Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Drollness of Dolls

DVD Notes: “Toy Story 2”

Woody, Bull's-Eye, and Jessie, like hipsters, play with a vinyl record amid 20th century paraphernalia

The sequel to the altogether cheery and beloved Toy Story, Pixar’s first release and surprise hit film, begins with a sequence which is the stuff of a 10-year-old’s nightmares, fed by a nourishing diet of video games and modern television. We’re brought out of this quickly enough into Pixar’s customary brightness, but soon taken into a real nightmare of one of the characters. While these two sequences take up relatively little of Toy Story 2’s brisk hour-and-a-half, they effectively serve to set up a tone of slightly more self-consciousness towards entertainment and play-time than we had in the first film, both directed by John Lasseter.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stillbirth of a Nation

“Dear White People”

The Black Students Union, led by Tessa Thompson, objects to stereotypical fare at the local movie house

Dear White People is the debut effort of writer and director Justin Simien, a pertinent satire of racial politics and identity set in a success-oriented Ivy League school in the US – perhaps too pertinent for its own good. We’re presented with four black students: Samantha White, a Visual and New Media major (Tessa Thompson), Troy Fairbanks, Political Sciences (Brandon Bell), Coco Conners, Economics (Tenoyah Parris), and Lionel Higgins, Undeclared (Tyler James Williams). Each represents a different reaction to the mass society perception of them, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is largely – perhaps nearly exclusively – influenced by their race.

The film puts forward four methods of identification taken by black people in this environment, each demonstrated by one of these characters, and shows just how difficult it is for such a black person no matter what course of action they choose. They could champion and assert their blackness, taking pride in their distinct ethnic endowment, but this would lead to marginalisation and even hostility from white racists. They could try to bend their behaviour, appearance and carrying to conform to white culture – “lose the ’hood” as one character says rather condescendingly – resulting in disdain from other blacks, and also a particular aloofness from the whites to whom they seem to aspire. They could take a more fluid position, modulating their blackness up or down depending on their audience, and be sneered at by more resolute individuals (Sam derisively calls these Bojangle-types “ooftas” in her book on racial politics at the school, “Ebony and Ivy”). And there are those who’ve taken no designated course, hoping to remain relatively unscathed by conflict and politics, and spared the nuisance of being placed in a category, but they are just as marginalised and singled out as the rest, or even more so. And to be such a student, as well as being gay, makes it all the more difficult. (We presume the gay black student – spectator rather than participator for much of the story – is the stand-in for the black Simien, who publicly announced his homosexuality when the film was released.)

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Quickness and Quintessence

“Fast & Furious 7”

Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriquez, Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel and Ludacris take on Abu Dhabi in evening wear

In a number of ways, I think the car movie – movies concerning themselves with the sensual allure of automobiles, movies set on highways and racetracks, and movies in which the final frontier is ever higher and higher speeds – is cinema’s answer to literature’s pulp fiction. Both evade character development and strong political or social statements for a gripping narrative and for an ephemeral thrill in a reader or viewer. Both are often scoffed at by high-minded critics and art-lovers, but bolted down by the larger public, copiously and repetitively. And, while car movies, particularly in recent years, have been more blatantly commercial than hardboiled detective novels ever were, both have yielded works of enormous entertainment and fascination, with merit enough to challenge the views of the snobbish and provide more enjoyment than high-brow, more ambitious pieces – merits which cannot be dismissed even by those who jeer at the mass appeal of the unashamedly mercantile. It’s tempting for me to tell you here that the car movie reaches its apotheosis in Fast & Furious 7, but that would be exaggerating a little. And anyway, as I said in my introduction to this blog, there’s (probably literally) a myriad of important films I’ve yet to see, many of them decades – or even a century – older than this one, and so I cannot begin to conjecture on what the apex of any genre might be. (I’m given to understand, based on the many critical pieces I’ve read, that at least one of the greatest car movies by general cinephilic consensus is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, Breathless, as yet unseen by this eager spectator.)

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Musical Inclinations

DVD Notes: “August Rush”

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Freddie Highmore jam in Washington Square

In his review of Whiplash, Richard Brody writes, “Movies about musicians offer musical approximations that usually satisfy in inverse proportion to a viewer’s devotion to the actual music behind the story.” One might make the same comment just as aptly when discussing August Rush, except, while Whiplash was clearly about jazz musicians, it’s difficult to know what musical tradition August Rush has taken as its subject. We’re treated with the rarefied musings of the eponymous 11-year-old musical prodigy (Freddie Highmore) and his mentor, “Wizard” (Robin Williams), about how music is what surrounds us all – in the air, on the wind, in all living forms – and what connects everything, including all of us to everything else, even the stars and galaxies. One has only to “follow the music” – forgive me, “The Music” – to reach one’s fulfilment, the movie posits.

The New Yorker recently published a humourous article in which Ayn Rand (a fictional persona of the novelist) reviewed children’s movies. “An industrious woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté,” she writes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathise with the main character.” She gave it Zero Stars. Sadly, Ms Rand was not around to provide her very straightforward acuity and pointed views on August Rush, but I think it would’ve been just the thing to cut through the drivel offered here.