Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Box (2017): what happens when one thinks outside the box?

Dušan Kastelic, primarily an illustrator and comic books artist, first broke into the scene of animated films in 2004 with his short film Animator’s Animated Autobiography. From there on he continued working as an animator with films such as Chicory ‘n’ Coffee (2008) and Wall of Signs (2009), and while his whole filmography is very much impressive, this year’s The Box / Celica marks his best work yet.

The Box, a beautiful yet unapologetically dark 3D animation is set in a small box (or a prison cell, as the Slovenian title would suggest) where a group of flat-headed people is fast asleep. Unwilling to look around and see their tragic and miserable situation, they surely are as good as blind as they sleep and snore through life with their eyes wide shut. Yet they are not just unable to see – they are also unable to move, as their legs are rooted into the grounds, intertwined with strong and resilient wooden roots that keep them “in their place”. They are in a box alright – in a box of their mind that prevents them from thinking, behaving or even looking any different from what is expected, of what is considered “normal” and “acceptable”. They seem content with their blindness, lack of freedom and inability to move – just as most people are content with not standing out, instead sharing their exact worldviews, values and opinions. Not thinking for yourself is always the easiest option for which the majority opts for, as anything else all too quickly results in harsh judgements, rejection, loss of friends and general nonacceptance. And just as most people these creatures are perfectly happy about being stuck in one place, as they convince themselves there is no place better than the comfort of their home, their country, of them being surrounded by people who share their language, values, nationality, race, sexuality, religious beliefs and political orientation. They are miserable creatures, no doubt, but unable or too afraid to change anything about their situation, or themselves. Or perhaps they are just too far down the road of self-denial to truly comprehend the extent of their miserable and gloomy existence.

However, this sameness and unanimity in being stuck and unable to see soon gets shaken up with a sudden appearance of a little guy whose eyes are glowing with curiosity and hunger for life – and who doesn’t care much about behaving as expected. He is happy, lively and eager to try new things, but this obviously means that he’s disrupting the alienated, disconnected and passively accepted reality by his relentless goofiness and attempts to break free. He is thinking outside the box, and as life would have it, his flat-headed co-habitants are not too happy about it.

People all too often get annoyed by those who stand out, who act, dress or think differently, who are unwilling to conform. By people who are different, who stand their grounds, who speak up when they are not expected to and are unapologetically themselves, no matter the situation. And this little guy is no different – as any child, he is looking at the world in front of him as full of possibilities, full of things to learn and experience. Yet we are not meant to be this way, we are not expected to reach for the stars, experience new things and change our existing situation – at least not without provoking and infuriating some people first; people who cannot bare to think of change and living up to one’s full potential, as we should be happy with what was given to us and not wanting anything more. The older creatures therefore try to put him into his place, just as any adult, whether a parent or a teacher, does with a child when they act differently, ask too many questions, or dream of things that are supposedly too romantic, idealistic, utopian and unachievable. And yet the little guy doesn’t lose his quirkiness and sense of humour – he stays true to his peculiarity and nonconformity, even when he grows up overnight and becomes one of the adults. But if he was simply seen as an odd kid who still needs to learn how to behave inside of the box, he becomes a true social anomaly as soon as he grows up. Him being different, happy and curious about what life has to offer annoys his flat-headed neighbours to the point of mockery and aggression – and finally an absurd attempt to flatten his head, making him one of them once and for all. But just as it is hard to make people see the truth of their life and situation, it is also hard to make people unsee once they have broken free from their mental chains and comprehended the truth around them.

People who think outside the box will always be judged, criticised and all too often rejected by people surrounding them. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop being ourselves, that we should give in to society’s expectations and keep quiet when our conscience tells us otherwise – since the life of a cheerful and spirited creature is, despite his outsider status, still more rewarding and valuable than life of a blind, boring, snoring one.

The film received its first accolades at Festival of Slovenian Film, where it won the award for best Animated Film. It recently got even further recognition at the Festival of Animated Film “Animateka”, where it won the Audience Award. I only hope for more of such success in the future, since Slovenian animated film scene deserves more support and recognition.

Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (2016)

When we first meet Rosie Ming, a tiny stick figure in Ann Marie Fleming’s animated feature Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, she is a beret-wearing twenty-something Francophile who still lives with her overprotective Chinese grandparents. But as any youngster at her age, she is getting restless and tired of her quiet and uneventful Vancouver life. As an aspiring artist, it comes as no surprise that her severe case of wanderlust is predominantly directed towards Paris, a city of artists and poets she romanticizes in her poems. She eventually decides to self-publish her ambitious effort at poetry in a smartly titled book “My Eye Full – Poems of a Person Who Has Never Been to France”, and soon enough, she receives an invitation to present her work at an international poetry festival. Only it isn’t an invitation to the country she worships and idolizes, but to someplace least expected: Shiraz, Iran. Much to her grandparent’s disapprovement, she packs her black chador, learns some basic Persian and boards the plane – and what follows is a lovely and charming animated story about expanding one’s worldview, discovering one’s identity and finding one’s artistic voice.

We don’t know much about Rosie’s heritage as we tag along for the drive towards Iran – except her being half-Chinese, something her small slants of eyes immediately suggest. Yet her eyes are not the only thing about Rosie that is drawn with astonishing simplicity, since her whole body is nothing more than a stick. Compared to the other characters, drawn in a lively, full-bodied, Cubistic design, she is still a naïve, not yet a fully formed girl, who has much to learn about world’s history, her heritage, her poetic origins and herself.

The way her grand-parents react to her announcement about going to Iran, resonates perfectly with current state of xenophobia and islamophobia that reigns over contemporary Western society. And yet, as the film’s narrative slowly unfolds before our eyes, we get to discover a much more complex story that is hidden in the background. What is perhaps this film’s greatest attribute is how it manages to tell a beautiful personal story about Iranian revolution, war, dissidence, political imprisonment and Iranian diaspora, through which it makes us understand Iranian cultural and political history. And with that, it manages to vanquish all prejudices against this rich and exquisite ancient culture.

The animation is vibrant and visually rich, as the director Ann Marie Fleming hosted a whole palette of fellow animators who helped her create a dynamic tapestry of different styles and visual approaches, each of them creating a different tale about history, myths and poetic language of this magical, yet strangely unknown Persian culture. Her minimalistic figure is absorbing these otherworldly and mythical lessons about history, art and life throughout the entire film, and even if she doesn’t get visually fuller or bigger, she still experiences a personal and artistic growth, as she transforms herself and her art through a trip of self-discovery.

However, there is also a deeper message in this animated feature than a simple nod to the idea of how meeting and absorbing new and different cultures makes as better people. Underneath it all there is also a simple, yet most essential message for these divisive, alienating times: no matter where we are coming from, what is our background, culture or nationality, we are all human and therefore more or less the same. We may speak different languages, but poetry simply transcends those linguistic differences; just as basic human connections should transcend our differences in race, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality. Through poetry we get to feel another person’s love, sorrow, hope for a better future. Let it be English, German, Chinese or Persian, the meaning and emotions are the same, even if the sounds differ. We are more alike than we are (or ever were) different, and we should therefore strive towards learning about and accepting different cultures, myths, arts and traditions, as we may learn a great deal about ourselves in the process.

Perhaps the reason Rosie stays a stick is because there is still so much more to learn and understand about the world. Since there are still continents, people and cultures that are waiting to be discovered, embraced and appreciated in all its uniqueness; waiting to be liberated, once and for all, of all the stereotypes, preconceptions and prejudices that form our current eurocentric views.

window-horses-2016-001-rosie-and-map-of-iran

Reviewed at International Festival of Animated Film “Animateka” in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

 

Let Him Be a Basketball Player (2017)

Released just a week before Slovenia unexpectedly won EuroBasket championship, this film could hardly ever dream of a better timing. It was a dream come true for their already strong PR department, as the film is continuing to break this year’s viewing records and thus becoming a true sensation among our youngest population. But does this mean the film is actually good and worth seeing? Far from it.

It was merely two years ago that Boris Petkovič made his first jump into the genre of coming of age films with The Beat of Love – a film that for most parts felt deeply uninspired and hardly ever lifted above average. With his latest film, Let Him Be a Basketball Player, he decided to swim even deeper into the world of teens at the brink of puberty, but the result once again hasn’t been particularly successful. Adapted for screen from a 90’s children book written by Primož Suhodolčan, the story either didn’t translate well to the cinematic world, or the written material just wasn’t that good to begin with. Either/or, the end product seems stuck in time that no longer exists (if it ever truly did), has little to zero character development, suffers from a patronisingly black-and-white portrayal of the world and fails to give any kind of a (positive) message to the young audiences.

