Non-Fiction (2018)

Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas

Non-Fiction_(film)[1]Olivier Assay’s new film has two seemingly distinct titles in English and French. While perhaps there’s wordplay in the French title that I’m missing, my preference is for the more poetic English moniker of Non-Fiction. The English title veils the film with an appropriate degree of mystery. And the fact that the film’s rating is far lower on AlloCiné than on Rotten Tomatoes makes me think I may be on to something.

When Non-Fiction opens it feels far from mysterious. We’re introduced to a publisher named Alain (Guillaume Canet) and an author named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). Alain and Léonard debate the future of publishing and reading, with Alain defending tweets as a form of artistic expression, and Léonard arguing that the downfall of the long-form, literary text is a greater negative. Needless to say, for fans of physical media (myself here at Take Me to the VIDEO STORE, included), at times this discussion feels distressing. The debate is not a solitary scene either. As we are introduced to other characters including Alain’s TV-star wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), Laure, his publishing house’s young head of digitization (Christa Théret), and digitization advocate Blaise (Antoine Reinartz) the debate goes on and on. Viewers are given the impression that Non-Fiction is a film from the broad, but still niche tradition that includes Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, My Dinner with Andre and Twelve Angry Men of films that primarily depict the transmission of spoken ideas. But as the film’s French title gives away (perhaps too soon), Non-Fiction does not end up being such a work.

The film’s first vignette ends with Léonard asking Alain when his book will be published. Alain responds that he doesn’t want to publish the book, a point he thought he’d made plain in the midst of his and Léonard’s philosophical discussion. This interaction sets up a recurring idea in Non-Fiction. The film’s characters are well read, articulate people always primed to have important discussions, yet their discussion and their ideas seem to have relatively little to do with the dramas in their life which are far more ordinary. Léonard’s discussion with Alain may have been engaging, but its significance is dealt a real blow when we are shown that the material conclusion of the interaction was Léonard’s book getting rejected: a fact far more upsetting for him, than any ideological argument could be.

This point is also explored through Léonard’s wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) who works as an advisor for a left-wing political candidate. While somewhat secondary to the film’s other plot arcs, Valérie ’s struggle is shaped by the problem of presenting her candidate as a sincere idealist. The public, she believes, will think her candidate is running for office out of vanity and not idealism. This perception of politicians is a common one, bordering on cliché. We live in a society that, on the on hand valorizes ideas and debates, but on the other hand, encourages us to be cynical of people’s depth and motivation. Non-Fiction is not cynical about human idealism per se, as the two central couples are portrayed as three-dimensional, feeling people (Laure the digitalization coordinator, arguably, is not). But while the film does not deny the importance of its characters’ ideas it still presents those ideas as powerless when compared to the other social forces that influence those characters’ behaviors.

A related point made by the film is that ideas require assumptions about other human beings, assumptions we’re horribly bad at making.  In the case of Alain this idea is conveyed through his early pronouncements about the future of his industry. These pronouncements come across as logical and foolproof, but Alain’s belief in them only declines as the film precedes. Speaking confidently does not mean you have a grasp on the state of any one human, let alone the human race. For Léonard, meanwhile, we’re shown how his staying off the internet leaves him oblivious to major parts of public discourse. And in Selena’s case, we see how she manages to exist anonymously despite being the subject of a supposedly highly transparent text. Léonard is oblivious tothe world and the world is oblivious to Selena.

When it’s a movie about the discussion of ideas, Non-Fiction feels like it’s also a film about the future. But what is the future? Is it the result of an inevitable historical march towards profit? What about an inevitable march towards democracy? Or convenience? Non-Fiction shows that the future is not some neutral, automated inevitability, but the result of ideas and desires. And unlike technology, desires stay somewhat consistent through the ages. As a story that appears to be about publishing, Non-Fiction presents itself as a philosophically rigorous work for our era. But as a story that’s ultimately about two marriages, it ends up, despite abandoning its intellectual articulateness, being a tale for all epochs. It goes from being a purportedly non-fiction op-ed, to ending in a manner where (as Léonard argues is always the case)  the fiction non-fiction divide is rendered meaningless.

