Category: Art on Film

Festival Review: The Congress (2014)


Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Beginning in an almost-real version of the real world, The Congress centers on Robin Wright, playing struggling actress Robin Wright, once-beloved star of The Princess Bride whose career has gone sour after years of missed roles and bad film choices. Now in her 40s, Robin devotes much of her time caring for her sick teenaged son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly losing his hearing and sight. When a cruel producer (Danny Huston) offers her an unbelievable contract, she decides to take it, resulting in her entire self being digitized. Her digital likeness is taken over by a studio conglomerate, which uses it to make new movies starring a younger, malleable, no-personal-melodrama version of Robin Wright, while the real one is no longer allowed to act. Twenty years later, she meets with the company to negotiate a new contract, but finds that the world is changing faster than she anticipated, with a new chemical process that allows humans to view the world as a cartoon, changing themselves and everything around them through drug-fueled imagination.

Positioning its characters between the contrasting poles of heartbreaking realism and completely bonkers fantasy, The Congress juggles a multitude of ideas but manages to present a fairly cohesive story. By grounding his tale with a real-life protagonist, the actress Robin Wright, Folman is able to gradually incorporate stranger and stranger concepts, with the final destination barely resembling the starting point. The world he creates is definitely weird, distinguished by its ever-fluctuating landscape and psychedelic colors, populated by people who are limited only by the reach of their imaginations. The animation retains the superficial sheen and flatness of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, but the visual style varies, overwhelming the viewer with different aesthetics and effects, conveying the befuddlement felt by Wright when she enters this unfamiliar animated world.


I loved it, but it’s not without its flaws. The animation just works, stringing together multiple influences and references but almost distracting me with that Flash-style feel, where everything is sort of disassociated. The story is all over the place, jumping across decades at different points to reflect the extreme changes in society, and attempting to simultaneously focus on Wright’s personal experiences of caring for (and later trying to locate) her son as well as the structure of this crazy future. But somehow it all mostly works, with Wright remaining strong as the protagonist whose confused perspective comes to mirror the audience’s. The whole thing is an emotional experience, weird and funny and satirical and inventive and honestly rather touching. I could tell that some people in the audience were left with a “Huh?” reaction, but I walked out feeling inspired and moved.


Pair This Movie With: I don’t know. I’m just drawing a blank here for any other movie, though I’m sure there are a few sci-fi ones that would be good. It’s up to you, I guess.

Movie Review: The Red Shoes (1948)


Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

The great Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is revered for his elegant and moving ballet productions. He is so dedicated to staging perfect ballets, he views everyone around him merely as tools working towards his own illustrious goal. He has no patience for relationships, or emotional hangups, or anyone who doesn’t commit themselves fully. When he discovers young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), he believes he can mold her into a larger-than-life presence on his stage. At first she is completely dedicated to ballet, performing mind-boggling feats in an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Red Shoes.” But after traveling around Europe with Lermontov’s company for some time, she falls in love with his principal composer, Julian (Marius Goring). Upon learning of their relationship, Lermontov endeavors to prove that ballet is more important than romance, and forces Victoria to choose between her two passions.

Presenting the art of ballet as a mind-bending fever dream, The Red Shoes is ostensibly the story of a woman who loves to dance, but actually the driving force is the character of Lermontov, and his almost sociopathic obsession with perfection. For Lermontov, Vicky is not so much a pawn, but a symbol, representing all that he hopes to achieve. He is a fascinating character, a seemingly soulless genius who cannot empathize, cannot understand how any true artist like himself could fall in love or give themselves over to anything other than their craft. He is unwilling, even unable, to compromise, and Walbrook plays him with a constant derisive sneer and heavy dollops of charisma. Vicky is obsessive too, but she’s also much more humanized, and she recognizes that in real life sacrifices must be made, and everyone can’t go on living in Lermontov’s insular theatrical world. Her romance with Julian is barely shown, and indeed we only learn about it as Lermontov does, for as an audience we ourselves are trapped by his own limited view, where everything and everyone revolves around ballet.

