Weekly Film Log: December 8-14

This is coming a tad late, as I’ve been busy with final papers and the like. But as with the week before, here are the new-to-me films that I watched this last week.

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013) – dir. Michel Gondry

  • Watched on 8 December
  • Format: on screen – Roxie Theater @ SF
  • Rating: 8/10

Anyone who is familiar with director Michel Gondry probably knows him most for his particularly quirky, inventive visual style. This can be seen in his films, but also in his music videos for BjörkWhite Stripes, and Kanye West. His latest project, an animated film set to the beat of an interview with Noam Chomsky was exactly what I’ve been waiting for, without having even known it. In this film, he interviews Chomsky on a variety of topics, ranging from linguistics to existential philosophy to details of Chomsky’s personal life itself. Through a variety of oral tangents, Gondry’s artwork moves like a stream-of-consciousness style flow of animated sketches and figures, sometimes surreal, sometimes grotesque, and often absurdly hilarious.

It’s been a few hours since I watched this film in a theater, and my mind is still buzzing with the sensory vividness that had been presented to me. It’s no surprise that Chomsky is an enlightening, brilliant speaker. However, what I wasn’t expecting was the hefty, meaningful contribution that Gondry himself brings to the table. He mentions early on that his English isn’t very good; his thick French accent and trip-ups across word comprehension and pronunciation remind us of that sporadically. Thus, he expresses himself through the wild, inventive neon colors of his drawings, using them to enlighten Chomsky’s speech, as well as to highlight his own confusion and interpretation of these concepts. Luckily, he’s a very quirky, funny fellow, but also highly considerate of Chomsky’s work. Nonetheless, we are reminded that this is very much Gondry’s work of art, and it certainly feels like one, in the all best ways possible.

This is the only animated film I’ve seen this year so far, and given that not too much else looks very promising (no, not even Frozen), it’ll be really hard to top this one. Little did I know that such a film would churn out to be one of my very favorites of the year. Whether you’re a fan or appreciator of one man or the other, it must not be missed.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) – dir. Kurt Kuenne

  • Watched on 9 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 10/10

I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

A world that is so inconsiderate, so hateful, so unfair to such good-natured human beings – a world that dares to put these two through their own personal brand of hell and back again – is truly not forgivable.

On the bright side, this is a beautiful tribute by Kurt Kuenne to his friend, and despite the tragic circumstances that surround the lives of everyone involved, it’s fully apparent that this film is full of heart. And David and Kathleen Bagby are two of the strongest, most persevering individuals I’ve seen in any documentary. I wish I had half their courage.

Poulet aux prunes (Chicken With Plums) (2011) – dir. Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi

  • Watched on 10 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating 9/10

Chicken With Plums is a little film that is eccentric and colorful in all the right ways. While its subject matter is dark – following a musician/husband/father who decides that life is no longer worth living – its tone is consistently lively and often humorous. In many ways, the overall feel of its narrative reminds me of Jeunet’s Amélie, albeit slightly darker and more experimental. I really loved the leaps in time, place, and perspective this film takes, outlining the most important facets of the protagonist’s life, especially the characters whose lives he’s touched. Certainly it is stylistically heavy, taking a more light-hearted look at its macabre subjects. I can see this being a turn-off for some, but I personally felt it fit the story quite wonderfully. It’s really hard not to get swept away by such a magical film, which turns out to be rather oddly life-affirming. It’s a film that really surprised me with its loveliness, and one that I can certainly see myself revisiting again and again.

Blackfish (2013) – dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite

  • Watched on 10 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

As an animal lover, Blackfish infuriated me. It’s no wonder how this film has helped the ballooning of a worldwide boycott of SeaWorld. Seeing such beautiful, energetic wild orca whales being captured, abused, and reduced to soulless, mechanical beings is incredibly disheartening. Their commodification and denial of any shred of dignity is everything that is wrong with the world today. One thing I wasn’t expecting was how SeaWorld also actively dehumanizes their trainers, pinning the cause of their victimization onto them or simply brushing deaths from orca attacks aside altogether. Its a saddening doc, and while nothing special on the technical side of things, it somehow manages to be both shocking and insightful without being exploitative.

#freetilly

Get a Horse! (2013) – dir. Lauren MacMullan

  • Watched on 13 December
  • Format: on screen – AMC Metreon @ SF
  • Rating: 4/10

It’s ironic how one of the most pleasant animated films of recent years had been preceded by this unfortunate mess.

I’m insulted, Disney. You really riled me up when I saw that this short film installment would mimic the exact style of the old timey Mickey Mouse cartoons of the 30s that I love so much. I was even more excited when I heard Walt Disney’s, Marcellite Garner’s, and even Billy Bletcher’s voices from past recordings being spliced into the mix. It felt like this was a classic Mickey ‘toon that I’d never seen before. I was excited.