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Let People Enjoy Things? A “Conversation”

I’ve recently read a number of articles on a webcomic/meme now known as “Let People Enjoy Things.” It’s a topic that intrigues me, but also not one that generated an instant or straightforward opinion on my part. I have thus decided to write the piece below in the form of a dialogue with myself.

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Q: So what do you think of this comic?

A: It looks kinds of smug.

Q: That’s an ironic response isn’t it?

A: Yes it is. The guy generalizing about sports being objectively bad by calling them sportsball is being smug, but then again the other guy has so much confidence in his view that he literally shut his companion’s mouth. That’s smug too. And I suppose in shutting down a comic that many understandably call empowering I’m being smug myself.

Q: Your response is relevant given the recent discussion around this issue. It seems a number of writers including Esther Rosenfield and Constance Grady recognize that the comic itself may be making a valid point about people who say “sportsball,” but nonetheless feel people are now overusing the “Let People Enjoy Things” (LPET) meme.

A: Indeed. This speaks to my frustrations with how discourse is carried out over the internet. People don’t express their discomfort with sports in a detailed way, they just make “sportsball” jokes. Similarly, people don’t feel the need to respond earnestly to critics of the media they enjoy. Instead, they flood Twitter feeds and comment sections with reference to LPET.

Q: Kate Wagner argues that there are a range of motives for making LPET comments. She says there are 1) people who react poorly to criticism because they identify with the media they like 2) people who want to shut down all “Debbie-Downers” and as such, according to Wagner are “a**holes” 3) cultural nihilists who don’t care about political problems with the media they consume and 4) people who don’t want “their experience ruined.” What do you think of this response?

A:  There’s a lot to unpack there. I suppose there’s my side issues with dismissing anyone as a “hopeless” “a-hole,” as well as with Wagner’s dismissal of the idea of film viewing being “an experience.” I think it’s an amazing testament to the collectivist potential of our culture that we can count on huge swathes of the internet not to spoil Marvel or Star Wars movies, thus preserving “an experience.”

I think a good one to start with is the point about people identifying with the media they consume. Some might say such identification is intellectually unsound and people should just “stop it.” It’s important to remember, however, that our conceptions of ourselves are in fact collections of thinks we enjoy, etc. Rather than telling people that a movie cannot be part of their “self,” I think it’s better to tell them to imagine that the movie itself has a concept of self. Our “selves” and movies’ “selves” can overlap significantly, but that does not make us and our favorite movies the same “being.” So to use a Marvel example, I don’t let the fact that a lot of people talk quite dismissively of Thor: The Dark World get to me, because the one reason I sort of like that movie, that its portrays the emergence of Loki as a uniquely polished character, is not usually the issue critics touch on. If I heard a bunch of critics making take-it-for-granted statements about The Dark World being mediocre I could say “but why are you under-valuing the self-actualization of Loki?” My guess is such a response would allow the validity of my experience and the validity of their criticism to coexist.

Q: But what if the thing the critics don’t like is something that is essential to your self-concept?

A: Our Self Concepts are multi-layered. For example, there are times when I feel like an outcast among indie film fans for having trouble following Hereditary. But in other contexts it makes me very happy to learn that someone likes Hereditary, because it gives me the impression that they watch film with the same frequency and interest-in-the-alternative that I do. Liking Hereditary both is and isn’t part of my “self.”

When a critic speaks in a way you disagree with, you don’t have to feel alienated. Instead, you can respond in good faith and be pleasantly surprised by how they engage with your engagement. I’ve certainly fixed that alienated-feeling by explaining my take on Sorry to Bother You’s plot-twist to its non-fans.

Of course, not all critics can be responded to. Those with huge platforms aren’t going to respond to every reader, and it can be crushing to feel that not only is your opinion alienated from their’s, but also that its overpowered. If it really bothers you, you can do what I do: write about your opinion, even into the void, and put out an argument you’re proud of.

