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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
This film hit a sweet spot for me.
It merges essential Shintoism, magic and origami in a story about storytelling, four subjects of deep interest for me. This is orgasmic level engagement, this mix. I need to see it again in 3D to see if it improves. This would have been the very rare modern film actually photographed in 3D.
Some other elements could have distracted: the very western idea of a quest gives enough script to fill the time. The style of animation has bodies and motion more realistic than faces; in another context this would matter but here we are in a paper world. The use of traditional Japanese villains and characters from myths requires knowledge even I lacked. The style of animation requires a relatively stationary camera which seems inadequate, even in a Japanese context.
The writing is superb, surpassing Pixar and achieving a level completely unexpected. This is true in lines: "blink now;" in the way things unfold unexpectedly and in the nesting of stories. Oh, the overlapping nesting! We have stories within that tell enclosing stories. We have recalled and invented stories cogenerating. The main combat is between/among stories. Memory and stories are bound in an unusual way. So many events unfold in novel ways.
This is all the more impressive when you consider the inflexible manner of production. You cannot iterate and reshoot like you can with computers or eve actors. What you see is largely what they started with years before even they saw it. If just for the writing, see this movie.
The effects were interestingly different, and by themselves would perhaps have underwhelmed. But the story context by the time things got active added enough. Effects early in the movie have magically folded characters animated by the stories within the story and these were amazing.
I am not seeing many films these days, so it is profound luck that my 3 and 5 year olds took me into this.
And... the credits roll over the George Harrison song that very few understand in its role in the White Album. Here it isn't just used with this knowledge, it is rendered so by a woman I never heard of.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Rubber bands break
Star Trek in any incarnation confounds me; I cannot understand the appeal without getting depressed about the low level of cinematic and narrative challenge some audiences require.
But these days I am interested in smoke, water and the special effects that have devolved from them. We find them in a great many special effects movies these days. Here we have two instances that I've considered in some depth.
The first is something described as a swarm of thousands of spacecraft. They are supposed to share some sort of 'collective intelligence' guided by our super villain. Let's skip over the corny idea that this intelligence is shared over frequency that can be disrupted by broadcasting old rock. What interests me is the visual conventions chosen.
This isn't a swarm in the usual sense of the word; it is a directed formation of medium sized craft. I'm not sure why they need pilots unless there is a fighting mode that is not centrally computed that we did not see. Nor is it clear why the bad guy barks orders as if it matters that they hear. And why build this armada if there are no ships that ever come, and the super weapon is supposed to be superior?
Skip over all that as well. What they chose was to use a basic spring model where each ship is connected to its neighbors by an invisible elastic band with delayed force and a minimum distance. This is often used to crudely and cheaply emulate bird flocks.
Then they simply designated certain ships as agents to pull their comrades, allowing for a tentacle-like menacing and cutting effect. The editing was good, so you got some rush of motion just from the shifting camera, but the effect was profoundly simple. in sophistication, it matched the rubber masks typical of the franchise.
The second effect was of the first few seconds of a presumed biological weapon powerful enough to eradicate planets. We didn't see much here but the effect was the typical animated smoke, nothing at all like what we've seen, for example in Prometheus or the fireflies in Guardians. It couldn't have been for lack of money, talent or excellent examples, and that is the depressing thing.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
My notion of noir is the communication in a film story that the audience is the writer of the world, a world designed to satisfy our urges. Innocent victims are manipulated through coincidence and love. Since Welles, we've seen a great many variations and deep penetration in our film vocabulary. It is rare, for instance to not end a romantic comedy without a public, happy resolution of the love story in front of an audience, often involving an on screen camera.
Here we have what is now a mature version: the cameras are on screen cameras and the audience/writers are one community of characters while the manipulated innocents are another. I believe this was initiated by "The Conversation," and refined in a spate of NSA-centric summer action things.
Here we have the typical formulation with the twist that we argue amounts ourselves about what to do. There are three layers.
The 'bottom' are the Africans. Within this group are indigenous and imported provocateurs who work to establish a story by force. At the 'top' is us in our role of manipulator, both as film audience with defined tastes and urges and as enabling citizenry of the machines in the stories.
