as a setpiece weaken and muddle this) – that core allows the people of Virgil to feel like extensions of what Byrne is trying to put together about the town as a conduit for a community.

In any case, I find the loneliest moments of True Stories where those characters are nowhere to be seen the most compelling to me: the shots of Texan landscapes in sad blue dusk light and horizons that feel more like they’re going than coming, gas stations with no cars stationed at them, buildings with the lights out. Moments like this find ways for Lachman to play with the lines of architecture that clash Virgil’s modernization against what this land used to be, an attitude Byrne opens the film with discussing with unexpected candidness compared to Earl’s later platitude about God’s wisdom in making people who would like Virgil how it is. Virgil as it is is not what it was. But most importantly, it stresses both the isolation of Virgil as an environment and us within Virgil looking into it. It gives us the same outsider energy that Byrne has making this.

Given both Louis and the Culvers’ familiarity with Byrne’s nameless narrator, there’s not much reason to assume the Narrator’s much of a stranger to Virgil. But the way that the Narrator drives in and out and especially musing as he exits with the film behind him on how he loves forgetting the details of a place so that he can see the place “as it really is” makes it feel like he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll always be passing through. As somebody who finds myself at my most free when I am just driving a long distance – and I mean long… cross state lines, cross country lines sometimes even – and deciding to just figure out where I landed, I like to think I’ll always have that manner of just passing through no matter how familiar I get when I go “I guess that this must be the place”.

On Cloud Nine

To go into the ways that Cloud Atlas has affected me as a person when I went to an extremely late screening one October night 2012 at one of the lowest points in my adult life would involve being a lot more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable than I’m willing to be in public. I only vaguely refer to how that watch was one of the most fundamental moments in my development as the person I am today to at least give an explanation on why I simply don’t think I can be THAT objective about the movie. I can give the impression of it – it doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge at least one particular element that is out-and-out racist, full stop – and I think I’ve done enough hair-splitting on what defines “best” and what defines “favorite” to me that I can disrupt the illusion of perfection in any movie, let alone Cloud Atlas which has pretty clear missteps in my eyes. But all of that qualifying is just formalities in the face of the fact that there are few movies in the 21st Century that I feel changed my life the way that Cloud Atlas did.

Fortunately, there are also few movies that I can think of that radically codified what I look for in movies: I had definitely seen Intolerance beforehand, so ambition on this level was not new to me in 2012 but I think this made me consciously aware of what a vast canvas of styles and stories as realized by filmmakers Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, all three of whom are visionaries in their own right (it is safer to say in 2022 now that the Wachowskis are working separately than in 2012 when they were still kind of an item). Of which Cloud Atlas would demand given that the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which it adapts is literally six different storylines, structured in the source material so the stories bookend each other snugly into a Russian nest doll style and flipping different forms of dialect appropriate to their setting. Tykwer and the Wachowskis decided to be a bit more radical than that structure where the only logic to Cloud Atlas‘ continuous cross-cutting between its stories is their momentum and trying to map their climaxes alongside each other, though I am certain they worked very closely with editor Alexander Berner to make sure that the patterns in character arcs and visual compositions were arranged like a cinematic symphony alike one of the central leitmotifs, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which is credited in the narrative to Robert Frobisher but actually is composed like most of the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.

Anyway, the stories: we have a sea-faring period adventure in 1849 about a fresh young lawyer connecting with a Moriori slave while a doctor in the lawyer’s employ reveals his intentions. We have a 1932 queer tragedy centered around a passionate amateur composer and the aging legend’s home he infiltrates. We have a 1973 conspiracy thriller centered on a journalist who has a chance encounter in an elevator that puts her in a position to blow a big damn whistle. We have a 2012 screwy British comedy on a publisher manipulated in his fleeing from crooks to be entrapped in a prison-like nursing home. We have a 2144 science fiction picture set in Neo-Seoul that depicts a class-based insurrection essential to asserting the personhood of clones (the closest it gets to resembling the CGI-heavy popcorn movies we think of these days, specifically with special effects miles better and more stimulating than most MCU movies). And last but not least, a post-apocalyptic yarn on an Islander’s survivor’s guilt and challenge towards his worldview when he is commissioned to guide a visitor from a more advanced civilization.

That’s a whole lot of material and that translates in the hands of these filmmakers (the Wachowskis directed 1849, 2144, and the post-apocalypse, which makes sense given their history with genre filmmaking, while Tykwer took on the more contemporary period pieces of the movie) with purpose to that as we are suggested the idea that these tales actually intertwine and influence each other’s course of action in subconscious ways, largely through the running theme of souls transcending time and identity and such. That last part is certainly embodied by the extensive cast of names and familiar faces continuously reappearing in roles whose arcs seem in conversation with each other or at least consistent in their carriage: Tom Hanks (whose unflappable enthusiasm reportedly was why the very unstable development of what was to be a very expensive production came through), Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, and Robert Fyfe altogether play multiple roles in the many storylines and most of them have been saddled with roles that reflect each other in ways I had never guessed from reading the novel with all of them finding the most dedicated ways to keep their performances in conversation (Broadbent, Grant, and Whishaw are absolutely the best at this; Weaving has the easiest path for this since all of his roles are characteristically villainous; Hanks I think has the most difficult set overall and therefore is most admirable in his loopiness).

This is where I must confess the primary reservation I have in recommending this movie to others liberally: part of the admirable conceit is that the actors play roles that cross genders and age and in one particular case… race. Specifically the Neo-Seoul storyline is almost entirely populated by non-Asian actors in latex makeup meant to make them resemble Koreans (Tom Hanks is a notable exception who appears in that storyline without the yellowface makeup, which no doubt would have demolished his screen image) and I truly understand the thought process that gets to that decision, but that’s not the same as thinking it’s particularly the right decision. It’s just racist. But in a film as expectedly indulgent as Cloud Atlas very much is, one would expect that not every decision will be the right decision and I personally consider messy self-betrayal of the lapses of the artist to be very much essential to art.