But about two minutes in, all hell broke loose. Mickey broke from the screen, and was suddenly in color and CGI. His efforts to save Minnie from the dastardly Pete is hindered by the presence of the screen that separates the two worlds. He has to be creative and engage in battle with the screen between them. This includes borrowing a phone from the audience member, flipping the screen to change the flow of gravity, and even change the flow of time itself.

So now this was all meta, with exceedingly ugly CGI animation. Sure the kids probably love it, but I’m sitting in my chair bored out of my mind. I’ve seen enough of these kinds of shorts to know that he gets the girl in the end, so I’m not even asking for much in terms of creativity. It was the obnoxious presentation of the whole ordeal that really set me off. It’s more of an experiment on “look how crafty and meta we’re being!”, rather than a genuinely enjoyable short.

The originality is much-appreciated, sure, but I’d much rather watch a version of Get a Horse! entirely in traditional animation than to see Mickey Mouse and friends bent and twisted in such unfulfilling ways.

Frozen (2013) – dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

  • Watched on 13 December
  • Format: on screen – AMC Metreon @ SF
  • Rating: 9/10

Given that it’s a Disney animated film, it was inevitable that I would find at least some shred of enjoyment from Frozen. What I didn’t expect was how this would be some of the most finest work that the studio has offered in years. As a follow-up to the just as pleasant Wreck-It Ralph, it’s clear to see that the second Disney Renaissance period is at its peak.

This film has affirmed by newfound love for screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee. Having also written the fun-as-heck Wreck-It Ralph, here she sheds light on two of the most multidimensional female characters in any recent animated film. Playing off of old Disney princess troupes, the film shuns the conventional “damsel in distress” role and introduces Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters with very differing personalities. Elsa is cursed with an ability to turn all she touches into ice; this causes her to unintentionally unleash a non-stop winter storm across her kingdom. Ashamed and alienated by her powers, she runs away. As the storms becomes more and more intense (mimicking Elsa’s inner distress), Anna makes it her duty to find her sister, convince her to return, end the storms, and mend their troubling relationship.

I’ve heard quite a few thoughts from people who interpreted Elsa as the villain in this story, as it is her ice powers that bring on the film’s central conflict. Frankly, I feel that is rather unfair. Elsa’s intentions are not at all malicious. In fact, the film frequently highlights her failed attempts at successfully controlling her powers, chanting and urging to herself to “stop feeling”. She understands that something inside of her is absent, and thus the real conflict is to find the missing piece that could set her feelings at ease. Elsa is one of the most interesting characters of any recent animated film. Heroes and villains often work in binaries – either entirely good-hearted or entirely evil – but Elsa transcends these binaries and comes across as a truly muli-layered, sympathetic character. This is more than likely due to the voice acting of Idina Menzel; everyone else did alright for the parts they were given, but Menzel steals the show.

I really enjoyed Tangled but I could never for the life of me remember any of the songs. They were nice during their screen time, but not catchy enough to be stuck in my head after the credits rolled. The songs in Frozen, however, are some of the best to be featured in a Disney film in years. “Do You Want To Build a Snowman”, introduced within the films first ten minutes, starts off adorable and slowly progresses to bittersweet sadness, remaining beautiful the whole way through. “For the First Time in Forever” is Kristen Bell’s signature Disney heroine song, but one that is reminiscent in Beauty and the Beast’s Belle in sweeping loveliness. “Love is an Open Door” is funny and sweet, an almost satirical look at love at first sight; it becomes slightly darker after finishing the film, given the events that had occurred since its appearance.

Two of my favorite songs in the film come in the second third of the film (interestingly enough, the final third is absent of any songs whatsoever, not even a reprise, which is unusual for Disney). “Let It Go” has gotten the most praise, and for good reason. This sequence, at the start of Elsa’s exile, is a magnificent instance of self-discovery and empowerment. Disney has since made this scene available on Youtube, though there’s nothing quite like watching it on a huge screen. Finally, there’s Olaf’s number. “In Summer” is probably the closest that Disney has and ever will get to dark comedy, as the song is about the incredibly naïve snowman being excited for summer to come, unknowing of what happens to snow in the heat. I must admit, having seen the ridiculous animation for Olaf beforehand, I was afraid that he would be just another throwaway sidekick character inserted to appeal to kids. The pleasant surprise is that he is incredibly charming, really hard not to love, and he even plays a bit of a vital role in a couple scenes.

With beautiful animation, excellently written-songs, compelling characters, and a well-paced narrative, Frozen is one of the finest offerings that the studio has given in quite a while. If I had any complaints, it would be that it’s fairly predictable on terms of storyline, and that there were a couple scenes that probably weren’t totally necessary. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly charming, touching, empowering film that, if not a modern classic in animation, is surely a sign for more good things to come.

Hairspray (1988) – dir. John Waters

  • Watched on 14 December
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

It’s really hard to hate this film, especially for viewers who, like myself, are fans of John Waters and his movies. It’s a fun, quirky little film set in the rock-n-rollin’ 60s that emphasizes both racial integration and body positivity. Waters’ films are notorious for having the best costumes and sets, and this film is no exception. Everything from the retro wallpapers to the cute, colorful era-based outfits are magnificent. Plus, the soundtrack is great, paying homage to the wonderful peppiness of early rock & roll music and the dozens of dances that accompanied it.