In the middle is a very clever concoction of traditional noir vision and manipulation with debate about what to do. Our on screen folks (including the powerful Rickman) unfold a metastory about what has value in on screen action. This really is very well constructed, placing the center of tension not in the situation 'on the ground' (which indeed is tense) but in our own souls about what we countenance.
My unhappiness is the familiar one: I never feel so much a misogynist, jingoist, racist or hedonist as in films designed to creatively amplify those experiences behind the cover of critical distance. In this case, they pull the power of the moral ambiguity from my own mind where it should be eating me into the safe playground of film fiction. Seeing the familiar Rickman and here very actressy Mirren works against me, even me who has been close to people like those here. We are given the protection that fiction allows.
That said, I can recommend this straight up as an engaging film as well as near mastery of construction.
Extended Myth, Extensible Missus
The last 40 minutes of this is a shift from epic to soap opera. Future viewers would be best advised to stop watching once the flood hits and the villains (but one) have been destroyed. Until that point, we have the sort of reverse noir that Aranofsky has been perfecting. There is a magical being in this story, but he is not in the story. He manipulates random characters everyone we see and know about just as the traditional noir audience would. That audience? We are placed directly in the film as the villains, or at least those with urges damaging enough to require purging. There is some very deep understanding of film narrative here, until that flood.
But the wonder in watching doesn't stop there. The way sci-fi and fantasy usually works is that you take some representation of the world, the current world, and extend or add things until it becomes engaging and suits your narrative requirements. We have a well established vocabulary for being presented with these extensions and additions. We enter sci-fi movies with ease because of these conventions, and we do so noting them because they are likely to be salient.
Hey, what if you didn't extend the current, real world? What if instead you *started* with a fantasy world and extended *that?* And you didn't extend it in the way that original world differs from ours? What if there were a question about whether it did in the first place? So, we start with a Bible story that no one fully believes is literally true. No one, because the weight of its truth would crush us.
Instead, a common belief is that God never was purely an angry, disappointed creator, or that he once was but changed somehow to be a 'loving' God. It is the most frightening episode in the Bible and the hardest to map to. So we start with that, a story about a good believer who follows the rules, but otherwise is a token in a grand game of making and unmaking.
Now, we extend it using many of our cinematic shortcuts. Dangerous territory is denoted by scored earth and stacked skulls. Why? Because that illustrates. Offense against the Earth is denoted by parched, abandoned mines. Evil in men is reduced to the evil we can see in one man, their leader. In such reductions, there is no complex hierarchy or collective leadership, just a shorthand in one actor.
We need superhuman beings on screen, so why not create them? Actually, these are extended from a Biblical reference in a similarly cinematic way as animated stones, or more precisely angels doomed as animated stones.
Turning agency around is this filmmaker's quest. Here he tries with two elements of conventional noir. I think he succeeds in the first half.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Background as Foreground
I follow certain filmmakers in a way unlike any other relationship. If they have worked well for me at least once, they become a permanent part of my life, not friends or family because I give nothing back. When they try and fail, it becomes something of a failure of mine to learn from.
Pixar is in this class of 'filmmakers' because there I see a certain consistent set of ambitions and values. Creative, polished story is what most people see, but what interests me is the deep exploration of what it means to tell stories visually, cinematically.
These men and women aggressively expand the cinematic vocabulary. Sometimes it is local, in some minute orchestration of character movement; I am not skilled enough to see and understand where these are new. But I can see and understand how they push the way we can communicate about *space* and the movement of the eye in it.
In this, they have two concerns. I've remarked elsewhere on the most visible one: how they understand the third dimension and where we place the camera. They can expand this because the camera is no longer physical. They've gone so far as to design whole story worlds to allow for stretching this.
The other experimental area is more subtle and perhaps more influential in the long run. It used to be that the environment in films was that we lived in, and incidentally captured by the camera. Except in very rare cases, like some of the work of Welles and Kurosawa, it is static, dead, not able to participate in the communication. In cartoons, the background was ever more so.
But CGI breaks that boundary as well. I saw the problems they had with trying to innovate with conscious snow interacting with conscious hair in Brave. They had all sorts of other difficulties with this film, many of them not relevant to the experiment in conscious background but it has to be considered a success.
