In Which I Recommend Three Movies (Dear White People, Listen Up Philip, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)

Dear White People

Dear White People

I feel like I need a second watch to solidify how I feel about Dear White People -but with so many interesting new releases hitting theaters in the coming weeks, I don’t know when that will happen. Even then, the first thing I have to say that it reminded me of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing -both favorably and negatively- and not only because of the racial themes. Like Lee’s masterpiece, it was the way Dear White People comes together at the end that revealed it as an incredibly urgent movie.

The bad news is that, unlike Do the Right Thing, the characters are not nearly as specific and original. Dear White People is a comedy satire, and while it makes some pretty cool assessments about the racial politics of such places as college campuses, it feels trapped by a series of recognizable characters whose journeys are a little too familiar. Another key difference is that there are clear villains in the form of the editors of the fratty-humor college publication, while the relationship between Mookie and Sal was one of the most nuanced and winning elements of Do the Right Thing. 

Now, saying that a movie isn’t as good as Do the Right Thing is pretty mean. After all, it is one of the best movies ever made. What Dear White People is, is a very entertaining and promising start to the career of writer-director Justin Simien. Simien uses framing and editing in an almost anarchic way, making the movie look as uncomfortable as the conversations its characters are having. The cast is also fantastic, especially Tessa Thompson, who gives life to a tough-as-nails activist who is a little too idealized for most of the movie, but reveals herself to be heartbreakingly vulnerable in the movie’s latter half.

ListenUpPhilip

Listen Up Philip

The first of three features I’ve watched by director Alex Ross Perry, this is a fantastic portrayal of a very specific kind of person. Now, it is a well-known fact that I don’t read many novels, but the people that do tell me that this movie, and its lead character, are very much based on author Philip Roth. Now, I have not read a single thing Philip Roth has written, and I don’t know how Listen Up Philip stacks up to his work, or his persona. But I do know that it is a pretty great movie.

Jason Schwartzman gives a hilarious performance as Philip, a young novelist whose second novel is about to come out and is described in the movie as “notable but not successful”. Philip is also narcissistic to an extreme that surpasses the boundaries of incredibility to become one of the most realistic portrayals I have seen of such people. The movie not only follows Philip, but his girlfriend Ashley (played by an amazing Elisabeth Moss), and an older, more successful author: Ike Zimmermann (Jonathan Pryce). Zimmermann is as much of an asshole as Philip, indoctrinating him in his dick-headed ways, and serving as a possible glimpse into Philip’s own future.

On the other hand, Ashley is just one of the many characters (definitely the most important and well developed) whose lives are affected by Philip’s behavior. The movie strikes gold in the way it uses narration and extreme close-ups to be as detailed and dark as it needs to be to present the full effects Philip’s poisonous view of the world has not only in the people around him, but in his very own future. It is very much a movie about digging your own emotional grave. Deeply dark, but also profoundly funny.

Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

After singing the praises of two movies already in this post, let me end by saying that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year, and one that you are guaranteed to see pop up when I release my Top 10 List at the end of the year. So, here’s the thing. Animated films, especially those with female leads, have always been subject to scrutiny as far as their gender politics are concerned. And rightly so. We owe it to our children to expose them to favorable and rich portrayal of both men and women. However, when studios such as Disney have tried to make more progressive movies (such as Aladdin, Mulan, or the recent gigantic hit that was Frozen), we’ve always ended up with more of a post-feminist kind of movie rather than an actual feminist one.

Now, let me explain the difference between those terms (as I was explained one of my classes on gender studies). Post-feminism positions that we have reached equality for women, and thus, strong women could get by on their own based on the fact that they’re strong. That is how, say, Merida from Brave uses her inner strength to get through her troubles and succeed at the end. Now, there’s nothing wrong with strong women characters, but The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the first animated feminist movie that I can remember seeing. In it, the Japanese folk tale of a little princess who grows out of a bamboo tree is adapted into a story about a trapped girl, who can’t really be herself no matter how hard she tries. All of the princess’ attempts at freeing, or carving a better future for herself end in disaster, just because the society she is living in won’t let her.

The movie was directed by Isao Takahata -co-founder of Studio Ghibli alongside the legendary Hayao Miyazaki-, and is a masterclass in the beauty of traditional animation. Every frame looks as a beautiful watercolor painting, with the lines and the movements of the characters adopting an impressionistic aesthetic that makes this probably the most beautiful movie I’ve seen all year. Supported by these visuals, and by the fantastic score by frequent Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, The Tale of Princess Kaguya was an outstanding experience. It moves slowly, and it gets a little too long in the middle part, but by the end, I was moved to tears, but also infuriated thinking about how many young girls are as hopeless and helpless in our society as this Princess Kaguya.

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