Cinema as a Parallel Universe: March ’14 in Film

Hello folks! It’s been a while. It feels like years for me. I’m starting to feel that almost-post-grad noose begin to tighten. Yet somehow, in between all the hustle and bustle of “being an adult”, I’ve managed to slip in quite a few films. And since having no money and being assigned a 15-20 page assignment to do over spring break has forced me indoors already, I’ve got quite a lot of fun stuff watched! Some great, some good, some… not so good. But all rewarding in their own special ways (well, almost all, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs).

Since I’ve been on somewhat of a hiatus from writing, I’ve decided to make this monthly post a little bit longer. I’ll write more at length on some particular film-watching highlights that I accomplished and recurring themes that happened to pop up throughout March. I’m still just going to leave my least favorite at just one (don’t want too much negativity here), but instead of letting y’all know my one favorite film from the past month, I’ll increase it to a TOP FIVE! Excitement. To reiterate, I’m going to be a teeny bit absent from my blog, probably for another month or two. I do plan on writing something near the end of next month for my blog’s one-year anniversary(!), but for the most part I’m just going to be sticking to these monthly posts. Once again, the reason is because during that time I’ll be either searching frantically for a job or will be working my butt off at my new job while I finish my degree. Of course, I’m hoping for the latter! But nevertheless, I really miss writing and I hope to get back into the swing of things really, really soon.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s some of the highlights ‘n’ milestones from this past month.

After being quite smitten with the loveliness of Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which I watched last month), I decided to check out some more of his stuff. With the help of a friend, I opted toward Wolf Children, his latest, and Summer Wars. While I initially had some of the same issues with Wolf Children that I found with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it certainly is the one film that has sit with me the best over time. I initially wrote on how I wished there were a more expansive focus on the romantic relationship that began the tale – but over time, I’ve found that I simply care less about this gripe. Because truthfully, its major strengths lie in the terrific, fleshed-out portrayal of a mother-children relationship. Each character is developed and presented so beautifully and in an astoundingly realistic manner. There aren’t any major innovative narrative devices to be seen here, but frankly, it doesn’t need it. Its story wonderfully balances its nuanced traits with its mystical, magical elements, and I couldn’t ask for it any other way.

Which brings me to Summer Wars! Wow, this film was WAY too cool to watch. Lots of colorful creatures and online platforms and quite bizarre action sequences – all taking place within a seemingly artificial online parallel universe. It’s certainly the type of film that couldn’t have possibly been fathomed before the internet age. Unfortunately, while this film is fun and cool visually, it suffers from a lot of problems. While the film tries to inject a sort of foreground narrative to root this sci-fi universe into reality – i.e. the familial conflict within the human characters, the protagonist’s soul-searching, etc. – it all feels rather contrived. There’s no real genuine emotion to be felt and the tension of the conflict is at an utmost minimum; thus the parts that take place in “reality” are such a pain to sit through. Nonetheless, it was rather enjoyable to watch as a whole, and quite cute in spite of its drawbacks. These films from Hosoda (as well as my recent discovery of the series Cowboy Bebop) has implored me to check out more anime. Bring on the catgirls.

NOTE: I was lucky enough to watch the above the above two films in high-def Blu-Ray, so I definitely implore everyone to watch it in that same format (if accessible). They’ve got some of the most stunning aesthetic design I’ve seen in any animated film.

This month, I finally got around to a milestone that I had been putting off for an unreasonable amount of time: my very first Bollywood film (and no, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t count). I originally wanted to try for the legendary epic Sholay, but my movie place didn’t have it in stock that day. So instead, I opted for a film that I had previously heard of through the mini-series The Story of Film: An Odyssey – this film being the classic Zanjeer. From this flick alone, it’s clear to see that Bollywood cinema is basically in a class of its own completely. I almost feel bad criticizing it for its over-reliance on cliche and stereotype, since it’s pretty obvious that they’re following the Hollywood rulebook for action movies to an absolute tee. Sure its script is pretty hollow and it does nothing really productive to get from point A to point Z, hardly straying from predictability through its duration. But hey, it must have been doing something right, considering that it’s one of the first films to propel Amitabh Bachchan to superstardom. (Also, he was pretty cute! But I’ll save the superficiality for another post…)

