Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (Zhong Kui fu mo: Xue yao mo ling, 2015)

Poster for Zhong Kui

This is a big budget Chinese fantasy shot in 3D and heavily mediated with computer graphics. It’s practically an animated movie, and long sections of it are purely CG. The protagonist, Zhong Kui, is apparently a famous demon-slayer in Chinese mythology, although I don’t recall seeing movies about him before. If the visuals of the film have a video game quality, it could be that film is actually based as much on a video game as on mythology.

The basic scenario is that there are three realms in the world: gods, humans, and demons. Every millennium the demons have a chance to reincarnate themselves as humans or gods, and the gods are worried that the demons are about use this millennial opportunity to take over the human world via a soul collector called the Dark Crystal. They send a god named Zhang Daoxian to help the humans defend themselves and the Dark Crystal, and he chooses Zhong Kui to be his demon-slaying human apprentice. But gradually we learn that Zhong Kui is in love with a beautiful demon named Snow Girl, and soon loyalties and love are being tested in all directions.

Some of the CG isn’t all that great, but some of it is really quite beautiful. The demon designs seem a bit too generic to me, and I’m curious how Westernized this looks to Chinese audiences. It reminded me to a certain extent of Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Tall Story, although this movie isn’t quite as goofy. It also has epic fantasy elements similar to films by Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark. At times the characters of Zhong Kui and Snow Girl almost seemed like superheroes with specialized superpowers, except it’s all couched in Chinese mythology and traditional concepts of souls and the seven spirits in each human. At times it felt to me like the concepts of heaven and hell were Westernized or even Christianized, but in the end the relationship between gods and demons is not as Manichean as a Christian view would have it. Imagine, for example, a tragic love story between Lucifer and Eve in which it turns out that Gabriel is actually the bad guy.

It works pretty well for what it is, although it does feel pretty rote. As I say, some of the visuals look kind of cheap and derivative by the highest standards, but there’s still plenty of beauty to be found in it. I especially found that depiction of Snow Girl in her demon mode as a kind of whirling blizzard to be quite beautiful, and the use of swirling, glittering trails of coins, snow, and dazzling magic bolts in 3D was frequently pleasing to the eye. It’s probably mostly aimed at adolescents, but as a fan of Chinese fantasy — and of heroic fantasy in general — I found enough in it to enjoy it over all.

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Maps to the Stars (2014)

Poster for Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s latest film is a strange hybrid beast. It’s a Hollywood satire (or perhaps rude farce) about the vanity, venality, and stupidity of Hollywood stars, agents, hangers-on, and wannabes, but it’s also a heart-rending melodrama about hidden family secrets and abuse, which bleeds into horror and then shoots right into fatalistic Greek tragedy. The constant shifting of tones and genres makes it tricky to get a handle on. It’s almost like looking at a kaleidoscope.

Julianne Moore is Havana Segrand, daughter of a Hollywood star who died in a fire at a young age. Havana became a star herself, but now her star is fading. She wants to play the part her mother played in a remake of her mother’s most famous movie. Evan Bird is the child star of the Bad Babysitter franchise, and he’s just come out of rehab for narcotics abuse. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a phoney New Age life coach whose clients include Havana. Mia Wasikowska is Agatha — a victim of bad burn scars, which ends up earning her a job as an assistant to Havana, who associates the scars and thus Agatha with her mother. Agatha wants to write a screenplay about an incestuous brother and sister, and she tries to enlist the help of wannabe actor and writer Jerome (Robert Pattinson).

All of these characters except Jerome end up being interconnected in some surprising ways, and there’s actually an element of metafiction to how the story coils around itself. Indeed, one cute bit of self-reference comes when Jerome gets a bit part in a science fiction television show called Blue Matrix. That was the show produced by Frank Langella in the outrageous Hollywood melodrama, I’m Losing You, which was produced by Cronenberg and written and directed by Bruce Wagner, who wrote the screenplay for Map to the Stars. But that’s just a little joke that doesn’t really have any bearing on the film. Still, it’s typical of the humor of both films that when Agatha shows up on the set of Blue Matrix, one of the production crew spots the burn scars on her face and thinks its alien makeup for the show.

