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Folded Vision, Urges and Space
I normally write about folding; the most obvious is when a film contains a film or play, but there are a bewildering number of types. The most interesting of these to me is when the film 'folds' the watcher in, in some way. The least interesting is when a film overtly quotes another. Tarantino, does this in a way that I think distracts from his other strengths.
But what happens when you have a series that is older than most people on the planet, and has a world in some way adopted by nearly everyone that folds simple myths into itself?
Some of the novel folding Abrams used is required because the original three were never about a world but a story. That world was borrowed from westerns, minimally to support the story, and adapted also minimally to allow the tech. When you don't have a full world to work with, you can't expand the story into it. This world is sparse; if evil exists, it can only exist in and be opposed in one form. So, Abrams has to expand back into the story rather than into the world. He does it partly by direct quoting, adopting the key themes: parents, magical force as military force, and conflict as spatial engagement.
I particularly like how he places some action in the ruins of previous movies. In episode 7, we had the star destroyer. Here we've upped the ante with the ruined death star in ultra-dynamic water.
But I am going to suggest here that some of what we are seeing in the reflected story qualifies as folding. That's because the original story was a simple instance of what Lucas probably still believes is a universal myth. Enough time (36 years!) has transpired from the original trilogy and enough exposure through aggressive marketing that the original trilogy's instance has itself become the myth on which we now impress our story.
Three examples: The other two films advance the story through task episodes, after which there is an escape-chase. In this third case, the film is essentially a collection of chase sequences during which the story is advanced. Because the backbone is a chase, and we have a mature editing grammar for chase episodes, the maturity of pacing is extraordinary. Blockbuster films have advanced this art and Abrams simply uses the best. There's even a situation of our heroes in corridors being hunted by stormtroopers that is filmed as a mini-chase. So, from my perspective, they've folded the confrontations into punctuations between motions.
The second example: after all this time, we have competing on-screen narrators. Palpatine has been manipulating things all along and has magical insight into what our characters are doing. This is folding of the viewer into a character, but of an unimaginative kind. In a more noir-quoting film, we'd have periods where we are reminded that our on-screen drama is only because the hapless heroes are being manipulated for our entertainment. Mapping this viewer's narrative control to a villain is common.
But we have something far more inventive and for this viewer, thrilling. Our two main characters can actually see each other, across galactic dimension and occupy a shared interspace. The conflict can be conveyed through this narrative space that we share with the two, especially in an extraordinary fight scene where each is projected into the other's space. But it is more than that. The entire new story that is imposed on the old, is about who sees into whom: Palpatine, Leia, Kylo, Rey, Luke, Han, and the mobs on each side have some vision and agency. Each is able to take action through this narrative space. Leia for instance significantly changes things by insight and narrative governance at a distance. Or is that Luke or Han or even Vader working through her?
The third example... The original trilogy is a simple quest in the context of pure good and evil. In the first two in this trilogy, the quest is continued, with little change but a different character. In this final instalment, this is no longer the fabric, but the background for a Shakespeare-worthy love story folded into it. This is grownup stuff, and we can see the fan kids and those who want to be objecting. The Disney folks have made a bold choice I think, differentiating from their Marvel property and investing for the long run. Give me a quest for complex urges any day. That's a story fabric I can build my life around. Polar battles between good and evil don't help me and have made my world worse.
I differentiate between storyteller/filmmakers and the story itself. It isn't such a clean break as this of course; the narrative contract inveigles. But the distinction is useful here. He has a scope he is interested in which could be described as navigating the pull against a world that presents as capricious evil. In earlier films, he moves between giving us the world and giving us the struggler in a way that confuses and challenges earning the distinction as art.
This time he again shows his mastery over the ability to balance environment and character. Julio Medem can do this. Kar-Wai Wong. But he picks sides from the first moments and never deviates. The engineered ambiguity is lost. It becomes a master cinematic storyteller delivering a story with impact but no value. We are always on the side of the human, never of the world.
When filmmakers put us in the world instead of the character, he/she can exploit a rich vocabulary of narrative games derived from noir. We stand as collaborators in defining the world that produces the pains we observe. We become guilty. This can be the most powerful of encounters in art, so when I see someone capable of it who ignores the opportunity in the name or moral cleanliness, I get disappointed.
Even Tilda is uninteresting.