Q: And the reason we’re having this conversation is that people aren’t writing responses of their own: they’re simply posting images from a comic.

A: And I’m hesitant to say why people do that. Some people may wish they could write reviews or thoughtful comments of their own, but feel they lack the time or the skill. Some may simply find pleasure in trolling. But I think a third explanation, an important one to consider in this age where some journalists write articles that are mere compilations of twitter-one-liners, is that there are probably people out there who sincerely view sharing the LPET image as a valid form of intellectual self-expression. In fact, all the mass-production of this image does is discourage writers from critiquing popular media and make discussion of popular media a polarizing, inane affair.

 

Q: You mention popular media. Both Esther Rosenfield and Kate Wagner note the weird phenomenon of LPET being primarily used to defend very profitable media franchises like Marvel and Game of Thrones. Is there any validity to the argument that we should “let people enjoy” even entities like these (figuratively speaking of course)?

A: It’s funny, the original comic is about football, and as the comic’s artist Adam Ellis (who’s been critical of how the image’s spirit has been misinterpreted) explained “it’s about people who trash popular stuff to seem interesting or cool.” It’s completely valid not to like popular things, the problem is when people’s dislike for popular things becomes such a certainty in their mind that they cannot explain where their dislike comes from. Again, it seems smug to say “sportsball” just as it seems smug to half-heartedly say “LPET.”

So yes, there are people who make blanket-statements like “Marvel movies are stupid,” and those people probably should be subject to some degree of LPET things commentary (empathetic, well-articulated commentary, not a sassy, standalone image).

On the other hand, Esther Rosenfield’s Letterboxd review of Avengers: Endgame does make some important points. She says Endgame is not a film but “just content.” Read in tandem with Kate Wagner’s observations that Marvel-like movies are “engineered in the way doritoes are made so you can’t eat just one,” she paints a vision of a society in which the monopolistic Disney corporation makes movies that constantly gets patrons coming back, pushing independent films out of theatres, while silencing critics through the LPET ethic along the way.

And on yet another hand, Rosenfield does “sportsball” a bit with her review. She admits its not one she wants to spend much time on, and gives the film 1/5 stars (when 2 or 2.5 would still be plenty scathing; I’ve written about the hyperbolic grading systems of critics before), and does not comment on the ways in which Endgame tried to be dramatically deeper than its predecessor. While I personally don’t think her review is worthy of a LPET reaction, I can empathize with some readers who might have had that feeling.

 

Q: You say Rosenfield had a bit of a “sportsball,” or off-the-bat-dismissive tone about Endgame. Do you think if her review felt less dismissive (but was still highly critical) the reaction would have been different?

Who knows. Maybe it was the 1/5 rating that was the culprit. Maybe it was that she made feminist critiques of the film, subjecting her to right-wing scorn. There’s also the problem that people see what they expect to see. Even in my case, when I first read her review I thought it was very sportsball-ish but when I gave it a second chance I liked what she said a lot more.

When trying to be pretentious people will sometimes joke “I don’t watch movies, I watch films.” That logic, it seems, is applied in reverse in the real world. If Rosenfield and Wagner’s analysis is correct, one of the biggest corporate makers of “movies” is pushing “films” out of cinemas. This should appall people who want to see the best creative visions the world has to offer, a sentiment I believe “movie” and “film” fans share.

While admittedly our sway is limited (that’s an essential part of Wagner and Rosenfield’s arguments), I think we as critics have to break free from that films-versus-movies logic. We have to show “movie” people, that “film” people are not their enemies. That means trying to question our own biases about “movies” and reviewing them with the same care with which we review “cinema.” We should strive to live in a world where we’ll find ordinary people who’ll say “One of my favorite’s actor’s performances of the year was by Robert Downey Jr.’s in Endgame and one of my favourite actress’s performance of the year was by Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell.