It’s a creepy film, even though on the surface it’s sort of a comedy. The phoniness and game-playing of all the characters becomes sinister, and Cronenberg shoots things in a way that creates an air of menace even in the most inane moments. Even the closeups seem subtly off, with heads looking just slight distorted. The deeper structure of the plot, in which the younger characters seem to be reliving the tragedies of their parents, creates a sense of fatalism. There’s a poem by the French surrealist Paul Éluard that’s recited by various characters throughout the film, including one dead character seen in a vision, and I wasn’t sure what the connection was, although the poem itself, even in English, is strangely beautiful.

It’s all very weird and disturbing. Great performances all around, and I haven’t even mentioned Olivia Williams, who is a favorite of mine and gets turned into a suffering gargoyle of bad parenting. It’s a richly resonant device, whatever it’s ultimately up to. The characters are consumed by their pasts, and farce becomes horrific tragedy. Not sure whether it’s entirely successful, but it sure is a hell of thing to watch.

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Girlhood (Bande de filles, 2014)

Poster for Girlhood

Not a sequel or matching bookend for Boyhood, although the two might make an interesting double feature. The third film by the French writer-director, Céline Sciamma, is a slice-of-life coming-of-age story about a black girl named Marieme who lives in one of the poor, immigrant suburbs of Paris. She’s sixteen years old, and she lives with her older brother and two younger sisters in her mostly-absent mother’s apartment. There’s no mention of a father that I recall.

As good as the film is as a character study and depiction of marginalized life in the big city, it’s just as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does say. This makes it difficult to interpret, which is no doubt the point, although there were aspects that I might’ve understood better if I were more familiar with France. For example, there’s an interview between Marieme and some kind of school counselor (who is never shown, only heard — literally a faceless bureaucrat) in which Marieme is told she has to attend vocational school; she’ll never get into the university. I know that France has an academic track system like that, where kids have no choice about which track they’re assigned to, but what I wasn’t sure about is whether there was any implication that Marieme was being shunted into the vocational track because of racism. The fact that the counselor is invisible made me feel she had a hidden agenda, but maybe it was completely straightforward.

I felt similarly uncertain about the lack of any mention of a father, and about the mother’s remove from the story. Neither of these things is commented on directly, so they inform the story as absences, as lacks. On the other hand, the brother is present, but I also didn’t understand why he had so much power over Marieme or what his role in the household really was. We see him playing video games and mostly being hard on Marieme, but is that really all there is to his life? The one time he treats Marieme nicely, and let’s her play a video game with him, is after she beats up a girl in the neighborhood as part of a gang-related conflict. Why does he approve of that? Is he in a gang too?

To the extent that there’s a story with a traditional narrative conflict in it, it’s that Marieme takes up with a trio of tough girls after the confrontation with the faceless bureaucrat. The French title of the film, Bande de filles, seems to translate as something like gang or crew of girls. The girls give Marieme a sense of belonging and friendship, and maybe there’s an implication that girls in her situation are forced to create allegiances with gangs. But like everything else in the film, the gang life is portrayed fairly obliquely, without the usual moral stances or melodramatic, existential crises typical of such stories. The ambiguity and uncertainty that hover over why Marieme makes the decisions she does makes everything we see seem enigmatic.

Stories of impoverished characters stuck in painfully difficult social situations are not my favorite thing in the world, but this one worked for me, perhaps because of the ambiguity. It has some of the features of social realism, but it didn’t have any of the miserablism that I associate with social realism. (I bounced right off Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, for example, because the main character was so angry and miserable.) I suppose it reminded me a little bit of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, with its elliptical evasion of narrative and resolute lack of resolution. Both films end with their young female protagonists facing an unknown and unpromising future. But in reaching their lack of a conclusion, both films create a sense of the unbearable lightness of being that Kundera wrote about: the lack of rehearsal for the big decisions we all have to make, when the choices are neither wrong or right. Marieme, in fact, is defined mostly by her refusal of all the choices that are offered her. Where can she possibly get living that way? Girlhood offers no answer.