2 Some interesting elements.
Free Solo (2018)
Films are stories. When the story is in the real world, a different set of narrative engineering principles come in to play.
A default is that somehow the filmmaker and crew present their own story of the quest for what we separately see. But there is a problem in this case; the crew has climbing skill and faces challenges just as great. They don't take the same chance of death our hero does, but they take a far greater chance: being the ones that encourage a death and exploit it. This would have been a dangerous choice as counterstory and the filmmaker wisely decided to avoid it. But then what to put in its place?
The choice was the girlfriend story. And I have to say it was a brilliant choice. Just look at the comments next to mine here - she diverts, so the documentary is now a real, folded story: a story about a damaged being that we see in part from the eyes of a compliant lover, trying to write his own story by a public achievement.
Within this love story is a drama that I assume is genuine. In addition to the issue of whether the filmmakers are encouraging risk, we have the more powerful story of whether simply being watched ruins it for our climber. He seems not afraid of public failure, rather his Asperger's fights the idea of having someone else close. Having someone else share the exercise destroys the mechanism he has privately built to process through this mechanical task. So we have a point in the movie where the existence of the movie is questioned on both sides. For someone who understand's Asperger's this gets to one core notion of love, life and story: when are urges shared? When can urges make stories that matter?
The end of the thing makes its own judgement: this fellow is a hero, conquering fear and nature. But that's not the case, he did it because he could not conquer his own compulsion.
The girlfriend is not portrayed fairly here, as the selfish weak groupie who has to be sent away. There are numerous cheats: the camera is there for too many clearly staged episodes. They likely are genuine, but what does it take for us to see him wake on the important day? For us to conveniently be there when the most dramatic dialog between two fragile beings occurs? For us to watch her face as she drives away?
I recommend this highly, because if you are trying to be someone in a shared life, if you are working the balance between satisfaction and display or the challenge of separating desire from physical display.
Stop before the credits. The production is competent, even sometimes spectacular, but the song at the end negates all.
This is formulaic in the basics: two people repel each other, fall in love, have a complicating development, profess love in some public, dramatic way and are reconciled. Such things usually depend on the appeal of the characters and the supporting comedy.
But I think this has something else going for it. It grabbed me in a place these things usually don't, and that may be it. It has to do with what we think drives romance. In the genre standard, it is physical attraction, followed immediately by mutual charm. That's all it takes, and all that follows is to protect that attraction. '50 First Dates' takes this to an extreme. The underlying idea we love is that some preordained soulmate is out there and you will know when finding it. Some spidey sense kicks in. This movie subverts that. Our guy has relationships. When he meets the woman who will be the girl of his dreams, they hate each other. This is stock in the genre. But then we have a trading places event. What follows is the simple act of living together. The challenges are exaggerated for comedic theatrics, but we recognize these lives. The simple act of being together in situations makes the love.
The filmmakers understand that it is the situation that matters, so they fill it in with children, friends and ethnic culture. The children have to be girls or this wouldn't matter. The culture has to be one that overtly values family.
The woman here isn't the prettiest, or wittiest or even very genuine. She's a somewhat damaged widow with mother issues. The love grows organically from situation rather than instantly from physical attributes. That's the special thing that works here.
Der unheimliche Mönch (1965)
In the heyday of mystery writing, we had Sayers, Christie, Chesterton and a dozen others who were artists of narrative curves. The game was to create a world, but us in it and only later let us know how wrong we were.
And then we had formula pulp writers, many of whom had good formulas. And then we had Edgar Wallace who would dictate a story straight through and never edit. These things were not crafted and were messy in narrative discovery. But they sold, and here is one of the biggest sellers.
This movie is not something where you can guess what is going on, and in the last few moments when it is all 'explained' the shock is not in what happened, but the shamelessness of the construction.
See, there was an injustice committed and a fair, innocent daughter.
There's the old hack of the rich guy, lost will and scheming relatives.
There's a serial kidnapping scheme with a massive gang that preys on schoolgirls, suitably attractive and silly.
And there is a revenge killer in a hood. The only cinematic element is his whip that instantly asphixiates.
What do these have to do with each other? Nothing, except they are mixed into scenes helter skelter.
The Last Supper's Table
If you come to this for the much advertised fight choreography or exciting chase scenes, you will be disappointed. We've seen more exciting of each many times. There's no new ground here, no stunts in the Tom Cruise sense to speak of. No risks at all.
