Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Written and Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Pan's_LabyrinthI was inspired to finally watch Pan’s Labyrinth for two related reasons. Firstly, I was recently introduced to del Toro’s fascination with monsters, insects and fairy tales by a travelling exhibit of his at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Secondly, The Shape of Water recently won the Oscar for best picture and del Toro was named best director. I had mixed feelings about this result. I think del Toro deserved the directorial award due to the beautiful world he created. As a script, I felt The Shape of Water fell a bit short: it made it a tad too obvious who was good and who was evil, depriving it of a necessary dose of complexity.

Of course, one way to think of The Shape of Water’s simplicity is to understand it as a fable or a fairy tale, albeit one for a PG-13 audience. del Toro has a clear fascintion with merging the worlds of adults and children. In The Shape of Water, I feel this made the script come up a little short. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, however, this quality makes the film the modern classic that it is.

Pan’s Labyrinth opens much like an early Disney movie (the approach parodied in Shrek), in the pages of a book. The reader is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), roughly ten years old, who is travelling with her mother to live at the home of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). The year is 1944 and Vidal is a pro-Franco Spanish officer. Ofelia is insistent that she does not accept him as her father, however, it is unclear if she has any understanding of his politics, and to what degree her loathing of him is simply motivated by her love for her true father. The film’s initial tension is quickly introduced, as Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) tells her she is too old for fairy tales. Ofelia is, unsurprisingly, not persuaded to give up her stories, and goes on a series of all-too-real fairy tale journeys all the while under the strict eyes of Vidal and her mother (who reluctantly enforces Vidal’s rules).

Ofelia’s refusal to outgrow fairy tales provides a direct connection between the text and its fairy-tale-loving writer. del Toro’s portrayal of Ofelia’s adventure proves that  she is indeed not too old for fairy tales. His approach to doing this, however, is to depict a fairy tale that is not all that kid-friendly. Its major players include a giant toad, a child-eating monster with eyes on its hands, and most importantly, a faun (who, despite the English translation of the film’s title, is not actually the famed Pan). The faun (Doug Jones as the body and Pablo Adán as the voice) is a good character, but he has demonic eyes and is crushingly strict; he’s not exactly the kind of cuddly mentor you’d envision in a kid-friendly fairy tale.

Ofelia’s adventure in fairy tales runs parallel to that of Vidal’s maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) who it turns out is a supporter of anti-Franco rebels. While Ofelia throws herself into the dangerous world of the child-eater, Mercedes makes herself vulnerable to Vidal’s cold, militaristic whims. Vidal’s way of being is characterized by his belief in patriarchal hierarchy, and willingness to brutalize all that get in his way. The co-existence of Ofelia and Mercedes’ horror stories make a number of a narrative points. On the one hand, their implicit connection adds a level of depth to Ofelia’s fairy tales, again sending the message that fairy tales cannot be dismissed as childish. On the other hand, since the parallel between Ofelia and Mercedes’ stories is limited (Ofelia’s magical foes are not blatantly allegorical to real life menaces) del Toro also sends the message that fairy tales can be compelling even if they do not have some meaningful connection to the real world. Finally, the combination of historical and fantastic drama in Pan’s Labyrinth speaks to the agency of children and the liberating effect of imagination. As much as we may like to think they are protected, children can get caught up in real world tragedies. While Ofelia is largely unable to participate or defend herself in the real world conflict, she is able to engage with it in her own way and with much more agency through her heroics in the world of fairy tales.

To get back to my original idea, there are undoubtedly parallels between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Both star silenced protagonists Ofelia (who is too young to be political) and Eliza (who is mute). Both feature sidekicks who are also marginalized, though more able to speak to their conditions than the protagonists: Mercedes (a servant woman), and Zelda (an African-American woman and janitor). Both film’s also have blatantly bad antagonists, whose badness is characterized by their social conservatism. Finally, both films feature double agent doctors. While The Shape of Water’s (portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) doctor is a more developed character than the original, in all the other cases Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters come out just a little bit richer.

