Tag: 2008

Movie Review: WALL-E (2008)

wall-e

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector, from our collection.

Gathered together at our house with some friends after the Holy Motors screening/Leos Carax talk we wanted to get into sold out (I WILL see Holy Motors soon, I promise!), it seemed like a nice idea to dig into a familiar favorite. One of Pixar’s finest, WALL-E looks towards Earth’s bleak future, with humans escaping the environmental destruction and trash build-up by taking a space pleasure cruise, sponsored by globally dominant super-store Buy N Large. The corporation leaves behind a legion of robots programmed to clean up the planet so it will be habitable again, but after centuries have passed only one is still functioning. This “WALL-E” is adorable and idiosyncratic, developing a sweet, romantic personality with hoarder tendencies during his many years alone. When a robot scout called EVE lands near him, he falls in little robot love. But EVE is there on a mission, and upon finding a small plant in WALL-E’s collection she is automatically shipped back to the human cruise ship, with WALL-E tagging along. The discovery of plant life on Earth means the planet is habitable again (well, barely) so the long-adrift human population can return.

Pretty much everything about this film is great, and the fact that it somehow blends ominous dystopian portent with kid-friend comedy makes it a true marvel. Though steeped in satire and exaggeration, this future feels incredibly realistic because its developments seem so likely- a Walmart-esque chain taking over the world, an Earth so polluted it’s completely untenable, a society so addicted to its glowing screens that little physical human interaction takes place anymore. It’s not all gloom and doom of course, but I remember when I first saw it I was honestly a little chilled by some of the ideas presented, especially the apocalyptic videos featuring Fred Willard as the Buy N Large president, relaying centuries-old evidence of an inhabitable planet and the hubris that let it get that far, and the lack of any real plan for the human population aside from shipping them off on a completely automated deep-space pleasure cruise. This film isn’t so much about environmentalism, it’s really more anti-corporate greed and anti-consumerism.

What keeps everything grounded is the central character of WALL-E, who is just the best. Pixar draws from their ever-maturing stock of dialogue-free shorts to imbue speech-free characters with charm, sympathy, and personality. The first 30 or so minutes of this movie are perfection as our protagonist plays with trash and hangs out with his cockroach buddy and EVE. It’s also visually the most impressive part, I think, because I adore how the robots and the metallic structures are handled, it’s just beautifully solid and grungy and detailed. The space parts are gorgeous as well, of course. When they get to the ship, it’s a whole other world rife with gleaming white surfaces and pudgy floating humans and efficient robot servants, and it’s both lovely and terrifying. I love that WALL-E basically rolls around making everyone he meets either his new best friend or his deadly enemy, and it’s both hilarious and thrilling.

Obviously my favorite thing about the whole movie, though, is the end credits sequence that visually mimics developments in Western art history up through Post-Impressionism. Art history, you guys!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Well I know it’s not a great movie but at times this had us thinking of Idiocracy, because that’s one of the most believable dystopian futures ever put on film. Or there’s always Hello, Dolly! if you’re like me and always get “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” caught in your head after watching WALL-E.

Movie Review: Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me (2008)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

One of my favorite things is wacky performance and installation art, especially by lady artists. I’ve always admired the polka dot-infused works of Yayoi Kusama, who made a splash in New York in the 60’s with her tremendous output of sculpture, installation, paintings, and performance pieces that brought a colorful playfulness while also commenting on Western perception of “exotic” Japanese female bodies. I was pretty excited to find Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, a documentary focusing on the artist, now in her 70’s, whose output is still considerable and whose clinical obsession with polka dots has remained strong. The film focuses primarily on her production of 50 large-scale black and white abstract drawings in 2006 and 2007, with side-trips for various awards and honors as well as a few interviews with peers. The artist feels her body aging but her mind remains sharp, and her self-confidence and incredible passion for her work is obvious.

With in-depth access to Kusama and her studio, I Love Me is a wonderful look at the artist’s working methods and general outlook on the art world at large. At times she reminisces about her past career, but primarily remains locked in the present, concerned with her own market value and how her art can move forward. She’s a bit surly at times, while drifting into poetry at others. She is intensely focused on art-making, with little mention of family or non-work friends, though of course that could just be the film’s framing. I loved watching her work, being privy to her intense, detail-oriented process, and it is made clear she would never want to do anything else, and indeed may be unable to. Her work- specifically the repetitive nature of polka dots- helps keep her balanced, therapeutically combating her own depression and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I think coming into this film with some knowledge of the artist had both negative and positive effects. I had certain expectations that weren’t met, so I was somewhat frustrated by the end. I really enjoyed the film overall, primarily because I love Kusama’s work so much and am always excited to see artists during their process. It’s also got some great time-lapse photography and lovely music. But I was really hoping for a more biographical approach, with more time devoted to her entrance into the New York art scene in the 60’s, as well as more examination of her history with mental illness and its connection to her artistic output. There are scant mentions of her hospitalizations (though it’s never said why) and interviews with two artists she lived with in the 60’s but it’s a minor section of the film. There’s an interesting recap of her childhood towards the end that is somewhat illuminating but I wanted more. There’s nothing wrong with focusing almost exclusively on an established artist’s current projects, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Luckily I’ve learned that there is another documentary about Kusama in the works that looks like it will cover more of her early stuff, so this one would be a nice follow-up.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well whenever that other doc comes out that will probably be good. Otherwiseeeeee um is there a movie about Yoko Ono? They were contemporaries.