But returning back to that central idea: souls defying the end of life to find its way to some peace and satisfaction (I think most beautifully represented in Hanks’ characters – particularly when it comes to how interacting with Berry’s characters relates to his character’s corruptions), the connectedness of separate lives (the most heartbreaking instance: two lovers meet their ends in similar ways, one commits suicide through the mouth and the other is murdered by a gunshot through the mouth), the idea that one act can make ripples that it will never be aware of for the better (“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”), all of this stuff drives Cloud Atlas as the most convicted embodiment of these admittedly fanciful but much attractive ideals. It is a very humanist picture at its core and its aesthetic decisions come from that humanism – explicitly through the cross-cutting that mostly tries to keep the movie at a propulsive rate but also finds the smallest gestures to make up the connective tissue within those cuts (characters on the phone, writing, running on elevated and slim platforms). In virtually every way, Cloud Atlas basically signals towards the future television series Sense8, but that is settled towards globetrotting in the present time and Cloud Atlas just takes blockbuster money to fully create worlds like Neo-Seoul’s futurism in spacey action movie laser blast setpieces and the ruins of civilization in the post-apocalypse against beautiful Pacific Islander landscapes as well as revisit dated designs like pre-war Belgium or 70s San Francisco (captured by production and costume designers and cinematographers regular to the director of their respective segments: the Wachowskis brought on Hugh Bateup, Kym Barrett, and John Toll; Tykwer brought Uli Hanisch, Pierre-Yves Gayraud, and Frank Griebe) that can only be made compatible by the beautiful visuals, mannered performances, or simply the familiar emotions within those distant worlds.

Such inspired and grandiose pursuit will of course collapse and fail in areas, even outside of the Asian make-up. There are performances that do not work, the Sloosha’s dialect is much easier to read than it is to say, the old age make-up is so blatantly artificial and cartoony. But all of that comes from the movie’s fearlessness and actually enhances the broad dramatics of its storyline with its artifice much more than its undisciplined screenplay could. I frankly feel the script flattens the complex density of the novel’s themes to near-incomprehensibility, even when its final third gets annoyingly didactic about what it thinks it’s saying. It pretty much aids the movie to be so sprawling to the point of disaster, particularly in the face of everything it miraculously gets right which outweighs what it gets wrong despite the odds. And it is never less than beautiful (both to look at and to listen to), watchable, and entertaining: it is as cinematic as things get and it is specifically a movie that best represents what it is to BE moved. In the darkness of that theater for its fully-felt 3 hours, I came to recognize that boldness extravagant to the point of chaos is the pinnacle of expression that a film artist can accomplish: daring, sincere, full of personality, and defiantly establishing its own terms. That’s Cloud Atlas: it’s the first movie that crosses my mind when I think of those specific superlatives, maybe my favorite example of “interesting messes” in cinema and unlocking what about them embeds their takeaway to my heart. Now what that takeaway was that I feel changed the course of my life 10 years… that’s between me and Cloud Atlas in the dark of that cinema.

All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy

It is exactly how it says on the tin: Jacques Tati’s fourth feature Playtime is a means for him to play around with a scope of production hardly ever seen of a movie before. Sadly since as well, given that the amount of personal investment Tati put into it was not returned to him financially. But what he did have to show for it is an unexpected marvel and something that just as much engages with the viewer’s sense of play as it does with the director’s. Playtime has a sense of ambition and eagerness that I consider very few movies to matched up with, giving us a fleeting vision into a cold world that Tati certainly had a healthy amount of pessimism towards but still found a way to make the experience a buoyant one every minute we spend there.

That ambition is met on both Playtime‘s production design (by Eugène Roman) and the choreography of the cast populating that very same production design, a working city with electricity and roads and all practically created wholesale (with the help of some model work for certain shots) by Tati, Roman and the rest of the crew by the name of “Tativille” and certainly the raison d’etre of Playtime as a work of art. The Paris of Playtime is a cold and sterile geometric zone, one embodied by straight lines and a muting of colors only occasionally punctuated by color as a joke such as a lamp light blasting pink or such (the one exception – at least for the first half – being a flower stand relegated to a street corner and treated as quaint by certain passers-by). This is the case from the outside, with the two buildings in which the first half of Playtime takes place, a pair of business centers so indiscernible from each other to the point of one of our characters getting lost between them. This is the case from the inside, as in the middle point where we get to meet the quiet domestic life of another character in little glass squares alike his 3 neighbors in the building. Squares and boxes are in fact kind of a visual cue into what to look out into in this movie’s vast 70mm widescreen compositions by cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, made up exclusively of wide shots with various foregrounded elements. And certainly the reflective surfaces are a basis in so many of Tati’s blunt critiques of this industrial future, providing invisible barriers between characters or sadly reflecting the Paris’ most iconic landmarks in more than once. But it’s not just the design and composition that meets Tati’s ambition.

It’s also the way that people move around in those between those lines just maintains the rigidness of it all. Tati, of course, is of the screen’s great physical comics and his control over these ecosystems in which we watch the movements of characters pass through angles and go through motions with synchronicity to the alienating environment is quite a miracle to see performed on such a large scale. And it seems like every single inhabitant of this world Tati’s crew built from the ground up is perfectly positioned to perform their tiny little gags in whatever corner of the screen they’re relegated to, whatever box they’re contained in whether their home, a cubicle, or a window. It’s like a perfect exacting dance between the lines of the screen. And there’s so much going on that it makes Playtime such an essential big-screen watch (and rewatch and rewatch, as my latest viewings that inform this review were two theatrical screenings within 6 days of each other) as it’s the best way to have the imagery send you every bit of information possible and let your eyes just explore the frame (as well as a proper presentation of the film’s 6-track stereo sound which delivers several of the gags on its own separate plane over the continuous dialogue laying out a sea of population. Gags are even made out of the incongruousness of the visual and the sound like a man walking down a long hallway and a character getting up expecting he about to approach because he hears the echoing footsteps or the distraction of where a baby’s cry is coming from).

There will of course never be a single viewing in which you will see every single joke that Tati and his collaborators have fit into this movie, which makes it all the more impressive where one single man was able to marshal the motions and behaviors of the actors with impressive business that feels human and natural in this inhuman and artificial environment (my particular favorite is a sequence where one man is sliding on a rolling chair along a long help desk for an ostensible travel agency – one that features posters of exotic locations focused on the exact same looking building in each location – and we see from behind a map that his legs are dancing and jittering from end to end to serve every customer at the desk and calling on the numerous phones. By the time, he gets to calmly walking from one end of the desk to the other with the chair slowly following him, I absolutely die).

And it is at this point I realize how much I’ve talked about Playtime without even feinting towards the screenplay and what it’s about.

But, to discuss Playtime in terms of plot is an exercise in futility: Tati, co-writer Jacques Lagrange, and satirist Art Buchwald (the latter recruited specifically to write the occasional English dialogue we catch) are clearly less concerned with the particulars of narrative in their writing. Certainly there’s structure and there’s characters we definitely recognize all throughout (although there’s also one specific character we keep misrecognizing, Tati’s famous character Monsieur Hulot, whom we lose track of among fellow bypassers in hats and mackintoshes). There’s even characters we enter this city with at the beginning of the movie and leave likewise with at the end, as is the case with a throng of American housewife tourists who land in Orly airport and waste no time exploring the central buildings that make up the film’s setting. But the real concern is allowing the perspective to flow naturally from one place to the next after hovering around and watching them run for a while. The closest we have to protagonists are Hulot or one of the housewives Barbara (Barbara Dennek) and they are more or less just amble into our view to follow before the camera determines there’s another point of interest to linger on.

