Film Review: Waking Life

An aesthetic, philosophic journey meant to be had outside of the cinema medium.

waking-life
(Image from https://werkleitz.de/en/waking-life)

As much a cinematic voyage as a philosophic one, Richard Linklater’s 2001 flick Waking Life ushers the viewer into a 99-minute dissertation defense that both enraptures and alienates.  Aesthetically dominate with impressionist rotoscopic animations, the film consistently foregrounds its “unreality” in favor of a trip through the uncanny valley at least and total spatial disassociation at most. While it overly favors the inquiry of vast questions over divining answers, the film does force the spectator into the mental spaces and quandaries of the filmmakers and thus is successful in its artistic endeavors.

The film explores concepts of reality with a man (Wiley Wiggins) standing in for the everyman.  Loosely structured around the idea that the main character is lucid dreaming and unable to wake up, the narrative consists of vignettes – people talking more or less scripted conversations about philosophy, art, etc.  Some sequences are more pointed than others, minor departures into strange settings and bizarre caricatures, but most depict seemingly real people discussing reality in armchair interviews.  A notable case includes an early scene where the main character is picked up from the airport in a boat-car and chauffeured into the dream world where he (and by extension we) must “go with the flow” in this “constant departure.”

Waking Life is a challenging film to experience because, unlike traditional cinema which ushers the viewer into a lulled escape from the actual, Linklater’s film never allows one access to the world within the screen.  There is an immediately recognizable absurdity to the film’s exposure of hyper-intelligent, hyper-well-read individuals sitting, discussing philosophy, which reminds viewers this is a directed experience.  The animations make the environments swim unnaturally, foregrounding the medium and the experience thereof, and occasionally makes a character visually indecipherable – a Picasso person conversion across the coffee table.  It falls into the “hyperreality” of Umberto Eco, presenting a amalgam of reality, which we know is false, and beckoning us to accept the substitution as genuine.

What strikes most when the film is put in its production context is that the film demonstrates a pinnacle of the Generation X rebellion and disillusionment.  Casting young people almost exclusively as ones with the right mentality, Waking Life seems to collate the many existential doubts of the generation and place them all in one text for examination by future scholars.  Each individual met posits some grand theory of the meaninglessness of life or man’s fundamental misunderstanding of it, which is presented neither positively nor negatively, but for the audience to discuss and divine.

Amidst the numerous ideologies and teleologies posited, the question ultimately posed by the generation of this film, by the filmmaker himself, to audiences across time is one that dates back to the Bible: How then shall we live?  Choosing to merely exposit the questions, Linklater clearly wants any answering to be engaged outside of the film amongst our own peers and community – a noble and dangerous goal that he accomplishes well.  Artistically a treasure and a realism scholar’s wet dream, Waking Life is a must for your next existentialist dinner party.


http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0243017/

Why you should Love House

I wanted to start with a fun one.  One of the best ways to start looking for good films is to check out the Criterion Collection.  They are a private group that focuses on amassing and distributing the greatest films ever made from around the world.  One of my favorite discoveries from their list has to be the incredibly funny, yet morbid 1977 Japenese film HOUSE.

Image by Janus Films
Image by Janus Films

House (or Hausu in Japan) is a fascinating film – it seems to fail to do what you’d expect a horror film to do.  Yet, its brilliance comes from its not-so-subtle subversion of everything you’d expect from a Japanese film of the era.  It definitely surprised audiences of its day, and it continues to delight viewers who find it now.

1.  House is Hilarious!!!!

The stylized editing, the campy tones, the ridiculous sets – every part of the visual style plays as laughable.  However, this is not a case of a film being so bad it is good; no, House was intentionally created to appeal to a younger audience.  Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, in a behind the scenes video, cites his daughter’s input as one of the primary sources of inspiration for the film.  He recounts asking her when she was about thirteen what would scare her, and her answers directly correlate to (if not perfectly describe) what happens in the film.  The humorous stereotypes for each girl and the tinkertoy score lend themselves to what amounts to be a very funny while still scary movie.

