What makes Rama Burshtein one of the most interesting contemporary directors in the world is a complex web of any explanation, but one that unveils the sort of authorship and command she has on her craft and stories. This explanation stems from Bursthein's biography; she grew up secular, and American, and late in her life converted to Hasidic Judaism. Her two films, Fill the Void and the most recent The Wedding Plan, both deal with marriage within a Jewish Orthodox environment and both deal with women at the center of a marital conflict and under duress. Burshtein dresses these stories with many fruitful ingredients: intimacy, humor, tragedy, anxiety, faith, and independence. These ingredients create dense portraits, extremely detailed in emotional observance of the complexities women face when empowering themselves in a rigid social system. Breaking barriers notwithstanding, these stories are not indictments of Jewish Orthodoxy. Rather, they float in some introspective gray area.
Admittedly, I cannot accurately sharpen my observation of her work because here is the thing about watching her films: perception wildly varies as her films are purposefully open-ended. So when I walk away from these stories, I don't know how much of what I saw is a subversive remark on Orthodoxy or just my secular inclinations stamping their assumptions onto the image. Initially, this standoff is frustrating, because more questions are raised than revelations. After prudent moments of contemplation, replaying the gratifying scenes over in my head, this frustration turns into excitement and a frenetic curiosity.
So when it comes to The Wedding Plan (you must have forgotten this was a review of the film), I find myself thinking there is far more to this film than meets the eye. Many outlets are describing it as a romantic comedy. Although it may be true, that sort of label places a lot of unfair expectations because The Wedding Plan is far from a traditional, Western rom-com. It's plot, which might be the closest aspect to a mainstream rom-com, involves Michal (played immacuately by Noa Kooler), a thirty-something who is one month away from getting married before her fiance professes cold feet and an absence of any love for her. Determined, no obsessed, with being married, as it indicates a high social status in her community, Michal plans to have her wedding in a month and she insists on finding a groom with the help of God's divine intervention.
Ludicrous is an understatement, and the sheer absurdity of the premise provides much of the tense moments but Burshtein does not let this frenzy of a plot take over what she does best. This starts with her masterful direction of actors. Fill the Void featured an extraordinary ensemble, headed by Hadas Yaroun and her subdued Shira. Kooler's Michal is bubbly and quite confrontational. She is the kind of person who desperately clings to a situation somehow thinking she's got full control over it. Natural chemistry flows between Kooler and her co-stars, most notably the woman who play her sister and friend. Burshtein also brings back Irit Sheleg, a fine character actor from Fill the Void, who once again plays a mother exhibiting immense care and formidable strictness, finalizing another successful ensemble, mostly made up of women, who display a spectrum of feelings and ideas about love, marriage, and selfhood.
Continuing a similar visual approach like in Fill the Void, cinematographer Amit Yasuf rarely uses wide shots, full shots, or establishing shots, favoring medium, medium close ups, and close ups. Very rarely do we stray from Michal and its significance is paramount for Burshtein's continual concentration on keeping things open. We watch Michal's face, the way it bends and curves slightly or dramatically, to the many things she encounters, and a direct line of sympathy is established between her and the audience. As much as things become humorous at times, our closeness with Michal sensitizes our reactions towards mments of pain and frustration. There are numerous moments where the anxieties of an impossible proposition are made visible on Michal's face, surfacing from the deep dark trenches thought to be overwhelmed by positive faithfulness. And it is made even more complex when Michal's character still upholds her independent right to choose a suitable husband rather than just pick one because that's what needs to be done. In a way, although she relies on God for good things to happen, she is proudly picky at whatever 'miracle' is thrown at her. Returning to the cinematography, Burshtein and Yasuf both know that staying close to Michal, her face along with many other mannerisms, allows us room for personal rendering.
And this is both a huge strength and somewhat of a weakness. Simultaneously, The Wedding Plan relishes in formatting to romantic comedy tropes, and there is delight in how dating scenes are handled (one in particular features a suitor who has conditioned himself not to look at women) while also providing thin scenarios and story threads that may act as unnecessary fluff. In a sense, it creates a very thin line between relying too much on these tropes and using them just enough for the purposes of unique commentary. It ends up holding together because of Kooler's ecstatic presence, both a glue for some of the film's wavering and the sole justification for all of the film's inconsistencies. Essentially, she humanizes a plot that would never be taken seriously in any other context.