In the context their respective stories, Ofelia’s form of marginalization, thinking-like, dreaming-like and literally being a child makes her more vulnerable, and thus capable of more interesting interactions with her film’s terrors, than Eliza.

Mercedes, unlike Zelda, is not simply a sidekick but a secondary protagonist.

Most importantly, there is a subtle difference between Vidal and Strickland’s portrayal. Strickland is an outright caricature of right-wing badness: everything he says is cold and reactionary. Vidal, however, has just enough moments of vulnerability that rather than coming across as a caricature, he is in fact a portrayal of a certain terrifying, but real way of being. He is not devoid of love, as shown by his tenderness towards his son. Rather, he has simply become accustomed to a world in which all love shown by and towards him, is strictly filtered through the framework of traditionalist patriarchy.

That said, The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are not the same film, and that difference is best demonstrated through their depictions of monsters (played by Doug Jones). In The Shape of Water, the monster is for all intents and purposes a misunderstood other: one to sympathize with. In Pan’s Labyrinth, we are still supposed to sympathize with some monsters (and certainly relative to the conventionally handsome true monster that is fascism), however, it is a more trying sympathy. We are challenged with the idea that for Ofelia the world of the faun is an escape from her horrible home life, despite the fact that the faun’s world is hardly a pleasant thing to escape to. In another scene (that I cannot describe without spoiling the movie), the faun behaves in a way reminiscent of God in an early biblical story. He gives Ofelia a horrible instruction presenting her with a painful moral conundrum and exposing the absurdity of having to live without safe moral authorities to turn to.

The god-like nature of the faun’s behaviour again contributes to the film’s overall affect of giving Ofelia choices not between a good and a bad situation, but between magical-fear and real-world horrors. Watching a child navigate this scenario is a shocking thing. Ivana Baquero’s performance is remarkable in that we never forget the injustice of what Ofelia has to face as a child, yet we simultaneously accept her as fully qualified hero. Guillermo del Toro may ultimately be remembered for his monsters, however, his writing and directing of fairy-tale loving Ofelia may in fact be his greatest accomplishment.


Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)

Directed by: David Soren Written by: Nicholas Stoller

Captain_Underpants_The_First_Epic_Movie_posterIf you’re an English speaking kid not named Melvin Sneedly chances are you giggled about the name of the planet Uranus at some point. It may be something you’re not proud of now: it’s “low humor” as the villains in Captain Underpants so readily point out, but for kids in roughly the 5-9 age range, it’s wit at its finest. This kind of humor is at the heart of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, book which also charm their readers with parodies of the super hero-genre, soft dystopianism, breaking the fourth wall, and puns of varying quality (a favourite of mine comes from the fifth epic novel, Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman in which George or Harold reassures a rabbi they will not cause trouble at their teachers wedding by saying “Silly Rabbi, tricks are for kids.” (that it is possible that Dav Pilkey decided to make Ms. Ribble and/or Mr. Krupp Jewish solely for the purpose of making that joke only makes it better). Perhaps most importantly, the individual books (and the twelve part series) are long enough to allow for the Captain Underpants universe to be quite developed while concise enough to make for light reading.


Kids movies often have to make a decision as to whether they will be a near-exact recreation of their source material (eg the Harry Potter films) or a very loose adaptation (eg Stuart Little). Captain Underpants finds itself on a somewhat odd place in the middle of this spectrum. The characters are exact three-dimensional recreations of Pilkey’s cartoons and their personalities are fairly consistent with what the book offers. The plot, takes somewhat creative liberties however. While the film’s title suggests Captain Underpants may have franchise-style ambitions, “may” is clearly the key word their, as the screenwriters, reasonably, must have decided that each individual book in the series does not contain quite enough content to be a standalone film. The movie instead broadly covers the first four books of the series: it includes the Captain’s origin stories from books one and three, a secondary villain from book two and a primary villain from book four (undoubtedly the villain from those books with the most personality).