With this month’s viewing of Ratcatcher, I have now seen every feature-length film from Lynne Ramsay, and I can confidently state that this is one of the most impressive feature debuts I have ever seen. Something about its dingy atmosphere reminded me a lot of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, particularly in its portrayal of the ugliness in the day-to-day life of the dysfunctional family at front-and-center. However, what is nowhere to be found in Korine’s wasteland is the breathtaking traces of solace and escape that sporadically enter the screen in Ratcatcher. The warm and welcome introductions of these moments are balanced out by their tragic, harrowing departures, the moments where the darkness of reality takes hold. These are in fits and starts, sure, but it’s certainly better than perpetual despair. It’s certainly one of those films that is more compelling for its atmosphere and parallel-universe-like structure than for its characters and the narrative that drives them. And just like that, I’m so much more willing to give We Need to Talk About Kevin a rewatch. And maybe Morvern Callar, although I never really got into that one from the beginning.

And now for the Obligatory Animated Shorts portion of my blog post. This month, I was fortunate enough to come across one of the most impressive stop-motion animators I’ve ever seen. Barry Purves has been nominated for a great deal of awards for his films (and has even won a few), and from the looks of any of them, it’s pretty easy to see how. Just take a look at his Oscar-nominated Screenplay. The narrative itself – rooted in ancient Japanese kabuki theater – is lovely in itself, but the stop-motion is what really makes the entire piece worthwhile. Often, the smoothness of his style creates the illusion as though the film is cel-animation, rather than the painstaking task of stop-motion, which often results in significantly more jittery imagery. I also watched his short and pleasurable Next, which briefly portrays an animated Shakespeare acting out all of his plays with puppets. I think these both exemplify what is the most impressive aspect of his animation style: the ability for one image to seamlessly warp into another in a slightly surreal stream-of-consciousness manner. It’s really hard to do this in stop-motion method, yet Purves remains totally distinct in this way.

I’ve probably done absolutely no justice in describing his work in an effective, coherent way, so you probably should just go ahead and watch his stuff. It’ll be totally worth it.

Another milestone from March: my first Bruce Lee film! Up until this point, the extent of my knowledge in classic martial arts films was easily summed up by the giant Enter the Dragon poster that my uncle kept in his room when I was younger. Fittingly, I figured this would be the best place for me to start. And surprisingly, I really enjoyed it! This is surprising, because I tend to see myself as the person who is generally ambivalent toward or bored to tears by the average run-of-the-mill action flick. As my viewing of this film has proven to me, they can actually be pretty fun. Yes there is a plot, but when I think back on this film, it’s usually to me thinking how cool and awesome all those fighting scenes are. The best part, obviously, is the ending scene with all those mirrors! And intensity! Yep, this film is just all good fun.

I also watched Fists of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection) as my final film for March, and while they both seem like films that I would potentially mix up months down the road, they’re still absolutely great and have compelled me to want to check out more from the classic martial arts canon. (It helps that Bruce Lee was such a babe! God bless whoever convinced him to spend a good deal of his screen-time shirtless.)

For a while, I have been considering doing something on my blog honoring female filmmakers from all around the world. If and when I get around to that, I’m absolutely positive I shall be covering Samira Makhmalbaf and her amazing debut The Apple. Much like Close-Up from fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, The Apple combines both real-life footage and reenactment to tell the true story of a two young girls who were kept locked up by their parents for twelve years. Like Kiarostami’s film, this method of storytelling is accomplished tremendously with the aide of some truly amazing performances, particularly by the young girls of the tale. However, there are often some complex, somewhat problematic notions of the story that could come off as a bit exploitative and sensational (e.g. the girls being severely mentally impaired by their predicament and perhaps lacking of a sufficient amount of agency to their narrative). However, it remains to be a tremendous accomplishment and certainly not devoid of her own distinct artistic vision. Also, she wrote and directed this film when she was only seventeen! Which suddenly makes me feel all the more uncomfortable about the ambiguous directions my own life is going. Ahem.