How seriously we should take this film depends on what I mentioned at the beginning of this piece; how much you think Burshtein is critiquing on Orthodox standards versus how much it is the audience's perspective. How this film unfolded for me is one that will keep me puzzled and curious for a long time. Knowing full well the open-ended characteristics of her filmmaking, I braced for any sort of vague presentation in all elements of the the filmmaking. It's hard for me to put into words these feelings when I have to cloak the events that concluded the film, but let me say that there is much argument in favor of a full critique of traditional romantic comedy stories insofar as there is a lighter critique on Orthodoxy. Quite possibly, Burshtein has taken us for a slyly scathing ride into a disappointing fantasy world, some sort of subtle deconstruction of genre in an effort to talk about love and faith. When watching the last fifteen minutes, there are curious filmic choices, from shot type to blocking to even performance. It is both absolutely brilliant and maddening at the same time. I'll stop there, in fear that I would either give something away or sound like a deranged fool. Who knows if all of this is just in my head? But this sort of crazed uncertainty is why I love the film so much when all is said and done.
The takeaway for a perplexingly enjoyable film like The Wedding Plan is that it has both moments familiar and sweet in nature and moments of wry inspection. No matter how much I am wondering what the intentions of this film were, I do know there is a directorial assurance drenched on each and every frame. Another dense work by a great filmmaker, Rama Burshtein has become a voice all her own.
Let me begin by attempting to describe Dash Shaw's debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. On its most basic level, the film is a teenage dramatic rendition of The Poseidon Adventure, as a California high school falls into the sea after faulty maintenance and some earthquakes, the whole high school tumbles and floods in the same way the cruise liner once did way back in the seventies. After such an initial assessment, High School acts like a cynically sarcastic Mad Max, where anarchy and brute force trump rationality. Eventually, peeling off the layers of prickly exaggeration, there is the conceptual abstract layer that, dare I say it...I will say it, resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey if Kubrick's film focused on coming of age. Though, once you thinking about it, isn't human evolution another form of coming of age?
Nevermind that, let us return to Shaw's film.
I open up my reflection in such a way because there is a level of perplexity exuded in this spectacle that one might need to step back and organize thoughts before making any claim. In addition, it is also to sort of endorse the coupling of a absurd allegory with what seems like randomly neurotic animation. For a film about teenage angst, or the struggle to come to terms with identity in an environment of volcanic pressure like a high school, an animated neurosis, where Shaw and lead animator (and wife) Jane Samborski conjure up a world on edge. Even in the character design, where the lining seems to vibrate erratically depending on what sort of action is taking place, suggest individuals as balls of fear and anxiety.
And there is more to talk about on the art direction, the way in which Shaw and Samborski stich together different styles and, in some instances, different media. Ultimately Frankensteinian, what culminates if grotesquely organic, revealing all the worse traits of a high school experience, thrown into a cauldron of satirical scrutiny, and manufactured into a surprisingly tender acceptance of the uncertain complexity that wrought many people's experience in growing up. Volatile animation reflection the volatile point of introspection and internal decision-making on who you are and who you want to be.
Shaw implants himself into the narrative as an ignorant writer for a school paper no one cares about. His best friend and co-writer, Assaf, sees to it that his prose never unhinges into the ridiculous, but begins to fall for their editor, Verti, which causes a rift in the friendship. After a couple of misadventures, it is soon when the high school breaks from from its earthly roots and tumbles into the stormy seas that Dash must put his troubles behind and work with those he loathes to survive. Again, without giving too much away, much of what I absorbed in this ludicrous plot is allegorical. Anyone with a bad experience or even an uncomfortable experience in high school could relate to the savagery that permeates within the locker-flanked halls. There are moments of stark violence or intense imagery that provide some sort of shock, if not a loud chuckle, because Shaw does a pretty good job at balancing satire with scathe, albeit with some missteps. Much of those missteps come with some odd choices of visual and aural editing that makes some of the action and blocking confusing, thereby risking subduing a scene's power.
And the plot, as zany as it is, does trip on surprisingly safe tropes of teenage dramas which audiences would make a choice as to take or leave it in regards to investment. Those that leave it will most likely find the aesthetics unappealing in its strangeness. Those that do end up taking it may not be entirely satisfied but will still find so wholesome characters all facing their own youthful struggles. The crux of the main characters, though, has to be Lorrane the Lunch lady, voiced by a sagacious-sounding Susan Sarandon (sorry for all the 's's'), an honorable woman whose strength is unbounded by the assumptions many students may have of her and her vocation. That, and many of the characters' motivations seem to ring true and thoughtful as to why they think the way they think so, in an effort to understand the chaos of growing older, these moments of quiet and hushed weirdness, are refreshing and effective.