Despite not being this film’s target audience, I still remember those years all too vividly and enjoy an occasional nostalgic ride to the hormone-fulled years of recklessness, rebelliousness, bad decisions and unrequited loves. However, this is not John Hughes, Celine Sciamma or even The Edge of Seventeenthe latest outstanding discovery in the genre. In times when most teenage films deal with specific issues that should resonate with the young, still forming individuals and adults alike, this film instead feels outdated before it even properly properly starts. Teen films are supposed to be about children’s personal growth (and not literal, as this film would like to suggest), peer pressure, parent-child conflicts, about teens questioning their sexual (or even gender) identity. But none of that finds its way into this bland vanilla tasting movie.

The main protagonist is Ranta, the dullest, most uninteresting person whose only identifying characteristics are his height and inspiration to become a basketball player in order to impress a girl (is there ever any other reason?). As it goes, we also have a comedic side-kick – who doesn’t really have a character apart from being obnoxious and funny, and Metka, who could, badly written as she is, easily remain nameless. But the problems do not stop at this unfortunate trio. There are also pure caricatures of Ranta’s parents, a cartoonishly evil owner of a basketball club and a geography teacher that’s meant to be funny but comes across as the biggest bully of them all.

Not only the film fails at establishing at least one relatable, three-dimensional teen character, but it does an even poorer job with the adults – the exception being a basketball teacher, played by Marko Miladinović. However, no matter how poorly written the entire cast, I cannot ignore the way this film treats its women. Just as with a recent teenage film disaster, John Green’s Paper Towns, the entire premise of the film is built around a guy who wants to impress a girl – without ever bothering to give this girl any personality, any story arc that would exceed the obvious: she’s pretty. Even the dramatic peak of the film, when Metka accuses him of not knowing anything about her, doesn’t resonate well. First of, the argument comes across as too dramatic, as the scene is not built up to it, and it makes Metka look completely irrational, on the verge of hysterical. And second of, for us to invest in her character we would need to know something about her, even if Ranta doesn’t. But we are left in the dark, even after she verbally expresses the wish to be “seen”, as Petkovič is clearly not interested in giving her any substance. The argument is thus resolved in the most pathetic tribute to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, inclusion of which is again somewhat puzzling to me, as the majority of the audience will obviously be too young to get the reference.

What then is the message that this film gives to children? That they will excel at anything they want as long as they will work hard enough? Kids should learn that sometimes things don’t work out as we would expect or want them to; sometimes other circumstances simply work against us, despite our talent. And even if things somehow work out, all the hard work we put into achieving something great usually has consequences either in our social, personal or romantic life. It also changes us as a person. Ranta, however, stays the same. The same dull, uninteresting character he was at the beginning, who now knows how to throw a ball. And who stays at the right track thanks to all the women in his life: his mother, whose only reason to exist is her constant providing of food and other goods, and Metka, who sacrifices all her free time to help him with the homework. Two women sacrificing all their screen time for nurturing a semi grown-up boy who thinks him playing ball is the most important thing in the world. Two women who apparently do not deserve any substance or personality beside being motherly and wifely, as they exist for one and only reason: to help reach Ranta his goal, to help him reach his true potential. Because apparently, despite being written in the 90’s, this story’s soul got stuck somewhere in the 1950’s.

20th Century Women (2017): punk, feminism and pre-Reagan politics in 1979 California

Santa Barbara, 1979. The year of the Iranian revolution, the energy crisis, the beginning of the never-ending antagonisms between the West and the Middle East, and the beginning of an end of Detroit’s auto industry.

A car that dramatically bursts into flames in the opening scene symbolically represents an end to the industrial force that was once the USA, and on remains of which will soon emerge the new and irreversibly destructive neoliberal politics of Ronald Reagan. However, as this is not a film about American politics, the symbolism of the burning car hides two separate meanings. A car, universal symbol of masculine society and patriarchy, that is slowly disappearing in burning flames in the film’s opening shot, is also indicating an absence of a fatherly figure in our 15-years old protagonist’s life. “This was my husband’s Ford Galaxy,” explains Dorothea, Jamie’s enigmatic mother in a voice-over narration that is constantly reappearing throughout the film, helping us understand the unusual relationship between this chain-smoking single mother who is uncompromisingly bending all existing social “rules” of gender, sexual identity and nuclear family, and her rebellious teenage son who is just beginning to learn about life, love and late 70’s punk scene.