The story follows 4th graders George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) as they try and avoid getting in trouble with their draconian principle Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), while maintaining their two joie-de-vivres: pranking school officials and co-producing Captain Underpants comics. The comics tell the story of a superhero who is faster than a speeding waistband, more powerful than boxer shorts and able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie. Also featured are hyper nerd Melvin Sneedley (Jordan Peele), evil genius Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) and Edith, a cafeteria-lady-in-love (Kristen Schaal).


The film is very strong at the beginning as it brings the novels’ characters to life in great cartoon fashion. Melvin looks charmingly ridiculous when recreated with CGI animation. Krupp’s mechanically sinister smiles are exactly in line with the books’ tone. Nonetheless, there are holes in the film’s execution that suggests there is something about Captain Underpants that cannot be lifted off the page. A mild example of this is when George and Harold interrupt a fight scene to show off their makeshift flip-book action sequences, a fourth-wall breaking tactic that advances plots more naturally in book form, A more pressing example of this is in how the film portrays students other than George and Harold. The film wholeheartedly commits to the idea that George and Harold are liberators of their school’s oppressed students and that their teachers are deeply flawed human beings. This interpretation is not inconsistent with the books per se, and no doubt, Pilkey, marginalized by his teachers due to his ADHD and dyslexia is highly sympathetic to George and Harold. Nonetheless, I feel the film goes a bit too far in its portrayal of George and Harold as unequivocal heroes. Part of the giggly-thrill I got from reading these books as a kid was in knowing that George and Harold were trouble makers, and I felt some of that charm was lost in the film (especially with its somewhat moralistic ending). Furthermore, in the books there is a possibility that George and Harold’s perspective is unreliable, and that the other students don’t mind the teachers nearly as much as the two heroes do. Given that the Captain Underpants books champion imagination, it would not even be a slight against George and Harold to understand their imaginings of their teachers as villains as exaggerated.

That said, I have some reservation about my disappointment. Writing for Slate Jessica Roake defended Captain Underpants as a series of books that kids could see as truly their own. If it takes that sense of ownership for kids to embrace reading, than why should adults knock it? I thus acknowledge that it is not truly my place to rate how good a piece of Captain Underpants media is. If a kid out there is reading things, I hope you find my friendly criticism to be in the spirit of the series and all things pre-shrunk and cottony!


Meditation Park (2017)

Written and Directed by: Mina Shum


257925R1           Meditation Park is somewhat unusual for a piece of a western cinema. Its protagonist is a non-white (Chinese), somewhat elderly woman with limited English skills living in Vancouver. Her name is Maria and she is a soft-spoken housewife. Western viewers (myself included, but-for what I learned at a Q&A session after the movie) may miss out on the irony of her being played by one of China’s most famous actors, martial arts movie veteran Cheng Pei Pei. Meditation Park’s notability as a film, however, is by no means limited to the characters it presents. The film is a realistic one, limited by the mundanity of Maria’s life. It nonetheless manages to captivate audiences by stirring up drama in Maria’s world. Briefly she is caught up in a horror movie as a drone of telephone rings overwhelms her. Later, she is the star of a comic-detective film, stocking her husband by taxi in a very-makeshift disguise. More regularly, she lives in a low-key fantasy world, accompanied by her quirky and colourful parking-business friends,

Meditation Park is a story about marital infidelity. What gives it its unique character, however, is that Maria, for a variety of reasons is unable or unwilling to show the emotion we might most expect of her when she discovers her husband’s indiscretions: anger. Maria’s husband Bing (character actor Tzi Ma, last seen in Arrival) is initially presented as a jolly, loving partner, but as the film develops his traditionalist-patriarchal side becomes more apparent. Arguably both his good and domineering sides play a role in keeping Maria from wanting to confront him. Regardless, what matters is that Maria does not confront him, and instead, ambitiously pursues self help by trying to fundamentally alter her own life story.