Yet he genuinely makes some terrifyingly unique horror scenarios – heads flying around, hellish trips through a mirror, and a killer concerto.  And the ending leaves one with a beautifully disturbed feeling. However, what truly defines the film is the wonderfully laughable editing and rapid tone shifts.  The 70s stylisms play humorously today, and it is a joy to behold.

2.  House impacted Japanese cinema and culture.

Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi specifically set out to subvert the seriousness of Japanese cinema at the time (mainly brooding samurai or yakuza flicks) and make a movie his daughter would like to see.  In fact, Toho Company specifically asked him to create a Japanese commercial hit like Jaws.  What Ôbayashi ended up doing was create a piece of Pop Art which was hotly contended at the time but which helped shape the future of Japanese pop culture.  It constitutes a sharp shift towards a campy fun tonality in the cultural milieu.  You can see this best in the sequence near the beginning when the girls recount their understanding of World War II – focusing on the Romanticism of the Aunt’s relationship and mostly ignoring the horrors of war.  The film presents some of its society’s anxieties, but does so in a campy way, shifting the cultural tone towards optimism or at least enjoyment again.

There are some cinematic techniques which also worked their way into the culture.  The wacky edits – hard cuts and quick zooms – and silly graphic effects seem to have influenced their style of television. Also, you might notice some elements in the film that can be reflected in Anime’s evolution – ridiculously mugging to camera, a fascination with School Girls, and bizarre Horror situations. However, I don’t have a complete grasp on modern Japanese culture, so I’ll just let those impressions make themselves and let you see your own connections.

3.  Montage + Compositing

Finally, the technical execution of the film is just a joy.  Ôbayashi came from a background of making commercials so his cinematic eye is one unlimited by the “traditional rules” of storytelling.  Thus we get a hack-and-slash choppy editing job which works rather well towards achieving the unnerving effect a good horror film needs.  One of my favorite sequences is a conversation had over a piano, which swings back and forth across the open Grand as a metronome counts time.  It is wildly over-indulgent and clearly gimmicky, yet perfectly captures the tone of the film in one scene.

Also on display is a masterful work of film compositing.  Before the days of CGI, compositing meant physically cutting pieces of film and pasting them to other frames.  This almost lost art is paraded proudly throughout the film, particularly in the psychedelic ending sequences.  While a bit cheesy these days, it is an incredible talent to pull it off which this film does wonderfully.  Be on the look out for compositing in other movies – you might just see behind the veil a little.

Summary

I absolutely love House.  It is a mysterious blending of terror and silliness, of guffaws and goosebumps. The beautiful artistry demonstrates a unique way of approaching filmmaking – one which makes for a lovably watchable film while still being an interesting and culture-changing piece of art.  For those who are concerned about content, I will advise that the film depicts some gory deaths (albeit within the wacky, campy stylings of the movie) and there is a few shots of young women with their tops off.  However, viewed as a product of its time (1977), House is tame compared to the American-flourishing genre of exploitation. House’s camp and humor make it a joy to watch, and when viewed with a critical eye it provides an interesting look in the changing culture of a Japan trying to put the World War behind it and move on.  A great watch, House is definitely a film that you should not only see, but love and spread around.

Though I suppose the real warning I should give you is that the theme song is so catchy, you will have it stuck in your head for months!

How to find it

Telling you to watch a movie and then not providing ways of seeing it would be a terrible injustice.  I’ll keep my soap-boxing brief but DO NOT PIRATE THINGS.  More than hurting an industry that makes billions every weekend, or damaging the financial security of people like me who work in the film business, the reason you shouldn’t pirate things is because it says something bad about you.  When you say you cannot be bothered to hunt down a good film, when you act like it should just be given to you, when you justify your theft by saying “they won’t miss the money”, you tell me that you are an jerk.  It will cost you about the same amount as a lunch to see most of the movies I’m going to promote here in this series, so please just do it.  Keep our economy going and don’t act like a pretentious idiot.

Rant done.  Below are links to places where you can purchase or stream the film.  Enjoy the movie and check back for the next Why You Should Love.

