Tag: 4.5 stars

Movie Review: Wadjda (2013)

Wadjda

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

Once in a while I remember my ancient quest to see a film from every country with a film industry, a goal I very, very gradually work toward. A few months ago I found out about Wadjda, the first film directed by a Saudi woman, and likely the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Pioneering filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour was inspired by her spunky niece to craft this tale about a bold schoolgirl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who dreams of getting a bicycle so she can race against a boy in her neighborhood (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She schemes to make the money to afford it, selling contraband jewelry at school and eventually competing in a Quran-recitation contest for the top prize. Meanwhile, at home her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggles to please her husband, who threatens to find a new wife who can bear him a son.

Entirely focused on women’s day-to-day experience, Wadjda takes a seemingly simple premise and uses it to reveal a larger context. Al-Mansour stresses that though there are many limitations placed on women in Saudi Arabia, they still have lives to lead, and they aren’t passive. In this world, women’s domain is the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom; their interactions are primarily with other women- mothers, daughters, teachers, coworkers, friends. These quiet, private spaces and interactions are the true focus of the film, with Wadjda’s schemes to procure a bicycle basically serving as a framing device. The relationship she has with her mother forms the core, as they navigate the harsh realities of a devout, patriarchal society that they must find small ways to combat. We root for Wadjda to get her bike because it symbolizes her irrepressible spirit, and because you can just tell she’s going to make it work. She represents the new generation, in which Al-Mansour sees hope for a more progressive culture.

It’s not all some exposĂ© on gender roles in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is primarily just a really great film. As the title character, Waad Mohammed is adorable and hilarious and downright plucky. She speaks her mind and pushes against conservative restrictions placed on her, but finds her elders are more and more stringent, likely due to her sort of in-between age. Her defiance is admirable but ultimately kind of pointless. Luckily, her mom is awesome and together they made me cry. Also her little friend is a sweetie and I’m pretty sure their relationship will be a more caring, open-minded one than Wadjda’s parents, if only because he seems to like her DGAF attitude. Their interactions are very funny, and feel realistic.

I know very little about life in Saudi Arabia, or Muslim culture in the Middle East, so I would never presume to understand what it is like for women living there. But I appreciated Al-Mansour’s seemingly even-handed take on it, as she is careful to show honest experience without condemnation or melodrama. For me, the glimpse into the private lives of these women was enlightening, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to women in my own family, and especially relationships between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters. The director’s ultimate message seems to be that things are very tough for women in this environment- where they’re not allowed to drive or interact with men outside their families- but there’s no doubt they’ll persevere, and gradually things will get better. And maybe one day Wadjda will be president or something. You never know.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m leaning towards something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Tideland mainly because the main characters’ ages are similar, but those are also way darker. Maybe something like Saved!, which is a little peppier and also deals with religious restrictions placed on young women.

Festival Review: The Congress (2014)

the-congress

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.

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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.

4.5/5

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)

the-red-shoes

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.

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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.

4.5/5

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: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

a face in the crowd

Seen: In 35mm at the Somerville Theatre. Part of their Centennial Series.

When fresh-faced small-town radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) interviews a disheveled crooner in an Arkansas holding cell, she is convinced she’s discovered a new star. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a charismatic-beyond-belief hooligan with a ratty guitar and a drinking problem, and the magical ability to get people to listen to him. Marcia gives him a radio show, and from there his career soars higher than anyone could have imagined, leading to multiple nationally-televised talk shows that primarily involve Lonesome effortlessly spewing his own brand of folk wisdom and political commentary. At the start he uses his newfound influence for good, or at least good-natured fun, sending packs of dogs to befuddle a power-hungry sheriff and brazenly bringing a recently-homeless black woman onscreen so he can call for donations for her new house. But as the years pass, he gains more and more pull with authority figures, eventually angling to move a specific candidate into the White House for him to control, and he becomes ever-more infatuated with the fabricated image of Lonesome Rhodes. Marcia sticks with him through it all, managing behind the scenes, but she gradually realizes the monster she’s created has to be stopped before the whole operation collapses in on itself.

I’m honestly not even sure where to start, except to say that A Face in the Crowd is amazing. It is one of the most prescient films I’ve seen, anticipating ways that mass media would alter American society while also predicting general political trends. Parallels to pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck are a snap to draw. Lonesome’s astonishing rise to the top is married to his manipulative aw-shucks demeanor and pointed maneuvering- we never know the man before he has a microphone, and so the line between his character and his persona is forever blurred. Marcia blames herself for encouraging him, but for all we know this was fated, unavoidable. I love how subtly scary this movie is, how many shots of Lonesome seemed framed to reveal his devious eye and hungry mouth as his maniacal laugh boomed out over the scene transitions. Griffith is funny, confident, and legitimately terrifying in the role, embodying this supposedly “regular Joe” who is given the opportunity to become larger than life, and takes full advantage of it. Great power, great responsibility, etc- this guy didn’t have any Uncle Ben, that’s for sure.

