National Gallery (2014)

Normally, there are not many comparison points for Wiseman films except other Wiseman films as he is kind of a genre unto himself. National Gallery certainly fits firmly within his style, in this case featuring a variety of conversations about the artwork, both thematic and technical, and of the function of the gallery, the logic of restoration, of presentation, and the simple business conversations, all broken up with montage of the paintings of the gallery. But in 2014, Tim’s Vermeer presents a particularly interesting contrast point, and indeed, there is a discussion of a Vermeer in National Gallery.

One thing that appealed in Tim’s Vermeer is that it ultimately was less about art then about science or engineering. The most engaging aspects of National Gallery for me were also more toward the technical, both in the science of restoration (and simply analysis of paintings) and in some discussions about how lighting concerns (the conditions the painting was originally created to be displayed in compared to modern display conditions) would shape the artist’s tactics. This all spoke to me more than thoughts about metaphors or stories in paintings. This is curious because in film I tend to be very much the opposite, generally dismissive of craft except as service to the story and themes. Neither documentary thawed my remove from painting as an expressive medium really, but they have opened up far more interest in it as a technical craft. Now I just need more resources to do the same for film.

As much as I appreciate the Wiseman aesthetic, putting it in close contrast with Tim’s Vermeer reveals some of its weak points. Ultimately there is something rewarding about an 80 minute film that has a narrative arc of hurdles, breakthroughs, etc. compared to a 180 minute film that remains rather flat. I liked the film, but I’d definitely be more keen to rewatch Tim’s Vermeer than this.

B

The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

The Western genre, while not being entirely lacking in interesting female characters, is definitely a male-dominated genre. Rarely is a female character the lead of such stories, and even more rarely have we seen women telling those stories on film. Some of this can be explained in the real gender imbalance that tends to exist in frontier, especially as the genre has tended toward cowboys and lawmen. But certainly the literary tradition, with Little House on the Prairie and the works of Willa Cather show that plenty of stories of frontierswomen exist. In the case of The Ballad of Little Jo, writer/director Maggie Greenwald draws upon a newspaper story to relate a real life tale that manages to touch on broader truths.

Early in her life, Josephine (Suzy Amis) learns that being a feminine woman has its risks in the attractions and sexual aggressions of men and the moral hypocrisies. There is a moment early where Josephine reads to a man from his Hawthorne book, and I can only imagine it was The Scarlet Letter as it would suit the story as her own ostracizing is what has her traveling West. In response to the risk her femininity puts her in, she decides to transform into Jo, though this brings its own risks of discovery. For women, it can often be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Showing the behavior of men, not atypical of the genre (and of the time and place), through the perspective of a female character does a lot to highlight the misogyny of the society in a way that a similar scene from a male perspective might not.

The film is also critical of attitudes toward xenophobic attitudes held by many of the men, in particular with the character of Tinman (David Chung). Apparently this portrayal of a Chinese immigrant playing a slightly more feminine role vis a vis Jo (doing cooking and similar domestic tasks) has been criticized as part of a tendency for American pop culture to feminize Asian men generally, though I feel like it is actually commenting on that stereotype because it acknowledges that he is playing a role much as Jo does.

Another wrinkle that the film gets at is the contrast of the wild patriarchy of the frontier and the cultured patriarchy of the East, which chased Jo out initially but by the end we see encroaching in the form of corporate ranchers. We may be able to readily recognize the savagery of the former, but this cautions that fancy clothes and polite manners shouldn’t blind us from equally toxic behaviors. All these facets combine into one of the more rewarding experiences I’ve had in the genre.

B+

At Berkeley (2013)

This being my 15th Wiseman film and 5th that exceeds three hours in duration (in this case the four hour runtime leaves it two shy of Near Death) it becomes clearer to me why I don’t have a problem with the length; he is a master of pacing. His main trick, using examples from At Berkeley, is to move from extended scenes of administrative discussion to dialogue-free sequences of extracurriculars like an a capella group performance or the marching band playing half-time at a football game. This, along with the fact that the scenes don’t necessarily essentially tie together allows for periods of decompression or varied degrees of focus. If the film demanded that you remain totally locked in for four hours it would be overwhelming, but as it lets you get into a rhythm of the environment, paying more or less attention as something grabs your attention, it is far less taxing. No one scene is essential, rather the sum becomes greater than the parts by providing a broad perspective of its focus, in this case arguably the premiere public university in the country.