Amazon (DVD or Streaming)

Best Buy

Criterion

Hulu Plus (Streaming)

Netflix (DVD only; no streaming)

New Series: Why you should Love this Movie

In recent days I’ve been thinking a lot about a question that was posed at a conference I attended. The speakers were debating the merits or demerits of a certain sect of cinema – whether it helps or hurts its cause – and they posed the following quandry:  “how do people who don’t know much about movies, who don’t follow or study film, how do they hear about great films?  How do they become aware of movies that deserve to be seen?”

This struck a chord with me.  I grew up in Northeast Tennessee, about as isolated from Hollywood as possible.  People liked movies a lot – our Cineplex was constantly filled despite its terrible quality (I recognize this in hindsight now).  But even for me, someone who decided that the study of cinema was to be my life’s pursuit, I was not aware of the vast quantities of incredible movies that get a small release and miss the mainstream entirely; films that we simply never hear about because our market is too small and, at that time, the connections of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime had not yet been established.

So then, my thoughts turned to the question.  How could I be a part of the solution – spreading the word about certain films, old and new, that deserve to be seen by broader audiences?  I know that most of the people who read this blog are probably family or friends, either from back home in Tennessee or those I’ve met here in Movie-land, but primarily people who are looking for the good stuff; people who would love to see great movies but just don’t hear about them.

Thus, I got the idea to start a new series of posts entitled

Why you should Love this movie

These will be short posts about a film (a la the Criterion Three Reasons videos), in which I expound on why that movie deserves your attention.  My hope is that this can be a bridge for people who are not connected to the film world to find works that are powerful, uplifting, and potentially life-changing. I hope you’ll come along this journey with me.  Hopefully this will be of some use to you.  Hopefully it will give you a longer Netflix queue or a conversation topic for the workplace.  Hopefully this can start the effort to get the word out and improve our viewership and critical response to a world I care deeply about.  Thanks for stopping by and keep an eye out for this new series coming soon.

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

A “bunch of A-holes” band together in a post-plot ramble through the Galaxy

Image by Cakes and Comics
Image by Cakes and Comics

Surprising everyone in the Hollywood Galaxy, Guardians managed to blossom in an otherwise down time for the box office. Sitting behind Avengers and Iron Man 3 as the most successful Marvel enterprise to date, the film demonstrated that with the right marketing campaign and a new take on plot, even characters on the fringes of the Marvel master class can find mainstream appeal. James Gunn delivers a thrill ride – fun and exciting, but leaving many scratching their heads over the details.

The film opens on a Rocketman-outfitted mercenary working his way through an Indiana Jones-like ruin, avoiding booby-traps and ultimately discovering a treasure hidden deep in a temple. The quest to offload this artifact leads him into a cast of odd characters, who by a common enemy are united. This band of misfits (in every sense of the word) finds themselves in the middle of an intergalactic conflict, with a warlord on their trail out for revenge, and no clue how to save the galaxy.

Gunn and Co. found their niche in invoked nostalgia. Coming as one of the first collaborations of Disney-owned Marvel, its no surprise they played to their strengths, though the target demographic seems an odd choice for either pairing. Of course the novelty of a talking raccoon and tree Abbot and Castello pairing, as well as the sci-fi crossover with a comic property, draws the 18-35 crew in droves. Yet, with a carefully selected soundtrack of 70s/80s nostalgia, Guardians seems to be extending a Groot branch to the older demos, attempting to bring in the last group to adopt the cinematic superhero as their own. This move shows promise for the future of the diluted Marvel prospects for the future.

Many have already commented on the plot not requiring total coherence for one to enjoy the film. The background conflict is practically non-existent, bordering on a White Hat/Black Hat approach to expositing the good from the bad. A specialty of the film is subverting special plot moments – typified best in the great rally the troops scene towards the end. As each team member reluctantly joins the new squad, standing to show their solidarity, the touching moment is spoiled by a one-liner, dissolving the cathartic bond into a “let’s just do it” attitude. All this to the film’s betterment; by subverting the traditional plot beats, the film finds its identity in the nonconformity of its heroes.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film that requires a little focus, ultimately an exercise in excitement, rather than serious reflection. Quite the adventure itself, this sci-fi/Superhero crossover demonstrates interesting new prospects for the future of the genre and for the merger of Marvel and Disney. Already on track to have its own animated TV series and an inevitable sequel, $739 million spells many more adventures for the galactic protection squad.