I’m pretty familiar with Eisenstein’s classic silent cinema and the influence that he’s brought to the film world as a whole. However, from both parts of his Ivan the Terrible saga (both of which I watched this month), it’s clear to see that at this point his style certainly has evolved past the erraticism of his earlier blatantly political works. Part One offers a basic portrait of our titular figure up to his rise as tsar and conqueror of Russia. However, Part Two is where this image gets far more subversive and, by extension, far more interesting. It’s quite easy to see why Stalin lost his shit over this second part and called for it to get immediately banned. Rather than opting to continue the ambiguous portrait of the ruler that he started in Part One, Eisenstein remains much more critical, highlighting the thorny and deranged nature of Ivan Vasilievich and expelling some pretty remarkable artistic choices as well. For instance, while both parts are filmed completely in black-and-white, there’s a color sequence in the middle of Part Two that seems to come out of nowhere – also, it’s a musical sequence! Overall, Ivan the Terrible consistently looks really good from beginning to end, and it’s truly well worth the watch for anyone interested in classic world cinema.

Yet another Soviet film! This one by Sergei Parajanov, who is perhaps most renown for his cinematic poem The Color of Pomegranates. I wasn’t too big of a fan of that one, but when I was highly recommended Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, I knew this wasn’t something I could possibly pass up. While the narrative itself is rather plain, one-dimensional, and (let’s face it) dull, this is all made up for by its truly impressive, distinctly breathtaking technical elements – particularly its cinematography. From the first couple minutes, we get a crane shot that is unlike any other I’ve seen in cinema. The tale is deeply rooted in classical Ukranian folklore and culture, and the costumes and scenery fit the mold to its fullest potential. It’s basically the kind of film that I want to crawl inside and live in forever. It goes to show that Soviet cinema of all kinds is basically the best at looking lovely and being awesome.

Finally, we have The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t like this film very much at all. It’s bland, misguided, messy, and pretty much uninteresting in practically every way possible. My reason for mentioning it is to illuminate one aspect of the film that makes it bearable – that being Alan Arkin’s performance. It’s true that I’ve only seen a handful of performances of his (the majority of which are relatively modern), but I wouldn’t be exaggerating in saying that this is quite possibly his very best. His portrayal as a deaf individual transcends common cinematic representation of the disability being little more than something to poke fun at. Instead, he breathes life into the character and gives off a truly sensitive, nuanced, humanistic performance that really makes up for the rest of the film’s unfortunate faults.

I honestly didn’t even expect that I would write so much, but here we are! Anyway, I’ll begin to wrap this post up with the full list of the films I watched in March (asterisks indicate rewatches):

1880s – 0
1890s – 0
1900s – 0
1910s – 1
1920s – 1
1930s – 5
1940s – 15
1950s – 7
1960s – 6
1970s – 7
1980s – 11
1990s – 9
2000s – 15
2010s – 6