Dorothea (Annetre Bening) is an elderly mother who grew up with the music of Cole Porter and films of Humphrey Bogart during the Great Depression, and she finds herself disconnected from her adolescent son, whose teenage problems, music preferences and a subculture he identifies himself with, are too far away from what her generation could ever fully comprehend. This leads her to a conclusion that the generational gap between the two of them is far too big for her alone to be able to raise him. She turns for help to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, charming as always) and to Jamie’s platonic love Julie (Elle Fanning), both of whom spend most of the days hanging out in Dorothea’s Victorian villa. Abbie, who draws most of her artistic inspiration from the intangible persona of David Bowie, is an aspiring photographer and a feminist who starts introducing Jamie to the vibrant life of underground punk scene, seduction of women and female sexuality as described in a cult feminist work, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Julie, although merely 16 years old, also has an incredible depth to her – she, just as Abbie, transcends all the stereotypes of women who strive towards stability, marriage, family and security. The two of them, together with Dorothea, form a unique matriarchy in which all taboos of what is an appropriate conversation to have at the dinner table, disappear: women’s sexuality, pregnancy tests, contraception, orgasms and giving birth is just a few of the topics that this film shamelessly touches upon. But where Mills, even if just for a second, becomes truly controversial at breaking the social taboos concentrated around women’s biological processes, is with Abbie’s monologue about (and a tribute to) menstruation – to something that’s absolutely natural, and yet is rarely talked about (let alone portrayed in the media, as recent controversy over Instagram picture showed), causing women to hide all the signs of menstruating, as if it is something disgusting and shameful.

Mike Mills broke into the film scene with his debut indie Thumbsucker in 2005. However, it wasn’t until his second feature, Beginners, that his visual style and with personal memories filled narrative voice fully came into being. 20th Century Women, his third feature, is undoubtedly the most logical follow-up to his previous film, as they perfectly complement each other. However, if he was trying to depict (and in the process of that, understand) his father’s coming out as a gay man at the age of 75 in the Beginners, he now focuses on the other parental half – his mother. It goes without saying that this is another deeply personal film, filled with real-life events and situations, through which Mills somewhat therapeutically analyses an enigmatic personality of his late mother, all while paying a tribute to her indescribable complexity, eccentricity and unquestionable uniqueness.

What Mills manages to bring to the screen is a wonderful story about motherhood and women’s friendship, revolving around three incredibly complex and interesting female characters. However, what he also creates with this timeless tribute to strong and empowering women that shaped his life, is a unique time capsule of what life was like in 1979.

“They don’t know this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming,” Dorothea says at one point in a voice-over narration. But what they don’t know is that world as they know it will soon forever change with destructive neoliberal politics, a complete destruction of welfare state, endless austerity, and never-ending attacks on women’s (reproductive) rights.

Raw (2016): cannibal teen coming-of-age in this body-horror masterpiece

Horror genre seems to be elevating to a completely new level. Let it be Ana Lily Amirpour’s feminist vampire masterpiece A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, one thing is becoming clear: horror films are, thanks to these women filmmakers, getting a new and refreshing dimension of scary. But none of those films have been quite as fascinating, disturbing, funny and disgusting as Julia Ducournau’s extraordinary first feature Raw, a blood-soaked coming-of-age story about finding one’s femininity, sexuality and identity.

Justine, a brilliant 16-year old, is stepping into the world of adults by following her parent’s footsteps and starting a veterinary college. Away from her protective parents and with no-one but an older sister to look after her, she suddenly finds herself in a whole new world, and it’s vicious, unwelcoming and scary. It is no revelation that people can be mean to each other, but a college campus with minimal adult supervision proves to be a hell breaking loose, as senior students decide to put freshmen’s to a test through a series of hazing ceremonies. They trash their dorms, get rid of their mattresses, make them crawl to a raging party (a scene that turns into a gorgeously choreographed one-take shot),  force them to eat raw rabbit livers and pour buckets of blood on them in what looks like a group variation of De Palma’s cult scene in Carrie.