Having been a student, instructor and student government representative dealing with administrative and budgeting aspects, I have a pretty broad view of the environment and Wiseman’s film is capable at capturing these varying components. In particular focus is the question of public funding. The state of California, like most, has declined its contribution putting increasing pressures on students, to which they responded, in the case of Berkeley, with protests. It is enough of a primer, though I didn’t feel just energized about the topic from watching this. It isn’t the type of documentary that really gets at some of the most hard hitting questions about the nature and purpose of higher education and how that relates to funding concerns. More captivating for me ultimately were some of the seminars. I have to admit a bit of educational jealousy as I just don’t think I got that good of an education from my various public universities, and it wasn’t like I was offering that to my students either.

The thing with Wiseman and his style is it leaves less room for variation. I don’t anticipate a Wiseman film ever cracking my top-100, though I admire a few quite a bit. Similarly, I don’t anticipate outright hating a Wiseman (excepting Titicut Follies, to which I had a moral qualm more than an actual issue of quality). His technique is a durable one that makes any topic captivating and informative and At Berkeley is no exception.

B

It Follows (2014)

There are two things I think I can safely reveal about It Follows that are central to its premise: “Sexually Transmitted Curse” and that this film manages to make slowly walking in a straight line the most terrifying thing in the world. I kind of love how horror films can be made or broken on premise. You hear something like “aliens attack forcing a population to stay drunk all the time” or “haunted house, but she’s got a house arrest ankle bracelet on” and you just go, “yep, that could work.” The premise of It Follows, a curse that gets passed on to people through sex (though importantly tracing back through the chain if someone falls victim of the curse) holds the potential to comment on sexuality, as well as playing off the historical notion of horror films as conservative vehicles to punish youths for engaging in casual sex.

On this particular thematic point, I’m not sure the film delivers. Arguably the solution to this particular problem is either to abstain (the typical conservative answer) or to have all the sex so that the curse can never fixate and ultimately ends up far removed. Woe is to the person who is unable to get laid (again). Though there’s also the moral question of whether it is right to pass it on and what notification is necessary. This taps more specifically into debate over STIs. We see instances of passing the curse on via deception and via consensual sacrifice. A slightly more intentioned work might do a better job hitting home some sort of idea of facing these threats together, working to dispel prejudices of people who have STIs. The film is somewhat silent on the idea of safe sex. We are given no indication of condom use in the depicted sexual encounters and whether that would matter. Diving deeper into the logic of the world, and the question I asked at the festival Q&A where I saw the film (draw a straight line from Cannes to Toronto to Sundance to Fargo), was about whether this curse was heteronormative. The film never contemplates homosexual attachments, whether those forms of sex would satisfy the requirement to pass things on. This isn’t a weakness per se (the producers on hand deflected it capably hinting at the possibility of a sequel) but was something that stood out to me as underexamined.

If the thematic component that might have made the film great were lacking, the technical construction necessary to make it a solid horror film was spot on. The menace, constructed as a shape-shifting entity that pursues unceasingly, slow and constant, is set up and then played with to maximum effect (the large audience was amped up, which only added to the effect). There are a couple quiet-quiet-bang moments but they feel more deliberate and compliment many others that build tension without relying on sensory shock but rather an intellectual terror. The ability to put yourself in that position with the main characters is a rare and precious thing in the horror genre and for that alone the film is worth experiencing.

B

Predestination (2014)

*this review contains massive spoilers, and a bunch of extra random discussion of the film*

Reading the Wikipedia article about this film, there is a quote from the writers/directors, the Spierig brothers, saying that if a hole were found within the Heinlein short story that forms the base of this film, it would have been found by now. Thus they rest comfortably that this twisty time-travel tale’s internal logic will hold. Well, I’m not sure about everyone else, but I didn’t struggle to find a weak point in the logic of the film, a matter of simple biology. Even if we assume an intersex individual has sufficiently developed sexual organs of both sexes that they can both in turn be fully viable at reproduction (I’m not entirely an expert on this, but what I do know would tend to lean toward infertility, not dual fertility), the logical problem is a much more simple matter of biology, namely that a sperm cell is half of one’s DNA code and an ovum is half of one’s DNA code. Each sperm and each ovum is different because it splits the various chromosomal pair in half in different ways, most notably in males splitting the X from the Y to ultimately determine, with some allowance for variation, whether the child will be male or female. Given this tendency toward variation, the odds of two genetically identical people from naturally producing a genetically identical child is vanishingly small. And yet that vanishingly small probability is the pin holding the entire logic of Predestination together.

Still, if I allow it this one fault, there is something impressive in this notion of completely closed loop wherein genetic material manages to exist without an external source. It works the mind as a paradox. I’d say the meaning of the story then is to create this device as a way of short-circuting discussions of genetic destiny, destiny being a point of discussion in this film, and most time travel films that recognize certain events as becoming hard-wired into reality. It takes temporal destiny to create this freedom from genetic destiny, so there’s a touch of irony involved. It is fun to think about, but ultimately, I’m not sure the rewards are quite there.

