24 FPS

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Until the last breath, it appears that the great Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami kept trying to break down the concept of cinema to its very bones. By the time he left us early in July 2016, gone appeared any indication that he was interested in telling a straightforward story (if still constructed in a slightly conventional manner, such as Taste of Cherry or Certified Copy. I have not yet seen Like Someone in Love, but I understand it was the case in this film too). Kiarostami’s reward as a storyteller was to demand the audience’s involvement in creating and piecing together the incident from fragments in no uncertain way from him.

His final feature film 24 Frames premiered almost a year after his death at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is potentially his most extreme dive into his modus operandi as its premise is simple yet challenging: one by one, 24 static images each held for 4 to 6 minutes. They’re not frozen images, in fact they all mostly involve some impressively complex amount of digital work to give them… well, I don’t want to say life because their actions are consciously robotic especially against a still backdrop, but motion that obviously represents life. And it can’t be ignored that the motion is provided in “natural” forms such of winds and animals inhabiting the environments we spend those small amounts of time in. David Bordwell himself put it beautifully referring to the images as “nature morte” and I can’t think of a succinct way of establishing what we witness in 24 Frames.

Kiarostami doesn’t send us into this experience without warning, as he opens it up with an explanation that 23 of the images we will be sitting in on are based on landscape photographs he himself took and 1 in particular is based on the famous Pieter Brugel’s painting Hunters in the Snow (which also ends up being the frame most augmented by modern filmmaking techniques). And he doesn’t send us into this experiment with intent on making it uncomfortable or alienating: at the very least, the imagery is aesthetically in every possible way as they’re all centered with a sharp sense of lines that is frequently called attention to with a horizon established in some fashion (whether the line in which trees emerge from snow or a stone rail against a beach shore) and depth called attention to with Kiarostami’s powerful use of shadows, like practically hard-drawn artistry. And it’s quite a soothing lulling thing to listen to, composing a rhythm out of the sounds of whatever environments we’re dropped into so that we’re hypnotized into sinking into a frame rather than simply observing it, mostly pleasant with one exception – a frame where we are listening to a sinister droning relentlessly scoring a deer’s uncertainty before it’s punctuated by a violent crack.

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Which leads to the other thing that makes 24 Frames a much easier watch than I’d suppose it could have been: the digital reconstruction of the images Kiarostami wanted to bring to life also lead him to construct a story within each frame so that we’re not just sitting waiting for the next image but instead have a sense of direction. Not every one of the frames necessarily has a “beginning”, but they all have some punchline in which the cut to the next frame is not far behind like the orgasm of a lion or the flight of birds into the air (and at the very least, there are occasional interior shots specifically scored by a opera or orchestral song from a radio or record that furthers the concept of domestic respite after exploring images of the wild, so one can expect the end of the song to end the frame).

I feel there is an angle on which this could be seen as “cheating the experiment”, an attitude I’m not quite sure whether I adopt or not (though I sure it’s not as bad as I make it sound), but that begs me to recognize what the experiment is: Kiarostami is not only expecting us to determine what is the narrative in between the images, but also examine our personal ways of processing a series of images without any established guide to connect them in our minds. 24 Frames‘s ordering of each section isn’t random by any means – beginning with the Hunters segment to indicate towards us what to expect while making us be aware of the artificiality of the movements utilizing one of the most famous works in all of fine art, then establishing a pattern of sorts that uses images that favor windowed perspectives as checkpoints between alternating between the beach, the rain, the snow, the birds, and the quadrupeds, sometimes in combinations of each other. I can’t help imagining while every decision Kiarostami makes on which frame goes after which and what goes on in each on is deliberate, 24 Frames is meant to be an entirely subjective experience for the viewer to read the fragments of a story and input their own in between the shots.

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Obviously because it’s so well made, 24 Frames also could abide by us deciding not to create a narrative for the film and just relaxing within the landscapes Kiarostami captured for one last document. Nothing particularly about the film punishes us for not wanting to play along except perhaps the totally unconvincing manner in which the animals and weather conditions populate the images so that Kiarostami can make sure we’re aware that the cinema’s artifice is just as false as its narrative. But it’s of such a playful good faith sort of giveaway – the way you can tell a Harryhausen creation is obviously an effect but still will play along – that I can’t imagine the sort of viewer who could take umbrage at it, not when the result is still so dazzling. I mean, a movie about images that specifically takes time to return to looking out of windows has to already make you aware that you’re watching a frame within a frame literally.

Besides which 24 Frames as a final collection of all the things Kiarostami loved to do with movies – break narrative, break images, inject poetry, collaborate with the audience – is also a final document of Kiarostami’s pleasant sense of humor, particularly with its final frame, obnoxiously slowing down a television monitor while the rest of the image moves at normal speed until we can get one last gag that seems like a very sweet farewell, whether or not Kiarostami knew he was going to die or intended to continue after this film. The very last moment of 24 Frames is a winking knowing gesture that an artist could only accomplish by sharing it with a willing viewer.

P.S. Tim Brayton has suggested that Kiarostami’s preceding short film Take Me Home makes for an effective companion piece to 24 Frames and argued for it in his review of this film. I have not had the privilege but I hope above hopes that the short ends up on the feature’s inevitable Criterion collection release so I can see the pairing in action.