The story isn't particularly novel in having the environment be the protagonist, but it is novel in the emotional texture they were able to impart to that environment. The characters' texture and form have been reduced and that of the environment increased. There was never in reality water this full of life, vegetation with this much unified presence. They moved the old story-focused director out and moved in a texture animator and incidentally gave him a story to tell.
It is not typical of Pixar that the filmmaker is allowed to make a statement, but here we have him creating a character that enters the story and announces his intentions. He is part of the environment, appearing first as a tree and stepping out to be a multi horned creature that 'collects' pets that each play a role. This is one of the most sophisticated in jokes I recall, directly related to the focus on the background as foreground.
Mahi va gorbeh (2013)
Wandering, not Wondering
Gosh I live in such rich disappointment. When I encounter someone who naturally understands cinema and who has the potential to affect me, I want him/her to. I want love to follow beauty.
This is an extraordinary film, unique in my experience. It happens in what we think of as real time with no edits. The camera is always on, following someone at eye height. The flow is continuous, yet we encounter many of the same events in this continuum but slightly different each time, never in a way that changes things. Tarkovsky did something like this.
We shift from dialog, often shouted to encounter points far away, to inner narration to 'direct to us' narration.
The first encounter provides an extra loop from the offscreen past that overlaps, and this happens again in the middle, giving us the feeling of a fabric we cannot escape. The setting is a sparse wood, adding to the abstract tone. I was so completely captured, so completely in the control of this filmmaker, that I was prepared to encounter something beyond. Oh how I wanted this. It never came, and in fact the last five minutes are botched. We know something is going to happen but we oddly move from implication to the explicit, followed by an 8 1/2 inspired musical punctuation.
This also was a disappointment though hardly rare. Few filmmakers know how to leave us. This is a young filmmaker, and I will want to see what he learns about life; I fear he may not have much opportunity.
Which brings me to the extra dimension for me. I am an embarrassingly typical US viewer, though I am confident I understand ancient Persian history well. The primary cast here is young Iranians, university students on an outing. Such students play a different role in society than their counterparts in the West, but the major mismatches are much more profound.
That society is no more flawed, even ridiculous than ours, but it is far easier to see from the outside, and loop it back to myself. Small loves of course and small lives as well. Dread that conveys, and human-maintained desperation, not in the least self-aware. It is an added dimension for me, but not enough to save this film.
I almost wish for something less ambitious but which matters. But in all honesty I vacillate.
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)
What is written writes itself
Can't say enough good things about this.
Let's start with what it is not. It is not rewarding long form filmmaking. It is TeeVee, and despite the rush of talent into TeeVee series, and their ability to engage, this will never be the sort of thing that we go to for lucid dream walking. The techniques I will be lauding here have been used for decades in films that matter, let's say for example by Ruiz. But never in the mainstream like this.
But this thrills me because it makes explicit folding the default for popular entertainment. Oh, it is masked by energy and OCD. And too much is 'explained' by way of drugs, mind palaces and so on. But this is mainstream, big time popular stuff and its primary structure is that of folding.
We have a Victorian character set in modern times who is transported back to the referenced context. This is done by drugs, by an unrelated inner space of visualized 'working out.' We have the reality, two realities in fact conflated with the stories written in each reality, sometimes shifting control. We have the fold that Conan Doyle put in, the one about Mycroft and Holmes directing each other.
And then there is the staging where reality and the account of reality are merged.
And we get it. We like it. Ten years ago, we were still in Mary Tyler Moore territory. A mass audience wouldn't follow these shifts in abstraction, these skips among parallel realities and creating spaces. I wish it were not served as a device to keep the attention of dopes that can't pay attention. But it is sophisticated abstract reasoning nonetheless, and we didn't have that, even remotely when I was a kid.
Not Thirsty Enough
Having seen and been unhealthily engaged in 'Thirst' I acquired this.
It reminded me of a similar disappointment. One of my most trusted filmmakers is Kar Wai Wong, someone who has expanded my electric cage. His first non-English film 'Blueberry Night' was every bit as ambitious as, say, 'Chun King Express," but had none of the adventure. None of the crazy veers past the guard rail. I suppose it was because at home, his crew understood intuitive shifting as you go. His borrowed US crew had no idea, so he just had to plow through the seafood to the nauseous end.
This is less of a failure. Many of the themes, urges and cinematic devices from 'Thirst' are here.
