Category: Art on Film

Movie Review: Edward Scissorhands (1990)


Seen: On my parents’ tv, on some HD movie channel.

It cannot be denied that Tim Burton’s career has petered out in the last decade, with a string of uninspired features that transmogrify known properties into predictable, insipid fantasies. That being said, I do stand by many of his earlier films, and I was happy to recently catch one of my favorites, Edward Scissorhands, a film I hadn’t seen in at least five years. Made between Batman and Batman Returns, it shows Burton at his height, his most imaginative and quixotic. Johnny Depp stars as the titular character, a scientist’s creation who has lived alone in an isolated castle for most of his existence, an incomplete construction with sharp knives in place of hands. Upon discovering him, Peg (Dianne Wiest), a wandering Avon lady, decides to take him into her home and he quickly becomes a beloved fixture in her small, tittering community. Naturally, he also falls in love with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder). But over time it becomes clear that his complete innocence of the world and tendency to accidentally destroy anything he touches can only lead to strife.

For my Master’s thesis, I managed to work several film topics into the general art historical/museum studies theme- exciting, right? I had a section on the 2009 Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the time, and reading through my research materials had me reflecting on the filmmaker’s career and my own response to his movies. Burton┬áhas long been fascinated by suburban Americana, infusing many of his earliest artworks and films with parodies of domesticity both playful and monstrous. Here, he places a gentle but outwardly irregular man into the very picture of a 1950s stereotype, a candy-colored community with gossipy housewives, moralistic patriarchs, perfect hedges, pastel wallpaper, and, of course, a lot of white people. This clash of sentiments proves perfectly suited to Burton’s aesthetic, as he can blend whimsical fantasy with cheesy American satire, while allowing plenty of room for surreal nightmare imagery.

Honestly, I think Edward Scissorhands is such a beautiful film. Every shot manages to blend sentiment and weirdness effectively, with both humor and romance but nowhere near that dreaded genre, “romantic comedy.” The pleasantly windy streets are lined with eerie topiaries, the denizens of the sleepy town sport cartoonish hairstyles, flashbacks reveal a lonely past filled with smiling robots. Danny Elfman’s lilting score moves softly around these painfully optimistic characters, struggling to connect despite personal isolation and physical impediments. It is primarily a comedy, true, but I find myself honestly moved by this off-kilter story, and that emotional impact is aided largely by the visual and audio stimuli. That’s not to say Caroline Thompson’s script isn’t strong: blending different genres and moods, biting satire with gushy heart. And of course, the cast is great, from Depp’s surprisingly quiet but unquestionably silly performance to Wiest’s and Alan Arkin’s ridiculous but well-meaning couple. I have a thing for Vincent Price, and his small but immensely moving role is key to the entire story, and somewhat intimate given his real-life connection to Burton.

With his signature macabre quirk and offbeat humor, Burton has made what will probably remain his best film, and while I’m disappointed his more recent work has been so bland, I’m glad we’ll always have Edward Scissorhands.


Pair This Movie With: Another visual treat in the Burton vein is of course A Nightmare Before Christmas, with a script also by Caroline Thompson.

Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev

Seen: On 35mm at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge.

Medieval art has always been one of my semi-blind spots within art history. Russian art draws an even greater blank in my mind, with little knowledge of art before the twentieth century. With the HFA screening some Tarkovsky this month, it seemed like a fine time to get a bit of art history in with my classic film viewing. Andrei Rublev depicts several (mostly imagined) scenes in the life of the titular artist, a medieval master about whom little is actually known. Played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn, he is a thoughtful, creative monk who struggles with both his artistic subject and his faith. He hopes to spread joy and divine inspiration through his work, but the church enforces terrifying representations of the Last Judgment. He witnesses violent horrors when the city of Vladimir is besieged by a Russian prince and his Tatar army, becoming so traumatized he takes a vow of silence after he is forced to kill a man. His excitement about artistic creation wanes as he witnesses more grief and pain in the human sphere, but eventually the trials of a determined young bell-maker help restore his faith in art, and in himself.