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Girlhood

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If you’re ever dealing with somebody who pretends misogyny doesn’t exist in the film industry and somehow reminding them that Blue Valentine got an NC-17 rating over the fact that women can get orally pleasured doesn’t convince them, consider using this example: Takahata Isao’s second directorial film for the now-in-full-force Studio Ghibli (and 7th film overall, roughly if you consider the Panda Go Panda shorts one whole feature), Only Yesterday, took almost 15 fucking years to get a U.S. theatrical release despite being among the many films purchased by Disney in their landmark 1996 deal with the animation studio. It received only one quick television broadcast in 2006.

The reason being that apparently Disney was unwilling to release a film that featured scenes where girls learn about and deal with menstruation, while they were legally contracted not to edit any of the Ghibli films they purchase*. Meanwhile, Takahata’s next film Pom Poko got released in the US with scenes revolving around big-balled raccoons.

Oh well. Their loss because Only Yesterday stands tall as a masterpiece in Studio Ghibli’s history. Although without the benefit of hindsight, it might have looked as though Takahata Isao was not taking as many risks as one would associate him with.

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For like Grave of the FirefliesOnly Yesterday is based on autobiographical material on the part of Okamoto Hotaru, who co-wrote with Tone Yuko the manga source おもひでぽろぽろ (Memories Come Tumbling Down, the title which this film released under in Japan). And again like Grave of the Fireflies, the main focus of the story happens to be the childhood memories of human characters. Not entirely however, as Okamoto and Tone’s series was strictly focused on a year in the life of ten-year-old Taeko (Honna Youko) while Takahata’s screenplay takes the liberty of framing it from the perspective of a now-27-year-old Taeko (Imai Miki) as she takes a break from her office job in Tokyo to head down to the countryside of Yamagata to help her sisters’ in-laws harvest safflower. And it feels like the flashbacks embedded in the adult storyline take Taeko aback just as much as they had to have taken the authors of this film aback, but there’s a connective tapestry between the two stories that re-frames everything as looking on how our younger origins and yearnings inform the personality and decisions we might make in our later lives even if by surprise.

We learn almost immediately that Taeko’s desire to visit and be part of the country life came from an early life where her family was unable to acquiesce to her desire to take a school vacation out of the city, ostensibly because they had nobody they knew in the area. And I would say “that’s it” as far as how those memories tumbling down end up connecting to WHY Taeko is going to Yamagata and yet they do so much more to shape her personality in a manner that never fails to progress the story in some way: it’s almost Tarantino-esque how a scenario or tale adult Taeko is going through or talking about during her stay opens up to an episode of kid Taeko’s time, except it calls the least amount of attention to itself that a movie can while including the line “I didn’t intend for the ten-year-old me to come along on this trip”. It’s essentially the brain’s free association as a narrative structure. It’s smooth and organic and the lack of escalating incident for the movie beyond a late romantic development doesn’t make Only Yesterday feel strained in the slightest.

There’s also how exciting the film is visually, like all of Takahata’s other films, without flaunting it the same way that his later films would. In fact, the development of Takahata’s style between Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday is incredibly subtle, but I’d argue nested in the lines and colors of Only Yesterday is the genesis of all the stylistic habits that Takahata would spend the rest of his life exploring. And those habits are embedded in the distinct designs of each timeline.

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The one that would probably catch a viewer’s eye at first glance is the faces: the faces of adult Taeko’s storyline have more defined cheeks while childhood Taeko’s storyline has a flatter cartoon shape. Not too flat, mind you, just enough to really call attention to the dimension in the adult storyline (established to be the present as far narrative perspective is concerned). And Only Yesterday is very proud of those muscles: the first shot that introduces us to Taeko is her smiling loud enough for dimples and the film is more than happy to give her or one of her farming guides Toshio (Yanagiba Toshiro) scenarios where they flex those faces with smiles and such.

Not that young Taeko doesn’t also have scenes to show off character designs, namely in moments of bliss where her eyes expand into starry happiness like talking to a crush or entertaining a future as an actress. And her reactions to her situations are more cartoon exaggerations, including a moment of her face constantly morphing to appalled looks when teased during the infamous period storyline. In general, the whole aesthetic of the younger storyline allows for more fantastical freedom – both of those blissful moments are given big rainbows and literal flights of fancy – and while I’m not sure how close that is to the aesthetic of the manga itself, I’m glad Takahata and his crew found a space to use as a playground. It’s interesting to see how these fantasies play in the mind of adult Taeko, as we witness her quote her meeting with childhood crush Hirota (Masuda Yuki) and roll around in bed in happiness.

The other big trademark of Takahata is his exploration of using the blank white empty areas of the canvas to translate a narrative mood. Out of the three movies where he exercises this, he never uses them for the same purpose. In Only Yesterday‘s case, it’s solely applied to the 5th grade timeline where the backdrops are constantly fading at the edges, as though the memory is only barely grasped to and the locations (constantly in the most transparent watercolors) aren’t really being regarded by Taeko, only the event in question. It’s a distant look into the past that the film constantly calls attention to, including a shot where the image pulls away from us to fill the frame with more and more white until I leave the shot altogether and return the present, like an awakening. And yet that distance doesn’t prevent the flashbacks from having a pleasant nostalgia to them in the way of their soft colors and designs, much more pleasant and relaxed to look at than the full information of the adult timeline.

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And the adult timeline nevertheless keeps itself busy with landscapes of rural life: farms and fields and rivers abound in lush, full tones. It is clear that while Miyazaki Hayao was probably the most famously environmentalist of the two within Studio Ghibli, that attitude rubbed off very much on his friend Takahata with all the bright colors of the safflowers being picked (remarked by the narration consciously) and one majestic shot where we slowly witness morning sunlight landing on the workers of the safflower field (this is a very patient film despite never feeling slow, using spans of silence for atmosphere). Toshio mentions it’s important to be ecstatic about your work as his motivation for becoming a farmer and it shows that Takahata believed in that philosophy and wanted it to be prevalent throughout Only Yesterday: the harvest and the green and the dye and the lands are wonderful to be around and we get Taeko’s ecstasy at being able to accomplish her childhood dreams and her fascination with this world.