As for that structure I’ve referred to, there are essentially three major movements to Playtime outside of the prologue at Orly Airport (in which the third plays as a sort of how-to instruction on watching the film, beginning with a nearly empty hallway and slowly introducing characters and sounds and gags so that we’re eased into the rhythm of all the stuff that’s going to be going on for the rest of the movie) and an valediction. Those three basically being the exploration of those maze-like business center interiors, the voyeuristic viewing of the apartments where the television-esque presentation of all the spaces gets played with by the observative behavior of their inhabitants and the attempt to use angles hiding the presumed wall between these homes (and in a movie that feels like a lot of its themes are developed from Tati’s musings in his previous film Mon Oncle, this one feels the most vestigial from that picture while still more belonging in this one), and the third and undeniable high-point of Playtime:

The climactic dinner at the Royal Garden restaurant, ostensibly on its opening night as we first watch it while construction workers and electricians are still putting on their finishing touches to the place and then rushed off to the kitchen out of the view of the first of the posh guests arrive, regardless of if the dining room is ready or not. Obviously, it’s very much not, initially communicated to us by a wonderful visual gag that has a black negative spot on a white tile floor (the warm browns of the walls are perhaps an early indicator of how different this will be from the scene’s virtually colorless predecessors). But then, the more movement starts coming in as guests flood the dining room and waiters start dancing around the table, everything just gets more and more chaotic to the most frantic track of Francis Lemarque’s jazz-infused music and frankly the building starts to collapse all around them: short circuits, demolished ceiling fixtures, and shattered glass doors all in between the ruining of suits from faulty chairs or waiters’ uniforms from hectic movements. It is the dizziest and most engaging part of the movie, the moment where Tati’s criticism of modernity just lets the faults of modernism speak for themselves and includes an arched eye towards classism (I am most impressed by a gag where the maître d vehemently refuses a black man entrance, which the man takes in stride and turns around to leave revealing the suit that the house band is expected to wear and forcing the maître d to shift gears to hospitality), a barrier that is broken down by the very destruction of scenery which invites all sort of “unrespectable characters” like drunks and bohemians and teenagers and the growing gregariousness of a particularly loud American businessman (Billy Kearns) who begins to hold court and invite all the possible misfits in this place.

That sequence is a jolt of electricity alike the neon signs throughout (including one in a pharmacy/bakery next door that looks hilariously too sickly in its green lighting to feel particularly comforting or appetizing) to the point that before we know it, the final minutes of Playtime in the wake of the party feel more relaxed and it’s probably not for nothing that its final major sequence is literally a makeshift carousel in a roundabout (Lemarque’s music once again giving according score to that mood) as we follow the housewives en route to the airport, doing away with the rigidness of when we entered and focusing on the smoothness of the circle and featuring the strongest colors in the whole movie. The movie has become looser and at ease, less anxious over this previously alien landscape we saw. And I think it’s this final playful beat that causes me to assume that there’s maybe the slightest optimism in Tati that we can make it work as long as we’re willing to embrace humanity and its flaws and let it overpower the need for things to be perfect and orderly. It is one of the few elements that I think prevents this from feeling like a work of cynicism.

There are plenty of movies that demand the audience work with it to create their own story in between the moments and many of those ambiguous works make for some of my favorite watches. But none of them make it nearly as fun and inviting as Playtime and the true joy of watching this is how much of it is just inexhaustible on an aesthetic level, inviting us to revisit Tativille as many times as we like and pick and choose what we’d like to see from it. Jonathan Rosenbaum has said that Playtime (his favorite movie) is a different movie depending on where you sit in the theater and given the two differences between my theatrical viewings… I get it! But you will always receive Tati’s sense of glee at creating this world, his consideration of how the future of things looked circa 1967, and his desire to make sure no matter where this world goes, we never forget to find room for play.

Nice View

I’ve made this clear enough but from where I stand 2020 was definitely an anemic movie year based on worldwide circumstances and I regret that 2021 seems to be just as poor a movie year where I haven’t been able to witness a single masterpiece just yet. But it hasn’t been absent of any of its great joys and certainly some movies I hope to see re-released in cinemas so I can rewatch them with a crowd of strangers on the same wavelength as I. For Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the second writing collaboration between Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (following Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids), is exactly that sort of movie that invites you to share its anarchic sense of humor, driven by first narrative feature director Josh Greenbaum. Which is one of several arenas in which Barb and Star differs from the more “grounded” Bridesmaids, another major arena being in how despite the go-for-broke non-stop laughs of Barb and Star, it feels pretty obvious that most of the jokes on the screen existed on the page with Greenbaum having none of Feig’s bothersome habit of lingering on one ad-lib session for too long beating a dead comic horse. Which I imagine is the going to be the result when the screenwriters are also the stars of the movie and so probably thought through exactly what they wanted to say as they wanted to say it.

Mumolo and Wiig are portraying the eponymous Barb and Star respectively, of course. They’re a pair of middle-aged Midwestern women with a deep friendship that saw them through their past marriages and are now facing a new crisis after losing their job and friends group in rapid succession. Star’s solution to this is to follow the rejuvenated “soul douche” of their friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and visit the Florida town of Vista Del Mar. This decision unfortunately coincides with the murderous plot of Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig in what looks like an albino parody of a Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), sending her deeply pining henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan) to set up a receiver for fatal mosquitos in that very same small town.

It is to the phenomenal go-for-broke credit of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar that these two plots converge in a natural sense rather than interrupt each other (possibly might help that we meet Fisherman before we meet Barb and Star). Both threads are of the same manic energy exerted by Greenbaum, Wiig, Mumolo, and the rest of their collaborators on this film throughout, something that makes sense that this turns into a surprise musical at least a full act in, something that fires off non-stop jokes and an insistence on having cartoonish fun that could understandably be exhausting to a different type of viewer (especially since not every joke is a bullseye and the movie is kind of pushing its welcome at only 107 minutes). But for my type of viewer – the kind that needed a real shot to the system to stay interested in contemporary cinema – it’s a breath of fresh air.

