We watch classic musicals sometimes. I never thought a 1930’s backstage drama starring James Cagney as an obsessed showman, costarring with the entire Gold Diggers of 1933 cast, would turn out to be the elusive Perfect Film, but there ya go.
A theater group – not a very good one – is rehearsing the 1921 satire The Insect Play, but the guy playing Dung Beetle (Jirí Lábus, of a fascinating-sounding 1994 version of Amerika) keeps hallucinating insects (real and stop-motion) while learning his lines.
From the very beginning, Svankmajer and his crew appear onscreen, like the DVD extras have been cut into the feature. After a scene it’ll show the filming, the animation, direction, insect wrangling, sound effects (with constant scraping and clanking sounds plus the insect patter, they’re great throughout), or interview the actors about their dreams.
Fun movie, and only 93 minutes, a breeze to watch. To that point, it doesn’t seem like Svankmajer’s most consequential film, nor does it appear to be some kind of final statement on his career, unless I’m missing something about the Insect Play. Ungenerously, one could say choice of subject combined with the mechanics of behind-the-scenes production is the last word on his preference against humans and their messy realities. Jan: “I direct it like an animated film or puppet theater – short takes, minimal movement of the camera, stylized acting, no psychology, as if the actors had wires attached to the head and strings on the arms.”
Watching movies from last year’s Sundance and Rotterdam this week… this one premiered in Rotterdam’s Signatures section, playing with The Wandering Soap Opera, Lover for a Day, Mrs. Fang and Lek and the Dogs.
The second movie I’ve seen this year with a sea turtle girl at the beach. The wikipedia version of this movie is a frustrated teen off her meds who finds a community in a weirdo theater troupe, but conflicts arise between the girl (Helena Howard) and her mom (Miranda July), spilling into her acting and vice versa, and this is encouraged past the point of comfort by theater director Molly Parker.
The experience of watching it is something different, with editing and camera focus and framing just all over the place. Butter on the Latch was similarly disorienting, but more energy here from characters and story drives the thing into a jittery madness which is extremely fun to watch.
Maybe the grungiest, most lo-fi, handheld Oshima movie I’ve seen, with some apparently documentary segments. Also maybe more sexual violence than usual. Some nice closeups on hands, like in other thief movies. Whole movie looks dubbed, with some cool troubadour songs (not as funky as the ones in Izo).
Longhaired anarchist book thief Hilltop Birdman (Tadanori Yokoo, a minor role in Mishima) is nabbed by employee Umeko (Rie Yokoyama of Wakamatsu’s Ecstacy of the Angels), to the delightful indifference of her boss, who tries to give the thief more free books. But it’s the late 1960’s and if anyone’s gonna embrace the revolution in the air, it’s Oshima. The movie goes off on tangents about sex and psychology, turns from black-and-white to color, plays with poetry and literature and theater, and makes cool images and tries to freak out the normies. “I do feel something like rage toward nothing in particular.”
It’s all crying out for some explanatory blu-ray features – for instance, it’s been a minute since I watched Death By Hanging, so I didn’t realize that movie’s primary male cast appears in a roundtable discussion as themselves – but I tend to love Oshima films even when I’m confused by them.
After an earthquake half destroys their apartment, a couple of actors (both are stars of Farhadi’s About Elly) find a new place which was formerly rented by a sketchy woman, whose former “customer” wanders into the place one day and catches the wife alone in the shower. She is traumatized, and too distracted to carry on with the play. Between rehearsals her husband gets annoyed with everybody and tracks down the assailant, an old man, locking him into their old place until he has a panic attack and dies. I assume the moral ambiguity of it all mirrors something in Death of a Salesman, but I’ve really only seen the version in Synecdoche, New York.
Both Farhadi and Miller are fond of schematic narratives and cannily deployed didacticism; the strengths and weaknesses of this sort of social realism are crucial to assessing the muddled aesthetic achievement of a film that doesn’t replicate the impact of A Separation, the director’s finest achievement, but avoids the embarrassing histrionics of his previous (and weakest) film, The Past.
