For Reel

Only Yesterday (1991)
July 16, 2012, 9:46 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli’s most mature film is an incomparable masterpiece. Only Yesterday defies one’s expectations of even the most progressive of animated films – it is a quietly observed recount of aging and femininity, possessing none of the sense of scale or amusement that would commonly define even Ghibli’s most restrained efforts (Whisper of the Heart being its closest relative). Set in 1982 and 1966, Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata jumps between the 27-year-old Taeko, an office worker who is spending her summer on a farm in Yamagata, and her 11-year-old self, just hitting puberty and learning to make due with life’s disappointments. Whereas the sequences in the present are detailed with a hyperrealist aesthetic (going as far as animating muscle movements on the character’s faces, which is uncommon in traditional Japanese animation), the memories are suitably hazy, using expressionistic pastel watercolors to mimic the sense of remembrance. In an early sequence, Takahata recalls James Joyces’ great short story “Araby” – Taeko and her family have their first highly-anticipated bites of a pineapple, only to discover that the taste isn’t quite suited for them. Everyone but Taeko puts the fruit down, who stubbornly continues to eat in displeasure, unwilling to accept that her romantic fantasy of its sweetness has been crushed. It’s both a humorous episode and a sharply metaphoric take on adolescence, attuned to the rhythms and lessons of life with a fine understatement.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
March 27, 2012, 3:47 am
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Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Krzysztof Kieślowski first started making films in the mid-1960s. His early body-of-work is compromised of documentaries – shorts that concern industry, economics, class, and other various social problems facing Poland. Many of these themes would reverberate in his narrative work, such as his depiction of the hierarchy within the factory of Camera Buff. By the late 1980s, however, he underwent a remarkable shift, abandoning political themes altogether and instead discussing the mystical and the unexplainable. Perhaps no film is more demonstrative of the sensibilities of his late career than The Double Life of Veronique, one of his many masterpieces, and the last feature that he would make before undertaking the Three Colors Trilogy. The story is simple: two women, Weronika and Véronique, live in Kraków and Paris, respectively. They are identical, share a love of music, and seem to have a cosmic connection in which each one influences the other in unexplainable ways. As a study of identity, it is clearly Kieślowski at his most personal – this being a man whose late films were coproductions with France, having abandoned Polish social issues in his pictures entirely. More opaquely, however, it is one of the most profound and mysterious examinations of free will in the cinema. Take, for instance, a scene in which, after feeling humiliated by the puppeteer’s manipulations, Véronique flees and he proceeds to tail her. Noticing that he is following her, she successfully hides and watches him through a shop window as he fumbles on the street, having lost her. For a film very much about destiny and fate, this brief game of hide-and-seek is a moving moment of liberation – a simple gesture in which the character tests the limits of her own independence. Véronique’s final return to home is perhaps a parallel of this moment. She abandons nearly everything to join her father in the countryside – not defeated, but fully empowered, no longer a puppet.

Night on Earth (1991)
June 8, 2011, 8:05 pm
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Director: Jim Jarmusch

Five self-contained cab rides comprise the pleasurable, if inconsistent Night on Earth, Jim Jarmusch’s follow up to Mystery Train. It is slow to start – Winona Ryder is miscast as a chain-smoking taxi driver – however Armin Müller-Stahl redeems the film in its second short as the incompetent driver working his first night on the job. While none of the shorts are ambitious enough to live up to the lofty premise, the series of oddities – including a crude blind passenger and motormouth Roberto Benigni using his cab as a confessional booth – provide for entertaining, unusually specific parables about human interaction. Everything culminates with the ironic pathos of a Helsinki cab wherein two men berate their depressed, drunken friend for not being quite as sympathetic as their driver. Although the overarching meaning that unites these segments continues to be evasive, one is glad to have spent the time investing in Jarmusch’s outlandish vision.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)
April 30, 2011, 8:00 pm
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Director: John Singleton

The debut film from John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood is a deceptively simple crime picture with a newfound relevance considering the current economic divide and the disappearance of the middle class. Additionally, this is a film that promotes sex education and birth control – Tre, the only character in the film with a father, is warned repeatedly to not get anyone pregnant, which would effectively put an end to his education as well as deprive a child of a prepared parent. As provocative as the material may be, most frustrating about the film is that Singleton gives his audience little credit to think for themselves and crowds the soundtrack with music cues that attempt to dictate what the audience thinks and feels at every turn.