See, there’s several different types of mainstream comedies that just don’t get made as much these days and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar embodies most of them. We’ve already acknowledged this as the kind of movie where the makers just opted to throw every idea to the wall and seeing what sticks, the sort of indulgent “take a studio’s money and run” production that I always have room for in my life, but so rarely seems to be done with studio comedies. That is has the discipline to so with the precise focus of running through this buddy plot and maintaining a singular buoyant attitude is of the deepest credit to Greenbaum as a director as well as Wiig and Mumolo not necessitating the cast to improvise because they structured their scripted jokes with a discipline I haven’t seen since Community. Everybody in the cast gives the vibe of having a tremendously fun time while playing the absurdities as straight-faced as possible (including Richard Cheese as a background pianist singing endlessly about boobs), having their cake and eating it by inviting us to be in on the joke.

The other kind of studio comedy that we just don’t see these is one that cares about the actual cinematic craft of it and this is very much where Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar excels. Certainly it’s filling in the cracks between verbal jokes with visual gags based on the cutting and distortion with varying intensities of fever dreams or warm flashbacks, but it’s also just a bubbly and bright looking film as it gives us all that resort town vibes by boldly suffocating us with marine-like pinks and turquoise in the walls and costumes all around. And how could one ignore the costumes of a movie that opens with the definition of “culotte” and makes culottes and belt buckles an outright plot element. It’s no less eye-catching in its vision of this beachside, seafood-obsessed tacky resort as it is gut-busting and maybe the only excuse ever to give me characters that would willingly go to Florida (I respect Barb and Star too much to let that go off-hand).

All of this comes in service of a story deeply sincere about the relationship between its two characters and their desire to feel alive in the throes of middle-age once again, feeling like something entirely driven by the relationship of Wiig and Mumolo behind their writing. Which makes it all the more enjoyable to share it with them and root for their lovable if absent-minded characters finding new joie de vivre and falling in love (it says particularly a whole lot that even in the middle of the excellent comic timing Dornan displays here, he’s had a lot better chemistry with his romantic screen partner here than in the 50 Shades trilogy or Wild Mountain Thyme) and most particularly reinstating the benefit of just having friends. The direction that even the supervillain plot goes even begins to lean on this and it leads to Barb and Star as a movie really tying itself off in an organic and satisfying way.

So that’s just what I needed in the early months of “The Long 2020”, a breezy comedy that cares about how it’s built, getting as many jokes out there, and making the viewer feel good. And it does all of these things. Imperfectly, but in a manner that we just don’t see enough comedies these days try for and it deserves all that credit for. I like to dream of some time soon getting to rewatch Barb and Star with my friends in a house watch or maybe running into a midnight screening of a movie that definitely deserves the cult it is destined to build. It’s a really great time, “a real tit-flapper” if you will.

The Tale of the Foxx

In memory of Yaphet Kotto
15 November 1939 – 15 March 2021

You can call blaxploitation films a lot of things, but one descriptor you don’t hear very often about blaxploitation movies is that they’re “nice”. That’s kind of the inherent fact about exploitation movies – blaxploitation or otherwise – that they gotta be aggressive at the very least with what they’re selling so that it slams on the lap of the viewer, whether it’s sex or violence or anything else that exploitation cinema is all about. And Arthur Marks’ 1976 film The Monkey Hustle (or The Monkey Hu$tle as the marketing referred to it and though I love that spelling, it’ll be too much of a hassle to type that out over and over in this review) isn’t really all that aggressive about anything, barring a few sequences. Its grit is minimal and in the service of realism more than attitude.

That realism being subject to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, because of course a 1970s blaxploitation movie would have to be set in the area most famously populated by Black-Americans (though a not insignificant part of it passes through Downtown Chicago). And the sort of story that writers Odie Hawkins & Charles Eric Johnson weave into the movie is kind of loose – the subject of its unfair negative reception that it still suffers to this day – but of all the colorful personalities in this movie’s vision of South Side, the one we attach ourselves most to is Daddy Foxx (Yaphet Kotto), a fast-talking hard-hustlin’ small time con man who has already taken under his wing the young Baby D (Kirk Calloway) as his protegé when we first meet him and is taking to teaching two other teens Player (Thomas Carter) and Tiny (Donn C. Harper) in his “Monkey Hustle” schooling.

And while I hate to show my hand so early in this review, I did dedicate this review to Kotto to begin with: this is by and large his movie, owning every shot he is in and delivering all his winding lines with a culture crispness and a speed that rivals any door-to-door salesman. Foxx is not just our anchor because the screenplay frames him that way, conflicting with a plot line involving Baby D’s older brother Win (Randy Brooks) coming back to town after a bad attempt at showbiz on the road and suspicious of Foxx as an influence on his sibling. Foxx is our anchor because he just dominates the screen, being performed by the best actor in the varied cast and having a dynamic swagger in how he walks and talks that would explain how easily somebody could be swayed by his charms.

And yet there are other characters. Some even making for worthy foils towards Foxx, like the flamboyant numbers man Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore, cast at the height of his Dolemite fame to the point that he’s billed next to Kotto for a small part and even takes up the front of my DVD cover) or the matriarchal restaurant owner Mama (Rosalind Cash). And they all have their own negative responses to the proposal of an expressway being built over their neighborhood, something that all the local forces band together to rebel against whenever we’re not just watching Foxx and his crew scam shop owners or Win work to regain the affections of his abandoned beau Vi (Debbi Morgan) or the local cop self-proclaimed The Black Knight (Frank Rice) just fucking up everywhere. I can’t help understanding the complaints about how unfocused and half-baked its script is, while also admitting it’s something I don’t care much about.

The manner in which issues are picked and dropped and forgotten is a big part of what gives The Monkey Hu$tle the amiable feeling it has. Goldie plays as something like a semi-antagonist for a brief time, being the employer behind the closest thing to a full-time antagonist this movie has: Win’s drug-dealing rival for Vi’s affections Leon (Frank Barrett). But one second, Goldie is confronting Player and Tiny for jumping Leon, the next he’s renouncing Leon in the view of everyone. Another moment emblematic of this amnesiac conflict-building is how a truck driver that Foxx’s crew rip off will jump into a length car chase with them, but then halt once he’s stopped by some firefighters being sprayed by local kids and jump out not in an angry mood but laughing at the scene along with the children. The troubles are abandoned the moment the chase is over. Even the last few scenes introduce a crisis of conscience for Foxx late in the game regarding Baby D that just gets tossed aside eagerly so we can rush to the credits.

That’s the way the world of The Monkey Hu$tle feels: nothing particularly personal, everybody is just playing the game and as Foxx puts it “there are many large and small inequities in life that Man must live with…”. And when it comes to actually confronting the man and telling them “no, you’re not stepping in our community” as the climax shows them doing, it’s by that shaggy solidarity that we buy their sincerity and success between the characters’ tension. It’s not a good script, but it tends to amplify the movie’s strengths: letting actors just hang out and be broadly cool. But particularly there is one strength I neglected to address and that’s the loving portrayal of that South Side and Downtown of Chicago that Marks and his crew bring.