Q: It’s funny you talk about favourite actors. You’re still subscribing to a logic of talking about film that’s competitive. And maybe it’s this “competitive” approach to how we like things that produces un-nuanced reactions to media, LPET, etc. If we’re constantly ranking and rating things of course people are going to get defensive when the media they identify with gets put down.

I agree. I admit I’m torn between my desire to engage with award shows and even the very concept of film criticism. There’s a part of me that never wants to be negative. But I think if one approaches one’s criticism and one’s debates with a non-negative overall spirit, that’s the key. When I write negative reviews my goal is not to put things down. My goal is to insert myself into the creative process. To be an artist who engages with film in a way that I can. Generally when I write a negative review I try and make a broad point about what I don’t like about the writer’s approach or suggest something I would have done differently. I don’t make micro-level jeers of LPET. I’d like to think if all reviewers subscribed to this standard, LPET trolls would go away. But I also realize people see what they want to see, and good writing on a critic’s part is not the secret to stopping their trolls.

But one final thought here. I think part of this discussion comes down to a mistake in Adam Ellis’ original comic. He says he’s satirizing people who try to be cool by unintelligently putting down popular passions like sports. “Let People Enjoy Things,” is not a useful response to that. LPET might be a useful response to someone who provides an overly detailed, slightly negative review of, for example, a Harry Potter movie in front of a starry-eyed young fan. That critic isn’t guilty of maliciousness or obnoxiousness: they’re just guilty of focusing too much on analysis and not enough on what the Harry Potter experience means to the young fan they’re with. The same can’t be said of people who play up how much they hate sports. Those people are guilty of building their very identities on un-nuanced adversarialism with others. Their problem is not failing to let someone enjoy a thing. Their problem is actively enjoying that they aren’t letting someone enjoy something. The response that these people need therefore, is something less surface level: something that looks at why they feel the need to build their self-conception on such a negative foundation.

 

Q: But can we ever expect such introspection in comment sections?

A: No, and at a certain point people have to stand up for themselves against the LPET trolls, etc. But do I think criticism and comment sections alike have an adversarialism problem. Yes. It’s a problem that plagues much of our society. So yes, let’s LPET, but let’s do so in a way that’s mutualistic and constructive, not reactionary and aggressive.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Directed by: Rob Letterman

Written by: Letterman, Derek Connolly, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit

Pokémon_Detective_Pikachu_teaser_poster            Detective Pikachu opens in a small grassy town. It’s a tad too real to be Pokémon TV series protagonist Ash Ketchum’s Pallet Town, but is a palpable adaptation. The scene introduces us to protagonist Tim Goodman, an awkward young-adult, as he is being encouraged by his friend Jack (Deadpool’s Karan Soni) to catch his first pokémon. This scene captures and builds on much of the charm of the established franchise. The Pokémon tv series tells of a world in which ten-year-olds are encouraged to live on their own walking from town-to-town training collecting, befriending and competing with creatures known as pokémon. It’s an enthralling premise despite its absurdity. By taking this logic and applying it to live-action actors, Detective Pikachu takes this absurdity to another level. On top of that, while it may be particularly ridiculous that the Pokemon television series treats ten-year-olds like adults, that Detective Pikachu stars a character who is actually old enough to function independently from his parents, makes it more absurd, not less. Tim it seems, is both genuinely in the world of Ash Ketchum, and a reluctant role player who absurdly acts as if he is in this world.

Detective Pikachu is based on a video game of the same name. The video game has a different, far more detailed story, but it’s still worth mentioning here. After years of live-action superhero movies, it felt like only a matter of time before Pokémon would get a similar treatment: a movie both like and unlike the original cartoon that people of all ages could unabashedly like. I realize it’s quite possible such a movie will eventually rise from the great Hollywood algorithm, but in this moment I can’t help but feel disappointed that the version of that movie we got was Detective Pikachu. I mentioned that the film was based on a video game to make clear that the writers did not pull this idea out of nowhere. Still, in an age where the Marvel Cinematic Universe convinced vast swathes of our population to become low-key comic-book nerds, its frustrating to see a Pokémon movie come out that will not awaken the world to the joys of Pokémon fandom. Detective Pikachu is not a Pokémon movie.