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And really, I wanted nothing more than to live inside that world. The main narrative is essentially a pretty frame around the significant ballet sequences, with everything coming to a standstill for the jaw-dropping, surreal mania of the titular production. In the off-stage scenes, Moira Shearer plays it all demure and quiet for the most part, except for a few stress-fueled outbursts in rehearsals, and it’s all nice enough. And then she just DOMINATES during The Red Shoes sequence. She was cast because she could dance as well as act, but clearly her dancing is the key. She strides out gallantly, forever picking up speed to match the frantic rhythm of the music, bounding and twirling through sprawling sets that become more and more impossible. The film as a whole is seemingly set in the real world, but this ballet moves farther and farther into fantasy, so seamlessly that I never thought to question it. Of course Lermontov would somehow suspend the rules of reality, with the dancers floating in the air, shoes moving of their own accord, and settings taking up more space than the stage could allow. It just cements his hold on both Vicky and the viewers, enforcing the magical, entrancing quality of ballet as an artform. Without this context, the melodramatic ending- which sounds kind of ridiculous on paper- seems somehow justified.


Ultimately I know the most enduring element of The Red Shoes, for me, will be its visuals. My god. The plentiful and over-saturated colors, experimental effects, surreal painted stage sets, flowing costumes, fierce make-up, temperamental close-ups: it’s all perfectly blended together through the direction of Powell and Pressburger. The result is a sumptuously beautiful film, both over-the-top in its storytelling and emotionally grounded in its characters. And unavoidably tragic, as I suppose much great art must be.


Pair This Movie With: Naturally, my mind flashed to Black Swan more than once, as Aronofsky pulled some inspiration from The Red Shoes for his own tale of a ballet dancer sacrificing her peace of mind for the sake of her craft. Or for a more down-to-earth ballet classic there’s Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance.

Movie Review: Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) (2014)

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Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

It seems for months I’ve been hearing about Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises. Possibly the acclaimed anime director’s final feature, it has for many proven to be a fitting end, a metaphorical journey through Miyazaki’s own creative struggles and achievements. Based on his own comic, which itself loosely draws from actual history, the film centers on Jirô Horikoshi, who as a child in the 1910s dreams of being a pilot but instead becomes an airplane designer when he realizes his poor eyesight would hinder him. We watch Jirô grow up into a quiet, hardworking young man who devotes himself to his craft, studying harder than his classmates and eventually going to work for a top aircraft manufacturer. Many of his ideas fail, but as a greater world war draws ever closer he pushes forward with a radical design that will prove to be his life’s most important work. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with Nahoko, a charming young painter suffering from tuberculosis.

With his typical emotional nuance and breathtaking visuals, Miyazaki has crafted a fitting end to his sizable oeuvre, if this does indeed turn out to be his final film. The grandiose, painterly backgrounds are to die for, especially the billowy clouds and detailed attention to wind effects. The characters are grounded and interesting, with notes of humor and sentimentality playing throughout the more serious main plot. Through Jirô, Miyazki allows us to glimpse a significant and fascinating period in Japanese history, a time of rapid industrialization, increased militarization, economic struggle, clashing cultures, and growing nationalism. The film is dramatic but fanciful, sweeping in its vision but still focused on small moments, and decidedly intimate.

I just wish I liked it more.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. The visuals really are top-notch, up there with Miyazaki’s very best. I adored the many dreamscape flying sequences, rife with soft pink light and visible brushstrokes in the clouds, with rustling grasses and wind-whipped hair. And I really loved this view of Japanese history, especially since it’s one of the few non-Western cultures whose history I’ve actually studied so I felt like I could contextualize things a bit more. He takes care to show us the mix of old and new, of Japanese tradition and Western novelty, though these hints are often more in the background (clothing, buildings, products, etc). The characters are generally likable and interesting, and I especially appreciated the kooky German ex-pat who warns Jirô of things to come.

