Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

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Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 opens exactly like the Soderbergh version of Ocean’s 11 that preceded it, with Sandra Bullock in a parole hearing interview pretending to be reformed so she can be released and launch directly into her next grift. George Clooney sat in that same position back in 2001, which partly makes Ocean’s 8 feel just as much like Ghostbusters-style gender-flipped remake as it is a years-late sequel. Bullock is not a reincarnation of Danny Ocean, however, but rather his sister & criminal equal, Debbie Ocean. Likewise, the film does not follow the Soderbergh “original” or its Rat Pack source material’s plot about smooth criminals simultaneously robbing three Las Vegas casinos, but shifts its heist’s target to the much more femme setting of the annual Met Gala, one of high-fashion’s biggest events of the year. For better or for worse, it also shifts away from Soderbergh’s experimentations in overly slick, early 2000s thriller aesthetics to adopt a style more befitting of a 2010s mainstream comedy. As a result, both films are noticeably distinct from one another, but also notably cheesy and of their time in a way that pairs them as clear parallels (even though, once gain, this is a sequel and not a remake).

Although it’s about a decade late to the table, it’s arguable that Ocean’s 11 needed this women-led sequel, as it’s a series that’s always struggled with doing right by its female characters. In Ocean’s 11, Julia Roberts mostly had the thankless role of reacting to male characters’ actions & muttering vague warnings under her breath. For Ocean’s 13, both she & Catherine Zeta-Jones refused to return to the series because they were told the script could not accommodate giving them substantial roles beyond a couple lines of dialogue, despite having room for over a dozen men. Ocean’s 12, by far the best in the series (even if you include the also-excellent Logan Lucky), was much more accommodating of both actors, particularly for the opportunity it gave Julia Roberts to poke fun at her own celebrity (the same role she fulfilled in Sodebergh’s Full Frontal). Anne Hathaway is afforded the same self-satire platform in Ocean’s 8, but this time she’s not surrounded by a sea of men in tailored suits. Ocean’s 8’s cast includes Bullock, Hathaway, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Cate Blanchett as the titular eight. None of these already-established celebrities are playing against type, but rather lean into their public personae in an exaggerated way, like drag or pro wrestling characters. Hathaway clearly has the most fun with the space afforded her, but the important part is that this heist comedy playground was ever offered to this many talented women in the first place.

Immediately upon release from prison, Debbie Ocean launches into a few minor grifts that provide her temporary food & shelter. Once recharged, she begins recruiting the crew she needs to steal millions of $$$ in diamonds from the upcoming Met Gala, a much bigger heist than she’s ever attempted before. Cate Blanchett joins as a longtime bestie in full Atomic Blonde drag. Rihanna & Awkwafina are aggressively casual stoners gifted at street-level hacking & pickpocketing. Kaling is a jeweler, Bonham Carter a cash-strapped fashion designer, and so on. It’s Hathaway who steals the show as an image-obsessed, emotionally fragile actress whom the team plans to steal the diamonds off of, though. Public opinion of Hathaway has always been grotesquely judgmental about her supposedly outsized ego, so it’s wonderful to see her subvert that perception by turning it into a caricature. The heist itself, from the planning to the execution to the fallout with law enforcement, is all standard to the typical joys of the genre, except in an unusually haute setting drenched in fashion & wealth. The most distinctive factor at play is that the film is staged like a comedy more than a thriller, which suits the material well enough at least in the way it distinguishes it from Soderbergh’s previous trilogy (except maybe Ocean’s 13, its closest tonal parallel).

The cast is exceptional, the choice in setting inspired. The worst that could be said about Ocean’s 8 is that director Gary Ross burdens the film with all the visual style & generic pop music of an Alvin & the Chipmunks squeakquel. The flatness in its imagery & its dispiritingly indistinct pop music cues feel at home with the standard approach to the modern mainstream comedy, though, which is largely where the film lives & dies. Ocean’s 11 is often framed as being a stylish subversion of the heist picture formula, but its own hideous color saturation & music video experimentation also feels beholden to the worst aspects of its own era’s aesthetic, a post-Matrix techno thriller hangover that culminated in the “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” PSA. Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, and now Ocean’s 8 all feel like improvements on that earlier picture in the way they work around its more glaring shortcomings, which is a kind of paradox in that they could not exist without it. Ocean’s 8 is, admittedly, the least impressive improvement of the three. It does the bare minimum of giving women something to do while still working within that film’s original framework, only shifting its genre context slightly closer to a standard comedy. It’s still funny & breezily charming within that modern mainstream comedy context, even while often slipping into pure unembarrassed cheese, which is the most Ocean’s 11 ever offered us in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I was really expecting a lot out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, as a great deal of it lived up to the expectations that I had, there was still enough to detract from its majesty to leave me feeling relatively cold in the end. This may come as a surprise to you, given that I was and am a staunch defender of Jupiter Ascending (going so far as to put it on my Top Ten of 2015 list), but it comes as even more of a surprise to me. Maybe it’s that the charisma score of the two leads in Ascending (Channing Tatum +10, Mila Kunis -4, sum total 6) was still higher than that of Valerian (Dane DeHaan, normally a +8 for me, comes in at a +1.5 here, and Cara DeLevigne at a surprising +4), or maybe it’s that Ascending was a dumb-but-pretty thrill ride that escalated over the course of the film while Valerian is front-loaded with a lot of greatness that peters out into a banal “love” story by the conclusion.