Fightwise, the only novelty we have that is now already a brand is our character's damage that somehow transcends the challenges. So don't come for the action. Come for the world-building.
It is astonishingly compelling, extended from the 'Godfather' tradition of 'rules and consequences'. It is comically extreme but consistent and logical. I can recommend this because of the thought that went into the creation of the world and the elaborate setup for the next film. That setup is tantalising.
The idea that what keeps him going, pushes him through is personally attractive. He wants to live to remember his wife.
The concept is gone.
We are in a golden age of concept folding and our experimental loft is popular film. When the filmmakers hit a sweet spot and adventure in self reference is carried in a hit movie, the whole society becomes more cognitively elaborate.
The original was folded in a few new ways. 'Folding' in general are techniques that play with the filmmaker/viewer contract for cocreating a narrative. In a straight film, the onscreen narrative is distinct from the viewer's world and the filmmaker is simply delivery. When you read the plot description, the film is nothing more but conveyance. A folded film places the viewer somehow in the film, for example a traditional mystery has the viewer co-create the narrative, often with an on-screen surrogate.
The first Lego film was genius. First, a counterpoint to the Pixar philosophy of realism in animation, and the long tradition of animals as humans, this was in your face alternative. The plastic pieces were themselves rendered hyper-realistically and the motion (in that first one only) unusually choppy. These were characters that many of us physically animated and the effect makes us at least potentially comakers.
Add to that another two layers of creators. The main one of course is the storyline about the master builder. It did not matter that it was couched in that old 'kid who is unknowing the saviour'. It had folding power. And then the extra layer at the end. Corny and poorly done, but so effective because it was yet another layer of folding, and unexpected. And the side folds of characters from other films. All pure genius, but only because it caught us by surprise.
That element of surprise folding only works the first time. After that, you get Scooby Doo.
This is well enough made to hide its nature, what we used to call Hallmark movies.
These are films that tell a story without irony, narrative elaboration or recognition of its cinematic conveyance. The closer to reality and the fewer theatrics the better. Ideally, as here, the place and culture are different enough (from the viewer's) to make this plain: that this is real and not synthetic. If it recounts something that actually happened more or less that's ideal.
These movies are intended to uplift in some way. The job of the story now denuded is to give the viewer the experience of triumph in their own souls.
I maintain that this genre has the opposite effect than their well wishers advertise because the thing that is missing is the machinery we use to make narrative matter. Narrative is food, food for our souls. It is the single thing that makes us us. Long before we knew how to plant we used narrative to expand our notion of identity and place among others. The story itself ('a boy achieved') is the least of what we had to invent.
Just think of the layers and elaborations of language, meaning and conveyance we had to develop! We did that collectively over perhaps a million years through countless shared actions. The way we choose to tell a story matters more than what the story is, because it is the conventions that bind us. The story is just the breeze in the forest.
With technology, we've elaborated these conventions. Cinema is where we still evolve and expand them - the only thing that makes us human. When you go to a film, a real one, you are participating in, perhaps investing in the maintenance or even growth of that humanity.
Beware of stories that eschew that recognition of the human connection. Beware of those that pretend there are lives 'out there' that differ from yours. They are stealing your energy, your ability to grow and share. One effect is that you are exploiting this boy and village for a small reward. They lose because we push them away.
By now, you may be irate, thinking I am somehow saying something negative about this boy and his village's plight. He's there without because we are afraid to share, even in our movie about him.
I've watched this version and the one with the same title from the thirties back to back. Originally it was in the service of my history of mysteries, but neither qualify. Only this one is worthy of comment, because of the apparent excellence of the demographic engineering.
So many films suppress the cinematic and narrative experiments in the service of cultural capture. For a student of film it is a trade off because in ordinary film, where the qualities of film are exploited and sometimes extended, we are happy to accept stereotypes, tropes and genre conformity. But when the project is about seduction of identity, the stereotypes are up for experimentation. All else in the media is in support.
It isn't just the marvellous creation of this Nancy. I predict this actress will have a rich and much admired career. I thought the same of and early Heath Ledger when I saw him in a King Arthur project with similar goals and values. She not just shines, she understands emotional manipulation.
She's what you are supposed to look at. She's what you are supposed to see, but the heavy engineering has been done around her, in place and gang. Sure, this is Scooby mixed with the old mean girl redemption story. But look closer at how the camera stages groups. Look at the apparently different sets of the same hidden passage.