Lastly, there is something to be said about the film's most absurd moments, the reason why I would even mention Kubrick earlier. There is this sense of mysterious or bizarre that only the cornucopia of visuals can respect. In some moments, particularly during the climax, we leave the plot behind and venture off into this textual universe of isolation and fright. The colorful patterns and psychotropic superimpositions heighten this sense of disorientation at the molecular level, playfully imagining a mindscape unsure and afraid of what others think. These moments are what seemed to be most personal for the filmmaker but, in some ways, in all of their abstract glory, universal when projected in a theatre. An ambition here to leave the somewhat predictable plot for something far more confusing and possibly unsatisfying is welcoming in an age with many animations that are too nice and neat.
Yes, high school can suck, it can eat you alive...or electrocute you...or slap you silly...it can do a lot of things. Shaw succeeds in not pulling any punches. Maybe he did experience them or maybe he didn't, but he taps into the tormenting positions many teenagers put themselves in in the name of acceptance. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is wish-fulfilling. Dash Shaw pulls the strings with a force and manner of his choosing. But there is enough here for sympathy, despite its shortcomings.
Physicist have been trying to simulate what it must have been like during the infant time of the big bang, where the universe exploded out of an infinitesimal space into the boundless arena we know (kind of) today. Maybe these scientists need to watch Viktor Jakovleski's debut feature, Brimstone & Glory, which seems to keep an abstract eye on the minute details of firework explosions during the pompous carnage of Teltepec, Mexico's annual celebration San Juan de Dio. Universes seem to be exploding from the gunpowder particulates flailing through the charcoal sky. Out of context, the slow motion, out of focus, shots feature excruciatingly phantasmagorical beauty presenting us with supernovae of color and heat. Born out of the the release of awesome pressure is the universe of a pridefully insane culture of jovial bombast. Jakovleski fully embraces such spirit in creation of a cinematic equivalent.
Such a frenetic and tactile sensation would not be possible without the dangerous but ultimately courageous cinematography of Tobias Von de Born, who could have experienced some burns taking the camera into the heart of the spastic nebula of charged light. Camera motion abounds, not in an effortlessly fluid manner but in a darting and prevenient mode, zipping around subjects, bolting this way and that, rarely slowing to a glide. Drone shots encapsulates the popularity and necessity for such a perilous holiday, often times hovering just over the fire-crackling palm trees that gleam above the massive crowds. Then, there are those shots that throw the camera and cameraman into a energetic re-imaging of a Pollock painting, searing with Brownian velocity and scorching luminosity.
And it is not just the cinematography that embodies such a vigorous poem of a film. Most of the elements delightfully play in conjunction with intriguing tension. Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, whose previous works included the dynamite feature, Beast of the Southern Wild, score this film with popping percussion, emblematic of its fire-cracker counterparts. One layer at a time, the music builds into symphonic wonderment, aurally recreating the lingering gaze onto grandiose polychrome.
As technically marvelous as this film is, Dennis Harvey of Variety makes a good point on the formal approach of this film, regarding it as a, "semi-ethnographic tone poem." Although subjectivity transpires as a means of experiential filmmaking, the rest of Brimstone & Glory is largely objective as it looks and listens. There is no plot other than the people of Tultepc preparing and celebrating the holiday, though we faintly follow a young boy as he builds courage to run through the luminous cacophony. An interplay between subjective and objective perspective makes for an enthralling piece both in respectful observance to a certain group of people as well as placing the viewer among this group of people, with the same fear and energy and awe; empathy made through brute force, essentially. Briefly, one example sees a worker climbing to the top of a castillo, or castle, laden with fireworks ready to go off when prompted. Through a GoPro on the worker's hat, we see a wide-angle representation of what he sees. If you are afraid of heights, you may have to look away.
At just sixty-six minutes, Brimstone & Glory is a sprint, a muscular flex that does not abate. It is one of the most confident films I have seen in recent memory, representing its subject with unequivocal honesty, and allowing the distant spectator a chance to enter what seems like another universe. Such origins of these universes begin and end in an instant; a big bang makes way to a whimper in a blink of an eye. I must say, it is easy to become philosophical, despite the grandiloquence of fireworks, when a seriously amazing montage captivates my eye, lusting for the inflamed rainbows and nebulous gas. If you are a thrill seeker or cinematic romantic, seek this film out. Lose yourself in a celebration unlike any other. For better or for worse, the fourth of July has got nothing on this.