The actress seems to understand, but she's just too much of a person where she needs to be a simple container of undirected, temporarily knotted desires.
The Charlie in this one isn't much different than Hitchcock's Uncle Charlie, more mad, but as much in control. Too much control for what I think Chan-wook Park had in mind. But he had a script, and not the room to intuitively embellish. Does simply using US assets kill non-character oriented improvisation?
No Lust, Too Cautionary
I've written before about the tendency in film to couple a love story with some radical political turmoil. The reason is simply that love is not inherently cinematic. Sex is and female attractiveness can be, but I'm talking here about the dimensions of love and in particular that dangerous love that swallows all else, bringing certain ruin.
We have many examples of this, including Ang Lee's amazing 'Lust, Caution.' I mention that film because it worked; it drew me in, made me re-experience my own love and terrified me. This is one thing a film can do, entangle experiences. When one is in control of a master storyteller, but out of control of the viewer, and the personal engagements of the viewer are also out of control, you get a mix of reliving a part of your life knowing *someone* is in control.
I also mention is because it is much the same story as in this film, involving the same events. But Lust works. This doesn't. Part of the problem is the director of course. We know the story works; it is based on a well understood cinematic dynamic. We've seen these actors be effective before. In this comment, I would like to focus on one error. It isn't the only one; the main problem is that the director is meek. The thing of interest to me is the attempt to build on noir.
Noir is simple: a random guy is manipulated by forces beyond his control, and those forces, by a few conventions, are merged with our identities as viewers. It has some indicators. It starts with the hero in a very bad spot, then establishes itself as a narrated story, with the hero as narrator. There are a few cinematic ticks as well and we get these early enough to get the message.
The basic problem, I think, is that these two cinematic traditions do not naturally mix. They grew over 60 - 70 years, each of them. Each has shortcuts to an implied contract between viewer and filmmaker.
What Lust did was place the viewer in the story. We suffer as the characters do, carrying angst against the unknown. What noir does is place the viewer outside the story as manipulator of fate, together with the filmmaker. Both can disturb, engage, reward but the machinery is different.
I'll Follow You Down (2013)
I think I would like to warn you off of this one.
The opportunity that time travel stories offers is the ability to retroactively change what you have seen.
In normal stories, this is one of the most effective devices we have, a way for the author to toy with the very act of comprehending the world. It can be cast as a game between author and viewer as they cocreate the story and tease each other. Time machine movies make that explicit. Con and deceptive movies also do this, make the game an explicit part of the contract.
But for it to work, the force of what changes has to be strong enough to be accepted by the viewer, provide enough energy to drive the reinvention of what we have already accepted. Chris Nolan is a master of this; I'll trust him explicitly, investing more in what he offers as the setup than in anyone else. Many time travel movies get this.
Looper, Primer and Predestination are movies that don't exploit this, presenting puzzles that are intriguing but use travel of the old fashioned kind, the H G Welles kind the we simply watch. But this film depends on the reinvention; the characters talk about it for an hour.
A man is a genius college professor. He has a greater genius son, also a professor, who figures out time travel. Alas, it involves coils, a cabinet and a flash of light. He gets incidentally killed on his first trip back. Those that are left are unhappy with their lives. His son is the greatest genius of the bunch and reinvents the machine to go back to change things, but only a few things.
The last five minutes is what this genius comes up with, when he goes back in time to meet his newly arrived Dad. If you are like me, someone who expects some narrative magic, who wants that thrill you get on first watching The Sting or Sixth Sense, you will be disappointed and a bit angry.
Much else in this film is done well. The score in particular is good.
You'll get hints of the disappointment. A lone genius poring over an equation-laden chalkboard looking for that one insignificant error, as if it were the point of the movie, Poirot-style. Some poorly researched mumbo jumbo about relativity and quantum mechanics as if they were the solution to a next generation of understanding rather than barriers. A final revelation that produces absolute confidence. Simple interpersonal dynamics, the kind you can sketch on a timeline without missing anything essential. (That timeline is actually a prop in the story.)
And then we get the end, the action our genius among genies has calculated with similar precision.
But it makes no sense. I usually don't need or even want sense in a film, but you need it here if you expect us to reweave things. And we don't get it.