Maria’s angerless lifestyle allows us to see her in a number of interesting emotional lights. We see her fear, her empathy and her social awkwardness. One side effect of her not being able to express anger at her mistreatment is that she can come across as a bit light-headed. Through her character, audiences thus get a best of both worlds experience. On the one hand, she is satisfying to root for as your typical loveable loser. On the flip side, we know she is not in fact a naïve or oblivious person and as such we do not see her smiles in the face of defeat as a sign of weakness but as melancholy indications of her predicament. If there is one tragic exception to this rule, it pertains to Maria’s English skills. While she has a heavy accent, she is effectively fluent and never struggles to understand the English speaking characters around her. She nonetheless remains convinced throughout the film that her English is not very good, perhaps a sign of the inferiority complex she has towards her husband.

If I were to offer one criticism of the film it is that it prioritizes resolving its plot over maintaining its artistry. There were two moments where I expected the film to end: a scene where Maria participates in a silent disco, and a subsequent scene where Bing breaks down discussing aging. Both scenes would have made for fitting conclusions consistent with what is unique about Maria’s character (she resists without directly resisting and remains optimistic and loving in the face of sorrow). Nonetheless, the film’s more conventional ending is certainly pleasant enough to watch, and I cannot complain too much about getting to spend a few extra minutes with its characters.

Meditation Park also stars Sandra Oh as Maria’s overworked daughter who is in a (mostly) happy, egalitarian marriage; and Don McKellar (star of my favourite Canadian film, Highway 61) as Maria’s mischievously opportunistic but heartbroken neighbour Gabriel. Enjoyable as an educational, visual and narrative experience, Meditation Park is a solid film, and will hopefully get more screen time than it has received so far.

Thoroughbreds (2017)

Written and Directed by: Corey Finley


Thoroughbreds_(2017_film) Whether or not you watched the trailer going into Thoroughbreds, there is probably something you will pick up quickly: this is a film about dichotomies. The film stars two young-women actors, playing even younger (16/17 year old) characters. One, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), is immediately presented as emotionally-lacking. The character throws around some potential diagnostic labels, showing that this is the lens through which her character is viewed, but dismisses them all and never mentions them again (making it clear we should not view her as a caricature of any one condition). All we are supposed to know about her is that she does not have feelings, at least not, according to her, sadness and joy. Her counterpart is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is timid, initially unassertive and working as an SAT tutor for Amanda. Thus we have our initial dichotomy cold-and-dark vs empathetic-and-sensitive.


Savvy viewers, will quickly begin to question the dichotomy between the girls. In the scene immediately following Amanda’s explanation of her condition, she can be seen playing online poker. Despite her criminal past, Amanda appears to be well off with a supportive mother (Lily, it should be noted is blatantly well off, living in a mansion and attending private school). Therefore, it would seem Amanda is gambling for fun, suggesting she does experience something resembling joy. Moreover, while I am clearly no psychologist, I was instantly troubled by the problem of what it meant for a person to feel no joy. I have heard the phrase “pleasure principle” thrown around to describe human behaviour and it sounds right to me: we seek that which makes us happy: why, therefore, would a person do anything if they don’t feel happiness?


While Thoroughbnreds never answers the question of whether or not Amanda does feel joy and whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her own experiences, the film does ultimately complicate its initial dichotomy. Lily is quickly revealed to have troubles of her own and is willing to act as recklessly as Amanda does. Without saying too much, we go from seeing Amanda as free of feeling and Lilly as full of feeling to seeing Amanda as bold in the face of her feelings (or lack their of) and Lily as a prisoner of her feelings.

Another (false) dichotomy lies in the character’s relationship to neuronormativity. While Amanda may be undiagnosed, we know she has been labelled as worthy of diagnosis. Lily has not been subject to any such process. Therefore we are initially led (and many viewers will no doubt fall into this trap even as the film concludes) to see Lily and Amanda in fundamentally different lights: one is sick, one is merely troubled. This distinction between sick and troubled, however, is completely arbitrary and can be described as the result of different lucky breaks playing out in the two girls’ lives.