It’s major setback, of course, is that this is a PG-rated Waters film (which almost sounds like an oxymoron). Waters veterans Divine and Mink Stole are present here, but because of the obviously toned-down, family-friendly material, neither ever really reach the potential they had in their past, more famous works. Of course, a lot of this is made up for by the adorable Ricki Lake, who shines in this early role as the super pleasant Tracy. Sure the film is a bit of a mess, with humor that occasionally falls flat and a narrative that isn’t quite sure what it wants to do. But with all its good-natured substance, it’s hard not to smile along with it.

V/H/S/2 (2013) – dir. Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sánchez, Simon Barrett, Gregg Hale, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, & Jason Eisener

  • Watched on 14 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 6/10

As I started this film and realized that one of the opening shots was an extreme close-up of a woman’s breasts, I began to seriously regret my decision. Surely this would be nothing more than yet another installment from the producers of the firstB/R/O?

Well, yeah, it kind of is. But at least it’s better than the first. Even the worst segment of this anthology (that being the short, anticlimactic “Phase I Clinical Trials”, which begins the film) is better than the best segement on the original V/H/S. Every part in here does feel like it has potential, even if quite a number of setbacks usually prevent it from ever reaching it.

The two best on here are definitely “A Ride in the Park” and “Safe Haven”, directed by Eduardo Sánchez/Gregg Hale and Timo Tjahjanto/Gareth Huw Evans, respectively. The former starts off as just another gimmicky zombie tale, this one told through POV. It takes an interesting turn near the end, when it becomes all-too apparent that our zombie “protagonist” is still incredibly self-aware, possessing guilt over the things his zombie self had done. Like most of these segments, it ends entirely too abruptly and at a point where it just starts to get interesting.

“Save Haven” is where this film truly shines. I almost wish that this segment wasn’t tainted with the V/H/S logo, as it could work very effectively as its own separate short film. The pacing is done perfectly for its story, essentially involving an arrangement with a cult leader that takes its time to delve into utter chaos. And it does so really effectively; it masters the art of slow burn horror so well. Because the slow burn is totally worth it for the outcome that the material succumbs too. It’s one of the most effective, inventive pieces of horror I’ve seen in quite a while. Nice job, Tjahjanto and Evans.

For the most part, however, I thing it may be time to hang up the cap on found footage films. As evident in these series, most filmmakers who choose to implement this style often don’t quite know what to do with it. Stories that start off completely POV often leave that aspect behind once the tension rises. Also, I think many found footage films tend to end their narratives rather abruptly, thinking that it would possess the same eerie, dreadful quality that The Blair Witch Project did so well. It doesn’t always work this way, however. While I will admit that V/H/S/2 was a bit of a step up from the first, this is mainly due to the incredible “Safe Haven” segment. I would watch that one again many times over; the rest, not so much.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) – dir. Alex Gibney

  • Watched on 14 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 5/10

We Steal Secrets is a documentary that initially delves into an interesting topic with an objective, multilayered prospected in mind. It is a character study of sorts, on both Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning (who is referred to here as “Bradley Manning”). It tells the tale of WikiLeaks chronologically, outlining its infamy as the leader in leaking confidential government information into the public consciousness. For this, it does its job well.

However, in the film’s efforts to bring character and personality to the individuals, we get little more than caricature and bland assumption. I’m skeptical at the amount of time that the film spent on Assange’s alleged rape of two women, as actual content regarding WikiLeaks is already presented through quite a narrow lens. Moreover, it seemed that the film was also apt at painting Manning to be a bullied outcast with a gender identity disorder, whose motives behind leaking documents are left fuzzy, but with little room for imagination. By the end, it becomes dreadfully slanted.

As a sort of “intro to WikiLeaks”, I can see this being effective for viewers who may not be so well-informed on this topic. As for me, I would like to see a similar documentary that took on a more objective standpoint from beginning to end. Preferably not in a talking heads style that would inevitably cast interviewees with a preformed biased view of its subjects.

Sightseers (2013) – dir. Ben Wheatley

  • Watched on 14 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Sightseers is my first embarking into the bizarre mind of Ben Wheatley. I really enjoyed its unique, dark-as-all-hell approach to the “lovers/killers on the run” genre. It’s interesting how very much like real people the two main actors presented themselves as; eerie in the way that this makes their crimes almost relatable. What really threw me off about this one is the strangely casual way the narrative progressed, absent of any real tension of drama that would call for a film of this nature. Instead, it’s replaced with pitch black humor and a concept, while fun at first, gets quite disturbing really wuickly. I really enjoyed the atmosphere in this one, and while I surely can’t say I love it, it does make me more interested in embarking on the rest of Wheatley’s works.

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