In the medieval era, the convergence of art and religion was almost absolute within European (and, I might guess, Russian) cultures. Almost all artistic practices were done in service of the church, or god himself, and most known fine artists were holy men and women, with others being secular craftspeople. I’ve always thought it was kind of too bad, since there is a lot of really visually interesting medieval art but for me most of the subject matter isn’t appealing. That being said, the importance of faith to the icons, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations created cannot be denied, injecting these works with a kind of intimacy as the makers’ devotion shines through. Though there is not much we actually know about the real Rublev’s life or character, Tarkovsky’s fictional one offers a compelling enough study to pair with the man’s artwork.

Interestingly enough, we rarely actually see any artwork on film. So often the subject of discussion, it is at times in the background, or briefly shown being pondered by some characters. For the most part, however, it is the ideas behind it and its connection to Rublev’s religious beliefs that is given focus. The episodic nature of the film give it a disjointed feel, especially as some are only tangentially (or not at all) related to the title figure, but there are certain threads running through the segments that unite them into a whole: freedom, faith, doubt, loss, creativity, individualism, and both physical and emotional struggle. Made under the Soviet regime, the film was highly controversial for its depiction of Christianity as a central element in early Russian life, but Tarkovsky strove to present a realistic portrait the time period. His approach is pensive, slow-moving, revealing small moments and details within his cinematic world. However, he does not shy away from more violent scenes, incorporating several shows of intense brutality and squalor.

As with other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen, I was most struck by the visual qualities of Andrei Rublev. His use of crisp black and white, meditative takes, sweeping natural vistas, striking materiality, and inventive framing is phenomenal. His camera loves the sullen, craggy, expressive faces of his cast, lingering over particularly distinctive actors like an artist fixating on his model. Also as with his other films, I don’t think I quite “got” it, though I know I was very taken in by it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved it. I cheered for the man in the opening scene who flies away in his home-made air balloon. I was fascinated by the strange pagan fire rituals Andrei witnesses in the forest. I gasped at the intense scenes of violence when Vladimir was sacked. I rooted for the bell-maker boy, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), in his massive task to create the perfect bell for a new church. I was absorbed by the philosophical arguments and discussions between Andrei and his companions, including the cynical master Theophanes the Greek. I absolutely loved the sudden switch to color at the end, as Rublev’s work is finally shown in wordless close-ups, set against dramatic classical music. For all the talk about art and creation and god’s grace, Tarkovsky ultimately lets the artist’s work speak for itself.


Pair This Movie With: I haven’t seen it yet but this reminded me that I’d like to give Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision a watch, since I did a paper on Hildegard von Bingen last year and she was a very interesting medieval figure. Might be a good pairing, if you can deal with another movie after this super-long one.

Movie Review: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)


Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection. Originally a gift from my friend Ben.

On New Year’s Eve my plans were unexpectedly canceled, and I ended up staying in by myself and it was actually really nice since honestly I’ve always found it to be kind of an annoying holiday. The only bad thing was all the technology in my house decided to stop working that night so my plan to watch some expiring Netflix instant movies didn’t pan out, and I couldn’t use our projector. In the end I decided to watch one of the many dvd’s I own but have never seen. The Adventures of Mark Twain promised to be a bit of claymation weirdness, which seemed a good way to end the year. The film is inspired by a remark from Twain that since he was born under Halley’s Comet, he’d go out with it too (and he did indeed pass away the day after the comet returned in 1910). In this fanciful tale, the aging writer travels to meet the comet in a magical airship, accompanied by three if his own creations: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher. During their journey the kids hear some of Twain’s stories and interact with some of his weirder characters.