Class is yet another important dichotomy in Thoroughbreds. Lily’s mansion-dwelling does not simply provide the film with charming scenery, it also serves as a metaphor: a place in which the girls’ web of secrets can hide amidst the many artifacts. Furthermore, by protecting the girls with socioeconomic privilege, the film is able to avoid other complications from intervening with their stories, and thus cut to what it wants to cover: their psychologies. The class dynamics of Thoroughbreds, however, is played out most through the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin). While Tim is introduced in a negative light, having served prison time for statutory rape and currently making money by selling drugs to kids, he is generally portrayed as timid, pathetic and perhaps even pacifistic in comparison to the film’s protagonists. While it is unclear what his previous socioeconomic status was, for much of the film he works as a dishwasher. His character thus shows the different consequences criminal behaviour can have for people in distinct socioeconomic circumstances.


Innocence and horror have long walked hand in hand. Surely many readers can picture the trope of a child eerily asking you to “come and play.” This too is a dichotomy Thoroughbreds embraces and manipulates. Rather than having them be haunted house props or antagonists, this film puts unsettling children at its centre. We are made to be terrified by them, but precisely because we feel for them and do not want them to be terrifying. Unless you don’t like blood, or suspense (there’s far more of that than blood), Thoroughbreds is a must see

Reflections on the 90th Academy Awards


Frances McDormand winning a human shaped award in some year other than 2018

I’ve listed this post as an essay, but it’s more of a listacle. By listacle standards it’s an essay. I hope you appreciate this commentary even as it horrifyingly lacks an introduction and a conclusion. Without further ado, here are my quips with the Academy.

Time to Split the best Animation Category

I watched the Oscars at a public viewing event. As Coco was given the award for best animated picture the person sitting next to me complained. “How?” he asked, “Could Loving Vincent not win? It’s an OIL PAINTED MOVIE!” Those comments rang both true and false for me. They rang true in that painting a movie surely made for the year’s biggest achievement in animation. They rang false in that acknowledging the fact that Loving Vincent was, literally speaking, the year’s best animation is (to quote Leonard Cohen speaking on the subject of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize) like “pinning a medal on Everest for being the tallest mountain.”

My personal inclination is that the Oscar for best animated picture should go to a kids movie. After all, it’s the one award that most kids will have heard of an entry in, and therefore, the only one which they will likely have a rooting interest for. In that sense I agree that Coco was a better choice than Loving Vincent. To have given the award to Loving Vincent, would be to have given the middle finger to kids. On the other hand to name a Pixar film the year’s best kids movie is also like pinning that medal on Everest.

Clearly we need more good kids movies (or the Oscars needs to do a better job of finding them). On the other hand, it does feel like a shame that notable animated works like Loving Vincent and Anomalisa (a 2016 nominee) have to compete in a category where I, and apparently many voters, feel they have no real place. The Oscars should make a quick and long overdue fix and simply separate the category into best family movie and best animation: problem solved!

Get Your Cause Speech Right

Even with time limits removed, this year’s Oscar speeches were still generally given in traditionally short fashion: rife with thank yous meaningless to most viewers. Of course it is also not unheard of for Oscar winners to use their platform to make a shout out for a social cause of the day that is often related to their film. While I would never be one to tell celebrities to “shut up and act,” the inherent brevity of the Oscar speech often gives these statements a damningly superficial affect. I think this was particularly true in the case of Coco producer Darla K Anderson’s speech in which she plainly stated that the film was made with the intent of representing non-white characters and culture. While it is indeed important to celebrate and promote representation in filmmaking, Anderson’s choice to represent the film solely as a work of representation made the project seem like a mere charity project rather than a multi-faceted, award-worthy film.