  1. Vera Drake (Leigh, 2004)
  2. In the Loop (Iannucci, 2009)
  3. Bukowski: Born Into This (Dullaghan, 2003)
  4. Innocent Voices (Mandoki, 2004)
  5. Summer With Monika (Bergman, 1953)
  6. The Last Emperor (Bertolucci, 1987)
  7. Baby Bottleneck (Clampett, 1946)
  8. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (Clampett, 1946)*
  9. Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (Jones, 1953)*
  10. One Froggy Evening (Jones, 1955)*
  11. Smitten Kitten (Hanna & Barbera, 1952)
  12. Blitz Wolf (Avery, 1942)*
  13. Who Killed Who? (Avery, 1943)
  14. Happy-Go-Nutty (Avery, 1944)
  15. Red Hot Riding Hood (Avery, 1943)*
  16. Fetch! (Paley, 2002)
  17. Batman: The Movie (Martinson, 1966)
  18. Good Night, and Good Luck. (Clooney, 2005)
  19. Wolf Children (Hosoda, 2012)
  20. Sin Nombre (Fukunaga, 2009)
  21. Zanjeer (Mehra, 1973)
  22. Winnebago Man (Steinbauer, 2010)
  23. After the Earthquake (Portillo, 1979)
  24. Homeland (Scott, 2000)
  25. Ratcatcher (Ramsey, 1999)
  26. Metropolitan (Stillman, 1990)
  27. Screen Play (Purves, 1993)
  28. Next (Purves, 1990)
  29. Plume (Purves, 2011)
  30. Porky’s Duck Hunt (Avery, 1937)
  31. Swing Shift Cinderella (Avery, 1945)
  32. The Shooting of Dan McGoo (Avery, 1945)
  33. The Screwy Truant (Avery, 1945)
  34. Northwest Hounded Police (Avery, 1946)*
  35. King-Size Canary (Avery, 1947)*
  36. Symphony in Slang (Avery, 1951)
  37. Crazy Mixed Up Pup (Avery, 1954)
  38. Orange Alert (Dennick, 2010)
  39. Memento Mori (Gotch, 2008)
  40. 10 Things I Hate About You (Junger, 1999)
  41. Tatsumi (Khoo, 2012)
  42. Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell, 1994)
  43. Crumb (Zwigoff, 1994)
  44. Mamma Mia! (Lloyd, 2008)
  45. The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2012)
  46. Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)
  47. The Apple (Makhmalbaf, 1998)
  48. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang, 2004)
  49. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay, 1918)
  50. Felix All Puzzled (Messmer, 1925)
  51. Wholly Smoke (Tashlin, 1938)
  52. The Sunshine Makers (Eshbaugh, 1935)
  53. Shooting Range (Tarasov, 1979)
  54. Scrap Happy Daffy (Tashlin, 1943)*
  55. The Spirit of ’43 (King, 1943)
  56. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Jewison, 1966)
  57. Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1963)
  58. A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006)
  59. The Hustler (Rossen, 1961)
  60. Sid & Nancy (Cox, 1986)
  61. Summer Wars (Hosoda, 2009)
  62. Fritz the Cat (Bakshi, 1972)
  63. Ivan the Terrible, Part One (Eisenstein, 1944)
  64. Ivan the Terrible, Part Two (Eisenstein, 1958)
  65. Decalogue I (Kieślowski, 1989)
  66. Decalogue II (Kieślowski, 1989)
  67. Decalogue III (Kieślowski, 1989)
  68. Out-Foxed (Avery, 1949)
  69. Nashville (Altman, 1975)
  70. Mars Attacks! (Burton, 1996)
  71. Decalogue IV (Kieślowski, 1989)
  72. Decalogue V (Kieślowski, 1989)
  73. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Parajanov, 1965)
  74. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Morris, 2003)
  75. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock, 1934)
  76. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Miller, 1968)
  77. The Blood of a Poet (Cocteau, 1930)
  78. Decalogue VI (Kieślowski, 1989)
  79. Decalogue VII (Kieślowski, 1989)
  80. Decalogue VIII (Kieślowski, 1989)
  81. Decalogue IX (Kieślowski, 1989)
  82. Decalogue X (Kieślowski, 1989)
  83. Paper Dolls (Heymann, 2006)
  84. Fists of Fury a.k.a. The Chinese Connection (Wei, 1972)

New-to-me: 76
Rewatch: 8

Total watched in 2014: 241
Total new-to-me in 2014: 214

NOTE: For organizational purposes, I have included Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue as ten separate entries, rather than one. Yes, I know it’s technically one “film”. Yes, I know it’s a mini-series. I just felt like adding them chronologically like the others. It works as a sort of point of reference for myself. Get over it.

And now, here’s the very worst film I watched all month:

Fritz the Cat.

I hated this film. Hated it. And anyone who knows me could hardly see this coming as much of a surprise. For one thing, this film is sleazy(!) and in all the worst possible ways. It tries to inject a sort of message of social tolerance to link it with its post-Civil Rights agenda, and also intends to challenge the common perspective of animation. While it certainly is successful with the latter, this could hardly be a compliment considering just how mindlessly raunchy and misogynous it is. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single female character shown that wasn’t animated with exaggerated boobs and butt, nor one that isn’t grossly objectified and over-sexualized in every which way. Fritz the Cat is an embarrassing watch, and it may just be the sole film to turn me off of Ralph Bakshi for good.

And now, FINALLY. Here are my top five films I watched in March:

5) The Hustler.