Which is a pleasant attitude that fuels all of Only Yesterday‘s breeziness, aided wonderfully by Hoshi Katsu’s graceful musical score and adult performances that sound like they’re emerging out of smiles. Obviously, Only Yesterday isn’t all pleasantries when it’s rooted in the turbulence of growing up, but the confusion from those memories simply prove to strengthen Taeko’s feeling of agency in the present and her wisdom, feelings that Takahata translates to us efficiently. Sure, Only Yesterday is probably the least radical film in his arsenal, but it’s also his most unassuming and confident about its own perfection.

*There is a famous legend regarding this clause where Suzuki Toshio or Miyazaki Hayao – depending on who’s telling the story – mailed Harvey Weinstein a katana with a note reading “no cuts” in response to Weinstein’s desire to re-edit Princess Mononoke for U.S. release.

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We Are Two People in One Body. Nanas of the Old and the Force of the New.

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Being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was theatrically distributed in the United States – a release as regrettably recent as 1991 – should be the kind of milestone that ensures a director’s subsequent commercial success and a mainstay in cinema history and yet here we are and I didn’t even know the name of UCLA graduate Julie Dash until literally a year ago, despite a familiarity with the L.A. Rebellion cinema movement for several years and having actually seen and vividly remembered one of her movies from a high school viewing – the underrated television movie The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett. And while there are plenty of great filmmakers I’m unfamiliar with and personal anecdotes is no real method to measure the popularity of an artist, the fact that Dash has been almost entirely relegated to television work since Daughters of the Dust‘s premiered at Sundance 17 years ago and won a very much deserved Best Cinematography award at that same festival for Arthur Jafa is frustrating.

Maybe Dash likes working in TV, maybe she can’t find the actual funding for the cinematic projects she wants to do. It’s a goddamn shame either way that she doesn’t return very much to the big screen or that her works are generally hard to find, because Daughters of the Dust is one of the most arresting cinematic experiences in all my life of movie-watching. Every syllable of its language – in terms of mood, in dialogue, in terms of structure – there’s very little I’ve seen like it. The movie’s closest sibling to me is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé in how they both seem to exude these intoxicating atmospheres from lush settings to a manner where it makes the film feel so organic and yet they’re both still worlds AND cultures apart.

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The culture at the center of Daughters of the Dust is the Lowcountry-based Gullah community, isolated descendants of African slaves developing their own creole language and dialect while mixing in Western dress and housing with the traditions and religion of their West African backgrounds, deep in the forests of lonely islands. I don’t know how much of the mainland formal dress of the characters in Daughters of the Dust is specific only to our subjects, the Peazant family off the coast of Georgia in Ibo Landing, but it is undeniably part of what gives the film such a heightened fantastical atmosphere that we have such a small functioning community cut off from the rest of the world in its rusticity and how fluidly it could mix in with the Caribbean spiritualism that is highly in practice from the primary matriarch of the film Nana (Cora Lee Day).

You see why the dresses and suits and the technological modern elements brought by photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) would possibly be seeping into the lifestyle of the Peazants and the rest of the Gullah people in this film is because of how most of them intend to leave Ibo and move into mainland America and adopt modern lifestyles, leaving behind the Gullah way. There are those, such as the traditional Nana or the young smitten Iona (Bahni Turpin), who object to the concept of leaving behind the site or ways. And in many a manner, alongside the florid elegant costumes – given wonderful aged tactility by Arline Burks Gant – and Mr. Snead’s enthusiastic explanation of the science behind his work, there are signs that Western culture has already intruded into Ibo Landing’s Gullah community, such as the return of the Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the liberal Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), both of them having already made a life outside of Ibo Landing within the cities and both of them clearly at odds with each other. Mary herself brings along her outsider lover Trula (Trula Hoosier), disrupting the isolationism status of the island. And there is also the recent rape of Eula (Alva Rogers) by a white man, which evidently resulted in a pregnancy that distresses her marriage to Eli (Adisa Anderson). There’s already been intrusions in this community that urges their leaving behind their cultural identity for a world that doesn’t care about them or to remember them, responded to by an all-too-impeccable cast. There’s already a fear that their history with slavery has injected homogeneity and disenfranchisement, even when they’re far away from the white man’s clutches.

In fact, Dash and editors Amy Carey & Joseph Burton do something really radical with the structure of all this sprawling internal family drama, which is to first establish these tales told in patches with no specific point of view from which we observe this family’s final gathering before the migration up north splits them apart except Eula’s future daughter (Kay-Lynn Warren), playing a much more direct reflection of these events than something like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and at some points having her present in these settings impossibly. The effect is simple yet powerful: we’re essentially resurrecting a memory, maybe an oral history being passed down by the daughter to generations. It feels present, it feels absolutely vivid thanks to Jafa’s beautiful awareness of how to dry the tones in the slowly dying community yet ramp up the inky blues and reds and oranges of the coastline as in to look forward to what’s beyond the horizon rather than the cracked graveyards and humble abodes of the characters (there is also some brilliant character-based color design in some of the rooms, painterly and revealing).

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It’s a story being told in a manner that is aware of the future for its characters to the point that it’s already sort of living in that future. And it doubles up on that temporal bending with Dash inputting the actual history of the Gullah people’s development and escape from slavery, especially the historical mass suicide of 1803 and what kind of sacrifices were made for the land that the Peazants are decidedly leaving behind. This contextualization, despite the history of Ibo Landing, isn’t entirely melancholic. It’s resigned but it’s also relaxed, essentially a movie you don’t really watch for the plot but sink into this world knowing that it’s going to leave soon and wanting to savor every last image and moment you can remain inside of it. Dash clearly has an overwhelming amount of love for the Gullah culture, it being a part of her father’s background and thus informing her existence and it shows in the detail with which she evokes so many different histories into this free-wheeling experiment attempting to translate the oral storytelling language of Gullah into cinema.

It’s not a perfect film, wearing both the modest budget and dating of the production in the 90s on its sleeve involuntarily. Jafa in particular, for all his experimenting with the imagery gives it so much character (and it’s never not a gorgeous movie), also has some false notes with slow-motion and deliberately fuzzy distortion. But these are minor quibbles compared to the way that Daughters of the Dust challenges the viewer with storytelling that Dash’s future career ensures we’re probably never going to witness again and rewards that viewer with the dreamiest island environments and humanly messy conflicts one could be privy to before bidding the Peazants farewell from their home and us from the film’s living and breathing remembrances.

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The Future Is Now

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I highly think we haven’t been fair to 2010’s Terrence Malick in some ways. Since his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece The Tree of Life, he’s wasted no time suddenly changing his method of filmmaking and focusing more on essayistic than narratively-driven pictures. Given how Malick’s films have been famously “made in the editing room” (infamously in some facets such as Adrien Brody’s involvement with The Thin Red Line), it’s less a surprise that he got to this point in his filmmaking than it is that it took him this long in a nearly 50-year career to reach that point. And it must be stated that the subject matter of this moment in this particular span of his career is nowhere near as interesting as the material he worked with back in the first half of his career. He’s gone from philosophically dense landscape explorations about man’s relation with nature, inner or environmental, to naval-gazing self-reflections about his status in life where he casts Ben Affleck or Christian Bale as himself (I’m not sure who qualifies for his surrogate in the subject of this review). He’s also made Voyage of Time in the middle of this phase, which is essentially just an outtake out of The Tree of Life so I’m not sure I’d call it as invested as the rest of his feature works.

BUT. He’s challenging cinematic norms in positively every other way. Aesthetical decisions helped out by having his usual suspects of brilliant veterans in the visual department: Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki aka the best cinematographer alive, production designer Jack Fisk (one would argue that there isn’t much to “design” in this film and that’s not untrue, but there’s still a necessity to spy the sort of environments – urban and natural – based on the demands of the scene and Fisk’s awareness of how they will be presented with Malick and Chivo’s lens), and as usual a revolving door of editors all of which have worked with Malick and have some idea of what he wants them to focus on. Those editors being Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, and Keith Fraase. Altogether, these films are formalist catnip.

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And to be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, Song to Song – our subject here – is not as visually or structurally interesting as its predecessor Knight of CupsKnight of Cups had a clear step-by-step focus and its decisions on sweeping through concrete terrains in GoPro cameras feels much more revelatory than the still-impressively gorgeous but all too familiar concert footage and leisure tour that is in Song to Song. But Song to Song also a clearer throughway in plot – it’s still abstract but so much less abstract than Knight of Cups (if anything, I’d probably show StS to friends before I showed KoC) – where the chronology doesn’t take effort to parse out and we can recognize an emotional and philosophical arc within our main four subjects.

Those subjects being musicians BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), all based in the city of Austin, Texas. Song to Song dances around these characters and how their relationships between each other tangle: The artistically driven BV is dating the more underground Faye and working for the sociopathic hedonistic Cook, but Faye is also having a secret affair with Cook in the middle of her internal identity crisis, and sometime into that Cook gets involved with the smitten Rhonda to the point of marriage and traps her into the shallow domesticity while not showing any signs of slowing down his debauchery in spite of her awareness. These strands begin to snap and expand in a naturalistic way probably based on something Malick does here that I can’t recall him ever doing elsewhere: he lets his actors sort of write the movie.

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I mean, he’s still the credited writer and obviously shaped more of the narrative in post than in filming – loose as the editing might feel – and actors were obviously cut (including, to my disappointment, Trevante Rhodes) but the real soul of Song to Song is in how the actors are allowed to inhabit these characters, fill them up with their own internal developments, and Malick and the camera just observe. Not just observe, but Malick seems to augment the idea through his editing that this is a character-inspired emotional journey rather than try to reframe it as a visually driven tale until the final few minutes. I’d honestly say Mara’s performance as Faye, possibly my favorite of her whole career, is strengthened by the decisions the editors take in sharply navigating through her emotional states than otherwise. And while it might sound like an insult, I absolutely do not mean for it to be so when the main cast could feel like they’ve been playing the same personality they’re providing their whole career: Gosling’s quiet fear of loneliness, Fassbender’s second-nature shitheel, Cate Blanchett’s bored entrapment in an unfulfilling relationship, and so on. And in turn, Malick gets to take those and arrange them into distanced looks into disconnection from society and how these characters deal with it, without losing sight of the fact that they’re humans inhabiting this film. Malick’s just not handling that, he knows his cast has got it.

And of course this praise isn’t precisely restricted to just the lead actors, but the revolving door of musicians who make appearances and simply espouse their philosophy on life without the slightest amount of restraint: Johnny Rotten acting like an overgrown teenager talking about doing whatever the fuck he wants to, Big Freedia’s (who this movie introduced me to) bouncy hangout manner, or most heartbreakingly Patti Smith reciting to Faye her short-lived time with the love of her life, the late Fred Smith (unnamed but very obviously the subject of her monologue if you know Patti or the MC5s well). There’s still plenty of voiceover work by several of the leads, but none of them reach the sort of pained potency as Patti’s.

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Malick is close to cinema verité in his encouragement of these performers to just exist in the Austin neighborhoods and cityscape. Something that in turn leads to easing the audience, if you’re willing to meet it halfway, into sinking into the experience of swimming around these relationships and how they collide, separate, and collide again. But then it’s still a stylized Malick film. I didn’t say it wasn’t, y’all, I said it was just a bit measured about it. Malick still wants to give Austin the same treatment he gave L.A. in Knight of Cups, with Chivo framing the interiors of Cook’s glass and chrome house like an inhuman prison, the clubs Cook brings BV to as a lurid Hades, or the sort of house he buys Rhonda’s mother as an empty shell. And the concert scenes are full of excitement and wild frenzy that frontloading them seems a smart choice to prime me enough for the length of the movie to follow (it is not a movie that outstays its welcome by me, but it gets pretty close).

Anyway, Song to Song is another of Malick’s interesting experiments – potentially the last one – but this time the experiment is more focused on how can one cohere a story with the sort of free reign to actors, rather than how can one cohere a philosophical treatise like with Knight of Cups. And I don’t think it’s entirely a success for in the end Song to Song seems entirely like its title suggests – a series of isolated moments moving into moments that happen to map well enough to give drive to the film, but not a story. It’s been almost a year since I first saw it and still I have much to chew on within the film, but it is nevertheless the sort of challenge I love diving in and that makes cinema more and more full of surprises everyday.

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Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

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This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

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The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

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Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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Issa Ghost

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The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is the fact that, given the recent revelations of Casey Affleck’s behavior, I don’t have to look at his face for the majority of the movie given how novel (without being ridiculous) the concept is of him playing a ghost by wordlessly walking around in a bedsheet. It’s even nicer to discover that there’s the possibility that his double David Pink (who also was the art director for the film so figures he might have liked to spend time underneath that sheet during reshoots and pickups) potentially takes up more screentime as the titular ghost than Affleck does.

That is, in fact, not the nicest thing about A Ghost Story. It’s just a fun joke I wanted to open up on*. The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is how director David Lowery undertook it upon himself to make a very patiently meditative picture using as little words (and possibly sounds, the soundtrack is a very deliberate but sparse element mainly taken over by Daniel Hart’s warm intellectual blanket of tones that makes up the film’s score) to try to attempt Lowery’s personal version of The Tree of Life, a reflection on the status of our personal presence in the greater wheel of the universe and the interminability of how it keeps rolling despite our insignificance and how it’s still a pretty wonderful thing to be around.

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And the great thing about that being the nicest thing about A Ghost Story is that it’s highly reflective of the film as a whole. It’s a cohesive thing rather than just a whole lot of great stuff. Like, the depressed laconic performance of Rooney Mara’s central to the first quarter (maybe? I don’t think she remains in the film very long) as the widowed spouse of Affleck’s character is not just a great arc of the story in its own right but the very seed in which the plot builds out of the self-contained block of emotional grief – complete with the infamous long-take pie scene which would obviously be divisive but I found incredibly generous as a visual and temporal gag (the payoff made me nearly laugh except the friend I saw the movie with was unamused), a very telling character moment, a tonal reset for the picture to let us know how far our patience can go, and indisputable evidence that Mara has definitely never eaten a pie before in her life if she thinks it works like that.

Or how indisputably beautiful and sharp the darkness of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, providing both visual melancholy and a haunting atmosphere in such an essential manner to A Ghost Story getting away with its paced explorations of the Ghost’s lingering that I find it to be more irrevocably tied to the film being made than the cinematography of Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both also really lovely looking films. Those movies feel a little more divorced from the fact that they look good than A Ghost Story, where it matters in the details of the frame that we can witness what’s happening because there’s almost no other way we’re going to receive information.

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Hell, there’s even a more show-offy effects sequence involving a singular shot in which we watch the Ghost watching Mara exit the home in three different fashions with nary a cut in sight and the whole thing doesn’t feel like an effects showcase to me, but an efficient manner of having us and our guiding character feel the quickening perception of time slip right past us, only adding to the feeling of insignificance in a desperate manner. It’s all just more to wrap into the world’s self-reflective attitude.

Indeed, it’s funny that I feel the audacious attempts at cosmic commentary towards the Ghost’s sudden death and reflections of his life before and his widow’s life after are akin to Malick’s masterpiece, because it’s the closest I find in Lowery’s filmography to his independent personality coalescing into a film. It doesn’t function as a Malick homage this time, though the influence is there, it finally feels like a complete key into understanding what Lowery looks for in a film and his voice.

It is with great dismay that while it’s possibly the David Lowery movie I love most, I’m not convinced it’s not also Lowery’s worst (it’s not even my favorite Tree of Life copy with Twin Peaks‘ Part 8 being the best thing of 2017 period) and it’s kind of because by the second act – the one where its ambition is bigger than its stomach – it loses track of itself except in repeating its beats in a Macro scale. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when a movie whizzes right on by as quickly as A Ghost Story does and the visuals don’t stop having a tangible distinction between the settings (kind of, there’s never any doubt that we’re in the exact same spot the whole movie) and time periods, but it stops being revelatory at that point.

No, the real shitty point and potentially the reason I’m least responsive to the moments after it is during a central party scene in which reliable ol’ Will Oldham turns up and delivers the clumsiest clunky moment in the whole movie, giving an eye-rolling monologue on-the-nose about what the movie is trying to say and it’s upsetting because of how elegant Lowery’s storytelling has been up until that point. Like, my dawg, believe in your movie.

Let’s not dwell too long on such a blemish, because A Ghost Story remains one of the more fascinating movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching during such a somewhat underwhelming summer, with much to think about and the certainty that I’ll be rewatching it many times over and over. Potentially with skipping that monologue.

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*another great joke I like to make: how the ghost goes MAGA at one point in the film that you’ll know when you watch it. Can’t trust them white ghosts.

This Very Minute

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I haven’t seen his debut As Tears Go By, but everything about Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore feature film Days of Being Wild feels like the beginning of the famous Hong Kong filmmaker’s style being coalesced* and this doesn’t make it feel amateur in the slightest. In fact, it’s really impressive how this quickly Wong was able to develop his cinematic personality based on a sedate patience, lilting airy romanticism so ephemeral that it mirrors the characters’ inability to consummate their love, and an ability to visually distinguish colors while making them feel as muted as the characters that are surrounded by them (another reason that Days of Being Wild feeling like the beginning of true Wong is that it was his first work with one of his most famous collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle). What’s especially impressive on Wong’s part is his confidence in establishing for the majority of the brisk hour and a half film, that he’s able to provide a violent third act development that is shocking enough to really make the whole thing feel like such a deliberate break from his modus operandi. Obviously, I have almost all of his filmography behind me to contextualize the scene in question, but I feel even if I had only seen Days of Being Wild as my first Wong Kar-wai, that moment might have pulled the rug out from under me. Wong has a talent for that.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself by talking of the ending first. There’s a story preceding it – kind of two, but it’s hard not to claim it’s not just one story with different perspectives. The one that’s truly “guiding” the film is the aimless flirtings of bad boy casanova Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) or ‘York’ as his English name as he roams through Macau in 1960 preying on the heart of the young worker at the local stadium Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and the relationship – which is presented with Su’s voiceover to establish as the point of view for the first 20 minutes – is cut through so quickly that it already feels so long past and like a scattered memory by the time we get to Yuddy’s new girlfriend, a taxi dancer who goes by many names like Leung Fung-ying, Lulu (which she gives Yuddy), or Mimi [which she gives to Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung**)]. Yuddy clearly doesn’t have any care for the devastation she clearly left Su in when she confronts him one night for her things or to the disposability he makes Lulu feel and this apathy doesn’t feel like a performance but instead something that stems from his lack of knowledge of who or where his true mother is and thus his inability to come up with any real identity or life for himself. This also fuels his own antagonistic nature in his crime dealings with his closest mother figure, prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan).

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Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 left the feeling that his life was no less conflicted than Yuddy’s, embodies the self-destructive nature using only body language while having a stonewalled expression on his boyish face for every grievance his victims give him and it ends up being layered and telling in spite of Yuddy’s in-text intentions. And Wong graciously gives Leslie room to have that uncertainty redefine Yuddy as a character, including moments where he looks himself in the mirror and dances to Wong’s usual preference for Spanish tunes. Obviously, even the several names of Carina’s character reflects Yuddy’s struggle for identity.

Meanwhile, there is Su Lizhen’s side of her story after the break-up and the pacing is more generous to her returns to Yuddy’s place and the police man Tide (Andy Lau**) who tries to console with ambiguity over his intentions with her romantically than it was with in the rushed opening sequence of her time spent as Yuddy’s girlfriend. And Maggie is wonderfully empathetic drenched in rain in such a sorrowful manner surrounded by the beautiful black and blue of the streets of Hong Kong, a very modern touch to a semi-period piece. That modernness is one of my favorite things about Days of Being Wild, the ability of Wong and Doyle to use its sense of place and time to give it a very now feeling – most particularly evident in the moments between Su and Tide where the repetition of their encounters and the circular walk they take as Andy plays a frustrated stoic audience to Su’s fears of solitude is the closest thing such a fluid film has to being a structure. Su’s clearly such an open character that Wong would later return to her throughout his career the way Richard Linklater takes Jesse and Celine around life, which makes her sudden departure from the film forgivable if still disappointing.

Then when the film moves over – through clear narrative logic on both Yuddy and Tide’s part – to the Philippines for its final act, it teases a serenity in the characters’ eventual encounter (especially in the colors being less severe there) only for it to be viscerally explosive and the opposite of fulfilling for everyone involved. And that’s a very bold thing for Wong to do early in his career, interrupting the otherwise patient manner of his storytelling to pull in fist fights and gunshots that are exciting but only solidify Yuddy’s complete lack of control for his life. But it’s also something I’m thankful for, as the deliberate nature of it very clearly established Wong as a figure who could easily flip back and forth between eroticism, melancholy, and tragedy without broad tonal shifts. That sort of versatile elegance can only be praised when it comes to a contemporary filmmaker.

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*And this is not just because of the fact that it’s the first part in an informal trilogy – though not that informal since Maggie Cheung plays the same character in all three – by Wong including In the Mood for Love in 2000 and 2046 in 2004.
**Despite having the same birth surnames, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung are not related at all. Guess it’s just the Chinese version of Smith. Likewise for Carina and Andy Lau.