It is here that Raw takes an unexpected turn into a gory body-horror. Justine, despite loudly protesting against eating meat as she comes from a family of devout vegetarians, eventually (and much to her sister’s aggressive insistence) gives in – only to suffer the consequences none of the other students could foreseen. Not only does her body reacts to eating meat with a rash that spreads all over her body, but she soon starts developing a gnawing desire for meat – and along with it, a sexual appetite that soon turns into desire for human flesh itself. Her physical metamorphosis should be read as a metaphor of her coming of age, of her becoming a newly-born sexual being that is trying to establish her adult identity. But Ducournau takes the film’s premise of Justine’s coming to terms with her sexuality and repressed bestiality a bit further and it is here that her name – inspired by de Sade’s Justine from Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtues, begins to make sense.

After a hilarious bikini-waxing scene, that quite clearly parodies the extent of torture women are willing to go through to fit into socially constructed understandings of “beauty” and “femininity”, takes a dark turn and she for the very first time gets a taste of human flesh, Ducournau jumps into a risky territory of introducing us to a new-born cannibal with whom we are meant to sympathise. And it is indeed these insatiable cannibalistic urges – something animalistic that has awoken inside of her – that make us feel uneasy, if not downright disgusted while watching this film. But there is quite a simple explanation for this feeling of discomfort – and we do not have to look any further than to Freud’s explanation of “uncanny”.

Freud’s uncanny involves a paradox in that it concerns something which is at once frighteningly alien and strangely familiar. The feeling of familiarity is equally important as the feeling of strangeness here, as this feeling is always connected to some deep part of ourselves. The “other”, in our case Justine, is thus not truly someone else, but a core aspect of the self – and this feels uncanny exactly because there is a feeling of recognition. From the point of view of our civilisation, it is nature that is that “primal uncanny”, the Other that is actually the core of our being that has undergone a cultural repression. And while horror has a long tradition of blurring the borders between humans and animals, it usually does so by character’s literal transformation into a beast (let it be a werewolf or something else), where it is easier for a viewer to keep some distance and not fully identifying with it. But Justine doesn’t go through any drastic physical changes. She still looks like a normal teenager, whose only changes in character are her growing confidence, more provocative dressing choices, increasing alcohol consumption and sexual experimentation. Her bestiality cannot be detected by her visual appearance; it’s hidden beneath the surface, because it is a part of her core self, as it is a part of all of us. The film plays with the idea that we are all, deep down, animals – something we repressed as soon as we stepped into the “cultured” and “civilised” world of humans; in the symbolic order of language, inter-subjective relations, ideological conventions and laws.

One of Justine’s first victims, her older sister Alexia, is actually the one who most persistently tries to pull her out of the world of law and the symbolic. Being a cannibal herself, and already in full acceptance of her hungry-for-human-flesh identity, she tries to teach Justine how she too could fully embrace her newly found insatiable hunger. Their complicated sisterly relationship, always switching between love, friendship and rivalry, is central to the film’s exploration of what it means to be a (teenage) girl, and although Raw is gruesome and gore to the point it may at times be difficult to stomach, it nevertheless manages to deliver an intelligent exploration of femininity, the female body and its appetites. Not only are Justine and Alexia women with insatiable (sexual) appetites, violent impulses and angry outbursts (something usually denied to women in film, if not in life in general) – they also have bodies that bleed, sweat, puke and pee; something that, again, is not often seen on screen where a woman’s presence is always subjected to the male gaze. True, the sisters have a taste for devouring human flesh in a quite literal manner, but is the society we are a part of truly that much different from a fictitious veterinary school where students are developing a taste for raw meat? We may be devouring each other in a more figurative way, but we are doing it nonetheless – for what is capitalism if not people eating each other alive in a competitive fashion, for their own personal gain and success?

Despite Alexia trying her best to make Justine a part of her cannibalistic rampage, her little sister decides against it. And it is here that Ducournau’s main point comes into play: it is not through some pre-existing social order that we become humane. No matter how cultured, civilised, knowledgeable we are, there is still a part of us that exceeds the symbolic. And it is only by acknowledging this repressed monstrosity inside of us, the monstrosity that has the ability of causing unimaginable cruelty towards another human being, and then wilfully choosing compassion over our hunger for blood, that we can fully gain our humanity.