Woe, brutality, and billiards. I’m pretty ashamed of myself that it’s taken me so long to get around to this classic. Performances like these are what make me so absolutely certain that Paul Newman is one of the greatest actors to ever live; it’s certainly one of his least nuanced I’ve ever seen, and his artistic talent shines through in all the best ways. While I’ll be the person to declare that the backstory with Piper Laurie doesn’t quite work as well as the rest, it’s certainly no definite drawback, as I was totally compelled the entire way through. With that being said, it’s not a very fun film to watch. The characters and narrative are driven by greed and arrogance that cannot be satisfied and negotiated, despite their efforts. The reward, nonetheless, is all in the unmistakable authenticity that the writing and performances offer. It’s not to be missed.

4) 10 Things I Hate About You.

This is one of my mom’s favorite films, yet for some reason it’s barely taken me until this month to really sit down and watch it from beginning to end. I’m not sure if viewers are supposed to dislike Julia Stiles’ character from the beginning, but from the moment that the narrative reveals that her favorite bands are Bikini Kill and The Raincoats, I fell in love with her. She’s just one of those kinda characters that I feel like I could’ve totally related too, if I had watched this in high school. Moreover, Heath Ledger gives such an irrevocably charming performance, it’s hard not to love him as well. It may seem like a bit of a sore thumb among the rest of my top five, but I don’t care. I found this film so completely cute and heart-warming, with great music and a romantic Austen-inspired plot I can totally get behind. This is definitely bound to be a new favorite. So bite me.

3) The Decalogue/Decalogue I-X.

Once again, YES I’m aware that this is a mini-series. With that being said, it’s absolutely terrific. Ten little slivers of everyday life and all its successes and (mostly) failures that come along with it. I was completely drawn in from the start, Decalogue I, which dares to question the infallibility of logic and reason, and the assumed non-significance of fate. Other highlights include Decalogue II (a doctor must potentially play God for a woman and her dying husband), Decalogue V (a senseless murder, with life breathed into it in the most unexpected ways), Decalogue VI (a quite unusual love story that enters quite unusual [sexy?] territory), Decalogue IX (a crucial choice between happiness for oneself vs. happiness for a loved one), and Decalogue X (a truly unusual kind of dark comedy). Despite their differences, however, Kieślowski manages to string them together in some of the most unusual of ways. But I dare not spoil a thing; in this case, only seeing is believing.

2) Vera Drake

One of the major things I am most proud of in my movie-watching in this year so far is my expanding on the world of Mike Leigh. I already wrote a bit about Vera Drake, but I don’t see why I why couldn’t reiterate my praise here. Leigh has proved the ability to direct some pretty awesome, talented people into giving some truly impressive performances. While everyone in this film is top-notch, this particular praise is targeted at Imelda Staunton, who plays our titular character with the utmost charm, warmth – and tragedy. These elements work together perfectly to transform its dark, potentially morbid subject matter into something completely humanistic, examining its narrative from multiple dimensions. Yet over time, it becomes much more challenging as the coldness of this judicial system is at full display. Simultaneously realistic, warm, character-driven, and fiercely critical, Vera Drake tackles the tough subject of abortion with the sensitivity that few fews could muster.

1) Nashville

Some films you just want to live in and never escape. Robert Altman’s Nashville is precisely one of those kind of films. Filled to the brim with an abundance of colorful, multi-dimensional, memorable characters, while at the same time avoiding the conventional ploy of a protagonist-driven, narrative-highlighted piece – there’s really nothing else like this film. Or at least nothing else that I’m aware of. Or at least few that could support themselves up to this level of absolute, [redacted] genius! This is so completely rich and layered with so much detail, I feel I need to rewatch this as soon as humanly possible to really absorb all of its qualities that make it such a wonderful watch. It’s certainly critical and possesses a political agenda that grows more fruitful as the film progresses, up until its frankly unnerving climax. However, it does so in such a subtle way, it almost feels like documentary footage, a mere slice of life in this time and place, as if certain incidents, monologues, dialogues, and actions were captured by pure accident. A parallel universe – yet so harrowingly relatable. It really is such an incredible film; Altman’s best, from what I have seen. It makes me want to watch so much more. He’s sure to be the kind of filmmaker I could hardly tire from.

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