The one thing in the film that I think deserves unambiguous praise is the performance of Sarah Snook as Jane/John. Even if I critique the film a bit for acting like Sarah Snook is convincingly not good looking, able to immediately gain our sympathies for her ostracized orphan, I can’t critique the performance that must shine through pretty heavy make-up at times. Now does the film say much about gender? At this point I’m not sure and that is one part I’ll have to consider before I make a final decision on the film. For now:

B

As to [the question of gender], transgender is probably the wrong word to apply to the film, though I suppose it may still have relevance on that front, but in this specific case, the character is intersex. Jane expresses herself as a bit at odds with being a woman, certainly showing divergence from gender expectations of the age in being tougher and smarter, but she never really expresses it as a mismatch. In truth, she only really shows discomfort when forced into life as a man, and at this point also expresses divergence in taking up a more emotional profession writing confession stories. Becoming a male seems to open her up to her feminine a bit more.

I guess if I wanted to go really deep, the film is the story of God creating us in his/her image that also serves as the creation of God. Instead of the turtle that the world rests on standing on turtles all the way down, this theory would manage that closed loop creation. It suggests that there is male and female in all of us (and the fact that Jane is born as a “girl” reflects the fact that we are all female until hormones activate to create a male) and maybe could call out gender constructions. But I don’t really want to give the film more credit on the issue than it really merits. You could paint a fall from grace narrative starting with the innocence of a woman and ending with the violence of a man, but that would be fueling gender stereotypes.

One scene that maybe I should watch again because it didn’t have any impact on me was the attempt by John to justify his bombings to his younger self. It went by a bit quick. Frankly, the early scenes of the film I described in my mind as anti-world building because the whole Fizzle Bomber set-up did nothing for me so I guess I remained confused about that whole thing. It feels like a red herring that is just useful to the creation of the loop.

Pump Up The Volume (1990)

“You can’t do that.”
“Oh, I think I just did.”

Though this quote appears in a slightly squarer context (though still really satisfying), it is in some ways the thesis of the film. Whether we are the teens of this film, or as adults, we are constantly told what we can’t do. Sure, sometimes it is something obvious that causes a clear harm to others, but a lot of the time “you can’t do that” is a voice of social mores that exist to protect the status quo, patriarchy and capitalism, etc., and as that voice increasingly gets internalized, it can be pretty deadening. It really taps into the teenage angst that comes from trying to form an individualized identity while facing this homogenizing force.

Pump Up The Volume is the attempt of one student, Mark (Christian Slater) to push back against this voice through a pirate radio station that gives fellow students a voice to honestly reckon with the perils in their lives. It is a broadly anarchic mentality, but the film is considerate of both the benefits and the risks of fighting back.

Being based on radio, the film feels a little dated. Now no one needs to take the criminal action of jumping in on a radio frequency to be heard. A teen can get their voice out through blogs or YouTube channels or all the even newer things that I could mention to sound less old. The internet has democratized this voice, but also cluttered it so that it would be hard for a student to capture the audience that Hard Harry (Mark’s radio persona) is able to get here. And while there has been a lot of good from social media, a lot has been of the place I thought this film might be headed early on, the voice of an outcast in life who gains a certain confidence through his radio persona and turns it toward misogyny or other hateful approaches. There may be a fascinating remake of sorts to be made exploring that kind of character, but this film is much more a response to the Reagan years and thus casts out more toward reactionary and authoritarian instincts, which seems relevant enough today.

B+

The Babadook (2014)

In what is probably a reaction that disqualifies me from future parenthood, my first reaction to the opening five minutes of The Babadook was to make an abortion joke. In the early going, Sam (Noah Wiseman), is definitely a problem child, overly fixated on monsters and violent fantasies to fight them off that often cross too far into real life, putting others at risk or at least making them uneasy. Amelia (Essie Davis) has her hands full with Sam, having lost his father on the day he was born. It is that loss that haunts them in the form of a storybook character Mister Babadook.

The most positive thing I can say about The Babadook is that it is perhaps the most frightening film I’ve seen in a long time in the “maybe I’ll sleep with the lights on tonight” kind of way. It is a refreshing break from so much of the horror that relies on triggering sensory reflex and calling that a scare. The Babadook is more in the lineage of The Shining. That said, for as much joyful terror I felt in the buildup, especially the scene where she reads the book for the first time, the final third is a bit of a mess. It fits well enough with the thematic thrust of the story but lacks the cinematic effect present in the buildup. It also turns a strong performance from Davis increasingly into a bunch of screeching. This doesn’t render it a bad film, it just took a bit of the awe out.

B

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