There's craft in this that deserves to be understood. Disney used to have a stable of experts that knew how to do this before the TeeVee production ethic killed it. Maybe we'll get it back. Because in film, I appreciate experimentation and evolution in any dimension.
Young South Korean filmmakers have a layered vitality one doesn't find anywhere else. Filmmaking is all about mapping what we have as cinematic conveyance to what we yearn for internally. That's the game, the expected contract between filmmaker and viewer. We negotiate that as we go, sometimes being outside the story as normal interpreters, sometimes inside the story filling in bits.
One way to go about this is for the filmmaker to trick the viewer when in internal mode to make assumptions that are later revealed to shock. A common technique is to tantalize with some erotic vision - easily cinematic - and later lead us into reviling misogynistic exploitive behaviour.
More nuanced is mixing realities between what we invent from what we are shown and what an on-screen sometime narrator does. This is rich territory for filmmakers willing to go there, and I think the more we experiment, the greater our vocabulary will be.
We are tuned to have an in-story interpreter. Our main character is a writer, and we are pointed to some books with metaphors that cross into reality.
We see him in the longish first act conjure narrative reality from sexual fantasy. Later, he literally writes what we presumably see, while sitting in the girl's apartment but outfitted for himself. The sexual tryst is still in the smell of the place.
We see his love interest go well out of our way to present the importance of (pantomime) living richly in a created reality. We have her describe the 'great hunger' for revelation, encountered in dance she describes and later demonstrates, in her own encounter in Africa - a trip likely never taken.
We have questionable memories. Is she genuinely the person who lived in the neighborhood when they were children? Is the father overcome by past roles he cannot escape? Is the newly recovered mother genuine? What role does plastic surgery play, once we see the 'makeup' scene at the narratively frugal end?
The referenced Gatsby story to those of us interested in these things, is rich with mixed fantasies from the writer and narrator. All the real action here is in the context of broadcast propaganda; the MacGuffins are neglected glass houses in a context where houses matter, and may even (dimly) reference quantum realities.
We never know who is conspiring with whom, who is imaginary and what motives are to be trusted.
So the art here is in transporting us into this folded space where we get destabilized, but not so much we lose our engagement. That's a major accomplishment in itself. Few can do it and most are Asian.
But we want the investment to matter. I want a part of my soul turned inside out to challenge me by the evoked inner me. Possibly, this failure is because I did not pretend to fall in love with the girl. The seduction did not overlap beyond the two young men, possibly because of culture, age and suspicion.
Top End Wedding (2019)
Companion as Place
Why does this earn a special space in my heart? It is a romantic comedy after all, deliberately designed to be discarded. The genre is defined by the attractiveness of a superficial love; the easy way problems are resolved and the balance of designed soulmates restored.
This film follows the mandated pattern: love, some misunderstanding of clumsiness that separates the lovers, a public pronouncement of love with cheering bystanders, happy ending - often a wedding and dancing. You have to have some strong comedic, but identifiably human characters. This serves that pattern well.
But it also has a few important differences. The first is the in your face charm of the land. I am immigrating to Australia so this grabs me deeper than it will you, dear reader. But it will likely grab you too, because the rom-com device here is place-as-heart. That is usually impossible to convey cinematically: vistas are containers, situations within which you place the characters and their emotions. Even Takashi Miike's 'The Bird People in China' or the obverse film, Zhang Yimou's obverse 'Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles' can only use place as space, and then only to annotate, even when they use the mystery of place and people.
Here you have a device no other place has: the people and the place share an identity. I don't know how well this would be conveyed to someone who knows nothing of the Aborigines, but the movie completely captures the notion by bringing souls to a physical place in the context of life commitment. The driver of 'place' as an agent is largely implied, making it so much stronger.
But there's also a more intriguing notion of love than usual. As with the standard rom-com model, it is the man that is the lead and the woman that acquiesces or not. But here the guy has some novel metaphors. Here he is already committed beyond the happy closeness of an early relationship and he explains why: his life is a room half filled with boxes that mean ('contain') little and he wants the rest to be full of flowers and jewels. This is after the metaphor is set up by someone in the parallel romance. And it becomes a complaint in the big breakup scene.