Somerville projectionist David Kornfeld introduced the film, and pointed out how open the film is about sex, which is surprising for a movie from 1957. It is indeed pretty frank. No boobs or anything (damn!) but very clear sexual interludes take place, many outside the bonds of matrimony (gasp!). Mostly I thought it was neat that Marcia seemed fairly open-minded about sex- like she didn’t condemn Lonesome for his affairs, and didn’t assume love and marriage must follow when she herself slept with him. Of course I myself was rooting for Walter Matthau’s ho-hum tv writer, who rightly fell in love with the whip-smart, quick-to-smile Marcia almost immediately. Plus you know his melodramatic eloquence will pay off eventually. And it really does.

This movie floored me. I don’t know what else I can say. It is at times shocking and unsettling, at others satirically funny and casually familiar. Its characters all twist and squirm within this self-sustaining media machine, with everyone nigh-unrecognizable to who they were when introduced. Elia Kazan’s dramatic camerawork and blocking underscores what is actually an utterly realistic narrative, making it all the more impressive to a modern-day viewer like myself, who feels the predictions of 1957 easily applying to today’s fuckery.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: This is an obvious precursor to Network, but honestly I think this is much better and more relevant to today. There are also some parallels to Citizen Kane. BUT I’m going to go a little kookier and suggest Little Shop of Horrors, because it also involves a dude who becomes power-hungry after semi-accidentally making it big. But with more singing. And also more homicide.

Movie Review: The Apple (1980)

theapple

Seen: On my tv, streamed from netflix instant.

This was recommended to me a month or so ago by my friend Ben, who could tell it would be 100% My Thing. Set in a dystopian version of 1994, The Apple offers a twisted take on the Adam and Eve tale set to a host of dazzling disco dance sequences. In a world controlled by music producer Mr Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) and his glammed-up music group BIM, folk singers Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour) dream of sharing their nostalgic love songs with the world. Instead, Bibi falls under Mr Boogalow’s spell (against Alphie’s better judgment), and in a haze of iridescent outfits and drugs she rises to stardom while he sinks into poverty. After a few musical montages they realize they still love each other and Bibi attempts to break away from the totalitarian music industrial complex with the help of some magical hippies.

Throwing oodles of shiny spandex and glitter at its audience at every turn, The Apple is a weird blend of biblical references, biting satire, and enthusiastic musical numbers. It’s delightfully bizarre, and wonderfully self-aware, making for an ultimately funny experience. I loved the combination of over-the-top glitzy visuals and decidedly low-budget grit, kind of perfect for this futuristic world dominated by a music industry that brainwashes the working class. Honestly, this world seemed kind of awesome to me, I mean the main laws Mr Boogalow enforced involved requisite sequin accessories and mandatory daily dance breaks. What a fun future! Plus BIM’s music is really catchy!

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I know this is probably the kind of movie people watch just to make fun of, but I’m pretty sure it’s not “so bad it’s good”, I think it’s just… good. Like this movie isn’t accidentally funny or anything, it’s intentionally weird and ridiculous, and I loved that about it. The cast is pretty great, singing their hearts out and shaking their best body parts, with Allan Love and Grace Kennedy standing out as the lead singers of BIM, sporting all the best sparkly revealing fashions. The adorable Catherine Mary Stewart, whom I’ve crushed on since Night of the Comet, makes her film debut as Bibi, and perfectly captures that “corrupted ingĂ©nue” thing while making crimped hair look good. George Gilmour is probably the weak link, just because he’s so boring. I think I liked Vladek Sheybal best as the devilish Mr Boogalow, he’s all dapper and ambiguously “foreign” as he spouts out manipulative bullshit in multiple languages.

I guess this is just yet another example of me legitimately enjoying a movie that most people watch just to make fun of. WHATEVER. The Apple is seriously great, a fun and odd blend of musical, comedic, biblical, and sci-fi elements. I loved the music and visual style, and the self-aware script. I was most impressed with how prescient it felt, like I could name at least five sci-fi movies that seemed to steal from this. Or at least borrow. Thank goodness The Apple exists, it apparently paved the way for everything that came after it.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I imagine there’s some crossover between fans of this film and fans of Phantom of the Paradise, and that would be an awesome combination. I also think it’d be great to pair with Shock Treatment, since a lot of the same themes are explored but through television as opposed to music.