It’s not just enough to have a colorful cast, but a grounded environment that is believable for all these characters to live and believe in enough to defend it. And Marks finds a variety of distinct locations to capture like little biomes of one giant world in between Bridgeport and South Shore: empty warehouses and lots, street parties, residential areas, and offices right near the elevated train, all consistent enough to belong to one idea of a Chicago neighborhood that every character feels right at home with.

So a sense of place and a sense of people, neither of which are bad things to have carrying your film. It just tends to show how my sensibilities are different from other filmgoers that I am so easily able to shake off the writing and attach to the liveliness of The Monkey Hu$tle that it ends up one of my favorite blaxploitation movies and thereby a source of optimism and comforting good cheer on the times when I need to watch it and get pulled in by Yaphet Kotto’s silver tongue and cool confidence. I hesitate in calling it Kotto’s best performance (largely because I’ve never watched Homicide: Life on the Street) but when I think of the actor, it’s his giant grin and hanging suit in this movie that pop up first as an image, even before his better-known work in Live and Let Die or Alien or Midnight Run. Just can’t deny why Daddy Foxx gets his way.

No World for Tomorrow

Austin-based independent animator Don Hertzfeldt has come to a point in his career where he can basically do no wrong by me. At worst, his movies are shallow (and admittedly sadistic in a hilarious way) amusements like Billy’s Balloon and Wisdom Teeth. At best, he has reached the heights minimalist masterpieces with the hand-drawn animation form from his angrily critical Rejected to his unexpectedly ambitious emotional rollercoaster ride of his sole feature* It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Even his fucking Simpsons intro is inspired. And of course, his last 5 years have been spent exploring the potentials of digital animation to translate his previously beloved stick figure style against otherwise pointedly computer generated imagery or principles communicating unexpectedly bottomless existential journeys of fears and thoughts with the World of Tomorrow short film series, the first two entries of which are not only masterpieces on the level of Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day… but may in fact even surpass them. So of course, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime was immediately my most anticipated movie of the year the moment its existence was announced and as of this writing I have watched it four times (the fact that it’s ONLY 4 times in a year is an accomplishment of serious discipline, honestly).

So like I said, Hertzfeldt can do no wrong by me. But it can take a minute for me to adjust to see what he’s doing more clearly and I have to say that if World of Tomorrow Episode 3 remains in my top three movies of 2020 when the time comes to wrap it up… it’s still something of a disappointment to me in ways I wasn’t expecting. The first area being how these shorts lose a lot of humanity by the absence of Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s Scottish niece who at the ages of 4 and 5 had been recorded by Hertzfeldt to voice the central child Emily of the first two episodes while the narrative was constructed around her aimless ramblings. By this point, Mae is now 11 years old and as wonderfully creative and imaginative as I’m sure an 11 year old could be, I imagine it loses the spontaneity of her exclamations the way that pre-schoolers have hardly any filter at all. So sad to say but understandable as it is, Emily Prime is nowhere to be seen in this entry and it is doubtful she will ever return unless Hertzfeldt decides to wildly change the course of this series a second time.

For the first time, what we have instead as a subject is David Prime (who spends most of the short silent but I suspect an uncredited Don Hertzfeldt is the voice behind a hilarious gag that I won’t spoil), a character whom we have never met but whose clones we have encountered throughout the first two episodes in several ways we knew and ways we did not know until this episode. When we meet David, he’s an already well into the cold and isolated future premonitioned in the first two movies, but when Emily 9 (as in the ninth generation clone of Emily voiced like all of Emily’s clones with impeccable deadpan by Julia Pott) has met David, he was a toddler upon whom she sent a long dormant neural message that did not activate until he reached a certain mature age and needless to say… being confronted with this deliberately packed memory is overwhelming to David. As we’ve seen in the first World of Tomorrow, one of Emily’s clones had met one of David’s clones and the two had fallen in love. Many of Emily’s subsequent clones have attempted to find ways that would facilitate a reunion between the clone’s memories and the man they remember having strongly romantic feelings for. Emily 9 is the one that landed at leaving a complex and overlarge memory/message for David that sets him off on a vast journey that ends up requiring him to sacrifice a whole lot for something that makes his compulsion feel more obligated than organic.

Which gets us far enough in the narrative to acknowledge the second thing outside of Mae’s absence that gave me a minute to be on World of Tomorrow Episode Three‘s wavelength: this is by far the most cynical and vicious of the three episodes. The first two episodes approached its cold future with more of a sad disappointment, but this one portrays David’s arduous journey across space (and not necessarily time but… it is something passed through) and within unknown planets with an understanding that David doesn’t particularly know what he’s looking for. He just frequently sees the face of this woman implying that some future version of him was a soulmate of a past version of her – a vision that already costs him literally, he has to uninstall skills to watch more of the message by way of an obnoxious HUD interface. It’s a pretty pointed tale about how dangerous and malformed love can be. Not to mention given the things David goes through to land where he and Emily 9 hope to meet, this is certainly the most jokingly sadistic thing Hertzfeldt has made since Wisdom Teeth on the basis of that cosmic romantic uncertainty.

Which is a treatment of love as a concept that I’m happy to see many movies, but it does come as a shock to the system within a series of shorts that didn’t feint in that direction before (though it did maintain a pessimistic outlook on the future and all its marvels). Just as well, since Hertzfeldt has by now stated he will continue to be making so many more of these shorts and it was going to have to shift gears at some point in order to remain fresh. More importantly, it felt to me in the span of watching the first two World of Tomorrows that Hertzfeldt had pushed the envelope on marrying his stick figure minimalist aesthetic with imagery that could only be created through computers. If this World of Tomorrow Episode 3 hoped to justify itself in any manner, I thought it would have to be in evolving that visual style further than Episode 2 ended.

It gets there and then some. Episode 3 is undeniably the most ambitious and visually complex film of Hertzfeldt’s entire career and it lands every technical leap it takes. First in its depiction of the future on an intimate level with the first scene, using its sense of depth to a frame to add more clutter to the living area of David and then compounding that through his HUD view – which also foreshadows yet another new toy for Episode 3 – as one of my favorite gag turn out to be the desktop crowding of his view by way of pop-ups (one of many prices Emily 9’s message forces him to pay). This is particularly aided by the sound design doing more than any other Hertzfeldt film to be as irritating as possible in ways that make sense within this world, whether it’s holograms that scream at you or the buzziness of David’s guidance system. Then there is the expansive way that Hertzfeldt defines the planets and areas that David and other characters live in or explore without removing any of the bold color (although another favorite gag of mine plays with the color) and defined lines that made up the previous films. This is, in any case, the most physical of the World of Tomorrows with hardly any room for abstraction in the story it wants to tell (though Taylor Barron returns as a visual effects artist and the only other crew member besides Hertzfeldt). It’s the first of the World of Tomorrows to actually interact and create this world rather than approximation of it based on the workings of someone else’s mind. Which probably ends up being why this feels so much less psychologically complex than its predecessors, but that’s a fair trade to me.

Then there’s how that depth finally gets to Hertzfeldt playing with the z-axis and the camera’s perspective to these characters in ways that give them more dimension than they ever had before. The teaser shot that announced this movie’s existence happens to give away one of the most impressive moments of character animation in Hertzfeldt’s career (with the only other contender being the climactic ballet in Episode 2) as we watch David from behind stumble during his wall on the remote planet where another piece of Emily 9’s message is and it is smooth as butter to watch his limbs swing around and his square body have more volume to it than any stick figure before. It also allows more camera angles to be utilized now that Hertzfeldt knows that he can actually animate these characters from those angles in ways that make spatial sense while still finding moments to play with their flat 2-dimensional origins.

Such a moment being a narrative revelation that I want to keep a surprise as much as possible that ends up being an avenue for shots and images to have layers that look more like filters of previous drawings from the series. We learn late in the film that there is a means that facilitates imagery that resembles cels but much murkier and unstable (similar to a technique used in It’s Such a Beautiful Day but with less motion) and how the characters play with this is one of the darker revelations within the whole story. And yet this technique is not something necessarily introduced to us that far in nor exclusively used for darkness or comic value, as the HUD point of view shots already allow us to see the world sometimes through that filtered screen with the same separation as David and particularly one of the earlier shots happens to be unexpectedly soothing and beautiful as David is faced with an old childhood nightmare on his HUD and closes his eyes. There is a lot more tonal versatility to these new techniques on Hertzfeldt’s part than expected for a short that mostly retain a certain group of emotional states.

So there is a lot that Hertzfeldt brings new to the table and practically everything about World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime does feel brand-new in a way that is exhilarating. It’s just that it did take me a couple more watches to get that and I still don’t know that I’m calibrated to love this the way that I did the first two. Still perhaps by the time Episode Four is made, the episodes will connect in a clearer way and I’ll be able to feel ready for yet another exciting divergence from the things that came before. I’ll be ready for the things to come.

*OK, it’s technically a short film trilogy but having originally watched them as separate short films… I find it just impossible to return to that presentation again since Hertzfeldt combined them into one feature. They just segue so well into each other.

Tosses her head and flips her hair, she got a whole bunch of nothing there.

I would not make assumptions on the experiences of others based on my own experience, but this last rewatch of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high school comedy Clueless had me realizing I fell into a trap of misremembering this movie just how scathing and antagonistic it is towards its characters and their lives. And in order to defend myself – as this was my third viewing of the movie – I suggest that this was a fairly easy trap to fall under. For just as much as it is a biting satire with deeper cuts to land than one would expect on first look, Clueless is also a really breezy and easygoing comedy with cinematographer Bill Pope supplying glossy visuals towards the home life and mall life of it bubbly Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) while making sure to flatten any incident outside of there and an arc that does suggest an earnest core behind its superficial characters and the fact that any movie around the runtime of 90 minutes (Clueless being only 7 minutes over) is obviously the work of very nice people who only want what’s good for you.

But about 10 minutes into that runtime, Cher opens her mouth to give an argument about the Haitian refugee crisis and it is in there that Heckerling’s script begins to show its hand a bit as she goes to compare the struggles of these desperate refugees to her venal lawyer dad (played by an expectedly intimidating Dan Hedaya)’s 50th birthday dinner in Marie Antoinette-like fashion. The large amount of differences between a life-or-death situation for displaced people and a situation for her where the crisis is just that she had to accommodate wealthy guests who just did not RSVP in advance is not something stressed on by either Heckerling (who backdrops Cher’s speech with a patriotic musical score and punctuates it with the applause of her peers in the class, though the bemusement of her debate teacher) or by Silverstone’s comfortable performance in a Valley Girl skin with enough self-awareness to play further into the blindspots of Cher’s position rather than cover them, but Clueless trusts that such a reductive approach to the situation should be recognizable for any given viewer.

And as Clueless continues on to depict the “way normal life of a teenage girl” of Cher’s stature, we learn just how much of it is talking her way out of consequences, imposing on the lives of others, and quiet snobbery and ignorance, all of which portrayed with the same bright view of things as Cher’s internal monologue delivers her short-sighted but energetic observations with. None of Heckerling’s writing for Cher is malicious and there is often the implication that Cher wants to do the right thing, but the undertones of her motivations or methods are dark enough to have that bite towards a character we are still ostensibly meant to find pleasant if mockable company.

Which is just as appropriate given that Clueless is famously an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, sticking to the events of the book extremely accurately. It remains fairly to the spirit of Austen’s judgmental look towards the higher-classed people for Heckerling to have this wry attitude towards the contemporary teen culture in which her script and direction transposes the material, which also triangulates Clueless into being a part of several different trends in popular culture: it started the trope of directly adapting (as opposed to be inspired by) contemporary works of literature to modern day settings. It particularly came at the exact peak of the Jane Austen adaptation craze that the BBC ignited in the early 1990s (in fact, a year later Emma would receive a straightforward adaptation this time written and directed by Douglas McGrath). And for my money, I think it’s one of the few Austen adaptations that gets the scoffing nature of Austen as a storyteller rather than the lavish costume dramas that look at the lives of their characters rosily because “old means prestige”. Perhaps that’s a perspective Heckerling was afforded from her choice of time and place to set Clueless.

But probably the most material of these trends since it’s the one Heckerling and company are dissecting and ridiculing is how Clueless arrived right at the beginning of the end for the Beverly Hills valley youth subculture’s place at the center of America’s attention (if you are like me and define the beginning of the end as “when Luke Perry left Beverly Hills 90210). A social trend based in the glorification of the status you were born into and the apparent merit of separating yourself from the have-nots, which is obviously just the perfect state of mind to apply to high school life (and costume designer Mona May particularly has a good time applying gaudy and loud outfits to Cher, Stacey Dash’s character Dionne, Brittany Murphy’s character Tai, and Elisa Donovan’s character Amber while dulling out the colors and stressing the ill-fitting nature of the outfits for guys like Breckin Meyer’s stoner skater dude). And perhaps less obvious but something that couldn’t help sinking into my mind during this rewatch, but Clueless also came fairly early into the time where Generation X and the youth of America was hooked and appealed into political involvement with things like Bill Clinton appearing on MTV, something I can’t help feeling Heckerling has a bit of pessimism about. Certainly Clueless is not a political movie by any measure, but Cher as a character talks about current events like refugees in such a frivolous or simply asks for a charitable cause to be involved in for appearances has quite a bit of connotation coming from the mid-1990s.

So what to do with this central character who is vapid as hell regarding the and the environment around her that facilitates the way in which she takes everything for granted and assumes that she knows best (after all, there is even a moment where Cher’s father praises her for manipulating her teachers into fixing her grades rather than earning them)? How does a movie knowingly give us these characters and still get away with a reputation for being fun and enjoyable?

Well, to start with, Silverstone and the rest of the cast are really amiable company (especially Murphy, who is nonstop adorable even in the brief moment where she gets to act as a heel). Silverstone has a deft handle of Cher’s slang and takes care to modulate the amount of ignorant bliss Cher has to still let it wallop when she has a sober epiphany about the guy she had a crush on being gay or realizing she can’t talk her way into passing her driving test (the reckless driving being one of the more direct areas where Heckerling suggests danger to these kids’ airheadedness while still allowing it to have the sort of wacky tone as any other comedy). The characters themselves treat their interpersonal conflicts as small things that come and go, such as the invisible nature with which Amber will be a source of disdain for Cher or Tai and then turn around and still hang out with them at the Galleria. Outside of Jeremy Sisto’s Elton, the only source of downer energy is from the snarky presence of Paul Rudd’s Josh and that’s the same character who evidently has most of his head on his shoulders with his engaged college life and his confident sense of direction. And he still gets to be effortlessly likable on the basis of being baby Paul Rudd.

But what’s most impressive about Clueless trying to have its cake and eat it too is that because Cher’s harmful influence towards is nowhere near the magnitude of, say, a Ferris Bueller, we do cheer for her to find love and have her friendship with Tai and to get things… kind of figured out without actually really changing as a person. And the manner in which she accomplishes these things gets to keep dark undertones – like the pseudo-incestuous nature of the final pairings or the conversion of an innocent personality unbeknownst them – that can linger in our heads while the movie cheerfully grins and insists that this is a happy ending. Clueless is the type of movie that is having a good time and if you go “wait, what a minute?”, you’re telling it anything it doesn’t know but it asks that you play along and get with the vibe. And by golly, it works.

Yamada So Fat…

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Around the final two films of Takahata Isao’s time with Studio Ghibli and his career overall* – with a Kubrick-ian 14 years in turnover time between them – the animation director finally opted to do entirely away with the refined manga-inspired cel animation style that was Studio Ghibli’s default mode. In his decision to adapt Ishii Hisaichi’s long-running comic strip series ののちゃん (Nono-chan) under its original title となりのやまだ君 – literally translated to My Neighbors the Yamadas – Takahata had decided to undertake a new more hand-drawn look to the pictures that would resemble the comic strip much further than if it were solid blocks and perfect color fills and full backgrounds. The result was a movie full of personality within its rough handiwork, something that implied a direct tangibility to the image that gave a beating involved heart to the film.

But also because Takahata was not crazy, this was the first entirely-computer animated film in Ghibli’s output. Which does a lot for flattening the image so that we buy the characters and whatever background they have being on the same dimensional plane without losing the sketched texture of the lines.

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Despite that strong dedication to depth, My Neighbor the Yamadas is indisputably the most cartoonish of Takahata’s films since his early television specials of Panda! Go, Panda! and that gives it a lot more of a pleasant aesthetic for viewers of any age. Particularly given that it seeks to make its viewers relate to its subject, the Yamada family – child daughter Nonoko (Uno Naomi) who is the namesake of the comic, teenage son Noboru (Isobata Hayato), matriarch housewife Matsuko (Asaoka Yukiii), patriarch breadwinner Takashi (Masuoka Touru), and Matsuko’s elderly mother Shige (Araki Masako). All of them as wacky and broad as the round designs on them which affords an endearment to the film as well as the easy faded colors that inhabit the line drawings of each shot. Not to mention the steps My Neighbors the Yamadas takes to ease us into its cartoon styles by having Nonoko casually explain away the shape of Shige’s by drawing a pair of cosmic objects and then filling it out with her beloved grandma’s features, helping us to quickly associate the simplicity of Yamadas‘s design with shapes.

Which works out wonders for the sort of broad comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas is attempting to do.

May as well not beat the bush any further about the loose structure Takahata’s screenplay has: there’s no plot to My Neighbor the Yamadas. It’s all vignettes of various length and the film does nothing to truly suggest a true logic to the arrangement of the segments, although it is easy to sense the beginning and the end as a viewer. It’s remarkably easy viewing in general for something lacking a story, none of the segues to the next vignette feel abrupt and a lot of it feels like vague association with something that came up in the last vignette. Like maybe dinner might be a large part of one vignette and that drives us to the next vignette or two sequences in a row where one of the male members of the family forgets something while rushing to work or school. Takahata has somehow just cracked a flow out of segments and I’m sure there was a logic to his choices but it’s not apparent to the viewer and I don’t think it should matter.

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Though, if one actually sat down and noted the reasoning behind it, it could be remarked upon that the two major bookends involve a speech given by a character as affirmation and encouragement for a marriage, one of which hilariously remains fixed on the speaker as he fumbles and grasps for his forgotten words and his family watches in horror, the other giving way to a fantastical epic portraying the creation of a family as a Homeric adventure where the family is constructed through plants and fruits narrated warmly by an old woman (who I sadly cannot identify in the cast). That latter is the artistic peak of the film as it abandons the empty white spaces and fills the frame with depth and detail with pastel seas and stalks and fruits, but it’s not the only moment where Takahata decides to be ambitiously versatile: late in the film, a non-threatening but still tense moment of confrontation with a few juvenile bikers involves more lines and a darker palette with less (but impressively deliberate) lighting to knock the “fun” out of the moment without losing the cartoon aesthetic, followed by a kinetic “fantasy” action sequence akin to superhero movies.

But it must of course be constantly acknowledged that this is just as well aided by the fact that My Neighbors the Yamadas is gutbustingly funny in a very endearing and relentless sense with those above moments cushioning a familiarity with the family we have accomplished just by innocent and silly but wholly relatable incidents before tying it with a bow by a very celebratory musical number of “Que Sera, Sera” just to bring all its admiration of the Yamadas and how well they represent us right home as they laugh along into the sunset. It is near impossible to pick a “sweetest” moment in a film like this, but Takahata definitely selected quite a note to say goodbye to this family with.

Earlier this year, I’ve been privileged enough to rewatch the entire feature canon of Studio Ghibli (including the precursor Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and frustratingly excluding the Belgian co-production The Red Turtle) on the big-screen in the presence of an audience, most of whom (including my friend) were getting to experience this for the first time. My Neighbors the Yamadas was decidedly not the most packed house but it was possibly the most responsive I’ve seen the audience throughout the whole run. It is not as widely-seen (at least in the United States, I cannot speak to its popularity in Japan but I expect being based on beloved comics indicates commercial success), but I absolutely think this film deserves to be regarded as much of a crowd-pleaser as anything by Miyazaki. My Neighbors the Yamadas is certainly a gem of a picture that is infectiously affable and assuredly humorous in all its color and shape.

NB: I was finishing this essay on a flight to New York (after having a draft sitting here for months – sorry, readers) and I had playing in the background The Death of Stalin, where I recall a similar joke occurs as My Neighbor the Yamadas involving wearing pajamas underneath your suit.

NNB: LOL, that fucking NB was from an earlier attempt to complete this draft. If y’all ever want to hold me accountable for deadlines…

*Barring a single short segment made for the anthology film Winter Days, inspired by that favorite poet of Takahata’s to reference in his movies (including and especially this review’s subject), Bashō.

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Isle of Good Boys

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Isle of Dogs is the sort of movie that should have a first-class ticket into my heart (and indeed was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year). It’s not just the new Wes Anderson film, it’s the new Wes Anderson film returning to his lovely animation style from Fantastic Mr. Fox focusing on bunch of dogs set in Japan, with whatever fears of problematic elements (confirmed, I have to admit and will elaborate on, to be worse than I expected) at least promising to deliver an affinity for the styles of Japanese cinema. All of which it delivers on, even if the callbacks to Japanese cinema do not go further than Kurosawa Akira or Ozu Yasujiro.

Far be it from me to claim that Isle of Dogs ended up a disappointment. Indeed, I walked away from it with a smile on my face but one that wanes with every passing season with the thought that it perhaps felt like I – the ideal viewer for this kind of movie – needed to meet it halfway more than I should have had to.

Not a good necessity to have when you are writing a parable about the sweet selflessness of friendship, much as Anderson did based on a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. That story is about a dystopian future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where a threatening strain canine flu is the catalyst for Mayor Kobayashi Kenji (voiced by Nomura) to enact an order that all dogs be expelled to the nearby accurately-named Trash Island. He makes an example of this by having his son Atari’s (Rankin Koyu) guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) be the first deportee.

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Within six months, the inhabiting dogs of the island have now orbited into their own packs and one particular pack made of the previously-pampered Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray; my favorite just because he looks the most adorable in his little league Dragons jersey), and led by grizzled stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) witness a little plane crash-landing with young Atari (distressingly injured from the crash for the rest of the film including an alarming bit protruding out of his head), who subsequently attempts to discipline them using the Seven Samurai theme and recruits them in search of his beloved dog. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, radical high school exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) investigates into the roots and endgoals of Mayor Kobayashi and his right-hand Major Domo (Takayama Akira)’s plan with the isle of dogs.

Did I say “parable”? Sorry, it gets more complex than that, but the center of the film is the growing bond between Akira and distrusting Chief (having suffered much as a stray in the metropolis) as they seek to reunite Akira with his best friend. Anyway, we may as well acknowledge the problematic elements out of the gate: the imposition of a white savior in Walker (who is a pretty annoying character), the stereotype of Asian mistreatment towards dogs (and caricatured design of Major Domo as some pale yellow fever grotesquerie), the overwhelming presence of non-Asian voices over Asian voice actors (and even though the Asian characters are voiced by Asian actors, much of their dialogue is talked over Frances “inclusion clause” McDormand – a frustrating matter when Anderson gives this movie’s title cards a lateral aesthetic that compliments its design), and especially a development in the third act that – I’m avoiding spoilers – recalls a horrifying atrocity the US commit against the Japanese in a manner that places the Japanese in the perpetrator role and brought me the closest to saying “fuck this”.

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Anyway, if you can push past that (And it’s a lot. My privilege as a non-Asian viewer is showing, but Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have a great episode of their podcast The Reel that cuts deeper into these issues), you get a very busily designed movie that mostly pays off in an aesthetic sense. When we’re opened to an diorama look of Megasaki, it is certainly reminiscent of the wide shot introducing the titular Grand Budapest Hotel to us, with moving parts and lights, centralized by the bright red Town Hall and a looming volcano in the distance. And that’s just the start of the sort of an abidance by Japanese cinema and Noh theater that production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get to play with. Trash Island, made up mostly of blocks of garbage, gets to base its design on stacks or remnants of an old by-gone youthful world with its slides and theme park rides. And despite my complaint about Domo’s design, the rest of the humans are mostly made to look so unpersonable so that the dogs can be as scruffed up as they would be left to their own devices and still be entirely appealing in their bigs eyes (helped by a cast that mostly doesn’t have much to do as characters but still does it hella well; Tilda Swinton’s Oracle is hilarious in its facial expressions and Jeff Goldblum’s delivery of “I love gossip” is so Goldblum-y). More human than human, I’d claim the intention is.

The movement of all these pieces in a manner that mirrors the multiple pieces of narrative we have to work here with and the presentation with it via Anderson’ favorite horizontal camera movements (this time mirroring the sort of cinema he is trying to homage and thereby at the appropriate usage that this trademark has ever had in his filmography) and presents the most controlled aesthetic that Anderson has ever given us (indeed, animation does demand that control is held over by the filmmaker in every aspect). Something, people might argue, feels too controlled in a way that maybe a sincere tale about friendship should be left to organically. It’s maybe the first film where I actually understood people’s issues with Anderson’s characters being a bit distanced from you based on how aware you are of the film’s artifice.

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I still think unfiltered feeling is still there in pockets: from the voice performance of Cranston beginning with a gruff guard slowly transforming into determined warmth, a sense of wounding given to Chief as the film moves on, flashback scenarios establishing Atari’s relationship with Spots, all of which cycle into a payoff by the third act. And of course, every single dog is as adorable looking as can be, whether patchy or pudgy, no matter how many vicious injuries they suffer (indeed Isle of Dogs really reminded me of how unexpectedly violent Anderson’s films can be, though the cartoon-esque scuffling in a ball of dust was amusing no less). But the more I look back on the times I’ve had within the Isle of Dogs, the more I’m left with memories of the first Anderson movie I liked but did not love despite all ingredients being my jam.

I don’t know, maybe Wes is more of a cat person. I mean, look what he made happen to poor Buckley.

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