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The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Poster for The Duke of Burgundy

This certainly is an enigmatic film. It’s a study of a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship, but it’s embedded in material about entomology with an uncertain connection to that relationship. It’s highly fetishistic and repetitive, with a languorous pace and chilly eroticism. There’s no nudity, but there are scenes that leave nothing to the imagination — even when you can’t actually see what’s going on.

It’s very clever in the way that it introduces you to the scenario and then gradually subverts your understanding of what you’re seeing. The power dynamics within the relationship are not what you think at first. While its very fetishistic and ritualistic, we do eventually get past the fetishes and rituals and scripts and into the uncertain, vulnerable feelings behind them. But at least in my case any understanding of what’s going on continued to be subverted, if not defeated, right up to the fade to black, when there’s a hint of a seasonal cycle that I don’t remember seeing any sign of before.

Again, the entomological aspect seems completely disconnected from the S/M story. The top, Cynthia, appears to be a entomologist who is perhaps writing a book or research paper. The bottom, Evelyn, appears to be a student. Between S/M sessions there are lectures on entomology that are very fetishistic in their own way. A weirdly rapt audience of women (and, in one pan, what looked like a couple of mannequins) listen to scientific exposition on the nature of various insects, with much attention paid to the shiny, black boots that one of the scientists is wearing. We also see glass cases of pinned butterflies and caterpillars. Occasionally we see moths hovering outside the windows of the house where the couple live and play. There are shots of larvae and beetles writhing and scurrying in the composting leaves of the forest floor. There’s a dream sequence in which Evelyn is engulfed in a growing swarm of moths that completely engulf the screen as well and then turn into an abstract montage of closeups of moth parts, all scored to ominous, creaky music.

Are the moths a symbol of blind, instinctual attraction? Is the scientific analysis meant to contrast with the fundamental mystery of sexual desire? The Duke of Burgundy is a kind of butterfly, but I don’t think that’s ever mentioned in the movie. I feel like I’m missing something very obvious in all this. At the same time the enigmatic quality of the film feels right. It is very stylish visually, with a strong sense of physical, material textures in clothing and furniture and skin. What we see is often occluded, reflected, refracted, doubled, overlaid. The two women are not conventionally beautiful, at least by cinematic standards, and perhaps this contrasts with their fetishistic attempts to project a certain image. The fact that they work from a script in their sex play also feels cinematic.

It’s all very strange. At times it felt a little cumbersome. Nothing really dramatic happens, although there’s a crisis of sorts. It’s more lyrical than narrative. I tried to see it on Valentine’s Day, but that didn’t work out.

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Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s a mediocre one. I’m not exactly sure what makes it mediocre, because it has a lot of interesting elements. It certainly looks spectacular in IMAX 3D, although the look, like the story, is very derivative. (We even visit Peter Jackson’s Rivendell at one point.) The action isn’t as good as the action in The Matrix, which made me wonder whether Yuen Woo Ping was the key ingredient to The Matrix. The dialogue seems pretty dull, I guess, and poor Eddie Redmayne, who plays the villain, is given very little indeed worth saying.

This is the story of a lowly housecleaner named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) who learns she’s actually a princess. She is specifically compared to Cinderella. That’s kind of interesting. It’s different from the other Wachowski movies I’ve seen in that it’s a romance as well as a story of rebellion against tyranny. That’s kind of interesting too. Jupiter Jones doesn’t make much of an impression as a character, however. She’s humble and compassionate and uninterested in power, and I think we’re supposed to see that that’s why she wins the conflict. She doesn’t have to kill anyone. Other people kill for her — mostly Channing Tatum as her love interest, Caine Wise — or bad guys just die because shit happens. In a way this is another variation on The Wizard of Oz, and the moral of the story is that there’s no place like home and nothing’s better than cleaning a toilet. Maybe that last part is a little hard to believe? Maybe it would have made the point more forcefully if she had defeated Eddie Redmayne by cleaning his toilet. But I suppose the crux of her character is discovered when she has to choose between her family and her planet. Could more have been made of the fact that Eddie Redmayne made a similar choice in the past?

I dunno. I’m not much of a Wachowskis fan anyway, but I thought this would be worth seeing on the big screen for the $176 million dollars worth of space opera eye candy. It was.