But the metaphor is strange enough that it steps out of the rom-com genre far enough to register as human; love for someone coming as much from the pull of attraction (and this woman is attractive) as from the innate need for companionship.
Scorched Earth (2018)
Well, it seems that all women on a path to stardom have to go through this, a cheap revenge movie. I think this actress has a future, and I suppose she knew that this would be a risk. The movie itself is unremarkable. What is mildly interesting is the setup. The movie wants to be a western, but it gets there by a strange setup.
An event in the future creates a Mad Max environment, that just happens to have Western sets, produce cowboy guns and cowboy-like dynamics and costumes, and get this, a silver mine with old fashioned gear and dynamite. The only difference is an air pollution that requires the bad guys to wear filter masks that resemble the bandanas of original movie westerns.
Why? What is gained by giving a familiar setting by such a strained setup? Let's assume it was designed and the intent was to make the story we see more real by contrasting to the setup which is goofy and fakey.
And you know, it works, sort of -- making this seem less terrible than it is.
You can do something better with your time.
Murder in Three Acts (1986)
Bicycle, not spacecraft
The strangest thing: when films are made of Christie structures, the first thing they worry about is the characterization of the detective: Poirot or Marple. Clearly, the filmmakers obsess over the potential for engagement within the constraints of the original text, but they focus on the character and not the mystery per se.
This is a mistake in my book. I know many viewers like to gravitate to characters. Somehow these folks relate situations to people. I have luckily escaped that fate, so I easily fall into Christie's real talent.
What she does is create remarkably complex situation puzzles where the notched wooden pieces slide in and out effortlessly. A feature is that once all the people are assembled, she retrospectively displays the way most things you have understood are reinterpreted in a different way and the result is more coherent -- more logical -- than the previous view of the world.
If you look at her books, she is not at all interested in characters. Excepting the detective, they are as cardboard as they come. The detectives are fleshed out in some detail, but only so we can understand the reasoning and discovery process. For her, Marple is intuitive, Poirot obsessively logical.
So in judging a Christie adaptation, I have to look at how well they created an edifice of history that makes sense -- and the the way she has her detective smoothly adjust it piecemeal to be more sensible in the last scene.
Well, adaptations usually preserve the last scene and have a detective with the appropriate name. But they get all hung up in character and ignore the subtle machinery of cause. It is as if a filmmaker thought the essence of Hamlet was in the flowery complexity of the character and the complex world that manipulates him.
That happens all the time with film Hamlets, and all the time -- as here -- with film Christies.
You can find better things to do with your time.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Film as Virus to Fight Us
Zombie films have always been about social analogy: AIDS, immigration, Islam!, climate change, AI revolt.
Regardless, it is always followed the western form of good guys, bad guys. Always. This one twists that from the very first moments which focuses on an appealing preadolescent girl in a hostile environment.
It helps to know — as I did not — that the disorder here is based on a real insect fungus.
— The girl actress is fragile, grabbing all our native sympathetic pulls. Why this works is because of many shameful assumptions we carry: slight, submissive but sunny girl of color. A cooperating captive where the captive dynamics align with our strongest demons.
— The Emma Atherton character as teacher is similar captive, unable to escape because of her emotional connection to what we know she thinks are the accidentally oppressed. The chemistry between these two is strong, evoking imagined backstories.
— The sound/score is amazingly effective.
— The surrounding chaos when attacked was well choreographed.
— The twist at the end grabbed me viscerally. The trick isn't new of course, using a film to reinforce an identity the viewer grasps, then subverting that alliance. What made this is so effective is that the genre has such strong momentum, and that the identity we had pulled from us was so fundamental. It isn't our membership in a tribe that is stolen, but our excuse for living at all.
What did not work for me:
— Amazingly, it was the Glen Close character. She has the job we find in uncinematic scifi films where she has to explain things. As a character, she seemed superfluous; so her role as explainer really is obvious and off-putting because she isn't in the story so much as between it and us.
— The sets. Here's the thing. Its been ten years — we assume — since the pandemic. I know that the tendency is to show desolation visually, with extreme degradation, but the most effective scenes for me were those with ordinary environments and no ordinary motion.
— The makeup. Someone decided to use the fungal notion but reference the old zombie tradition of rotting flesh. Can't have both.
— The one joke: "I already had a cat." When you pull something like this, you acknowledge that there is a viewer to get the joke, and that you are invested in being playful with him/her. The character is taken out of the story and redefined as an entertainer for your pleasure. It breaks the story when it has the intent of this one.