I think this is Mina Sadati playing the prostitute – she complains that the play dialogue refers to her having no clothes on, while she’s always wearing a raincoat:
The opening scene sets up some teen school drama – girl who wants to fit in and act adult, lovestruck fool who obsesses over her, and his friends, the popular class president and their weirdo buddy Don. So it’s gonna be that kind of movie… except the lead girl (does she not have a name?) is gulping boozy drinks all at once, her throat bulging as they go down. The animation style keeps changing, and facial expressions extend off people’s heads when they get excited. It’s mentioned that the class president is famous for his cross-dressing and that Don hasn’t changed his underwear in six months. The lead dude lays out his scheme to follow the girl everywhere, bumping into her “by chance” until she thinks it’s fate that they should be together. Then she imagines she’s a train and cho-choos off into the night – this is all in the first four minutes. There’s singing and dancing, so I’m pretty sure it’s a sequel to Girl Walk: All Day.
Soon our girl is beating up a molester in another bar, meeting gamblers and gangsters and secret societies. She faces off against the droopy-eared elf leader of the criminal underworld, who she drinks under the table, the beginning of his rapid decline. There’s a nighttime book market with its own guardian spirit, a hallucinatory hot pot competition, the president using his panopticon to track down a guerrilla theater production rigged by Don Underwear to search for his missed-connection. I can’t tell if the movie believes in fate or is mocking its characters for believing in it. The night ends with everyone tired and sick, except our Girl, who delivers healing soup to everyone in town at once, Santa-like.
Don Underwear and his Apple Girl:
Fascinating docu-blend telling the story of late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who lived in a low-income neighborhood. We also see scenes from her plays being performed in the park of this neighborhood in present day. And increasingly the story becomes about Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, who appears to be following in her mom’s footsteps of hopeless addiction. And all this (except the outdoor performances) is told through actors lipsyncing the words of the real people. Beautifully staged and totally unique movie, though Katy got depressed by the death and drugs and abuse.
Lorraine and Lisa inside a childhood memory:
Though the synching is remarkably close to unnoticeable, the style takes some getting used to, mainly because The Arbor isn’t dramatized like films with actors generally are. The scenes are more like eerie tableaux where the “characters” tell their stories straight to the camera, wandering the haunted backdrop of Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate and other settings. This ingenious conceit, borrowed from Robin Soans’ 2000 play on Dunbar, called A State Affair, solves the longstanding problem of documentaries penned in by static talking heads.
N. Rapold in Film Comment:
What’s disorienting are the muted tones of the interviews, which were obviously not originally spoken with the intonation of a dramatic performance. This lends a curious low affect to the recounting of extraordinary incidents, and this disjunction, as well as Barnard’s hyper-immaculate RED photography, are a characteristic of other recent film work by artists such as Steve McQueen and Miranda July. As Lorraine becomes the central focus in the second half of the film, her matter-of-fact, downcast delivery becomes a drumbeat anticipating her inevitable downfall.
A busy comedy, mostly keeps up its charming energy for a bit of throwback fun. Famed theater director Owen Wilson overpays call girl Imogen Poots (Green Room) and tells her to follow her dream, which turns out to be auditioning for his play. Owen’s wife Kathryn Hahn (Parks & Rec politician) stars in the play, pursued by both costar Rhys Ifans (The Boat That Rocked) and playwright Will Forte (MacGruber). Also in play: Forte’s ex, substitute-therapist Jennifer Aniston, and his detective dad George Morfogen. For some reason it’s all framed as a years-later celeb-profile interview with Poots.
Ehrlich on Poots:
Her performance is a reckless tightrope walk of woefully accented genius and it’s very important to me.
Lavishly-staged theater performance reworked for the cinema, the cameras onstage with the actors. Beautiful, worth the extra cost of whatever HD special-event screening this was. My favorite Puck (Kathryn Hunter, a countess in one of my favorite scenes of Orlando, which we just happily rewatched in HD), but Katy prefers Stanley Tucci. Duke Theseus was apparently not played by Matt Berry of Darkplace, though it looked like him. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Argo, Wolf of Wall Street).
We shot four performances live, with four cameras in different locations surrounding the play, and then for four days we could go onstage and do more single-camera setups: hand-held, Steadicam. The audience was invited; they were watching a movie being made, and that’s where we could get intimate.