I would attribute my love for Pokémon to the fact that it brings together little bits of a range of enjoyable forms of entertainment. Firstly , as the tale of an ever-growing roster of creatures, Pokémon almost offers the appeal of being a nature show. Secondly, by regularly (at least through its first five seasons) starring the same six speaking characters, the show invests you in their journey while also building up their amusing eccentricities. By having three of those characters (Jessie, James and Meowth) be villains, the show ensures it always has drama, but by having those villains be likeable, comedic and incompetent it ensures that drama never comes at the expense of the show’s joyful demeanor. By having the three heroes (Ash, Misty and Brock), meanwhile, be kids, the show empowers viewers to dream of bonding with animals and seeking glory. Finally, through the pokémon characters, who are eccentric despite not being able to speak, the show adds a traditional-cartoon dimension to its plots.

Detective Pikachu, outside of its great first scene, is not a story that brings in those elements. Because Tim ends up being more a detective than a pokémon trainer, he relates to the pokémon not as a student of their ways and powers, but as obstacles and short-term allies in his bid to solve a very human mystery. But while Detective Pikachu’s Pokemon (with the partial exception of a Psyduck, and even that one lacks the presence of the Psyduck from the cartoon) lack both the nature-show and looney-tunes appeal of their tv-counterparts, it’s the human characters who really don’t match up to what the cartoon offered. While Detective Pikachu’s villain has an interesting, sympathetic motive, takes a zany route to get there, the character is not given the chance to endear in the way Jessie, James and Meowth from the cartoon do. The heroes of the movie are also no match for the hopelessly headstrong Ash, caring but hot-tempered Misty and fatherly-but-always-infatuated Brock. Both of Detective Pikachu’s human heroes are defined by single-motives: Tim’s behavior is shaped by his confused relationship with his always-working father, and secondary protagonist Lucy (Kathryn Newton) is driven by her desire to prove herself as a reporter.

What concerns me most is that the Detective Pikachu storyline incorporates Mewtwo, a Pokemon who’s laboratory origins could set it up to be part of a great, bioethically-shaped storyline.  In Detective Pikachu it remained more of a mystical background figure, but its role was still resemblant enough of its part in the cartoon lore, that I worry it will never be given its live-action dues.

Perhaps I’m not entitled to say what is and isn’t a Pokémon movie. Again, The Pokemon Company came up with the idea of “Detective Pikachu,” so the filmmakers can’t be dismissed as not knowing their subject matter. Furthermore, the story’s conception of a city in which Pokémon and people live together as co-citizens is visually engaging, and the Ryan Reynolds-voiced Detective Pikachu is a reasonably enjoyable character. But I can only hope that the reason for this film coming out is not a belief inside The Pokemon Company, that it is story the world would want to see. Ash, Brock and Misty’s television adventure may be long and repetitive, but it is them along with their Pikachu, Psyduck etc., who really have the potential to make a Pokemon movie “the very best, like no one ever was.”

Tolkien (2019)

Directed by: Dome Karukoski

Written by: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford

Tolkien_film_promotional_poster           I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Biopics are often made based on the false presumption that the lives of interesting people make for interesting stories. A biopic without a premise beyond mere retelling will often disappoint. The writers of Tolkien at least had a sufficiently-developed premise in mind, but alas they weren’t bold enough in pursuing it.

Tolkien essentially follows the life of its protagonist (Lord of the Rings novelist J.R.R) from his young boyhood through to his first putting ink on paper to start a novel. As such, it does not follow the path of Bohemian Rhapsody and find climactic excitement through hyping up a high-energy moment of icon-fan engagement. Instead, Tolkien looks to various moments in the author’s life, showing how they foreshadowed the contents of his books. Due to his widowed-ill mother’s (Laura Donnelly) reliance on church support (Colm Meany), a young Tolkien (Harry Gilby/ Nicholas Hoult as an adult) is whisked away from his beloved rural home to an urban life. Through these shots of lost greenery, audiences are led to see how Tolkien envisioned the hobbit homeland of the shire. Later we see Tolkien become close to his high school friends, a comradery which inspired his vision for a “Fellowship of the Ring.” Finally, we see Tolkien join the army in WW1, a decision that no doubt inspired his trilogy’s war scenes.