— The eating. If you decide to show a human fighting being devoured by beasts, then it should be as terrifying as the victim has it. This was almost a puppet show with carefully daubed chinblood shown afterward. I know it is a trope of the genre, like a Hong Kong martial arts fight where a single hit of a sword bloodlessly makes the bad guy fall dead instantly. But it works against the collective terror of the end.
Top of the Lake (2013)
This masterly series has several notable qualities. Most striking are the cinematic (meaning the camera-centric) anchors for the storytelling. But the most commented upon by others is the exploration of motherhood, supported by accomplished actresses doing their best work.
I'll comment instead on the portrayals of the symmetric lives of the male characters. Everything I have seen of Campion's work is driven by external pulls and the men do this work here. The world of the women here is sharp, effective, overflowing with energy because of the embodied world in which they live and the men embody the pulls in their worlds.
We have five primary men here. The most abstract is the young man who is a reclusive gamer, living with his mother. Though he hangs with a group of sexually weak braggarts who gather to talk about their paid encounters, he is different. By the end of the series, we know he is in love with an Asian prostitute who is (we presume) forced to be a surrogate.
He wants to marry her, possibly thinking she has his child; she takes her life because of some turmoil. We never learn exactly what forces have torn her, in fact we never see her at all. But this string — this boy — pulled taut is what moves everything into view. We only know of her life through him, living his life as a game. Brilliant; great talent in storytelling by omission.
His doppleganger is the adopted father, superficially calm but who follows a similar path with no agency. The presented contrast between these two men (crazy vs sedate) hides Campion's intent I think to convey the common tragic destiny of being male. Dissipative.
The most conventional character is the pathologist, drawn along the lines of the Shakespearean fool — the only one who is stable. He is assigned to examine the dead more or less the way we are as viewers. He alone can interact with our main character as an unhaunted being. (His complement is the predator from the previous story.)
We have the main male lead, Puss, extravagantly acted but among the men we see, the most scrutable. The most visible and the least interesting. Not worth examining by design.
The one that amazed me was the police chief. Though this is a fourth generation detective story, it is a detective story nonetheless. So by the end we need someone who sees, who reasons and who embodies the rules.
In every other film with police, this boss role is either a blunt dummy who can't see the truth, or a kind mentor working to protect his (always his) protégé. In this story, he is the only loser to the wheel of fortune whose mechanics he also has to explain. He loses family, lover, child and most likely his job. Everyone else advances in some way.
Disney within Disney
I was expecting a standard, manufactured Disney Princess item. What I encountered was a powerful embodiment of myth in a young woman, with the notable exceptions of the coconut pirate and glittery crab sequences. These were conceived and directed by others. I suppose many commenters will speak to the different appealing techniques used here. I'll just speak to the visual narrative nesting because I've been tracking this from Lassiter's early work.
The simplest example of this nesting is when two-d hand drawn animation is embedded in the three-d world. I believe that over time, a law of proportional abstraction has developed. When this works, we may see a film that has an inner film of some kind that is more abstract. The cinematic effect is to set the 'distance' between us and the main film. That is, we have a sort of quantum imagination where the simplifications we negotiate with a filmmaker are recorded in what he/she shows us as simplifications the movie's characters make with inner 'films. Showing us those inner films is a part of the filmmaker-viewer agreement. We do have that here with the depiction of Te Fiti and especially Te Ka, with the visions Moana has, rendered in decades old conventions.
But something new is here: the story starts with literal story panels in animated tapa cloths that tell the outer story about the gods, demigod and the natural laws we will live in. That inner story is rendered in lovely, textured three-d using the now standard conventions of super-reality to register as real. But inside THAT story is the same two-d conventions in the demigod's living tattoos. While the 3-d flow moves through the future, the two-d panels not only remind us of the past and the world's dynamics but directly interact with the characters.
The refreshing novelty here is that the tattoo/tapas cloth effect is used for the reverse purpose. The common distance is maintained, but in this case there are not three layers (our world, the movie, the movie within) but two: our world as the same as Moana's and the 'movie' world as the myth, the tattoo and mystical/god world. I think this is why the movie, the main movie with her life played out in it, seemed so close to me emotionally.
Masters of cinematic engineering. See this: 3 of three.
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.