Frances McDormand, by contrast, came a bit closer to figuring out how best to politicize an Oscar speech. Rather than taking on a big subject (such as representation) and failing to present it with nuanced judgement, she was to the point, specific, and narrow. She championed “inclusion riders”: the idea that actors (with clout) can use their contract negotiations as a platform from which to negotiate on behalf of woman and minority actors other than themselves. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say actors should only talk about subjects that fit into 30 second speeches (I’m for all flavors of progressive provocativeness), plans of action beat vague rhetoric in most situations.

Is the Academy Afraid of Great Documentaries?

Perhaps that heading is a bit provocative, as the issue here is not so much about quality but character. Greta Gerwig and Laura Dern presented the best documentary category by describing documentarians as truth tellers, implicitly championing them and other kinds of journalists in the age of Trump. If that is the view the Oscars have of the role of documentaries I can understand why they did not award the playful, unlikely-friendship-centred Faces and Places. Then again, the film that did win (which, to be fair, I haven’t seen) Icarus seems to have been propelled to the top on American Olympic patriotism; I hardly see the notion that Russia systematically cheats as sports as a pressing issue of the day. As far as I’m concerned, Faces Places was simultaneously an exploration of various French proletarian stories, a quirky adventure movie, and an homage to the life of une legende de cinema nouvelle vague. If that’s not a “best documentary,” I don’t know what is.

Faces Places’ snub reminded me of the loss of The Act of Killing back in 2014. The_Act_of_Killing_(2012_film)That loss felt more absurd given that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary was in fact about a pressing issue (it lost to a film about the experience of being a career backup singer). Like Faces and Places, however, The Act of Killing, did not simply teach but also told a story. While nominally about the brutal anti-communist killings of the Indonesian coup in 1965 and the murderous-machismo culture that stemmed from them, the film goes on to examine the personalities of individual killers and how they explore, and in some cases come to regret, their relationship to violence and power through the arts.


I am a hypocrite in that on principle I don’t like the idea of awards (I’m a participation trophy loving millennial, get over it conservatives), but also enjoy talking about and watching the Oscars. I can reconcile this tension, partially, by citing the approach of Youtuber nerdwriter1, who says he doesn’t care about who wins, but sees the list of nominations as a chance to celebrate a year in filmmaking. In that sense I think its important to acknowledge some of the nominations that could have been.

As I discussed previously, I found Downsizing to be on the of most-bizarrely mis-rated films of the year, and was disappointed to see its costar Hong Chau not nominated for best supporting actress. The way Chau’s character is written, puts her at risk of being seen as a joke by racist audiences: she has a heavy Vietnamese accent, is headstrong and is just a tad vulgar. Chau, however, brings the character to life as an anarchic jolt in Downsizing’s dark story, turning what is at that point a visual-based film into a compelling adventure.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer also went unacknowledged at the Oscars, which is a shame given that it was the pinnacle film in a year of what I call “thorough horror.” It’s distinct use of deadpan acting should have garnerned nominations for writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and supporting actor and spaghetti eater Barry Keoghan.

Finally, if I had to pick a film of the year, it’s The Florida Project. The film got one nomination for supporting actor Willem Dafoe, a nomination that while deserved feels like an insult to the film’s approach of largely casting amateur actors. While I can understand not nominating Brooklyn Prince for best actress on the grounds that it might be unethical to put a seven year old through the stress of being nominated, I’m disappointed that her co-star Bria Vinaite was not nominated in her place. Vinaite took on similar challenges to Saoirse Ronan who was nominated for her role in Lady Bird, playing a young woman who is playful, but regularly plagued with sadness. The difference of course, is that Vinaite’s character, Halley, has to take on this spectrum of moods within far more painful circumstances, and with less avenue for self expression than Lady Bird has.

I would also, of course, have liked the film to have been nominated for best picture. If you want to know why you can read my review, or check out this great argument by nerdwriter1 who I quoted earlier in this entry.




