2018 Updates

2018 in Review: August

This month: atom bombs, black klansmen, crazy rich Asians, regular poor Asians, Jurassic technology, desktop films, Masaaki Yuasa, and more.

Review: Never Goin’ Back

“A stoner picaresque film that keeps itself to a trim 85 minutes and thus doesn’t wear out its welcome, Never Goin’ Back is cartoonish but built out of very real, very harrowing concerns around having no money when you’re young. The movie suggests that the only reason anyone survives such periods is that the physical inability to think too far into the future that comes with youth makes it bearable. That and having a friend to ride things out with.”

“Not only has The Atomic Cafe not aged, but it feels more sharply relevant than ever. And that’s not just because the threat of nuclear war has currently reached the point where the American and North Korean presidents taunt one another over the size of their respective missile-launching buttons. Heavily irony-based humor hit the mainstream like never before in the ’80s, and today large swathes of popular culture communicate almost solely in ironic terms. In taking the almost incomprehensible existential threat of the bomb and turning the philosophical absurdity of the government’s and public’s treatment of it into a formal absurdity, the film presages the modern social media trend of making each piece of horrific news into a meme. Contemporary viewers will likely find Duck and Cover, the chipper cartoon short made to teach schoolchildren about atomic warfare, even funnier than ’80s audiences. Perhaps they’d label an image of Bert the Turtle retreating into his shell as a “big mood” (which it absolutely is).”

Review: BlacKkKlansman

“Spike Lee uses BlacKkKlansman to draw a line from Gone with the Wind (opening with the scene of the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta) to today’s violent white supremacist rallies (closing with direct video footage from the events). Along the way, characters watch or discuss such films as Superfly, Coffy, and—unavoidably in a movie dealing with the Ku Klux Klan—The Birth of a Nation. This ties into the film’s broader concerns about the performance of race, a new spin on the common theme of identity crisis in undercover investigation films.”

The Banality of Capitalism in China

“Bing has an unreal talent for finding precisely the right way to frame candid moments — and for making reenacted moments appear candid. Bitter Money employs the consistent visual motif of framing its characters within small spaces. Sometimes this naturally arises from the environment, for instance, in little houses or workshops. Other times the camera turns a few rows from a train car, or a storefront, or a balcony into an isolated area. The visuals emphasize that the subjects are trapped by circumstance. We watch them perform repetitive work at sewing machines for lengthy scenes, enough to try to project the tedium of a 12- or 14-hour workday and give the viewer a bare sense of what their lives are like.”

“The best way to think about this collection of strange exhibits is as a space where all myths, folklore, urban legends and old wives’ tales are appreciated for their elements of truth. Lawrence Weschler describes the museum in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, which was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, as a giant-sized cabinet of curiosities. Originating in the Renaissance, for hundreds of years European men of means kept such cabinets (then private rooms) full of unusual or distinct objects. In an age of scientific discovery, these cabinets showed objects that were not yet fully comprehended. Today, humans may be tempted to think we understand the world to a degree not too far from perfect. Wilson’s museum undercuts this idea, offering alternate theories on the workings of everything from memory to medicine.”

“The movie studies what happens when pleasant youthful freedom drifts into capital-D Drama. Teenage irrationality is posited as perhaps the inevitable endpoint not just of not-yet-formed brains but also of endlessly idle hands. Frustratingly, the easy naturalism that the young actors embody when they’re just hanging out doesn’t fully bleed into the more dramatic parts of the film. It’s not that their relative inexperience makes them bad at selling these scenes—they’re often convincingly raw in their emotion. But the more constructed nature of the conflict is obvious next to the freeform summer narrative it’s a part of. The fights between the girls may have been better off as just other episodes in their story, rather than an unwelcome interruption to it.”

“Director Jon Chu, who’s coming from a long string of dance-focused films, observes all this with a stiflingly inert camera. When Rachel makes a supposedly big entrance at a red carpet, it’s shot without any weight of a big reveal. This movie doesn’t even hungrily lust after the riches it sees, it can only stare, moving from one shot to the next with leaden pacing. This personifies its confused approach to its subject, that it exists primarily as an escapist fantasy yet thinks it can “say something” through bland dialogue, bad jokes, stilted performances, and refraining from stylizing luxury too much. You have, ultimately, a tortured metaphor about an Asian-American confronting their cultural roots. How well it actually captures a specifically Asian or Asian-American experience isn’t for me to say, but I doubt that anyone alienated by the film feels that way because it’s “too Asian” when these characters are blanks.”