But. As the film progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to root for Jirô, or even watch him, primarily because of his apparent forced ignorance. Throughout the film he is visited by a vision of Caproni, an early Italian aeronautical engineer, who tells his protegee that though his creations are beautiful, they may be put to violent use by others, just as his own planes were used in World War I. But he encourages Jirô to think big and make planes anyway. Jiro essentially dedicates his entire life to this idea: What he is making will DEFINITELY be used to slaughter people, but he’s gonna keep doing it anyway because of… dreams? What’s frustrating is that the character- who is otherwise shown to be thoughtful, compassionate, and kind- seems willfully ignorant, never fully considering the ramifications of his work even though he discusses it multiple times. He would have these conversations with his fellow engineer Honjô, asking about the war and politics and such, and he would just sort of dumbly say “but why are people fighting?”, think briefly about how it’s too bad airplanes are used in wars, and then shake his head and go back to designing airplanes. It was as if he couldn’t connect all the dots, so by the end of the film when his long-awaited final aircraft design is used by the Japanese military and all the pilots die (presumably along with various civilians and enemy soldiers), he’s all sad about it as if he didn’t foresee this completely obvious thing. I mean, if he didn’t want his planes to be in battle, maybe don’t work for a company that makes planes for the military. It’d be one thing if he was a militant nationalist who actually believed in Japan’s goals of expansion, but he acted more like a disinterested observer. I know he thinks his creative dreams are beautiful but if they’re employed for violence then it is his responsibility to STOP MAKING FUCKING BOMBERS FOR THE MILITARY. By the end of the film I was furious with this character, and had absolutely no sympathy for him because he knowingly aided in mass destruction, and for no other reason than he wanted to see his personal dreams realized. This is not an apt metaphor for Miyazaki’s art, because as far as I know his films don’t ensure the deaths of thousands of people. (Of course, I know there are parallels to how art can be co-opted by corrupt/commercial forces, but to me this really isn’t the same level. Though if it’s secretly a big fuck you to Disney, I guess I’ll take it.)

I’m not saying that Miyazaki is promoting these ideas. The film is clearly anti-war, and at times it pointedly criticizes Japan’s and Germany’s actions in the buildup to WWII. But I think I as a viewer was supposed to feel sympathy for Jirô, to believe in him and his ideas, to want him to succeed. But I just couldn’t, because ultimately that blood was on his hands. He never fought against the war, never worked to ensure his ideas weren’t used for violence. Even the subplot of his romance with Nahoko, which was completely fictionalized and I assume added to humanize him more, fell flat for me. Her character was barely fleshed out, just a prop for him to lean on, supposedly inspired by love or whatever. She herself was shown to be a painter, but never is her own creative output discussed- Was she in art school? Was she painting professionally or just as a hobby? Why did she choose to paint in the Western Impressionist style instead of returning to traditional Japanese styles, as many contemporary artists were? You’d think there would be conversations comparing Nahoko’s creative aspirations and experiences with Jirô’s, but nope. She was just there to encourage him in his work and not have much of her own personality, putting on a brave face while slowly dying of tuberculosis.

I feel like many other people who’ve seen this movie aren’t reading it the same way I am, so perhaps I need a few more viewings to solidify my opinion. I hate having negative feelings about a Miyazaki film, it goes against my nature. I really did like so many aspects of The Wind Rises, from the period setting and entertaining side characters to the fanciful dream sequences and wondrous visual design. But I can’t move past the reservations I have about Jirô’s character and his actions, whether or not it’s all meant to be a grand metaphor for the creative process. I’m still sort of working through my feelings about it, and wondering about Miyazaki’s intended response (if he had one). Need to read some more, I think, but I wanted to get my initial thoughts down.


Pair This Movie With: I was so taken with all the history stuff, it reminded me of Millennium Actress, which similarly moves across Japan’s mid-twentieth-century history through its central character, this time a beloved film actress.

Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

monuments men

Seen: At the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

Gathering together a bunch of famous (white, male) faces and giving them World War II uniforms, George Clooney made a movie for his acting buddies and called it The Monuments Men. Vaguely based on fact but massively oversimplified and dramatized, the film follows a group of men drafted into the US army with the mission of saving artworks and historical buildings in danger of theft or destruction while the war rages in Europe. They travel around France, Belgium, and Germany attempting to track down works that the Nazis have stolen, as well as preemptively protect works that might be targeted. You see, Hitler hates art so much he wants to have it all for himself, but thank goodness George Clooney is there to save “our” culture, which is really what we’re fighting for, so it’s important even if no one else thinks so. Some of his friends die (there is a war on, after all) and everyone is sad, but in the end they uncover a lot of lost art and (spoiler alert) beat the Nazis, so it’s not in vain.

I know I’m not actually the audience for this film, I know too much about the subject. This is a film for people who aren’t really too knowledgeable about art and WWII, and want to learn about it while also being entertained, and who probably like looking at George Clooney and Matt Damon. And that’s fine, I get it. I’m always happy when a mainstream movie about art history comes out, because I think it’s a great way to reach a wide audience, including people who might not usually be interested in art but may find a new passion for it through the movie experience. I also love this time period, there are so many fascinating stories and figures involving World War II, so much that went on aside from battles and Nazi rallies. All those lesser-known heroes often have unexpected adventures, and I naturally like the art-related ones the best. The experience of the Monuments Men and related figures are genuinely fascinating, often uplifting, and significant. Instead of dealing with straightforward history, however, Clooney has taking the basic concepts and individuals and smushed them all together to create one of the most cliche-ridden wartime dramas I’ve ever seen.

Riddled with overlong, over-the-top voice-overs and never quite settling on a tone, The Monuments Men is basically any over-dramatized movie about a war, but there are a few more shots of paintings. The script hits every expected beat, every character is a just a composite of recognizable tropes, most of the dialogue doesn’t really mean anything- just phrases like “protect our culture” and “important” and “good men” and “fuck the Germans.” I didn’t really care about any of these people, even though I like most of the cast. It just felt like no one was trying very hard, they just sort of threw in their respective one-liners and receded into the white-and-tan background. Some scenes are funny- the interactions between Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, who are inexplicable frenemies, stand out- and some are manipulatively tragic, but it’s only the few actual historical points that really stand out. The discovery of Nazi treasure troves buried in underground mines, Hitler’s model of his planned major cultural center in his hometown of Linz, and the inspirational dedication of French museum assistant Claire Simone (played by lone female cast member Cate Blanchett, based on the real-life Rose Valland, who should just get her own movie really)… these are the moments I sat up and noticed, not anything that was character-driven.

The biggest failing of this movie, however, isn’t its cut-and-paste approach to filmmaking, but rather its priorities. For a movie that presents itself as a movie about art, there isn’t all that much art. And for all of Clooney’s melodramatic speech-making about how saving “our” culture is so important (by “our,” I’m assuming he means Western Europe? Especially all the white dudes of that region?), he never really communicates why this stuff is so important. The characters are meant to be people in the arts- architects, artists, art historians, curators- but few of them actually talk about art, or their part in it. The only time anyone seems to even be affected by a work is when Hugh Bonneville sees Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Bruges, but the work itself quickly turns into a plot device so Clooney can go on with his heavy-handed storytelling. People keep asking, why are we prioritizing these artworks over human lives? Why should cultural artifacts be given any kind of notice in this massive global conflict? Who cares?

Well, we know Clooney and his friends care, and we know we should care, but we have no idea why. The majesty of these artworks, their fragility, their eccentric creators, the unexplainable emotional gut-punch that can come with simply looking upon something so singularly beautiful: this is never expressed on film. And that’s a real shame. Films about art should be making it accessible to more people, and should help audiences experience its unique effects and relevant context. The works discussed and sought after are so interesting and inspiring in themselves, as are the actual stories of the Monuments Men (and co.), that I wish Clooney had dedicated his efforts to sharing them, instead of throwing all these cliches into a movie blender, putting it all to hilariously banal music, and gathering together all his famous friends. It is not a terrible film, and in fact I found parts of it exciting and fun, but it’s so unexceptional, so bland. Nothing like the real thing.