A Fantastic Woman (2017)

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio Written by: Lelio and Gonzalo Maza


A_Fantastic_Woman            How do you draw the line between politics and art? It’s not an easy question to answer, and in most cases its probably best left unaddressed. Until humans learn to fully articulate our sensory experiences it is a question we should simply explore through our instincts. A work is art when it captures us for what it is and not just what it saying.

Why do I ask this question? Because its gets at what is fantastic about A Fantastic Woman. The film tells the story of Marina (Daniela Vega) an opera-singing transwoman waitress whose partner Orlando (Franciso Reyes)’s family members become increasingly overt in their displays of violent transphobia. The film is not subtle in its politics. It shines a light on a number of issues including misgendering, the indignities transpeople face when asked to provide government ID, the objectification of transbodies and distrust between trans* communities and the police. The film is sufficiently subtle in exploring different manifestations of transphobia. Sometimes it’s the aggressive queries manchildren; sometimes it’s the saviourism of establishment feminists; and sometimes it’s the stands of religious moralists.

The film is also careful, however, to show that a non-transphobic world is possible. In addition to being close to her sister (Antonia Zegers) Marina also has friend in Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), despite Gabo (like Orlando) looking the part of an establishment white cisman. While his presence is more subtle, its not much of a stretch to notice that Gabo’s presence in the film is not unlike that of Juan’s (Mahershala Ali’s character) in Moonlight.

So perhaps a Fantastic Woman’s accomplishment is that it’s the rare work that manages to be blatant with its politics without compromising its artistic merits. This is an accomplishment that rests on the film’s good pacing, its memorable characters and occasional ventures into magical realism. That said, perhaps there’s more to the film than meets the eye.

The defining act of transphobic marginalization in A Fantastic Woman is that a number of characters combine to prevent a transwoman from expressing her sadness. It is perhaps this characteristic that makes the pain Marina suffers so indignifying, her tormentors so frustrating and her wanderings so captivating. Marina is a freedom fighter, yet in her pursuit of freedom, the best prize she can take home is a dusky, cobweb covered trophy.

A Fantastic Woman’s melancholy direction doesn’t simply define Marina, but her tormentors as well. The film is set up so that we can believe (if not with certainty) that the transphobia hurled at Marina is itself motivated by grief. Perhaps it is long suppressed bigotry finally seeing the light, or perhaps it is brand-new feelings born from the circumstances. This quality gives the film both political and artistic depth. Politically, it represents the idea of peoples turning to fascism in hard times: of appeasing their sorrows by seeking to assert power over those even more marginalized then themselves. Artistically it gives audiences just a pinch of cognitive dissonance. While it is fairly clear we are not supposed to root for Marina’s tormentors, the fact that they have genuine sorrows, and cite their sorrows to justify their bullying of Marina just makes it the slightest bit uncomfortable to be fully against them (a discomfort we can believe Marina is bothered by as well).

It’s probably true that everything is “political.” It’s also true that “the political” need not just be about politics. A Fantastic Woman is such a work, and a model one at that; it speaks to the ills of this time, but also creates a melancholy interpersonal dynamic that transcends its context.


Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Directed by: Matt Spicer Written by: Spicer and David Brandon Smith

Ingrid_Goes_WestIs this the Aubrey Plaza role to break Aubrey Plaza roles? That opening sentence is called a hook; it gets your attention. Ingrid Goes West works much the same way. We meet Ingrid (Plaza), her murderous eyes under the shadow of a hoodie, as she vengefully lashes out at one of her peers in a pang of Instagram-induced jealousy. We never fully come to understand the origins of this behaviour, but as audiences we experience it in two related ways: 1) as a continuation of the, caustic and sick-of-the-world persona Plaza has come to be associated with and 2) as a distinct version of that persona that is not supposed to be read as a caricature at all. Ingrid is not a twenty-something in a goth phase; she is unwell, scheming and utterly lonely