Wing Chun Double Feature: Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010)

It’s good to know that other countries will skewer biographical depictions of historical figures as much as America does. Known by many today as the teacher of kung-fu legend Bruce Lee, Ip (or Yip) Man was a master of the Wing Chun style. Ip Man and Ip Man 2 tell the apparently highly fabricated story of his rise to fame as a sort of Chinese folk hero fighting against the Japanese and British presences in Hong Kong in the 1930’s and 50’s. Despite attempts to remain a pacifist, he must often resort to kicking everyone’s ass in order to promote peace. You know how it is.

Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a kind and successful businessman who practices martial arts in his spare time, residing in a town where almost every able-bodied man seems to constantly promote in some kind of fighting style. The townspeople often hound him to open his own school, but his frequent dabbling in Wing Chun frustrates his wife and son, and he believes himself primarily a businessman. When the Japanese invade China and subjugate the entire nation, he is forced to fight for a haughty Japanese general’s entertainment, and eventually becomes a representative for his entire nation.

A decade later, no one in his family has aged (seriously, his son is still like 7 years old and his wife is just as hot), and everyone is struggling to make due as the British act like dicks to everyone. There is mad corruption in the police force and the chubby kung-fu mafia don Master Hong Zhen Nan (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) basically runs the town, but in turn he must answer to his money-hungry British superiors. Ip Man tries to set up a Wing Chun school so he can support his family, but the martial arts schools are all controlled by Master Hong. Eventually he is pitted against a professional jackass/boxer from the UK, Twister (Darren Shahlavi), in a deadly match to resurrect Chinese pride at a time of Western dominance.

Packed with exciting fight scenes, interesting characters, and unexpected gravitas, both films are gripping looks at a period in Hong Kong history that I know little about. I loved the sepia-tinged visuals, laced with intricate sets and costumes that mix Chinese and European influences. Donnie Yen is excellent as the title character, with a serious but friendly demeanor that segues into confident battle scenes with ease. The first film has higher stakes, so the story is more affecting, but both scripts feature enough drama to make the action even more thrilling.

Ip Man’s story is populated with a strong sense of nationalism that defaults to racism against non-Chinese characters. Most of the Japanese soldiers are sadistic and heartless, with at least one resembling an American anti-Japan cartoon. The British depicted in the second film are just the worst people in the world, completely egotistical and cruel. But really, this isn’t at all surprising, considering the treatment these two groups gave Hong Kong. It’s like depictions of Nazis in WWII films.

As much as I love mindless action flicks in general, it’s nice to have incredibly badass and strongly-choreographed fight scenes set against a dramatic story and historical background. Sure, it’s not exactly accurate regarding the real Ip Man’s life, but it makes for an entertaining and moving double feature!

Ip Man: 4.5/5
Ip Man 2: 4/5

Movie Review: 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) (2008)

Having never seen a film by noted French director Claire Denis, her acclaimed latest feature 35 Shots of Rum seemed a good place to start. Set in Paris, the loose story revolves around taciturn subway worker Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a college student. They’ve lived together in the same apartment all their lives, and have formed close ties with the friendly taxi driver Gabrielle down the hall (Nicole Dogué) and Noé, the young traveler upstairs (Grégoire Colin), but their own relationship is the strongest and most important to both of them. Their daily lives are examined closely- both how they interact with one another and with friends and colleagues. The sudden discussion of Joséphine moving out on her own and the possibility of Noé moving away for good cause some friction for the father/daughter pair.

This is a simple, quiet, peaceful film at its core. With many close, intimate shots of the central characters and natural, undramatic conversations, Denis offers a realistic and intensely personal view of a certain urban French family. The story isn’t much, but generally it doesn’t need to be, as the powerful performances and thoughtful cinematography easily ensnare the viewer. Mati Diop is wonderful as Joséphine, conveying a very real and nuanced character in an impressive first screen performance. Alex Descas is also memorable as Lionel. He doesn’t say much, but is able to communicate quite effectively through look and action. All of the actors work well with a script that’s limited in expository or revelatory dialogue, instead relying on subtleties and assumptions to establish character and relationships.

