Category: Film

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Sixto Rodridguez walking down a street in Detroit wearing sunglasses, as depicted in Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching For Sugar Man".

For the First Time: Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)

As an artist who has yet to be recognized for my achievements, and as someone who also knows other artists who have yet to be recognized for theirs, I have long adhered to the belief that quality rises in the end. To what end, you might wonder? Well, within me there is this idea of the ultimate. And with this, there is the notion that my most dedicated readers have yet to be born. Not only has this comforted me, but also it has contributed to my need to keep going. (If, for nothing else, I owe it to them—my future readers.) Furthermore, I have also battled the reductive belief that fame equals quality. Because as we have seen, it is not uncommon for great artists to go overlooked in the immediate, only to be discovered later by the future generations who will appreciate them. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary on the musician Sixto Rodriguez, demonstrates this. […]

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A stylized shot of the lead actress staring in amazement at a rocket model in Mick Jackson's "Temple Grandin".

From Inside The Visual Mind: On Mick Jackson’s “Temple Grandin” (2010)

‘I don’t want my thoughts to die with me. I want to have done something.’ These are the quality words within Temple Grandin’s biopic that I found most illuminating. While there have certainly been other quality words within other quality biopics, this one in particular stands above in how it depicts the internals of a creative mind. Most biopics portray the person from the outside—be it Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson—and while this approach can offer very good films, Mick Jackson’s Temple Grandin archives something unusual. How, exactly, does this person think? How does she process her thoughts? Visually, the film succeeds in showcasing this.

Mary Temple Grandin (played wonderfully by Claire Danes) was born in Boston to a wealthy family. As an autistic child, Grandin herself has said that she would have been sent to an institution were it not for her mother’s objection. ‘She is different, not less,’ her mother, played by Julia Ormomd, insists. From a young age, Temple is non-verbal. In fact, she did not speak until she was four, wherein since then she’s only been able to see the world via pictures. Language and math are useless to her—too abstract. (She fails algebra and French—‘Why is there so much fish in France?’ she asks, with regard to the ‘il’ pronouns.) But everything she has ever seen she can remember via images. ‘Can you bring everything you’ve seen into your mind?’ her science professor asks. ‘Sure. Can’t you?’ the bemused Temple responds. […]

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A stylized shot of Christian Fiedel's face in Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (German: Das weiße Band).

The Onset of Evil: Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009)

Who can know the perpetrator behind something gone wrong? When something feels amiss, and all around bad things continue to happen to those who live within this German village? That not all good people are those harmed by these malevolent acts is one of the strengths of Michael Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon. Too often, filmmakers make ‘good’ people the victims and ‘bad’ people the perpetrators. But here, both are affected.

How the story unfolds is this—a rural German village, just on the cusp of World War I, has been terrorized by a series of events that have left them on edge. As example, the village doctor, while on his horse, trips on a wire and both man and horse suffer terrible injury. (The horse dies.) Yet this doctor is also abusive to his mistress, and he sexually molests his daughter. Children are beaten for minor transgressions—they are punished and tied up in bed for ‘impure touching’, and forced to wear a White Ribbon until they can amend their sins. A disabled child is left maimed and nearly blinded. A barn is set on fire, a husband hangs himself after his wife has fallen through a rotting floorboard, another child is murdered, and on and on. […]

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A stylized shot of Lesley Manville as Mary Smith and Ruth Sheen as Gerri Hepple, from Mike Leigh's "Another Year" (2010).

Onward and Upward: Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (2010)

Mike Leigh has placed himself within his own filmic cannon vis-à-vis how well he portrays the lives of ‘ordinary people.’ No particular character is extraordinary, but mostly each navigates through life, often longing for something. We see first hand the weaknesses and flaws with which we can much identify rather than judge. Several of his films are Vera Drake (2004), Life is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Career Girls (1997), Happy Go Lucky (2008), Secrets & Lies (1996), among others. Note that none of the titles are outstanding. One could even argue that they’re rather bland. However, just as with Bruce Ario’s poetry, the seeming ‘plain spoken’ language reveals much more beneath.

Set in North London, Another Year involves a happily married couple, Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), wherein their happiness is a seeming anomaly. Mature, kind, and pleasant, they feel like the sort of couple anyone would like to know. Gerri has worked as an emotional counselor for the past 20 years. Tom is a geologist. ‘I dig holes,’ he jokes, one night over dinner. The couple appears to feel at peace within their lives. This is a contrast to some others they know, like Gerri’s coworker, Mary (Leslie Manville) who works as a secretary at the same facility. The two women are friends albeit underneath lurks the hint that Gerri is acting as a big sister to the otherwise emotionally needy and irresponsible Mary. For one, Mary spends too much, drinks too much, and throws herself at the first person willing to listen. Gerri is willing to listen but only to a point. This makes her a good friend, but it is clear that she must set boundaries in order to not be vortexed into Mary’s emotional dramas. […]

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A stylized shot of Robert DeNiro looking out of his taxi in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver".