As the bass drum thumping rattles through the basement window, Quest allows neighbors and talent to wax the hip hop poetic in the neon lights of his independent studio. Reverberating through the twilight of North Philadelphia, there is passion vented through the groove, an escape through confidence of the verse. Quest's Freestyle Fridays is a communal cypher that reveals the artistic talents of North Philly residents and keeps them occupied, occupied from the uncertainty and isolation that rings in combat with the groove between the line of brick buildings and weathered walls. There are many things Quest, or Christopher Rainey, needs to escape from, the most pertinent being a harsh reality of social disconnect. But he is not alone. He has his family, which includes his ironclad wife, Ma Quest or Christine, and his daughter, PJ, who face the same definitive reality. For ten years, Jonathan Olshefski shot and followed the Rainey family, originally planning on a photography series...which became a film short...which ultimately became the feature film, Quest. Ten years of perseverance coupled with ten years of chronic incertitude appear before us, the curious and naive spectator.
Intimately observational, this whole film exudes an unbroken trust between filmmaker and subject. As the story loosely flows through some meandering passage of time, we move through the tightly packed rooms and hover among revealing conversations, revelations, and conflicts. Yet, Quest carries himself with a composure that goes directly against the plight and violence that wants to swallow this almost forgotten part of a historical city. Consequently, he regards the camera, or disregards the camera, with a naturalness, almost compelling the audience to just observe and witness how he lives. His wife and daughter never seem to carry resentment.
Producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon explained that focusing on one family and their experiences provides a more graspable ledge for others to understand. Rather than focus on an issue at large, or paint a more grand and complex panorama of many families, Quest and its specificity highlights an easy relativity that also proves to be an intersection of many issues. For many of us who are not from this environment, ignorant to the struggle but also normalcy the Rainey family uphold, we get to sympathize as a first step. Subsequently, when the family confronts issues familiar to them and foreign to us, we use that sympathy as a means of comprehension, as a means of erasing an ignorance.
Many inspiring and revelatory events matriculate on the screen for us. At one point, when the whole neighborhood block comes together to help PJ after an arbitrary but not unreasonable tragedy, the one deduction possible for, again, the naive spectator is that these people not only want a reinforced community, but they want to be acknowledged as such. Any lack of validation will continue to render dangerous and frightful consequences as families seek help from unnecessary decay due to negligence. During a protest against violence, one beautifully vociferous man, complete with a rasp of searing indictment, calls out the politicians who only make their rounds down their streets as a means of securing a vote, later calling out celebrities like Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Beyonce, for their social detachment. Yet, in regards to politics, Olshefski and the final edit may or may not have slyly invoked a much more profound commentary on the nature of government as a dislocated institution 'for the people.'
Without free-falling into the void of political debate, Quest takes place largely during both Obama's terms in office. Although we see our subjects relating to the president in a manner they never had before, it has to be said that the conflict they face (and they face a lot) is a reminder that local politics can only really sculpt change. Though, it must also be said that at the end of the film, which is also the end of Obama's tenure, there is a sense that the perseverance exhibited by the family thus far will be needed more so with things to come: if Obama could not change much, a man whose mere existence alienates people of color induces palpitations and anger.
But let us return to acknowledgement. These are good people we are watching, facing problems all families face, but the filmmakers challenge us with forgoing the act of othering, the act of placing their existence too far out of reach that we only sit idly to look on at the troubles and complexities we may never face. This is not to say that the film means to simplify differences in human experiences. Rather, think of it not as simplifying but a reassured sense of humanizing. An explicit act of acknowledgement that the Rainey family is just that is our first step closer to connectedness and our first step away from exoticizing. Quest effortlessly paints a small but amazingly detailed portrait of an American family resisting temptation of the boisterous tangent produced by relentless politicizing.
Compression of ten years is a phenomenal feat, though not without its flaws. There is another family member, William, who faces almost insurmountable problems of his own, that is treated almost (read: almost) as an afterthought, though in the end a nice character arc is produced. Nevertheless, we watch this family grow, we are allowed to watch their exchanges and most vulnerable dynamics. Quest and Ma Quest form an emotionally muscular bond, despite obstacles that appear before them. And PJ, who over the course of the film confronts terrible calamities and intriguing awakenings, remains true to who she is. And with a careful but confident lens, we look on not as if we are looking at some museum piece from a world wholly unfamiliar. No, we look on through a lens motivated by an original friendship that blossomed a decade ago. Through the eyes of Olshefski, there is maybe an effervescent connection of friendship. Or, at the very least, a hope of which our sympathetic understanding can change perception and discourse. Thought, to some extent, no matter what we think in the theatre, Quest will always hold those Freestyle Fridays, sonically expounding his passion with providing a funky foundation to the personal expressions of North Philly rappers.