681. Frances Ha

02Feb15

FRANCES HA follows an aimless 20-something woman in New York City as she attempts to figure out her life. And if that sounds like a cliché, the execution certainly isn’t. Co-written by director Noah Baumbach and lead actress Greta Gerwig, the film toes a careful line between bleak and lighthearted, balancing a character who makes plenty of mistakes but has her heart in the right place. Enjoyment of the film is going to be pretty dependent on whether the viewer likes Frances or not, but for me, Gerwig has the charm and sincerity to pull it off from the start. And Baumbach’s direction keeps the black and white filming as playful as its subject. A favorite moment has to be Frances embarking on the most disappointing Paris trip in film history. But what stays with me more than anything are the explorations of themes severely lacking in cinema: the idea that creative ambition doesn’t have to end in wild success or miserable failure; and the elevation of friendship to the status usually reserved for romance. More of that, please.

francesha


Today is Criterion Affection’s birthday, five years from when I first posted an illustration of Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. And I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has been following, commenting, suggesting, and sharing my little pet project ever since. You are all fantastic! It’s been so much fun being a part of the online Criterion community and having the chance to talk about films. It’s also pretty rewarding for me to look back and see how my illustrations have evolved and improved over the years. There are still three days left to buy prints of everything, so don’t forget to do that.

And finally, to the hardworking folks over at Criterion: this has all secretly been a five year job application. Call me.


121. Billy Liar

02Jan15

Happy new year! Remember, there’s only a week left to buy this and all of my other Criterion illustrations as prints.

I can be picky about films depicting disaffected teens, but the 1963 kitchen sink drama BILLY LIAR is perfectly subtle and charming. The titular liar Billy, played with a ton of range by Tom Courtenay, relies on fantasy to get himself through his dull middle class life. He’s a lazy clerk for an undertaker, juggles two girlfriends he doesn’t much care about, and dreams of ruling an invented struggling nation. It’s all very sweet, but the film comes alive at the introduction of Liz, played by an absolutely dazzling Julie Christie, who is living the carefree freedom that Billy only pretends at. The interactions between the two are beautiful to watch, and drive the film towards a moving end. I particularly appreciate that most everyone in the story is treated sympathetically, fitting for the on-location realism that marks the film’s visual style. Outside of Billy’s make-believe world, there are no real villains, no right or wrong decisions, and nothing is quite black and white.

billyliar


701. Persona

25Nov14

Criterion Affection prints are still available from now until January 7th! Purchase this illustration and others right here.

It’s clear from the first few minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA that this film is something special and strange, and just a bit creepy. It opens with a collage of shocking imagery before settling into the main storyline of a young nurse charged with the care of an actress who has suddenly gone mute. They retreat to the seaside for her recovery, and there they spend most of the film alone in each other’s company. The performances by Bibi Andersson (with all the dialogue) and Liv Ullmann (with no dialogue) are both incredible, as their relationship shifts between amicable, intimate, hostile, and sexually charged. They’re highlighted by stark black and white cinematography, and propelled by just enough plot to keep things moving before the story starts to fray and fall apart. PERSONA is a puzzle of identity, gender, and existential angst that I have neither the space nor qualification to unravel. But even at face value, there’s no escaping the film’s mysterious emotional impact.

persona

 


Prints for Sale

07Nov14

Today is my birthday, everyone! But there is another important milestone that is fast arriving: the five-year anniversary of Criterion Affection. As of January 5th I will have been sporadically watching and illustrating these films for five years now, and I wanted to do something special to celebrate that fact. And so, for a limited time only, I am selling prints. That means for the next two months you can purchase a print of every single illustration I have ever done on this blog. That’s right. Your favorites, your not-so-favorites, the five-year-old illustrations I’m too embarrassed to look at anymore—they are all available. And any artwork I complete between now and then will automatically be added to the shop. After January 7th, the prints will come down and you probably won’t be able to buy one for the next five years, so keep that in mind.

And thank you to everyone who has been reading, following, sharing, and commenting on this blog since I’ve started. It means so much to me.

PURCHASE PRINTS HERE

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134. Häxan

31Oct14

Happy Halloween! Previous Halloween installments can be found here and here.

