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.
Richard Porton in Cinema Scope, a known hater of Farhadi’s The Past:
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.
“Deliberately paced, lacking narrative momentum” reads a positive review. I found it very strange (even having seen some of Oliveira’s other films) in an exciting way. It would be easy to write an accurate plot description for netflix, something like “a respected old actor (Michel Piccoli) becomes the guardian of his grandson after losing the rest of his family in an accident, and begins to redefine his life’s priorities.” But that wouldn’t begin to convey the film itself. For instance, Oliveira opens on Piccoli starring onstage in Exit The King alongside Catherine Deneuve and Leonor Silveira. Piccoli plays this scene facing almost entirely away from camera. We see the men backstage who’ve come to deliver the news about his wife and daughter’s fatal car accident, but the men speak to nobody and the scene keeps playing out, watching the back of Piccoli’s head, for about the first fifth of the movie’s runtime. So it’s clear that “narrative momentum” is not what Oliveira was going for.
A while later, Piccoli’s actor has kept working since the accident, a nanny caring for his grandson most of the time. Then he’s (badly) cast in a film of Ulysses directed by John Malkovich. After fumbling a few passes at the English dialogue, he speaks the title and ditches the movie.
I’d like to steal Vadim Rizov’s opening sentence: “Having barely survived Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams when it came out, I was inclined to stay away from his filmography for the rest of my life.” But how could we stay away from a Michael Keaton-starring, Emmanuel Lubezki-shot movie called Birdman? I’m sympathetic to Rizov’s entire “five points of contention” article for Filmmaker Magazine, praising Edward Norton before wondering, among other things, why the single-take illusion was necessary. But I appreciated the single-take (and the wonderful arrhythmic drum score) as an enjoyable distraction, making the movie fun to watch before the inevitable post-film discussion of what point it was trying to make (??) and whether all its characters are unredeemed assholes (they are).
One of Busby Berkeley’s unexciting 1940’s flicks (see also: Take Me Out to the Ball Game). He even has a total anti-Berkeley moment, aiming the camera at Judy, singing against a plain wall, and leaving it there for ages. What happened – budget cuts? Not a bad movie though – Gene Kelly’s debut, with established young star Judy Garland (only one year after her last Andy Hardy movie, and two before Meet Me In St. Louis).
Another one of those movies starring two attractive young people who just have to end up together, because it’s a Hollywood movie, even though they shouldn’t. Gene proves again and again that he cares only about his career, playing the Palace in New York, and anybody is disposable on his way to the top. But he doesn’t get to the top, due to the (vaudeville/WWI-era) public’s new interest in war heroes and his successful attempt to draft-dodge by smashing his hand in a trunk. And due to the WWII-era public’s distaste for draft-dodging romantic heroes, the ending was hastily rewritten so a troop-entertaining Kelly tries to warn approaching ambulances that passage is unsafe and ends up singlehandedly taking out an enemy machine gun nest.
Judy doesn’t get as many plot points, but gets to sing some good 1910’s showtunes. She starts out in the show of Jimmy Metcalf (future politician George Murphy), starts a duo act with Kelly until he dumps her when his opera singer friend Eve (Martha Eggerth, 1930’s cinema star in Austria and Germany) suggests she can get him more fame, sob Judy heads to the war to sing for troops, where she’s reunited with hero-come-lately Kelly.
Bosley Crowther: “To one who takes mild exception to sentimental excess, it seems an overlong, overburdened and generally over-talked musical film.” He also calls Judy Garland “saucy.”