I’ve gotta say I really didn’t know what I was getting into with this, and I think that worked out just fine. I’m not too familiar with Mark Twain or his work, and what I have read is the more folksy or mainstream stuff, so I did not expect all the full-on weirdness from his stories. The film starts out kind of dull, with Tom, Huck, and Becky chilling with Twain as he spouts adages and talks about a leaping frog contest. As I sat there unsure if this movie was actually interesting, it took a turn for the better during a funny segment about Adam and Eve, taken from his parody of Genesis, “Extracts from Adam’s Diary.” By the time we hit the section about Captain Stormfield’s arrival at a version of heaven for disco-dancing aliens, I knew this movie was for me. It’s funny and imaginative, strange and adventurous, and cleverly broken up into different visualizations of Twain’s short stories. The most memorable segment comes from his last manuscript, left unfinished when he died, and it’s got a terrifying demon/angel/alien creature who shows the children how fucked up humans are. This movie gets surprisingly nihilistic for a supposed “family” feature, but I guess with such a fatalistic premise it shouldn’t be a shock.

While I enjoyed the bizarre script and goofy storytelling, it was the animation that won me over. This was apparently the first full-length claymation feature, and the extreme talent on board is obvious. There is more expression and feeling in these clay faces than I’ve seen in any recent CG-animated film, and I just loved the animation style. There are some beautiful landscapes, and lots of really fun little moments. Twain’s airship has some great effects and painstaking attention to detail. The sequence with the Mysterious Stranger is dark as hell due to its unsettling visuals, while the whimsical shenanigans of the kids are made sillier by their exaggerated character design. Regardless of anyone’s opinions about Twain and his writing, this film is more than worth it for the animation alone. I’m still thinking about the end sequence where Twain merges with the comet and becomes this big, beautiful yellow cloud that encourages the children to fly the ship themselves. And there are some lovely things done with water. And seriously, the facial expressions: just excellent.

I may have been a bit bored at the start but I’m so glad I stuck around for this oddball bit of entertainment. The animation is wonderful and the writing is equal parts funny and darkly bizarre, which I appreciated. I kept expecting an awkward moment when the kids would discover that they were just characters in Twain’s books but somehow that never happened. I guess a juvenile existential crisis would have been a bit much even for this movie.


Pair This Movie With: I wanted more stop-motion adventure, so maybe something like James and the Giant Peach.

Movie Review: Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

Seen: On dvd on my projector set-up.

For one reason or another I kept missing this the few times it played near me, so I was glad to have a night off before Thanksgiving when I could finally watch it. Written and directed by Peter Strickland and set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio tells the uncanny tale of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an uptight British sound designer who is invited to work on a low-budget horror film in Rome. His talent is obvious, and he sets out making squishy slasher noises with watermelons and lettuce, but he remains uncomfortable with the type of film he’s working on, having had more experience with nature documentaries and the like. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, he is unnerved by his over-friendly but often two-faced coworkers, and fears he will never actually be paid. In his isolation and confusion Gilderoy sinks further into his work, until reality and fiction become blurred.

Berberian Sound Studio first came to my attention through its truly impressive series of posters by Brandon Schaefer and Peter House. The visuals of the film itself certainly live up to its advertising, seeped in over-saturated reds and blues while the camera lingers lovingly over analog recording equipment. The narrative is a little muddled, with scenes beginning and ending in media res and a few dream sequences seamlessly blended in to the main events. Frankly, I found most of the film gripping, completely transfixed by the strange, grungy imagery and Jones’s bizarre performance, and of course the sound design porn. As Gilderoy becomes more affected by the giallo film the overall story becomes more and more disjointed, sputtering in its structure like a scratched record. I couldn’t really tell you exactly what happens, but I know I was totally into it.

