Quick Takes – 06.30.2015: ‘Duke of Burgundy’, ‘World of Tomorrow’, ‘Blackhat’

Girls - Season 4Girls: Season 4 (Created by Lena Dunham)
Grade: B-

A certain atmosphere of superficiality has often marinated Girls and subsequently kept some viewers away. My own interest in the show has often been centered around its simultaneous critique of and empathy with the subset of middle class white woman millennials, understanding their flaws while nurturing some sense of mature acknowledgement of them. Season 4 suffered from the same plague Season 2 suffered: familiarity. The irksome character traits, the lack of personal drive in characters, all felt like overt inhibitions for the show’s progression. In some ways that’s the point, as Season 4 attempted to chronicle those moments when your idealized life plans crash apart and the reality of your life sets in.

Too many detours this season took, though, became frustrating dead-ends, not aiding revelations but simply stalling characters senselessly in their tracks. Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) stint in Iowa felt largely undercooked and wasted a prime Desiree Akhavan – Akhaven’s Appropriate Behavior arguably does a better job capturing NYC 20s’ lives in transition – all to set up a mediocre rift between her and Adam (Adam Driver). That did allow for the emergence of Mimi Rose (Gillian Jacobs), but that character felt so purposely indifferent and clinical towards everything surrounding her that she came across as too artificial to stir up real emotions. Also Jessa is still doing nothing of importance, Shoshanna struggles finding a job, and Marnie throws herself eagerly into a shallow relationship, negating her early attempts to stake out her own emotional space from toolbag Desi. The season’s end hints that maybe the characters will have more purpose in their lives next year, as well as a greater presence from Obvious Child heartthrob Jake Lacy, but the absence of meaning left a dead void in this chapter.

The Duke of BurgundyThe Duke of Burgundy (Dir. Peter Strickland)
Grade: A-

I’ve repeatedly struggled to find the words to describe Peter Strickland’s films. He’s clearly established his interests to lie less in plot or performance, focusing vigorously on the effects of sensory elements. Berberian Sound Studio became such a disquieting piece of chamber horror because of how it let its fractured psychology lead, only allowing narrative elements to seep through so they may be discredited. The Duke of Burgundy is much the same, playing on themes of artifice and repetition in relationships, and the emotional consequences on both sides of the lead couples’ dominant-submissive relationship. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, which is very much a one-sided exploration of burgeoning sexual desires, The Duke of Burgundy is a deeply fragmented depiction of a relationship, where even dual perspective doesn’t satisfy the myriad of emotions and silent betrayals in a relationship.

Following two women who’ve managed to create a comfortably secluded environment for themselves, truly and radically free of a male perspective even interrupting the erotic introspection. There’s no desire for any other company than what they have, the only ventures outside the mansion being for lepidopterist conferences where patrons listen attentively to shrieky, intensified moth calls. As they return we see the two women wrestle vigorously with the power dynamics that their relationship is defined upon. While Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) blissfully inhabits her role as an object to tossed about and kinkily abused by her partner, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) struggles not only with her role as abuser, but with the intimacy she’s feeling lost without. Strickland elegantly depicts this downward shift through ocular senses, or rather through their disruption. At the start the characters make love as both light and their bodies is dazzlingly refracted. Later, the crystalline surfaces are replaced with a thick black chest, its opal sucking up light rather than reflecting it.

Not all the sensory input feels applied to evoke the film’s themes, but that’s hardly a detractor when the atmosphere we’re marinating in is so sumptuous in both feel and scent – je suis Gizella gets a perfume credit in the giallo-esq. opening titles, and that’s no empty gesture. As the sexual interplay intensifies, though, the boundaries of performed sexual play and genuine relationship drama blur to the point where it’s not clear if Cynthia is rebelling against her role or submitting to it so devoutly that her identity underneath the wig and lingerie becomes totally obscured. As in Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland propels the characters into a stylistic vacuum where there is no hope of escape from this relationship, and the ending catharsis rests on what tone, delicious or oppressive, that relationship takes. The ending ambiguity ensures we’ll be able to continue marinating in its sweet odor well throughout the ending credits.

World of Tomorrow 2World of Tomorrow (Dir. Don Hertfeldt)
Grade: A-

Don Hertzfeldt is a distinct and unmistakable auteur by now, in spite the fact that he’s never truly made a feature film. Stunning as It’s Such a Beautiful Day is, it’s noticeably a collection of three connected shorts. That’s not an issue, since he’s able to pack in dense ideas and emotions into a brief, economical time frame that the detail overload of a feature film, when it comes, will be utterly bewildering. World of Tomorrow, though, is a fully developed and distinct work of cinema in 17 minutes, packing in the emergence and death of human life and consciousness into that tight runtime.

As a toddler, Emily is contacted by a clone of herself from the future and whisked away on a tour of all the breakthroughs mankind has made. It’s a dystopia dressed as utopia, where every way human beings are extending their lives only serves to extend their misery, and yet Hertzfeldt makes no concessions to bleakness. All the equivocations of cosmic loneliness are filtered through the boundlessly hopeful childish expressions of Emily Prime, voiced adorably by Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae. Her voice is magical and wistfully improvisational, lending both wonder and humanism to her insights on this high-tech melancholic society. Still, it’s Hertzfeldt’s wicked wit that’s the most dominant and influential voice on display.