The film opens on a magical and beautifully rendered sequence, set to “Space Oddity,” that shows the progress of the Alpha space station as it grows over time to include a multitude of different national space programs and astronauts, then to include delegates and additions from other space-faring races, to ultimately become so massive that it has to leave earth’s orbit and move into the Magellan Current (there’s no such thing that I know of, although there are dwarf and satellite galaxies near our own that are known as Magellanic Clouds). 400 years after leaving our solar system*, Alpha is home to millions of life forms from over a thousand races. Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (DeLevigne) are special agents of the Human Federation (it’s unclear why the amalgamation of races is referred to this way, or if the humans merely administrate the station due to the fact that they built the original core) on a mission to retrieve a valuable life form from a Jabba-esque alien (John Goodman) at an interdimensional bazaar. En route, Valerian receives a soul-powered dream/vision from a young alien princess who died following a catastrophic disaster on her home planet of Mül, an event that destroyed her world and drove her people to the brink of extinction.

Following their success, Valerian attempts to research Mül, but all information about it is classified, even to their four-star general superior Okto Bar (Sam Spruell). Their attempts to further discern what happened to the planet are thwarted when General Filitt (Clive Owen) is called upon to give a speech to assembled member species about a radiation zone which has appeared in the center of Alpha, and from which no survey team or tactical party has yet returned. This assembly is attacked and the general kidnapped, forcing Valerian to pursue and Laureline to investigate further, leading her down a rabbit hole adventure of duck-like aliens with trunks and scrotal skin, a psychic jellyfish that feeds on memories, a steampunk submarine pirate named Bob, and nearly getting eaten. Meanwhile, Valerian’s misadventures lead him to enlisting the help of a shapeshifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna), and finding out what really happened on Mül and who’s responsible.

I was so on board for this film, and I was completely in the moment, despite some reservations, until the point when Laureline is kidnapped. I wasn’t a huge fan of Valerian’s creepy possessiveness of and desire for Laureline, but I was willing to forgive this transgression as a kind of blind deconstruction of the Han/Leia relationship (YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective has a pretty good video essay on this subject here) until it became apparent that their relationship was meant to be read as completely sincere. This was the biggest sticking point for me in the first half of the movie, but I was still along for the thrill ride through that nonsense and a belabored info dump. However, the film starts to drift when Laureline is captured by the languageless alien monsters that hate outsiders (a friend compared them to Jar Jar Binks, saying that they weren’t explicitly racist caricatures like he was, but their tribalism, cannibalism, and lack of higher speech functions smacks of “space ignorance”). Meanwhile, Valerian has to recruit Bubble to help him as a disguise to enter their xenophobic culture to save Laureline (after she saved him first, so she’s no damsel in distress). This, too, is pretty dull, give or take a PG-rated shapeshifting Rihanna exotic dance number.

If you’ll recall, when Avatar came out, there were stories about people who were so obsessed with living in the world of Pandora that they were getting cosmetic surgery and considering suicide. That seemed absurd to me then (and now), but while I have no desire to shuffle off my mortal coil, I’ve never before experienced such an intense desire to live inside a film’s aesthetic than I have when watching the delegates of fish people and mechanical men arrive on Alpha. Aside from an expositional infodump as Valerian and Laureline return to the space station, there’s too little exploration of the world that’s been created. Instead, the film gets distracted by plot cul-de-sacs that explore areas of Alpha that are far less interesting than those of which we get only a glimpse. I used to think that we would never again live in a world where the special effects in a movie would be the film’s biggest draw, along the lines of how the word of mouth about Independence Day revolved around the monumental destruction of landmarks, bringing in more audience members than could have been expected. That’s not really true, however; the effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.

*Except not really. The film states that Alpha has progressed 700 million miles from earth at the time that the majority of the film takes place, which is . . . still in our solar system. To put it in perspective, the earth is an average distance of 93 million miles from the sun (a distance referred to in astronomy as an “astronomical unit,” or AU), so this would put Alpha less than 8 times further from our sun than we are, or, more poetically, further than Jupiter but closer than Saturn. The furthermost planet, Neptune (please refrain from expressing your non-scientific sentimentality for Pluto in the comments), is 2.795 billion miles from the Sun. Of course, it’s absurd that the film (and I in this footnote) are charting anything in miles, since astronomy is a science and science uses the metric system. Even if I misunderstood and the film said that Alpha was 700 billion miles (or 0.119 light years) out, our closest stellar neighbor Proxima Centauri is 24.94 trillion miles (4.243 light years) away, so it really hasn’t gotten far, especially in four centuries. That’s a mere 43.435 light days from earth! If this were set today, August 1, 2018, that means that I could live on Alpha and pick up radio transmissions from June 19. But just because they think Chester Bennington is still alive and have no idea that Anthony Scaramucci has been appointed and deposed, they’ll know soon. It’s hardly a distance befitting the majesty of pulling Rutger Hauer out of his bed of mothballs to give a grand speech about travelling among the stars. But I digress.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond