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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There Cannot Be Good Living Where There Is Not Good Drinking

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There is one problem with the animated comedy Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and it’s not a tiny one, but I wonder if it would be something I could easily have dismissed if I had seen the anime series, The Tatami Galaxy, of which it is a loose spin-off (though all indications point to this probably not happening). Both of these projects are Kyoto University-based stories of student lives adapted from novels by Morimi Tomihiko, brought to bold life by director Yuasa Masaaki, writer Ueda Makoto and Yuasa’s animation company Science Saru. And mind you, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is just another blip on a great year for Yuasa and Science Saru, having also produced and released Devilman Crybaby and Lu Over the Wall stateside earlier this year (The Tatami Galaxy, meanwhile, was produced back in 2010). It is a very big blip and possibly the greatest thing they’ve produced yet.

I’m not even sure that if my thing is a problem, it is a problem for me. Because Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a very wildly speedy film that doesn’t allow you to linger too long on the details of what’s going on. In fact, it’s very tempting to call the movie “manic”, but that’s an aggressive word to use. It’s more like a looney whirlwind (which eventually becomes quite literal by the third act) of colliding incidents and the people who get spun around by those incidents. And yet it is narratively coherent in that stream-of-consciousness manner – Ueda’s script tightly packs incident into 93 minutes, is episodic enough to chop it into three distinct acts based on its characters’ objectives (though spoiling the later objectives would be a total crime), nearly everything that comes up at the beginning of the movie (which acts as an expositional dump of four characters and their hilarious madcap lives) returns full circle, and every single character appears to generously have their own arc though there are varying levels of importance to their arc.

It is also aesthetically coherent, especially if you’ve encountered Yuasa’s rubbery flash animation style before where figures are flat but bold at the same time without losing a sense of depth (mostly Yuasa deliberately eschews shading for depth) and colors come in distinctive blocks that define the shape of a character or object more than any outline could. It makes for a great mirror to the narrative’s feverish absurdity, such as when characters take part in a wacky crouched ritual known as the sophist’s dance or a boat-train will peel out practically leaning in the direction of its voyage as though it were pulled. The only deviation from this style is moments of internalized fantasy or memory from characters, where the backgrounds become brightly monochromatic and defined by lines while characters are totally filled in by their primary colors with no features whatsoever. It’s a nice establishing of how unformed the thoughts of these characters rushing through an exciting night would be.

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There is a central driver of the breakneck momentum. She is a floral and bubbly presence, a girl identified solely by her Junior class and black hair color as “Kohai Kami no Otome” (Hanazawa Kana). And she burns with anticipation of feeling like an adult, which apparently means drinking a whole lot of brilliantly colorful and large drinks. I am myself a teetoler and yet Yuasa has  brought such spirited vibrance out of the colors of the alcohol and turning the different shapes of glass into feeling like characters that I feel pleasantly just watching Kohai take ‘em down with her new friends. But what she is truly driven by is a potent dose of id. She feels like drinking, so she gets a drink. She feels like dancing so she dances. She wants a book. She wants to challenge someone. She wants to act. A character acknowledges that she’s always in motion and it’s so fast to keep with her both physically and intellectually. One of the first things we see her do is tighten up her arms and chug her body like she’s being wound up as she decides what she’s going to do for the next while before marching forward, a gesture repeated. Even before Ueda reveals what this gesture means to her, it’s clear that Night Is Short, Walk On Girl will be following her.

In particular, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is the story of her extremely festive night on the town, as she runs into and makes friends with all colorful manner of folk like the bar-crawlers excitable Hanuki (Kaida Yūko) and crafty long-chinned yukata-donning Higuchi (Nakai Kazuya) or the pessimistic diminuitive gremlin-esque crimelord Rihaku (Mugihito), who shrinks further and further within the expansive space of his boat-train. Even when one of the first things happening to her is a creepy old Todo-san (Yamaji Kazuhiro)*, she takes care to give him a “friendly punch” (that still knocks him across the room) because she finds him harmless and doesn’t want to fight anybody. And meanwhile, it appears to be an eventful night: a wedding, a book fair, the school festival, a series of guerilla pop-up musical theater performances.

It’s arguably overcomplicated and definitely exhausting by the end of it all, but the peppy attitude of nearly every character is infectious and it’s always interesting to witness how the movie will twist itself into a new style. An early drinking battle involving Imitation Denki Bran alternating between a character collapsing in a growing nihilistic blackness as he espouses aged fatalism while another sips the same alcohol and has flowers apparate in her confident profile with yellow and pink surround her, parrying his statements with youthful cheer. This moment is the strongest of many battles made between the relentlessly joyful anticipation of entering adulthood and the resigned regretfulness of late age and the young always win out.

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There’s also the hilarious meta-textual element of the theatrical performances that keep occurring all around the festivals despite the best attempts of the Festival Leader (Kamiya Hiroshi) to shut it down and jail them all, commenting on events we just saw occur and eventually just taking the film over outright to turn it into a late musical. Or the existence of the weirdly steadfast (and appropriately square-headed) Don Underwear (Akiyama Ryuji) saying he will not change his underwear until he reunites with a girl he had a passing fancy with, showing another side of this film’s idea of determination, or the impish Spirit of the Book Fair (Yoshino Hiroyuki) trying to sabotage unfair prices for knowledge.

Anyway, I came here saying there was one problem and it’s that there is one character whose arc Night Is Short, Walk On Girl gives as much importance as Kohai and it’s the man who is romantically interested in her, likewise identified solely by being an upperclassman “Senior”** (Hoshino Gen) and who spends the night trying to catch up and follow her are attempting to arrange their paths enough to make their pairing seem like destiny. And the frank fact is that Senior’s side of the story is not AS interesting as Kohai. That may be the point and the movie does give him a lot of wacky shenanigans to go through (especially when they collide with Kohai’s story as expected), but the character isn’t as dynamic as his castmates. He’s a straight man in a movie I don’t think needs one (Kohai functions well enough as one).

But his story does have purpose and it feels like two separate paths – one based in resoluteness, the other based in spontaneity – reaching the same point in the end because that’s just fate. And while I don’t think Night Is Short, Walk On Girl wants us to overthink any deep commentary on destiny or chance, the observations are there. Mainly though, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl just wants to barrel through the most exciting boisterous explosive night one can put oneself through and if I may end anecdotally, watching it on a very tiring and uncertain night made me walk out of the theater with renewed vigor and energy for at least the rest of the night.

*And mind you, this character and his fetishism of Japanese erotic wood paintings along with some other developments makes Night Is Short, Walk On Girl feel like Yuasa’s most reflexive look on his own perversions.
**Or “senpai” as the movie calls him, but fuck you if you’ll catch me saying that.

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Raiders of the Lost Oak

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I don’t know what it is about Oakland that makes first-time filmmakers so confident, daring, and willing to pull out any possible cinematic flourish to appeal in the audience in such stylized yet urgent way, but let me tell you we need more debut filmmakers attacking subject matter with the same kind of relentlessness. Hell, we need more filmmakers in general to swing material where it hits us, with little care as to whether everything lands or doesn’t.

Most of Blindspotting lands, let me tell you. Most of it lands as hard as a movie about the tension in police brutality, racial identity, and cyclical violence should land in order for you to get the message and walk away shook. And some moments the reason you had to catch your breath was because you heart was tightening in anticipation of horribly unfair things to happen to Collin (Daveed Diggs) while some moments, it’s because you could not stop laughing in relief of the aftermath.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t just talking about Carlos López Estrada’s directing and how he’s well-acquainted with establishing moods via editing rhythms with the help of Gabriel Fleming and realism via nighttime cinematography of the traffic lights and streetlamps illuminated city streets with the help of Robbie Baumgartner. I’m also talking about how well he’s effortlessly he’s able to handle the multitudes of tone that the screenplay by Diggs and Rafael Casal. I haven’t been able to find proof that Estrada himself is from the Bay Area, but Diggs and Casal are natives and confidently provide a map of moods and attitudes that Estrada and his crew bring to the screen that give the streets a two-sided personality based on what Oakland was and what Oakland is turning into. And it is a disarmingly funny screenplay full of lively energy despite dealing with subjects that are no laughing manner, but that Diggs and Casal know all too well to sugarcoat: sometimes casual life in Oakland is going to be violently interrupted by some brutal truths.

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One of those brutal truths introduced early on in the split-screen opening credits: the before and after of Oakland’s gentrification, turning from a diverse melting pot community that is overpoliced into a mecca for performative hipsters. The very next brutal truth is the impersonal “rehabilitation” system as a judge sleepily states to Collin the terms of his parole for a crime we are not privy to yet. The next one takes a smash cut worth 27 days from his zoned out face in a courthouse to his zoned out face in a neon-decked Uber with his best friend Miles (Casal) to reach, during which time we learn that Miles is the more intense stereotype between the two of them of “gangster” behavior. For one thing, the very first thing we watch him do is offhandedly buy himself a gun from the Uber driver and most of the things he does since is the sort of thing that would get him in trouble with the law if he were the very same color as Collin, often with grill-grinning antagonism. There are many exchanges between Collin and his ex-girlfriend/co-worker Val (Janina Gavankar) that serve to implicitly and later explicitly state just how easy it is for Collin to get in trouble for nothing while Miles is able to walk away after inciting that trouble.

But the very bond between Collin and Miles is a genuine one, chemistry that comes effortlessly from Diggs and Casal being childhood friends without feeling like cheats because both actors are able to craft distinct flesh-and-blood identities with their own personal lives and conflicts, so it’s painfully easy why it appears Collin is strong on refusing to cut Miles loose even if it appears as though he must. Plus, if getting to write their own dialogue feels like stacking the deck in their favor, their delivery of impromptu raps to describe their current situations and states, swapping verses and even words back and forth like they’re passing a blunt, a wonderful connective version of dialogue between the two characters (and something that comes natural to both actors – Diggs won a Tony for his charming performances in Hamilton and Casal’s main career is poetry as a regular of Def Poetry).

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This relationship is the core of Blindspotting‘s deft handle on tone: if the audience is having a good time, it’s because Collin and Miles are having a good time, usually in the presence of Miles’ relaxed but no-nonsense homelife with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). If the movie is tense and upsetting it’s because tension is brewing between their relationship or because some other urgency regarding Collin’s closing parole status is causing added stress for him that nobody around him recognizes.

Or he could be reliving the incident of that very same night we catch up with him three days before his parole’s end, where he watched a police officer (Ethan Embry) gun down a black civilian Randall Marshall (Travis Parker) on his way to make curfew. It is a moment that haunts Collin directly and indirectly all throughout Blindspotting, a reminder that all the negative perceptions of black people and the pressures keeping them from responding to a changing world have a dead end at the wrong turn. If there is anything like an inciting incident to this shaggy hang out plot, it is this wake up moment.

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And yet it can not be overstated how absolutely funny it is in between those angry and occasionally violent releases. Blindspotting does not play around with serious revelations such as that nor abandon them, but it’s impressive how well the movie is able to unwind at most of the harshness with a good reminder that Collin and Miles have each other and especially using every turn life gives them to show the difference between the two characters and how they can roll with Oakland’s development whether it’s a health drink or a developer’s party. It’s not a message movie despite its lack of subtlety in its stances, it’s an observational one and one without any distance towards the characters. Blindspotting is the sort of movie that thinks everybody deserves to make it out ok in the end, especially Miles despite him having the most apparent flaws (and there is at least one scene where Miles looks REALLY ugly to the audience, but the film knows how to confront that directly).

Honestly, the only real flaw (other than some clunky transitions) I can consider a possibility against the film (read: seen it brought up by filmgoers I respect) is its late attempts at an unconventional structure with two climaxes close by, but I can’t say I’m way too bothered by it. For one thing, the second climax feels less like a restart and more like Estrada ratcheting the tension to its highest point. For another, the script is structured that way because Blindspotting is the story of two men, not one, and their personal conflicts are not the same. I mean, in the end, that’s just the whole thesis of Blindspotting, beyond giving us the best and most gorgeous portrait (I hesitate to say eulogy even if the movie is aware of what’s to come) of Oakland’s urban side: Collin and Miles may come from the same place, but they don’t come from the same place and they’re not going to reach the same ends. But it’s great to watch them take the journey together and hope they can stay together for as long as they can.

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Some of Those That Work Forces…

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In the third act of Sorry to Bother You, two men spend a bit blithely pondering on the meaning of some street art being used to send a direct revelation we the audience are already in on by that point. And in the middle of their discussion, the character we know to be the artist steps up in exasperation and states in a monotone “Maybe the artist was being literal.” This is so far along the film that I can’t imagine somebody needing to get such a direct message by writer/director Boots Riley, known as the radical frontman of the political hip hop group The Coup, but if you needed to be reminded that Sorry to Bother You had all the subtlety of a Bong Joon-ho or Elio Petri film (including similar attitudes on class and industry), then you ARE right in Sorry to Bother Your‘s target audience anyway, so what am I gonna blame?

For the record, I uniformly love Bong Joon-ho’s movies and pretty much the two Elio Petri films I’ve seen. So, it should be pretty damn clear early on what side I’m on regarding Sorry to Bother You‘s bravado.

It’s not just that Sorry to Bother You lays its leftist themes on thick with every step of its plot, it’s also a rare and rarely powerful thing: it is the most literal surrealist film I’ve seen since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, both of which sharing the traits that they come from wild and bizarre visualizing a world only slightly different from ours. Hell, I’d say that Riley is so much more direct in the draining effect of capitalism on the individual than Lynch in his films’ themes (deliberately of course). It might help that I agree whole-heartedly with its observations and that prevents me from finding it heavy-handed but I can’t imagine any scenario where this kind spirited clarity of vision and message isn’t compulsive and involving for a viewer, especially with the relentless mania Sorry to Bother You expresses.

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One way the film accomplishes a sense of a wild fever dream without being vague about its themes is in its star, Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield has been spending much of the decade getting more and more visibility and his arguably most popular roles to date, Darius on the tv show Atlanta and a tragic bit part in Get Out, have been done well enough to sell us on his greatest strength, having zoned-out facial expressions that look like he just had the wind knocked out of him. He brings appropriate existential fear to every development no matter how high or low they take him. Stanfield makes an excellent human anchor to how ridiculous things are getting.

Anyway, Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green is starting from the bottom: living out of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland with a car so beat-up it smokes after he uses it and he has to physically move the windshield wipers. We meet him just as he gains a telemarketing job that he hopes will give him more than 40 cents for gas, but the intrusive and stressful commission-based job is proving to be an unsuccessful venture until a veteran black co-worker (Danny Glover) informs him on how to assure the people they’re calling: using an unthreatening idealized inner white voice (in Cassius’ case, provided by David Cross; I swear Glover’s sounds uncannily like Steve Buscemi but apparently it’s an uncredited sound engineer). Cassius’ quick mastery of the tactic gains him attention of his frustrated co-workers, organized by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) to revolt against their skeezy supervisors (Robert Longstreet, Kate Berlant, and a perfectly cast Michael X. Sommers). Cassius also gets those supervisors’ attention while they seduce him with the unconfirmed possibility of ascending to “power caller” level.

And it’s from here where I feel like Sorry to Bother You comes so wild that I can’t move any further up in a plot synopsis without spoilers, but at the margins of this story are the ominous presence of WorryFree, a company that blatantly imprisons workers for a lifetime of labor in exchange for not paying for your prison cot, sleeping cell, cold cafeteria food, and jumpsuits. And standing against WorryFree is the radical group Left Eye, where we learn that Cassius’ artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) aids with agitprop art in an attempt to let others know about the evils of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO Jeff Bezos Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

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Cash’s story will collide with that political atmosphere sooner than he expects as Sorry to Bother You has an obscene amount of momentum in his opening rise, rushing into his power crawl, with oh so much information being dropped in between scene transitions because we can’t wait to see ourselves at the top before the film suddenly feels like the new trials of Cash are prolonged and stretched out and his relationships become so much more strained and his conscience tugged at with no end in sight. The movie doesn’t become sluggish or sedate – it’s much too nervy and wired for that – but it doesn’t feel as brisk and the script loses sense of its structure. This only makes me relate further to Cash and his anxieties and while I certainly get the complaints about Riley’s still green handle on filmmaking, I can’t help finding this “weakness” into a strength.

And besides which I think there’s a serious underestimation on Riley’s ability as a storyteller, even from fans of the movie. Visually, he has an eye for frames that use lines and blocking to corner and box Cash in discomfort whether he’s in an extravagant chandeliered elevator, his broke car, a Fortune 500 glass office, a chill-out bar in sleepy dark blues and reds, a big mansion filled with debauched people, or a cold blue cubicle. He’s able to use sound mixing in such a surrounding and asphyxiating sense, whether the music at a party or an angry crowd of protestors. He has an unstoppable imagination on how far he can push the directness of his storytelling: not only with the white voice dubbing, but sequences that drop Cash from his cubicle into other people’s home adding to his sense of intrusion with his cold-calling or how as Cash starts coming up, Riley has his humble setting and fixtures of his garage room crack open like shells to unveil upgrades in wealth until he’s living in a clean white window surrounded high-rise apartment. And this is to say nothing of Jason Kisvarday’s set designs and Deirdre Elizabeth Govan’s costumes themselves feeling like extensions of Detroit’s artwork, like her constantly changing earrings or the transparency of the WorryFree ads’ sinister nature. The two of them provide a block-colored alternative Oakland, both in the walls and the inhabitants trapped within those walls.

Riley’s also proven to be an impressive director of performances as there’s a clear line dividing his dedicated ensemble between the evil corporate leaders embracing the ghoulish caricature they’re playing. Omari Hardwick’s Mr. _______ not as wild, but his presence is such a confident and aggressive tower of masculinity in his facial hair and suits to match and the fact that his name is constantly bleeped and almost all of his lines are spoken by Patton Oswalt helps. Hammer especially digs deep from his privileged background to add a huge layer of disconnect with every other character unless his relationship is owning them. Meanwhile, the characters we align with like Cash, Squeeze, and Detroit are so grounded and down-to-earth to be relieving company. Even the comic best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) is of more “hang-out” humor than anything else.

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All this competence turns Riley’s other “weakness” into a strength: his refusal to keep leash on the tonal changes of the movie. It flips from hilarity to horror on and off without any true rhythm to familiarize us. The third act in particular is where the most heinous revelations of Lift are made aware to the viewer and it’s immediately followed by one hilarious gag regarding the different shades of green he paints his doors and his incredibly puerile pitch for Cash’s next move, punctuated by a claymation instructional video narrated by a naked cavewoman whose breasts the animator took great care to keep in exaggerated swaying. It’s not a strength I’m too defensive of, as it turns exhausting by the end of the film and its final note is quite a bit too glib about a situation that should be haunting, but it’s hard for me to mistake it as a crippling liability.

So is Sorry to Bother You unwieldy? Yes. But it’s not sloppy. That unwieldiness keeps the audience from feeling like their feet are planted on the floor. That’s because Sorry to Bother You doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, even if it wants you to have a good time and laugh along with its sharp and bitter messaging. Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions – scare you, amuse you, feel unreal, confront you with reality – that you wouldn’t expect a debut to succeed at, but by god does it will itself into success. If only we had more first-time directors jumping into the artform with this much bravery, regardless of how inexperienced they may be. Their experience might just be what makes them perfect for the job.

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