And seriously, can we get a Rose Valland movie already? Jeez.


Pair This Movie With: Honestly, if you want to know about the intertwined histories of art and World War II, just read The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas, which also has a documentary film version. I haven’t read The Monuments Men book but that’s probably good, too, just less extensive. And Rose Valland wrote a book about her experiences, but I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English.

Movie Review: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2013)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

As focused on visuals as I typically am, it’s no surprise that I am a complete mess for experimental animation. If a film toys with stop-motion, or time-lapse, or imaginative cel animation, or cut-outs and silhouettes, I tend to be automatically entranced and very forgiving of narrative/thematic faults. Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty uses several animation techniques, to gorgeous effect, blended with live action sequences. The project started as a short film inspired by Nance’s real-life relationship with Namik Minter, who plays a version of herself. They are close friends whose dynamic borders on romance, but she remains committed to her relationship with another man, who is never named. Nance describes his frustration with his own feelings, his misreadings of and assumptions about her, and his disappointment when she blows him off for what he considered to be a special date. He expanded the project into a full-length film that offers more insight into their interactions, into his personal dating history, and into their future as a couple.

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With a disjointed structure and loose, unresolved narrative, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is at times hard to follow, and doesn’t really have any follow-through on its offerings. Realistic, I suppose, for a film based on actual experience, without the tidy organization of movie fantasy. Its comically bombastic narrator attempts to summarize as well as explicate certain events, moving back and forth between the original short film and more recent footage, all interspersed with colorful animation. I love love love Nance’s artistic vision, he ably blends this huge range of techniques but makes it all work as a single whole. His remembrances of past relationships are visually represented by fluid, painterly cel animation, slightly surreal to match the uncertainty of memory. Sometimes he moves into fantastical patterning, referencing mask and textile imagery of indigenous African peoples, but updating it with a sort of graffiti-style vibe. The saddest moments are reserved for stop-motion, with quiet clay figures lost in a black expanse, unable to move forward in their undefinable relationship, or for dark time-lapse footage of Nance struggling with the film itself. It is also a plus that everyone in this movie is really ridiculously attractive, and there’s a lot of wonderful big hair.

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What’s interesting to me about this film (besides the visuals, I mean), is how self-aware Nance is. When I first read the description I thought the story would be sort of (500) Days of Summer-y, like this self-satisfied romance told from the man’s point of view. It definitely completely from his perspective, but he’s remarkably thoughtful about it. He recognizes that he doesn’t fully understand the situation, that he is making assumptions about Minter, and that in obsessing over her, he is also oversimplifying her and essentially creating a character out of her. He sees his own faults, his own self-destructive tendencies. He recalls his past girlfriends and doesn’t place blame on them for how their relationships ended (it’s like a reverse High Fidelity, I guess). He asks Minter how she feels about his short film, and she decides she’d like to make a film about her own side of the story, and he helps her. Their relationship still felt a little ambiguous, she still seemed kind of unsure, but she was supportive of his creative point of view while recognizing that it was one-sided.

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I don’t think this is necessarily a “great” movie: it’s too disorganized, too meandering, and the concept is stretched too thin for a full feature. I do really appreciate what Nance has accomplished, though, a sort of visual poem, a self-reflexive ode to his own romantic entanglements. It’s funny and a little sad, with interesting turns from Nance and Minter as themselves, and enough playful camera tricks and experiments to keep the eye interested even when the script drags. I am so excited about the animated bits that I can easily overlook any other faults, and I look forward to checking out Nance’s other work and to any future projects.


Pair This Movie With: The theme and mood reminded me of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is kind of a nice counterpoint since it offers a woman’s point of view on sex and relationships. The style of filmmaking was a little reminiscent of Four Eyed Monsters, another experimental love story.