It’s also nice to see a drama with a predominantly black cast that doesn’t get caught up in racial discourse- their ethnicity is rarely brought up, but it’s still maintained as culturally significant. Plus Joséphine’s mixed background is touched upon in a cool way near the end. But I assume race relations are a bit different in France than in America, because of, you know… history?

While I really enjoyed 35 Shots of Rum as I was watching it, by the time the ending rolled around I felt slightly unfulfilled. I realized the story and pacing are just a little too loose, too unfocused. There are a few subplots that are set up and then forgotten, or insufficiently elaborated upon, and it felt like the script had lost itself somewhere along the line. It’s a really beautiful film, in both visuals and theme, but it left me a little unsatisfied. After reading more about Denis and her style and subject matter I’m definitely interested in seeing some of her other works, though, especially her debut Chocolat. Any recommendations?

4/5

PS I’m trying a new thing in which I recommend movies to go with the ones I review, or to watch instead for similar themes done differently/better. Just fyi, that’s what’s happening.

Pair This Movie With: Lost in Translation for another closely-observed, nuanced performance piece set in another country.
Watch Instead: Paper Moon to see a more fun exploration of a (presumably) father/daughter relationship.

Movie Review: Beautiful Losers (2008)

beautiful losers

Originally written for The Examiner.

Over the past few years the ICA has established itself as a progressive, open-minded space through several exhibitions spotlighting innovative and offbeat artists. With the 2008 show Street Level showcasing three artists who draw from street culture, and of course the landmark 2009 exhibition Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand, the first museum retrospective of the notorious and influential street artist, the museum is helping an increasingly popular but still considered illegal form of public art gain acceptance in the mainstream.

The 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers tracks the development of a community in the early 1990’s surrounding Aaron Rose (who co-directed) and his Alleged Gallery in New York. For years this space hosted a group of friends whose creative energies range from graffiti and skateboarding to painting and filmmaking, and Rose collects a series of artist interviews- including Fairey and filmmaker Harmony Korine– and archive footage to explore and examine a sub-culture that has since burst into the public eye.

The film weaves in and out between a number of artists discussing their histories and experiences within the art community, as well as scenes of their gallery shows, tagging excursions, and studios. It begins as more of a discussion of the general subculture tied into the DIY and street art movement, with clips of skateboarders and punks expressing themselves through posters and anarchic tags. The connections between those being interviewed are unclear, and most aren’t even given identifying name cards.

As it progresses, however, Beautiful Losers comes together as it brings focus to the Alleged Gallery and the relationships between its contributors. With his shows devoted to skateboard art and street culture Rose collected a multi-talented crew of artists and friends who saw art as a means of sharing themselves and collaborating with others, with little in the way of ambition or profitable aims. Their inspirations and intentions behind their works are investigated along with excellent shots of them actually creating and hanging their pieces. It really gets interesting when the sudden explosion of popularity experienced by several of these artists is exposed, spurring conversations about the advantages of fame and the incredible pressure and fears that accompany it.

With a background in such an un-commercial, almost pure underground community, the stigma against selling out is fierce, and with many of these artists achieving big-name gallery shows and contracts with major corporations, they have to rationalize their own creative spirit with their desire to support themselves financially. Sculptor and painter Geoff Mcfetridge became a graphic designer and animator for companies like Pepsi and Comcast, but insists on maintaining his own style and vision in their advertisements along with continuing to show his personal work in galleries. Articulate filmmaker Mike Mills– who gives one of the more insightful interviews- directs car commercials and music videos but also pours himself into personal film projects like 2005’s Thumbsucker. And of course, Shepard Fairey himself can now bring his OBEY stickers and rebellious murals into the most notable museum and gallery spaces, while his image of President Obama has spurred countless imitations and appropriations.

While it is a little disappointing that this is yet another art movement seemingly dominated by white men, the range of aesthetics and strong footage of the artwork itself will give any viewer an eclectic visual feast. Highlighted artists include Barry McGee, who fuses op-art patterns and video installation, Thomas Campbell, who creates colorful and playful abstract paintings, Steve Powers, whose confrontational imagery merges text and graphics, and the late Margaret Kilgallen, whose works opened up cartoon worlds with bold women and tall trees.

Beautiful Losers is an informative and visually interesting documentary that sheds light on a specific portion of the burgeoning street art movement of the 1990’s. The interviews with prominent figures give insight into the lines running between commercial success and independent creative drive, and the archive footage explores seminal gallery shows and the artists’ working processes. It starts off as loose and meandering, but gradually pulls itself together to become a fascinating film for any fan of street culture. It’s available on Netflix Instant and the iTunes store, as well as for purchase at retailers like Amazon.