To outsiders, Noni Jean is on top of the world. She has a hotly anticipated R&B album weeks away from release and is blitzing the media with her happy, sexy, and confident image. But, one night, she tries to take her life by jumping from a balcony. Kaz Nicol, the officer charged with protecting her, bursts in and saves her life at the last moment. This starts a relationship between the two that provides an opportunity to examine what they really want in life. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) wrote the screenplay and directs Beyond the Lights.
I'm going to give you a story outline, and you imagine what kind of movie it is. A rising star in the R&B world is set to drop her latest album when she forms an unlikely romance with a police officer with political aspirations. It sounds like an open invitation for the worst in soapy melodrama, overblown musical performances, and grand emotions with shallow characters.
Beyond the Lights proves beyond any doubt that someone with intelligence, heart, and talent can find the powerful emotional core within any scenario. Movies exist not only to show us the impossible in terms of physical feats, like a spacecraft hurtling into a black hole. But they also exist to show us impossible relationships formed out of deep need, of people who have become such passive reflections of their environment that any step toward individuality disrupts the lives of every connected person. What Gina Prince-Bythewood has done is more impressive than any big budgeted spectacle. She has looked into worlds that seem alien, grounded them with a bevy of impressive performances, and presented them in such a way that the visuals speak more about society than any political screed you could read.
Not only is Beyond the Lights one of the best films of the year, it is one of the densest and most satisfying romantic dramas in years. No matter how you decide to approach Beyond the Lights there is a treasure waiting. If you want to review it purely from an academic perspective and the cultural differences between hegemony and appropriation within the necessary shifting identities late-period capitalism requires - then you're in great shape. But if you are just in the mood for a challenging and beautiful look at two broken professionals who are trying to figure out what is best for the both of them then Beyond the Lights is simply wonderful.
Jiro Horikoshi was a Japanese engineer responsible for many aviation designs leading up to and during World War II. Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is a fictional reimagining of the years prior to his great engineering successes.
One of the greatest pleasures in watching a Hayao Miyazaki film is the moments of silence where a character is concentrating on a great task. He typically animates these scenes with tiny movements - muscles tensing with anticipation, sweat slowly forming on someone's brow, or hair standing almost entirely on end in anxious worry. I'm thinking of when Prince Ashitaka raises his bow and carefully lines up a shot in Princess Mononoke, or Chihiro examines the creatures of Spirited Away.
Solely using this metric The Wind Rises should be a fantastic film. Jiro (Hideaki Anno) is a studious dreamer, so when he is not lost in his work his mind wanders the contours of his imagination for inspiration. There are long minutes where we watch Jiro at work measuring and performing calculations to perfect his aviation designs. The little details of Miyazaki's earlier films are present as Jiro's hand tenses slightly as he writes or his eyes narrow slightly while working through a problem.
Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues. You can watch The Wonder Ring here.
As The Wonder Ring draws to a close we see that familiar "By Brakhage" scratch that signed off so many of his films. But The Wonder Ring has only the basics of what we would eventually come to associate with Stan Brakhage films. The Wonder Ring is the eighth film that Brakhage created and is not using the experimental fusion of paints, layered stock, and varying exposures that would become his trademark. Instead it relies more on footage that he can acquire just through the camera and with very little manipulation of the image or lighting.
Still, even though it's conventional in some ways, The Wonder Ring has hints of the restless innovation that's to come. The film starts off solidly and grows in a more disorienting dimension by using some establishing shots to show the camera's location within a train station. But very quickly Brakhage starts to shoot certain aspects of the station in close-up that don't lend well to easy identification of the various building components, and only through slow rotation of the camera do we see that he is still photographing the station. The disorientation becomes worse through the camera's placement for these shots that gives the images a feel of being captured from something floating far above the ground.
As the climate around the world began to collapse, a single city is left standing against the desert. Jacq is an insurance adjuster for the largest provider of robotic helpers in the city. When he begins investigating robots who seem to have developed independent thinking, he is drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the few surviving humans that remain.
One of my favorite maxims about cinema comes from Jean-Luc Godard, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” What’s important about his phrasing is that by making another movie you are performing an illustrative act. The question becomes which sources of art are quoted for each movie, what balance of tone through visuals and action is obtained, what is the dialogue saying or omitting, and so on. To make another movie is to create another point of comparison out of the void, and from there we can begin to properly criticize as a constructive practice.
So it’s helpful that with Gabe Ibáñez’s Automata that response has already been created with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Both films are sincere to a fault, and to their benefit, glorifying their approach to science-fiction in different stylistic ways but never betraying their respect for the source. The key difference between the two is while Automata and Interstellar both take science-fiction seriously, Automata has an identity crisis about how best to approach its vision while Interstellar is crafted from someone who believes love runs the universe and by god that’s what Nolan’s going to show us.
Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues. You can watch Lovesong here.
When I'm watching a Stan Brakhage film I don't usually think of darkness. I think about the splashes of color, the after-images burned onto my eyes, the occasional use of sound and words, or the tumultuous emotion underneath. But rarely does the thought or image of darkness cross my mind, and now with Lovesong it's impossible for me to ignore.
Lovesong was one of Brakhage's last films. Though this is still Brakhage we're talking about and Lovesong is one of thirty-four films Brakhage made between 2001 and when he died in 2003. He wasn't someone to rest on his past success and faced the darkness ahead with the same creative zest for his work that he had as a young man playing around with film in the '50s.