Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.
Downsizing begins as a premise: what if the technology existed to shrink people down to five inches tall, while retaining everything else about them? Scarcity would not exactly cease to be a problem, but resources would instantly become vastly more available, as it would require far less in terms of material to feed, clothe, or house a human being. The result is a vast increase in wealth for the shrunken: the middle class instantly transformed into the idle rich. The first third of Alexander Payne’s film follows just such a middle class couple, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, as they decide to undergo the downsizing process. There are informational meetings with sales reps, goodbye parties with friends and loved ones, and the clinical downsizing process itself, right down to where the shrunken people are gently scooped out of their now-oversized hospital beds with spatulas. Damon’s dream of post-capital luxury however, is crudely broken when he learns that he wife has backed out of the procedure. The resulting divorce leaves him not happily retired in a palatial mansion, but doomed to work as telephone support for Land’s End.
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Tangerine director Sean Baker returns to Seattle Screens this week with another tale of life on the margins of 21st century capitalism. Set entirely around the vicinity of the cheerfully purple Magic Castle motel, a semiurban wasteland of hotels, abandoned houses and oversized promotional mascots bordering the unapproachable dream of Disney World, Baker takes for his heroes a small group of children, led by Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), an amoral, loudmouth innocent trying to entertain herself over summer break. The first half of the film mostly follows her adventures with the neighbor kids in the motel (begging for change to buy ice cream, playing hide and seek in the motel office, exploring empty houses and what passes for countryside amid Orlando’s sprawl). The second half focuses more on Moonee’s mother, just as loud, but more amoral, as she resorts to increasingly inappropriate ways of earning the weekly rent cash. Uniting it all is the weary presence of Willem Dafoe, motel manager, a good man trying to do his job with compassion and honor.
Like Tangerine, Baker films with a sun-dappled luminosity that’s all but anathema in the European art house tradition of films about poverty. Being poor isn’t supposed to look nice, or fun, and the easiest way to convey that is with a drab grunginess. The Florida Project rejects that approach, but also the kind of somber mysticism that makes things like Beasts of the Southern Wild* or George Washington palatable for a mass audience. His models instead go back further, to the Depression: Hal Roach and the Little Rascals are thanked in the credits, and the influence of those stories of kids being poor but nonetheless being kids is clear. I was reminded as well of Frank Borzage’s classic No Greater Glory, about unsupervised children recreating the martial ideologies and conflicts of their parents’ generation, with tragic consequences. The kids in The Florida Project aren’t playing war games, but are instead learning their parents’ approaches to failing in capitalism: acting out against things, not people – they vandalize objects of wealth, a car, a house. One of their first acts of terror is literally turning off power. Poverty in The Florida Project never looks fun, it looks brutal and crushingly sad (the unseen face of the boy forced to give away all his toys because they don’t fit in his father’s car when they’re moving away). But it’s still sunny in Florida, and there is ice cream and cows and maple syrup to be found.
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Fresh off of wide acclaim both at film festivals across North America (the New York Asian Film Festival, Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal as well as here at VIFF) and at home, where it was just edged out as Thailand’s submission to the Academy Awards (in favor of SIFF favorite (and veteran of last year’s VIFF) By the Time It Gets Dark, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s cheating scandal/heist film is one of the most enjoyable, smartest genre films of the year. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn, the eponymous Bad Genius, who allows her pretty, but dumb, friend Grace and Grace’s pretty, but dumb and super-rich, boyfriend Pat to convince her to help them cheat on tests at their high school, an exclusive (ie expensive) private school. Lynn lives modestly with her father, a divorced teacher, and only attends the school on what she believes is a full-ride scholarship. When she learns the school is still charging her father money he really can’t afford, she decides to stick it to the system by snagging as much money from her wealthy classmates as she can. Eventually she ropes in the school’s other star scholarship student, Bank, who’s as smart as Lynn but even poorer. Years of cheating eventually lead them to try to cheat the STIC, the standardized test given to students all around the world who hope to study abroad.
The whole film, and especially the cheating sequences, are hyper-kinetic, with camera movement and on-screen graphics bringing life to what is essentially a group of kids filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil (there’s even a killer chase sequence, in a film about test-taking!). But Nattawut also deftly delineates the economic landscape of the school, with the rich kids pressured by their families to succeed at all costs: their exploitation of the poor, smart kids is merely following the logic of their parents’ ideology. And the poor kids, recognizing how the system is rigged against them, are motivated to sell their labor to the highest bidder, regardless of the ethical consequences. The ultimate moral crisis in the film is not so much the cheating, everyone knows that’s “wrong” and everyone does it anyway. Rather it’s in the differing ways Lynn and Bank chose to act within a society in which everyone cheats. Bank, fully internalizing the demon logic of capitalism, is never content, he’s constantly out to squeeze another million baht out of his marks, always in need of a new grift. For Lynn though, ultimately, enough is enough. She alone has the imagination both to create the scheme to cheat the system, and to see a way out of it.
From Mao to Meow: Revolution in Contemporary Chinese Cinema
Pop will eat itself.
Last summer veteran Hong Kong director Benny Chan brought us the year’s best martial arts film with the High Noon variation Call of Heroes. This year, he’s made the summer’s most improbable movie: a heart-warming comedy about a giant alien cat who befriends a mop-headed Louis Koo and his wacky family. Pudding is the greatest warrior on the distant planet Meow, a cat-world (literally: it’s shaped like a cat’s head) wracked by meteor collisions that has been hoping to colonize Earth for centuries. But none of the cat-agents sent to Earth have ever returned, though there are snippets of their successes: inspiring worship from the ancient Egyptians and modeling yoga in India. Pudding crashes on Earth and loses his MacGuffin, making him susceptible to the corrupting influences of Earth static. In a last ditch effort to save himself, he merges with the form of a fat orange house-cat, the resulting abomination being a obese, six foot tall ball of cuteness.
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The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.
Tonight the Seattle Art Museum kicks off its latest series of 35mm film presentations, this one devoted to writer-director Preston Sturges, who with a handful of masterpieces in the early and mid-1940s brought the screwball comedy era to its magnificent conclusion. The museum is presenting six of his films, playing every Thursday night through August 13. We’ll be covering them all here at Seattle Screen Scene, along with recording an episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast devoted to Sturges, which we should have up in two weeks or so.
First up is the least well-known, unfairly I think, Christmas in July, in which Dick Powell plays a wannabe adman who is tricked by some fellow workers into believing his submission in a coffee company’s slogan contest has won the $25,000 grand prize. A series of misunderstandings gets him the big check, a promotion and an engagement, and before the truth can come out he’s showered his whole neighborhood with gifts and toys. Deftly sketching the generational layers of the mid-century immigrant class system, Sturges gives as subtle a portrait of the disasters and fantasies provoked by capitalism as you’ll find in Hollywood, a far cry from the sentimentality and privileged condescension of his future avatar John L. Sullivan. The tone is delicately balanced between screwball and melancholy, the warm loneliness of Powell and his girl (Ellen Drew) dreaming on a rooftop leavened by the ten minutes it takes him to explain his slogan to her (“It’s a pun” is his hopeless refrain). Sturges would never again be this relaxed.
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