Mindful Loneliness: Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)

There are few films that encapsulate loneliness as well as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Two others that come to mind are Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). In the Allen film, a woman turning 50 comes to realize that she has pushed everyone away, and in the Malick film we witness how war isolates the spirit from the mind. And yet Taxi Driver is not only the portrait of a weathered man facing his own war, but one who attempts to connect and fails every time. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) works at night and so his world is dark and violent. ‘All the animals come out at night,’ he says, as he looks on with contempt and disgust. Still, he longs to belong somewhere but does not know where that is.

For start, we do not know much of his past, other than he is an ex-Marine who was honorably discharged in 1973. As for education, ‘a little bit here, a little bit there, ya know,’ he says. We don’t know his parents or how he came to be other than his wish to escape his life via working long hours in a taxi. People enter his cab and then they depart as quickly as they came. There are no attachments. Then, when it is morning and his shift is done, he is forced to wipe the semen off the seats before he escapes to a porno theatre. […]

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A stylized shot of Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) looking at the camera in Philip Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

Reinventing Noir: Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)

Imagine watching a film and lacking the ability to imbue more into it. Taking it only on the surface, and viewing it as nothing more than mindless entertainment. Emotionally stolid and passionless, you finish it and no impression has been left upon you. As example, The Planet of the Apes is ‘just about monkeys,’ and Animal Farm is ‘just about pigs.’ Do you feel better? In fact, do you feel anything? So, you have decided to be passionless. If it is not in the media, then it doesn’t matter. If academics, governments, and institutions are praising it, then it must be a great idea. Ok, so it isn’t the best-constructed argument, but it’s not like you’re able to notice the difference anyway. Besides, you had something else make up your mind.

These are some of the undercurrents I noticed when rewatching this remake of the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Yet Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film is not only better and richer than the original, but is its own film entirely. How it begins is this: we see small entities appearing as plants, which we only later learn are toxic entities from outer space. They want to thrive, overtake us, and they know just how to do it. […]

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A stylized shot of the mother in Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" (2017) lying around, smoking a joint.

Still Growing: On Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017)

There is an anxiety, among Left Wing cineastes particularly, for a “proper” artistic depiction of the poor. Realism, of course, is key – but how grueling is too grueling? You can’t slip into so-called poverty porn, because to do that would be to rob the class you’re portraying of their dignity. However, conversely, to be too light or fanciful, winsome, even, would be to rob them of their hardships, which uniquely distinguishes them from the higher classes. This is not to even mention the deeper anxiety that interrogates the point of art at all in one’s political project(s), especially when it comes to fictional portrayals of the subaltern and such. “It’s all make-believe, at bottom,” the worry might be. “Does this aid us? And would even the most nuanced portrait of the dispossessed do anything to alleviate their lack?”

Maybe this is caricature, but I’ve noticed this anxiety slip into many of the reviews I’ve read for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Many are positive (in that Baker avoids a misstep in either of the directions mentioned above) while some bemoan the lack of interiority in these characters’ lives, and even slam Baker for not making the mother, Halley, more empathetic. Others nitpick at its length, without elaboration, as well as its meandering, told-in-vignettes quality. And, of course, despite healthy acclaim, and a generous smattering of various festival/critic’s awards, the film still passed mostly under the radar – earning only a single nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe’s Bobby) at that season’s Academy Awards. […]

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A stylized portrait of Wallace Shawn from Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre".

Beyond the Comfort Zone: Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” (1981)

Amazing it is when a film’s narrative is unlike any other. Even the concept seems too remarkable to be true—two men meet up and talk over dinner. Is this a play? No, as even in most plays, action tends to be more omnipresent. Instead, much like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (which tells an unconventional narrative via voiceover and still images), My Dinner With Andre feels like one is reading a novel or listening to a radio broadcast. Andre, who does most of the talking, is a terrific storyteller. While contemporary films might rely heavily on flashbacks, instead we must rely on our visual mind—all that is there and not.

For almost two hours, Andre (Andre Gregory) relays his story and we picture it scene by scene as he tells it. The first time I watched My Dinner with Andre, I recall being overwhelmed by his words but then in that same viewing I saw how necessary his storytelling was. Andre presents a Romanticism—the idea that to find more in life one must go out and seek it—and Wally (Wallace Shawn) contrasts this with pragmatism. […]