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Timbuktu (2014)

Poster for Timbuktu

This film by the Mauritanian director, Abderrahmane Sissako, has been getting good reviews by cinephile critics, and I seem to recall hearing good things about his previous film, Bamako (2006), as well. It’s set in and around the Malian city of Timbuktu, and it concerns the local citizens having to cope with an incursion of extremist fundamentalist Muslims. I don’t think it’s stated explicitly, but the fact that one of the jihadists says he’s from Libya certainly implies that these are the Tuareg forces who left Libya and took over Mali for a while after the fall of Gaddafi. The invaders speak Arabic, while the locals speak their own language, but we also hear quite a bit of French and even a little English, as everybody struggles to communicate across various divides.

The story circulates around a number of characters, and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what part a few of them were playing in the grand scheme of things (e.g., the flamboyant woman with the rooster who says she came from Haiti after the earthquake). The core of the story is about a cattle herdsman and his wife and daughter who live outside the city and eventually have their lives disrupted by the jihadists. We also see a number of other people who fall afoul of the strict regulations the jihadists impose on them. The key thing is that these people (with the possible exception of the Haitian woman) are already devout Muslims, and they are outraged to have these foreigners forcing their extremist version of Islam down their throats.

It starts out as a kind of satire, but it ends up a tragedy. The extremists are portrayed with a certain amount of sympathy or understanding, in the Renoirian sense of everyone having their reasons, but ultimately they are shown to be dogmatic monsters. However, their victims are not portrayed as innocents. They have their faults and conflicts, and one conflict in particular leads to a horrible crime. Another thing I didn’t understand, I must admit, is why the penalty for that crime is initially described as a payment of forty head of cattle but then quickly becomes the death penalty instead.

I’m sure there was a lot I didn’t understand, even though the basic conflict is pretty straightforward. For me it was most powerful as a view of how the biggest victims of Islamic extremism are other Muslims. It puts this across in the most human, humane terms possible. It’s ultimately a terrifying, terrible story, but it’s full of great visual beauty and marvelously composed shots as well. Despite that beauty and the initial humor and sweet portrayal of familial love, this is definitely not a feel-good story. It ends before the invaders were driven out by French and Malian troops, and the final shots are utterly heartbreaking. We are left with a life ruptured. We are left feeling devastated and hopeless.

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Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

Poster for Radio Free Albemuth

This adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel has gotten positive word-of-mouth for its faithfulness to the book. It’s now streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it, although it may be available in other ways too. I read the novel last May, and so I can confirm that the film is pretty faithful to the book. It’s not as complex as the book is, but it maintains the mixture of “paranoid political dystopia, gnostic religion, and science fictional extrapolation.” One of the differences is that it doesn’t mimic the book’s structure, which is half from the point of view of Philip K. Dick (a character in his own novel) and half from the point of view of Dick’s friend, Nicholas Brady, who is subject to visions of a mysterious entity he calls the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Instead the movie is narrated entirely by Philip K. Dick, looking back on events after they’ve happened.

Radio Free Albemuth is the story of someone having religious visions that apparently really do give him secret knowledge, such as the fact is that his son has a potentially fatal birth defect that the doctors haven’t noticed. The source of these visions become the source of endless speculation by Brady and Dick. It’s also an alternate history about an America that has been taken over by an anti-communist dictator named Fremont who has established a police state. The film takes a while to get that dystopian reality across, which I thought was one of its weaknesses, but eventually it does a very good job of building a portrait of American fascism. Brady’s religious visions are also handled very well, with a nice use of computer graphics to illustrate the visions. The film is talky, but that’s part of its faithfulness to the equally talky book. It’s reminiscent that way of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which is another faithful adaptation of a talky PKD novel. I’d argue that Linklater is probably more successful at capturing the paranoid, schizophrenic quality to Dick’s vision.