The Bigger PictureOscar Nominated Animated Short Films

I caught up to the animated short nominees late, but it’s not much of a surprise to me that they’re all better than the winner, Disney’s crudely simplistic Feast. Me and My Moulton (B-) is on the leaner end of things, a simplistic story of the directors’ parents mistaking their childrens’ desires for their own. It’s a lovely 2D story, but not a particular deep or crucial one. The Dam Keeper (B) also doesn’t boast the most robust or meaningful arc, following a pig who lives a life of dejected solitude in the windmill keeping the deathly fog on the other side of a dam. Obviously, friendship saves the day, but warmth and texture are what make The Dam Keeper as pleasurable a watch as it is.

A Single Life (B) is the briefest of the nominees, only running a quick 3 minutes, but as a spontaneous riff on mortality and life sporadically sped through it’s more potent and pleasurable than a number of films that run 90 minutes longer. My preferential winner, though, would easily be The Bigger Picture (B+), the most clearly ambitious feat of animation and storytelling, depicting the frustrated relationship between two brothers caring for their ailing mother. Beautifully, and likely arduously, blending 2D animation with stop motion, it truly leaps off the screen, and reveals deep personal feelings of jealousy and neglect, in ways very few films of any length have this year.

Blackhat 2Blackhat (Dir. Michael Mann)
Grade: A-

In an age when digital technology is making filmmaking processes sleeker, smoother and increasingly weightless, Michael Mann, one of the medium’s principal pioneers, is still the most conscious of its potential. That’s most recognizable in Blackhat, a film riddled with grimy, imprecise visuals, whose high definition crispness is carefully subverted by the footage’s interference. Motion smoothing makes human bodies into something threateningly intangible. Gunfire is registered as a violent disruption, less a slew of bullets than an explosions of furious, agitated yellow lights.

And yet, in spite the interference that traces back to the film’s digital artifact, Mann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, are never lazy in their construction of images. The film begins with Earth viewed not as a natural organism, but a clinical stream of rotating, but rarely shifting, rays of teal light. When a computer is hacked, a series of lights assaults it, creating a chain reaction of streaming, crunching lights, corrupting the system. And when a command is typed, it’s done through physical brush strokes. It’s not absent of moral accountability, but the film is constantly questioning that. It’s a moral query into intangibility. Are human lives merely a series of light impressions to be shut down?

We only reach the villain of the film after 90 minutes in, the time prior being used to make its claims on human connections through adrenaline rushing action sequences and organically intimate exchanges between Chris Hemworth’s character, Hathaway, and those around him. When we meet the nameless Blackhat, he’s realized as an accountability-absent philosophizer. “If I stop thinking about something, it ceases to exist.” Such dialogue satisfies the film’s noir inclinations, perhaps edging on cheesy, but Mann’s films aren’t realism. There’s something oozingly surreal about the environments it explores. Neon bright environments are depicted as digital blocks. Non-digital areas are interpreted as a mass of grey clouds. Through Mann’s technique, the tangible becomes intangible, and vice-versa, yet some moments sensuously coalesce to feel real and verifiable, be it the sophisticated architecture of the Chinese skyline dazzlingly above our characters, or the crunching insertion of a knife into the body.

Furious 7Furious 7 (Dir. James Wan)
Grade: D+

…but sadly digital technology has been largely abused in the years since studios transitioned nearly completely to it, used more to mask the grimy digital artifact, making the image look sleeker, glossier, and nearly weightless. This is certainly true of 2015’s most mismanaged colossus, naturally from Marvel, but Furious 7 made clear how carelessly studios have been utilizing digital technology as a fast and cheap way of avoiding the pressure and wait time of film. You can feel how clearly these images are constructed without financial or narrative consequence. What feeling the image visually raises isn’t as importance of how fucking dope the stunts are. A car does just fly from one skyscraper to another. It goes to yet ANOTHER skyscraper. While being shot with a rocket launcher! Cool, right? Now check out this hot lady’s gold spray-painted ass!

Admittedly a certain degree of careless misogyny is expected with the Fast and Furious series, but in the recent past it’s come across as, dare I say, respectful? Fast Five and Furious 6 prided themselves on giving their female characters more to do than be just “Mrs. Alpha”. Here it’s okay to drive a woman off a cliff inside a screaming metal death trap. What’s more, Michelle Rodriguez’s arc this time around includes little more than remembering who she’s really meant to be: a wife. The gender politics of this series have rarely felt so blatantly exploitative, the men’s savvy personalities have rarely been so revoltingly hyper-masculine, and the action has never been so compulsively over-the-top, blowing up onto more senselessly expansive canvases without any emotional reason for them.

Speaking of emotion, and not to forget the one reason this film was tough to avoid, Paul Walker’s role at the end of the film feels so forcibly designed to jerk tears that it’s hard not to resist the compulsion. It’s as though the filmmakers don’t trust us to realize the tragedy of this passing on our own. That said, Walker’s death does allow for a very intriguingly depicted action sequence, one where we’re never called to look directly into his eyes. We get more eye contact with the villain he’s fighting, oddly switching our identification to him, the character we can physically see. In this scene we see yet another illustration of how resolute the blockbuster film industry is, as Walker’s body is, from beyond the grave, reanimated so the franchise can keep putting out installments. Who cares if the heart isn’t there anymore?

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