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http://marvel.com/guardians

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Finally a movie about racism whose ultimate message is not “Racism is Bad”

12 years

Steve McQueen crafts a gut-wrenching, personal tale which, from the moment of its cinematic conception, was guaranteed a high berth in the Oscar race.  Drawing from 160 year-old source material, McQueen taps into a deeply human story and rightly steers clear of the pitfall of a simplistic moralism message.  Naturally shot and chockfull of award-winning performances, it rightly earned its 2014 Academy Honors.

The title spells it out from the beginning: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American violinist, is seized one day by two enterprising gentlemen who sell him down South into a prolonged term of enslavement.  Following the Odysseus-like travails of his passing from one plantation to another, the audience is subjected to the demolition of a determined, educated, optimistic man.

The film shines in its incredible casting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor blends into his character, feeling right at home in this antebellum setting. If nothing else is said for McQueen, he knows how to direct actors – particularly those in supporting roles.  Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation to this genre, entirely sympathetic without appearing overly pitiful.  Cumberbatch and Paul Dano also bring wonderful performances, though the former shows signs of editing to avoid his only passable Southern accent and the later provides his usual crazed bit-part.

Further, the editing enriches the film, though not without some dry spots. Particularly, the scene of Northup’s transportation by steamboat builds fantastic tension with the editing rhythms and audio mixing of the paddlewheel as it chops through the water. On the other hand, certain moments linger too long: especially a shot of Ejiofor in the woods sobbing. Because of its length, it diminishes the scene’s emotional value. Overall, however, the cadence of the film beautifully captures what the film is about.

My deepest appreciation for the film comes from its approach to the subject matter.  Often stories dealing with American slavery tend toward blunt, overbearing morals about how slavery is bad – a correct ideology but one condescending to its audience.  Rather than assuming the viewer is racist, 12 Years steers towards the more impactful story of a human being, his needs, and the systematic way they are stripped from him.  What is mortifying about this film is not the scenes of physical or sexual violence, but rather the slow denigration of hope inside the strong-willed protagonist.  By forcing us to watch Northup renege his statement “I don’t want to survive. I want to live”, the narrative becomes universal and a part of man’s nature is laid bare.

Steve McQueen has found a rare way to take a well-trodden concept and make it disturbingly fresh. Performances fuel this biopic and it is a shame Ejiofor will have to look elsewhere for his first statue. The slow unraveling of a gentleman, 12 Years a Slave crafts an excellent “Show don’t Tell” story that reminds us all of what we would hate to lose.

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http://www.12yearsaslave.com

Film Review: Boyhood

A nostalgia trip that seems to end stuck on the side of the road

Image from Hypable
Image from Hypable

Lauded as a “12-years-in-the-making masterpiece“, Richard Linklater’s experiment in long-term production schedules found some success at the box office despite a limited opening in the middle of the summer season.  Audiences drawn by its chronological gimmick found a very relatable picture. Boyhood is a nostalgia machine, a snapshot of societal values of the millennial age.  Yet, though it presents a beautifully natural image of the American family, the film loses its way along the journey and would have benefited from some trimming on the back-end.

Blurred between parallel narrative and real-life coming-of-age stories, Boyhood meanders through the childhood and adolescence of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his Texan family.  Growing up with his motivated mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha – played by director’s daughter Lorelei – he goes to school, makes friends, deals with common life situations. Stitched throughout are resurgences of his divorced namesake, played by Ethan Hawke, acting as brief narrative and philosophical eddies. A focus on day-to-day interactions, relationship squabbles, and developmental dialogues helps the film demonstrate rather than declare the state of the modern family.