The bulk of the film’s story depicts Ingrid’s journey as she goes to ridiculous ends to befriend an Instagram celebrity. Instagtram and smart phones shape not only the film’s story, but its aesthetic: a montage of hip meals, neon lights and parties. Ingrid Goes West is certainly not the first movie to prominently depict smartphone usage: slow texting scenes were a mainstay in another 2017 film, Personal Shopper. Ingrid Goes West, however, is notable for its relationship to the present. Her (2013) used our phone culture as a springboard for vaguely related projections about the future. Personal Shopper, meanwhile, is a film of its time, not about its time. Its character’s excessive phone use is simply a realistic depiction of life in the 2010s.  Ingrid Goes West, however shoots its character’s phone use in such a way that audiences are made to feel uncomfortable. We are made to notice just how odd our society’s smartphone addiction looks when it’s blasted onto the bigscreen.

Ingrid eventually winds up in LA, and it is here that the story loses some of its charm. Ingrid essentially transitions from living with her miserable Instagram addiction to living in an Insta-reality. She befriends self-described photographer Taylor (Elizabeth Olson) and her manbunned artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russel). She also comes to befriend Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr), her young, casually dressed, landlord, whose defining trait is being a Batman nerd. Infatuated with Taylor’s hipster-lavish and carefree lifestyle Ingrid becomes a fairly generic protagonist. Of course, savvy audiences will realize this is all an illusion, but it does have the effect of making Ingrid Goes West, not unlike Colossal or Brigsby Bear as a film whose shortcomings can be attributed to its having a great beginning and end but no middle.

Ingrid Goes West’s effectiveness is further undermined in that we only get to know one of its characters, Ingrid, on a three-dimensional level. To some extent, this makes sense. In a film about the dangerous-shallowness of the Insta-life, Taylor’s stinging superficiality makes perfect sense. Ezra’s underdevelopment more questionable, however. This character is introduced as a privileged-hipster-caricature. The film begins to show that Ezra is unhappy with his role in the insta-world, but this nuance in his personality is eventually abandoned, returning him to the status of place-holder-character.  Again, this writing choice is not all bad; It can be said to be part of the film’s spectrum of superficial portrayals. Taylor is made vane by the superficial, Ingrid is addicted to the superficial and Ezra has the consciousness to question the superficial, but not the consciousness to really understand what his questions are or to act on them .

The film’s 2-D character’s proble, however, is most unforgivable in the case of Dan. Dan’s function in the script is essentially that he exists outside of Taylor’s Insta-world: it is thus dramatic irony when Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) refers to Dan as Ingrid’s “Imaginary Boyfriend.” Because Dan represents an escape from smart-phone superficiality, he is written in a way that lacks nuance. He comes across as perfect: he’s a kind, brave, forgiving, struggling-artist-without-the-financial-troubles.

But as I said, Ingrid Goes West does end brilliantly. As Ingrid’s perfect world falls apart and the Ingrid of old re-emerges, she is no longer scary: audiences will sympathize with her. Furthermore, if they haven’t gotten the message, it will become clear to them that the way we are led to judge Ingrid early in the film is very hypocrtical. She looks absurd as she systematically searches instagram for validation, despite the fact that this behaviour arguably defines our generation. Perhaps, Ingrid Goes West is thus not so much a critique of social media, but how social media interacts with our larger socioeconomic society. The 1% of social media (those making money off their avocado toast photos) are just as “ridiculous” as the Ingrids of the world, yet our social-media-social-class positions can lead us to experience social media addiction very differently.

Viewers should be aware there is a plot-point in the film that makes use of suicide in a way that may make it unsafe viewing for those with active suicidal tendancies. Other viewers should rest assured, however, that in context, this scene is tasteful and very poignant.

Ingrid Goes West is overall an easy-to-follow fable, told from the perspective of a struggling, compelling protagonist. Check it out, and prepare to have your own social media habits uncomfortably put on display