25 for 25 – Hitch’s Seven-Year-Itch

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In the last post, I mentioned Park Chan-wook being one of my teachers on what makes an effective thriller and now I’m not gonna be special in naming a bigger one: Alfred Hitchcock. For who doesn’t know Hitchcock to be the “Master of Suspense” and what cinephile doesn’t adore Hitchcock as a technical master who got it on point over and over and then went on to test the boundaries of cinema. And what (good) filmmaker doesn’t consider Alfred Hitchcock as a grand inspiration? Cinephilia shall chase him out as a mob, so I’m gonna void that fate by stating I hold Hitchcock on that same pedestal as others because I’m a boring traditionalist and like other famous polls and cinephiles, from Sight & Sound to AFI to Martin Scorsese, consider Vertigo one of the greatest movies I’ve seen.

Now, Psycho – another canonical work in my esteem – is notorious for its central narrative twist that smashed its story (and cinema to come) into pieces, but I’d daresay that while it’s apparent why Psycho would be the most impactful moment of that rug-pulling move on Hitchcock’s part, it doesn’t feel like the first part. The first moment that comes to mind is the 1935 British production (wherein Hitchcock perfected his clockwork thriller craft before David O. Selznick brought him to America) The 39 Steps where we witness our protagonist being shot and the movie intends for us to spend an extended amount of time believing our only point of view into the movie was killed and removed, aided by a game fade to black upon his “killing” (though this shock is short-lived). The second moment, and the one I felt would have really changed the game if the movie weren’t so poorly-received on its initial release, is the halfway point of Vertigo that neatly cleaves the picture into two separate halves with their own separate plots, retired San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) at the center of them.

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The reason for Ferguson’s retirement – as we discover in the first scene of Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor’s script based on Pierre Boleau & Thomas Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts – is his acrophobia, unfortunately discovered at a point where it caused him to fail in saving the life of a fellow officer during a rooftop chase. Shortly after his retirement, an old family friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), approaches Ferguson with the worry that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is possessed by a ghost and wants Gavin to watch over and report on her before he decides whether to approach his psychiatrically or paranormally. In short order, Scottie witnesses Madeleine’s obsession with a long-dead suicidal woman named Carlotta Valdes and her portrait in the Legion of Honor museum before getting personally involved by rescuing her from an ambiguous drowning. And because this is a 1950s post-noir thriller (despite the mention of ghosts and possibly a jump scare, this is not remotely a horror film) and especially because it is one directed by Hitchcock, Scottie slowly begins to fall in love with Madeleine, Laura-style.

Now, it’s around this point that I sadly MUST go into some kind of spoiler territory (not exactly the kind that ruins a twist ending, but the kind that acknowledges an unexpected direction the story goes) and before I do that and insist that if you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon the review and go see Vertigo now, I want to acknowledge the brilliant eye-catching use of color. Even if there were no metaphorical legend by which to associate Vertigo‘s themes with its visuals, it’s a gorgeous kaleidoscope of primaries alongside the ever-alluring presence of greens (Red and Green being the most present colors in the film) that one who just looks for movies to be dazzled could find their thirst slaked by the work here of Hitchcock, legendary costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, and the production designers Henry Bumstead and Hal Perreira. But there is a code to crack here by which Scottie’s obsessions with Madeleine and Hitchcock’s famous obsession with blonde actors (I mean, let’s not pretend this may be the single most personal film of Hitch’s and the one that aligns most with his psychology) is decoded by the usages of those reds and greens in how muted they become in the presence of Scottie’s ex-fiancee Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes in a very underrated performance) who he has absolutely no sexual interest in anymore and Madeleine’s surrounded by very strong and aggressive shades of those colors. Madeleine’s clearly the bigger presence in the film and Hitchcock makes the colors arrest our eyes on her while directing Midge’s presence with a visual boredom that practically dismisses her up prematurely… and then the mess of them spilled over by the film’s famous nightmare sequence where there’s only brash plashes. But what precedes that very nightmare? Well, that’s where I bid adieu to the ones who choose to see the movie…

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… for those who remain with us, what precedes it is the very failure of Scottie to save Madeleine from her death halfway through the movie followed up shortly by his own obsession with Judy Barton, a brunette who resembles Madeleine so much that she’s also portrayed by Novak. And Scottie follows this up with a shocking psychosexual fixation on her, forcing her to blonde her hair and wear a similar attire to Madeleine and we can’t not connect such a matter to the way Hitchcock selects and directs his actresses and all with the heavy hue (including a silhouetted echo of an earlier shot that makes one of Vertigo‘s most famous). And that only enters further into a slippery slope of ugly motivations by prematurely showing Judy’s own secrets (something that I had once criticized as a bad move on the film’s part, but slowly I realized this twist was not the point of the movie… the tension and fear in what could happen once it’s discovered is the TRUE point) and Vertigo takes on a whirl similar to all the visual spirals it parades in our face like the other famous shot – the belltower staircase rack zoom where the dolly and zoom lens are both utilized to mess around with space in a toy of visual subjectivity.

Hitchcock may not be indicting himself, but he’s investigating what perverts a man’s intentions and fascinations with women and using himself as the central subject of this experiment and having the audience take a look around in his mind, using all of his favorite narrative elements (even the “wrong man” comes up for a couple of minutes as Scottie is briefly investigated for his liability in Madeleine’s murder) as a complete eruption of the inspirations behind the greatest mind to craft suspense pictures. And Hitchcock the director – not Hitchcock the psychiatric subject – toys around with the audience’s point of view with the great big crack being during Madeleine’s death that I can’t think of a better example of the craftsman turning from a maestro who shot out picture-perfect thrillers like boredom to an artist who actually imbued himself and his personality into the resultant product. Obviously, it may have been too strong for audiences to buy into it at the time, and that alone keeps me from qualifying it as entertainment (some may in fact find it overlong) but now with the amount of retrospect the film’s legacy is granted, who can help but find Vertigo fascinating to look at, even if we’re frozen in shock like Scottie at the staircase.