While Boyhood is a masterfully un-invasive depiction of domestic life, the primary question about it is whether it will stand through time.  Many of the references invoked throughout land with the 18 to 25 crowd; the film seems to relish in capturing that generation’s upbringing.  However, one wonders if this film holds the same weight for older and future audiences. Looking at critics’ responses, it is appreciated for its portrayal of life and for the plights of the estranged parents.  But for not-yet-born audiences, will Boyhood be as accurately reflective or will it consist of citations long since forgotten?

In answer to that, let it be said that Linklater has created a remarkably relatable transcendent film. Rather than forcefully spelling out the director’s view of the proper family, Boyhood allows the characters to respond naturally to each ensuing situation.  It balances real-life naturalism with subtle underlying structure and cinematically designed drama.  Though a few moments feel starkly scripted, those scenes are few and late in the narrative, detracting only slightly from the former acts’ brilliance. Ellar grows from a stiff child actor into someone who clearly enjoys what he is doing, and observing that transformation alone is worth the watch.

Though it is possible Coltrane will garner an Oscar nomination, this film will quietly pass from society’s consciousness and onto the fast-track to Criterion preservation.  Social anthropologists of the 3020s will dig this up and look back over their ancestors’ lives in this cultural time-capsule.  Much like the film, the story of Linklater’s experiment will not end in a loud bang or a soft whimper, but rather in a meaty pop that disturbs the air briefly before dissipating into the silence.  Though, perhaps in the future some will look back and reflect on that sound and know something more about us than we do now.

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http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/boyhood

Film Review: Grand Piano

Hitting all the right notes, this low-radar thriller is pitch-perfect.

Grand PianoF

A ridiculously fun premise lures the viewer into this exciting musical thriller.  Smartly shot and an auditory tour de force, it presents a surprisingly amusing ride through perfectionism and rediscovering purpose.  Aptly born of a man with history as a Composer, director Eugenio Mira orchestrates some stunning visuals, great performances, and a musical score to make any classical fan happy.

Grand Piano centers around a special example of the title item and the young man destined to play it. Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a piano prodigy on the edge; returning to the stage after a performance anxiety-induced mental breakdown, he prepares to make his comeback at a memorial concert for his mentor’s passing.   Selznick is reunited with the one-of-a-kind Bosendorfer piano he learned on and more importantly, with the “unplayable” piece that recently put him out of commission.  However, all his fears about retaking his place behind the ivories skyrocket to new heights when he finds a note in his music saying he must perform perfectly or die.

Built on a great script by recent Sundance victor Damien Chazelle, Grand balances good story and engaging technical execution.  Elijah Wood turns in a fantastic performance as the terrified pianist. With some help from the camera work, he produces a believable enactment of the concerto.  Further, fellow castmates Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, and Alex Winters provide excellent performances that give the world flavor.  In particular, John Cusack’s dedicated villain and Don McManus as the friendly, sage-like conductor are both superbly acted, creating respectively a perfect foil and prod for the protagonist’s journey.

Also on display is the beautiful cinematography and lighting.  Art Deco stylisms permeate the film, lending a regal quality to the already beautiful concert hall, while heightening the narrative tension with visual language.  In particular, the use of strong, contrasting lines of color draw the eye to the subject in classy fashion.  Also, DP Unax Mendía finds new ways of showcasing the title item in a flurry of inventive shot choices.

But without one element specifically, the film would have surely flopped.  The score is magical and integrates seamlessly into the narrative, sliding easily between the on-screen performance and the non-diegetic space.  Melodic and technically complicated, the orchestration compliments the film’s tone and vice versa.  Capping it off, “La Cinquette” proves to be just as complicated as promised, lending a perfect climax to the narrative arc.

Grand Piano is wonderfully shot, simply written, and tight for its narrative purpose.  It marks a great first step onto the world stage for a crew of young, talented filmmakers from around the globe – all of whom have promising futures.  As a thriller, it provides a roller coaster of pleasurable tension sure to please audiences of any age.  A fun watch, this musical gem exhibits a solid appreciation for music, translating that respect beautifully into the cinematic arts.

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http://www.magnetreleasing.com/grandpiano/