“Yuasa operates within the “One rule: No rules” school of thought. Absolutely anything can happen in his films or series. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the plots are random or just bounce from one wild thing to another (although they certainly sometimes do, most notably in Mind Game). Rather, Yuasa won’t let any convention of animation — consistent models, staging, A-to-B editing — stand in the way of conveying the empathic reality of a scene. His characters contort and warp as they move or emote. He’ll divide a shot into multiple panels, then zoom in on one of them to continue a scene in lieu of a cut. Colors and screen effects burst and bloom and flow at will. His style is bold and immediately recognizable wherever it appears.”

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is distributed by Netflix, and has been made with an eye for that. It’s full of flat photography and sound work, scored with a generic contemporary pop soundtrack. It’s perfectly suited to blend into a roster of other youth-facing movies and shows. It’s example of entertainment as “content” instead of art. Condor, Centineo, and the rest of the cast personify that specific TV-soap-like brand of acting as a series of broad reaction shots and up-speaking as emotion.”

“We have yet to fully grapple with the changes the internet has brought to society. (Look no further than the furor over what to do about “fake news” for another example.) But filmmakers are catching up. The Unfriended films, Searching, and the upcoming Profile were all made with the help of Screenlife, a tool specifically developed for desktop films. As amateur users raised on YouTube, Twitch, and especially Vine come into their own as artists, we’ll doubtlessly see more films, essays, shorts, and other works which find even more new ways to explore digital spaces. This is one of the most exciting frontiers in cinematic art today, and not only can it all be seen on your laptop, but it’s even more at home there than anywhere else.”

Support the Girls finds the camaraderie in working a shitty job and explores it with a down-to-earth, humanistic feel that’s rare in mainstream entertainment. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski started out as a pioneer in mumblecore, and maintains that tone even when working with stars like Regina Hall. Hall plays Lisa, manager at a Hooters-esque joint called Double Whammies, equal parts den mother and wrangler for a squad of various waitresses. On one particularly hectic day, she has to balance getting the place’s cable fixed in time for a big boxing match, dealing with a would-be burglar who gets trapped in the ductwork, putting on an impromptu car wash to raise funds for one girl’s legal fees, and concealing the fundraiser from her boss, Cubby (James Le Gros). This is a story built out of minor incidents that amounts to a tremendous meditation on getting by.”

“Tones not unlike those of Terrence Malick flesh out the vision of impoverished childhood in We the Animals. As the title suggests, it envisions masculine youth as something untamed, with can be exhilarating and discomfiting in equal measure. Based on the novel by Justin Torres, Jeremiah Zagar’s film is a freewheeling excursion through its young protagonist’s life. There’s no coming of age, more a simple examination of what it is to be his age.”

Review: Juliet, Naked

“Juliet, Naked feints at a reasonably fun rom-com setup. Suffocating English small-towner Annie (Rose Byrne) feels lured from her humdrum day-to-day with longtime boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) toward a new man. The twist is that the new man, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is a washed-up former rock star of whom Duncan is a devoted fan. There are elements here with which Nick Hornby, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, is quite comfortable—music, obsessive fan love, thorny relationship tangles. But the movie drapes that promising skeleton in more generic meat.”

An ode to Adventure Time, one of TV’s most ambitious — and, yes, most adventurous — shows

“Adventure Time dared to be anything and everything, often at the same time. It was a silly, plotless kids’ show. It was an epic fantasy adventure. It was a long-term coming-of-age story. It was an experimental exercise. It was a stoner’s dream. It was a relationship drama. It was a heartbreaker.”

By Dan Schindel

Born and raised in Maryland and currently based in New York, Dan Schindel is an associate editor at Hyperallergic, freelance culture writer, and available for any copy-editing/proofreading needs you may have. This website was originally a blog called Days of Docs, and chronicled his attempt to watch and review a documentary every single day for a whole year. He was mostly successful at this, and now he knows everything. He puts this knowledge to use by writing about movies, TV, games, books, comics, art, and more.