Radio Free Albemuth felt slightly flat to me. Despite the nice use of computer animation, it’s not all that inventive visually. The drama isn’t particularly sharp, although it does build up to a strong climax. It feels a little bit like a TV show with limited sets and lots of talk, but it’s a good TV show with unusual ideas. The cast is all halfway familiar faces of people who play secondary characters in bigger films, with the added oddity of Alanis Morissette playing a character who is African-American in the book. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of Dick’s work or of eccentric gnostic science fiction.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Address Unknown
Address Unknown (1944)
[Via DVD Beaver.]

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A Most Violent Year (2014)

Poster for A Most Violent Year

I saw J.C. Chandor’s previous film, All is Lost, and thought it was a very effective adventure story, so I was interested to see what he’d do next. A Most Violent Year is quite different. In fact it’s quite an eccentric story, and in some ways it defines itself by what it is not. Which is to say that it has all the hallmarks of being a gangster story, but it studiously avoids actually becoming a gangster story.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Colombian immigrant who has taken over his wife’s father’s heating oil distribution business in the New York City area. The year is 1981. His wife’s father, we gradually learn, was a gangster. The heating oil distribution business is apparently rife with criminal elements, and Morales’ trucks are being hijacked by his competitors, although he doesn’t know which ones. He’s also being investigated by a district attorney for various forms of fraud. All of this is happening while he’s trying to buy a riverside terminal that will allow him to expand his business massively. If he can’t come up with $1.5 million dollars in the next thirty days, he will lose his down payment and basically lose his whole business. Morales is pushed and pulled to opt for a violent solution to his problems, but he does all he can to resist the forces at work.

The film has the look and feel of, amongst other things, the Godfather films, and many people have said that Isaac plays Morales very much in the mode of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. (The other thing you see in many review is comparison of Morales’ wife, played by Jessica Chastain, to Lady Macbeth.) Chandor seems to court this comparison, but then he heads in a completely different direction. This ends up not being much of a gangster movie at all, and the pervasive air of political corruption and criminal activity seems, in the end, almost metaphorical more than anything. Most of the conflict is verbal or institutional rather than any kind of overt violence. There’s a dark, menacing mood, but the tension doesn’t lead where I expected it to.

At times I thought maybe it was a bit self-indulgent or arch in the way it played this game, but I always found it engrossing. It looks great, and the cinematography by Bradford Young is outstanding. He’s not the only connection with Selma either, oddly enough, as David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivolo are in both films. Chandor has created something strange here in the way that he uses genre to generate tension but then works steadfastly against the grain. His main character and his approach to the story have much in common: they are both pushed in a certain direction but do everything they can to fight the tide. The result is an ambivalent take on the American Dream.

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Selma (2014)

Poster for Selma

I always have trouble with fictional treatments of history, but this one handles it about as well as you can. It has been compared to Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), because both films are ultimately about the passage of a law. In fact, Selma is almost a kind of sequel to Lincoln, because Lincoln is about the law that liberated the slaves, while Selma is about the law that gave the descendants of the slaves the right to vote in the South. As others have pointed out, the struggle continues, and this film is timely in a period when voting rights are once again (only 50 years later) under attack.

I saw this on MLK Day, which I thought was appropriate. The portrait of MLK offered is complicated. He is shown to doubt his own strategy, and he is shown to feel aggrieved by Malcolm X’s criticism of his strategy. He is shown to be an adulterer. Perhaps above all he is shown to be a part of a community, not as a lone hero. As much as he inspires others, he is inspired by them. His leadership is part of a group effort. This is true to life, although it also makes him dramatically a somewhat passive figure.

The portrayal of LBJ has been criticized, and I don’t know enough of the history to judge the criticism, or to judge how other parts of the story are handled. There were events portrayed in the film that I don’t remember hearing about (e.g., King’s decision to turn back the second time the protesters try to cross the bridge out of Selma), but I can’t say whether the portrayal is true or not. What I took away from it, however, was that all decisions were contested and debated. Nothing was clear to the people struggling for their democratic rights.

It’s a good film, and a very moving one, although I have to say that the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which covers the Civil Rights movement at much greater length (14 hours worth), is the better, deeper film. There’s something in me that resists the personalization of history that films like Lincoln and Selma represent. Rather than pull me into the drama, it pushes me out, because the personal stakes seem a distraction from the political ones.

 

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