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Time Is a Flat Circle

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I really hope this trend keeps on rolling. This interest mainstream cinema has been having since 2013 with science fiction films largely focused on character-intimate narrative and involving space or extra-terrestrial life. It’s been around before but I can’t recall a previous streak of annual tentpole after tentpole interested in supporting character arcs with as much hard science fiction as they can make palatable. Gravity kicked that off and remains the best of the bunch largely on the merit of its technical achievement in putting the viewer in the position of a space castaway, Interstellar used relative time to make us feel heavily for the domestic drama of the Coopers, The Martian was a hip-hip-hoorah bit of showing-off just how smart and resourceful humans can be and the achievements of international cooperation, and now Arrival is the closest return to the quality of Gravity, without really being thaaat close to reaching it.

Needless to say, I would like to see this trend keep on rolling because all four movies are pretty darn likable, if not for the exact same audience (I have not seen that many people enthusiastic for all four of these movies). And they all despite their faults (like the fact that Interstellar‘s script is… out there) have a tendency to encourage more thought on scientific concepts in their themes, even if they’re not really that in-depth and the closest of the four to hard sci-fi is the most commercial crowd-pleaser, The Martian.

But Arrival is still one of those pleasant intellectual sci-fi films and, wouldn’t you know it, it doesn’t even have to leave Earth. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival‘s script by Eric Heisserer is pretty straightforward with its premise and only allows itself to get in-depth on the minutia of the academic elements during its first half.

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This time around out of the bunch of 2010s science fiction, the aliens have arrived and for once they’ve arrived in 12 different locations around the globe rather than just the United States, but of course, our focus is on the spaceship floating above Montana. Every single one of those nations with a spaceship in its vicinity takes the sudden and unannounced arrival seriously enough to try engage their ship individually and apparently they’re all having trouble getting the message across to the extra-terrestrial septapods and back, so on behalf of the US government, Col. GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) enlists linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to figure out a way to communicate with the septapods despite their language being marvelously designed as a strictly visual one, basically a ghostly black ink circle. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a recruited theoretical physicist, turns out to be the most receptive of Louise’s colleagues to her methods and findings and proves to be an invaluable aid to their mission as the tensions between the aliens and nations (and between the nations themselves) start ticking down behind them.

And so for the most part, the action remains between the US military’s base right below the giant sleek yet stonish alien ship and the interior of the alien ship itself when Louise, Ian, and company are able to enter daily to attempt communication and man, the ship is the biggest surprise of the film to me in all of its weird treatment of gravity, its cavernous interiors that the humans explore separated by a screen from a foggy infinite where the septapods reside. It’s all obviously the work of ambitious CGI that still retains a real-world grounding and tangibility in its natural and low-key look. Even despite its fantastical make-up. And once again there’s that messy-looking language that still retains recognizable patterns so that we can identify certain phrases without being as educated as Louise or Ian.

Those moments inside the ship are the true interesting elements of the procedural that is the first half of Arrival, while the moments in the base with Weber and Halpern are there to remind us that there’s a fire lighting under Louise’s ass to make this film a race against time. It’s reminiscent enough of Contact without being an out-and-out spiritual sequel.

And that’s all enough to make the movie worth stopping this review and checking out if you want to because… semi-warning: I don’t want to spoil the movie and I won’t. But I’m going to be implying things that might be able to figure out what happens in its second half, so… be warned)

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Ah and then there’s the real shocker of the movie where it reveals just how cheekily it has been messing with our chronological association of moments and from there… well, I can see how some people have a problem with it. Arrival‘s treatment of Louise as a character sinks low to a sort of conservative-esque reduction of her life, a very gender-role-based attitude about where her destiny lies (which is not helped by the fatalistic attitude the movie has about people’s lives via the same twist). One of my friends promised me that “want to make a baby?” would be one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard and in the context of the movie, I guffawed in the theater at its inopportune placing in the most emotional point of the film (I understand it also is placed there to give autonomy to Louise as a character, but its an inorganic way to do so and very much goes against its fate-based attitudes).

It’s also the sort of twist that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny the more you overthink it. The drive back was spent in discussion of just how tangled the movie’s premise becomes when the first half is looked back on through the lens of the second half. It’s not nearly as successful a finale as I like to pretend it is.

BUT! It’s still the sort of structural sleight-of-hand I love a movie to pull off, the kind of subjective tricks that Joe Walker’s editing should be shamelessly proud of. And Adams is no slouch in giving a movie a human element, as even when Louise distracts herself with her workload, she has a vacant depression looming over her punctuated by flashbacks of her late daughter. And so when Adams is carrying your humanity, you can bet its going to work as emotional release, just as much as it works as cinematic manipulation. So I don’t regret liking and I don’t regret telling people to go see it. It’s as worthy a piece of character drama mixed with sci-fi as Interstellar and Gravity (and much cleaner than their scripts too, but y’know… Interstellar) and a very impressive work of science fiction craftsmanship in almost all regards (the fact that I barely find space to mention how Bradford Young continues to be the best new talent on the camera, yet feel compelled to mention it says a lot), putting Denis Villeneuve on better terms with me after too many films I dislike. Two hours could be spent in worst ways that learning how to talk to aliens, especially when it says some pretty radical things about time to begin with.

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