The 1922 silent film HÄXAN is not entirely sure what kind of movie it’s trying to be. Or rather, HÄXAN knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and it’s merely the audience that’s unprepared for it. Starting as a straightforward lecture on the belief in witchcraft in the middle ages, complete with engravings and a disembodied pointer, it soon moves on to a dramatization of medieval life. That’s still perfectly normal for a documentary. What is less normal are the dramatizations of the fictional things that witches do: a bacchanalian witches’ Sabbath, a woman cheating on her husband with the devil, nuns being possessed. And if that weren’t enough, the film gets extra grim when it goes into the undiluted events of a witch trial, including a full catalog of torture equipment and their use. One has to wonder if the director wanted his documentary to have shock value, or if he wanted to lend his horror film some academic legitimacy. And what is there to make of the fact that the director, himself, is cast as the devil? None of it is very shocking today, but it is incredibly entertaining, with great comedic timing and some gorgeous visual effects. A fun spooky way to spend your holiday.

haxan


The description of SECRET HONOR tells you right away that this is the kind of movie that can either triumph or fail. Phillip Baker Hall plays a recently resigned President Richard Nixon, who delivers a 90 minute monologue into a microphone, surrounded by portraits, whiskey, and a gun. And that’s it. With the wrong actor or director, this could have been a pretty painful 90 minutes. But Phillip Baker Hall is incredible, careering between depression, rage, joy, shame, and manic bouts of paranoia that are constantly engaging, even if it’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. (My very limited knowledge of politics meant that I was furiously Googling everything as he spoke.) Robert Altman’s deft direction doesn’t hurt either, and he makes full use of his single actor and set. Particularly memorable are the row of television screens that sometimes display security footage, but more often are trained on Nixon’s face. It’s fear and ego wrapped up into a nice little visual, just as Nixon’s complexities are wrapped up into this deceptively simple film.

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If you want to see my reaction as a comic, check out my cameo on Jordan Jeffries’ blog, where he’s chronicling everything he sees in theaters.

I was pretty excited when I went to see this French coming of age film, since there are few quality lesbian films in the world, and hardly any that I would consider Criterion caliber. Unfortunately, I found BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR to be a disappointment. The script seemed to confuse meaningful looks and beautiful close-ups with actual character development; I felt like I sat through the entire three-hour epic without learning anything substantial about either protagonist, other than the fact of their being in love. (This is through no fault of the wonderful actors.) The motifs I found interesting—self discovery, the minefield of high school opinion, the clash of differing backgrounds and professional goals, the insufferable side of the art world—were usually dropped without deeper exploration or even resolution. And what was left felt more like a romanticized fantasy than an actual comment on relationships. Despite my flippant drawing below, one thing I actually quite enjoyed was the controversial and very explicit portrayal of sex. Regardless of its accuracy, it was nice to see lesbian sex shown as rough and passionate, not just gentle and fluffy all the time.

blueisthewarmestcolor


I first watched this some years ago and recently had the chance to watch it again, and Agnès Varda’s CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 is just as good, if not better, as I remembered. As the title suggests, the film follows its protagonist in real-time, from the hours of 5 to 7 o’clock. She tries on hats, meets with a lover, sings some songs, drives around with a friend. But her activities are just distractions as she waits to hear possibly devastating news from a doctor. It’s this duality between her exterior and interior experiences that creates the conflict of the story. On the surface, Cléo is shallow and girlish, and to be fair she’s a bit shallow under the surface as well. But only the audience is privy to the very real fears that manifest as superstitions and upsets, and get dismissed by the other characters as mood swings. It’s a nuanced exploration of the kind of person—frivolous for one, female for another—who is rarely taken seriously, let alone laid bare in all her flaws and strengths and contradictions. Character study aside, the film is also steeped in French New Wave style, but the kind of playful camera rule-breaking that’s fun and surprising, and never tedious. With all of that being said, in case you can’t tell, I love this film. I feel pretty confident in calling it my favorite New Wave film, full stop.

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Akira Kurosawa’s first color film is a collection of stories set in a slum. Bookended by a young man who thinks he drives a trolley through the squalor, it’s full of characters who find ways of getting by. The stories range from light and humorous (I adored the two color-coded couples who swap husbands) to the macabre. The most memorable, and certainly most grotesquely theatrical, imagery comes from a homeless father and son who dream of their ideal home while things fall apart. Some of the plots are more engaging than others, but most of it I enjoyed. And though the stylistic combination of realism and fantasy can be disorienting, it mirrors the duality of the characters’ lives. Sometimes they live in grime and decay. Sometimes they live in exuberantly painted backdrops that are like the bright children’s drawings in the “trolley” conductor’s home. Kurosawa’s first use of color may be over the top at times, but you won’t hear me complain.

dodeskaden




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