What holds me back from all-out loving Berberian Sound Studio is its ending: it’s kind of missing one? It felt like Strickland had written himself into a dead end and wasn’t sure what he actually wanted to say with this film, if he wanted to resolve or explain matters, or make things worse or better. So the movie just… stops. I have no problem with ambiguous or unconventional endings, I’m not saying I need everything to make sense or for loose ends to be wrapped up neatly, but SOME sort of ending would have been nice. The pacing is so off at the end that I had no idea I was at the climax, and so when the credits rolled I wasn’t satisfied- the movie doesn’t feel finished. In a film that otherwise had me so engaged, it was really frustrating to walk away from it with this incomplete feeling. Definitely worth the watch, though, and I’d like to see it again on blu-ray when I get a chance so I can get the full audio/visual effect. Also I have to give mad props to the women voice actors in this movie, who do an impressive amount of screaming. Looks exhausting to me.


Pair This Movie With: The setting and premise reminded me a little of CQ, which would be a nice uplift after the dark tone of this film. Similarly there’s recent release In a World… which offers another look at sound on film, only it’s about voice acting instead of sound effects.

Movie Review: Hoshi o ou kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices) (2011)

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up.

I realize I’ve never actually reviewed any of his films on here, but know that I really love and respect the films of Makoto Shinkai. He’s a terrific animator and visionary artist, and I like how his works are all kind of sad and tinged with longing. It gets to me. His latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices (aka Journey to Agartha) is a bit of a change for him in that it is mostly high fantasy, and works much more in the Miyazaki vein than his other films, but it still retains some of his signature as a storyteller and artist. The plot revolves around Asuna, a hardworking preteen loner who briefly befriends a mysterious stranger. She discovers he is from a mythical land known as Agartha, a kind of underworld where all the old gods fled after people stopped believing in them, along with some human groups who followed them. Asuna unintentionally breaks into their world with her grieving teacher, who hopes to resurrect his dead wife with the land’s power. He and Asuna move through Agartha, generally unwelcome among the locals but managing to pick up a couple of friends (and several terrifying enemies). Asuna is unsure of her ultimate goal, but feels it is important that she somehow find closure for both recent and long-ago losses.

It can’t be avoided: this movie feels derivative of Miyazaki. Its imagery, its setting, its overall story and characters- they can all be easily related back to the influential Ghibli director. And I’ll admit that was a little frustrating, coming from a filmmaker like Shinkai whom I associate with individuality and experimentation. It is also, however, in keeping with his general themes and mood, though aimed at a younger audience than his earlier films. Amidst the fantastical visuals and mythological creatures, the film dwells thoughtfully on issues of mortality and loss, and it is clear that Shinkai is using this somewhat over-familiar concept and unreal setting to underscore the realities of his characters. Their situation is unreal, but their resolution born out of grief feels true. Moving along at an easygoing pace, Shinkai develops their stories gradually while peppering in action sequences and memorably surreal surprises. For the most part, though, I think he just really wanted to paint the sky. There are a lot of lingering shots of breathtakingly gorgeous day- and night-time vistas here, and it just blows my mind how beautiful it all is and how soft and inviting and detailed Shinkai makes his worlds. It’s the kind of film you can drink up and keep within you for a bit, instead of just watch.

Admittedly I didn’t all-out love this film, it’s overlong and just didn’t have the spark of originality I was hoping for. I’ve seen some people calling it a rip-off, but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more just influenced by Miyazaki and they are both pulling from similar mythological/cultural sources. Overall it is a beautiful film, but the plotting is a little clunky at parts and a few narrative points didn’t quite come together (like, where did Asuna’s dad get the crystal key thing?). I do think it’s an interesting addition to Shinkai’s filmography, mostly because with Miyazaki’s retirement there’s some question as to how that void in critically-acclaimed, family-friendly fantasy anime will be filled, and I hadn’t really considered him a candidate for that area. But he can obviously do it, and still add his own adult themes and visual flair. I’m definitely interested to see how his work advances, and will be revisiting his earlier films soon.


Pair This Movie With: A like-minded Miyazaki would be good, especially Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, or Nausicaa. Alternatively there’s always room for more Shinkai, like The Place as Promised in Our Early Days or 5 Centimeters Per Second.