Tolkien is not the first English author to get a biopic drawing connections between his work and his life. In The Man Who Invented Christmas Charles Dickens is seen imaging the characters of A Christmas Carol as he writes about them, and we are introduced to his own traumatic experience with Dickensian England and his own inner-Scrooge tendencies along the way. While informative and lively, The Man Who Invented Christmas has one key flaw: Dickens’ story ends up feeling like a watered down version of Scrooge’s. Tolkien, consciously or not, avoids this mistake, but it would be better off if it had made it. In drawing parallels between the lives of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frodo Baggins, Tolkien does not even reach the level of being a watered down version of Lord of the Rings. Instead, it is but a skeleton of the famed trilogy, or rather, a skeleton for the trilogy if the trilogy was not even a fantasy series.

There are a number of decisions Tolkien’s writers could have made to bring their skeleton to life. For one, they could have focused far more on the lives of the three boys who co-constituted Tolkien’s fellowship (even if this meant having scenes without the titular character). Towards the end of the film we are lead to believe Tolkien was particularly close to one of the members of the fellowship, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle/ Adam Bregman as a kid). While Geoffrey is indeed the character who inducts Tolkien into the fellowship, the power of their best-friendship is never really sold before the film’s final moments.

Another key problem in the film’s writing is its depiction of war. On the one hand, this depiction is the product of the film’s historical context. Going to war was such a universal expectation of young men that Tolkien and his wealthy friends quick decision to enlist is indeed believable. Nonetheless, the writers seemed to take this historical reality as an excuse to awkwardly cram the war plot into too little of the film. Because Tolkien and his friends don’t brood about giving up their artistic ways for the battle field, all we see are them flung into battle and the immediate material consequences.

Tolkien depicts a lot of details that might be the ingredients for an interesting work: Tolkien’s academic ambitions, his forbidden love (Lilly Collins), English class snobbery, and “fellowship.” In stringing these elements together, however, the filmmaker’s seem to have been driven too much by a commitment to realism, and not enough by their premise of finding a hobbit in the man.

 

Cromwell (1970)

Written and directed by: Ken Hughes

Cromwell_poster[1]When critically watching biopics, I can find myself asking a version of the question: “is this art or mere recreation.” Historical inaccuracies aside, there are two ways to answer that with Cromwell, a lengthy film depiction of the ascent to power of England’s only non-royal head of state (the passion project of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang co-writer/director Ken Hughes). One way to answer that question is to say that the art/reaction dichotomy does not apply, when truth is so ridiculous it might as well be a work of fiction. That argument, for instance, explains a lot of the appeal of Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice.

In the case of Cromwell, his story is not brimmed with absurdity in the way that Cheney’s is, but it nonetheless derives its artistic appeal in a similar manner. When watching political films, an overused though not useless response is to say “can you believe this is still relevant today!” Cromwell, by contrast, works as a story precisely because it is so hard to apply it to modern contexts. 1640s England was a society in which the death penalty (and accusations of treasons) are almost nonchalantly deployed my monarchists and parliamentary rebels alike. The arrests leading to these executions, meanwhile, are carried out rather (to today’s gaze) comically, by forces with hoity-toity voices in comically period costumes, armed only with swords. The most uncomfortable reason Cromwell is not translatable to modern contexts, however, are the politics of its protagonist. Cromwell is portrayed as a socially-conscientious critic of aristocracy with no patience for corruption, elitism and religious hypocrisy. In his context, however, those views (along with his Puritan faith) led him to take staunchly anti-Catholic  views, attitudes that established his legacy as a brutal colonizer in Ireland. If Oliver Cromwell were alive today would be far-left? Far-right? Neither? In today’s world, one free of the Puritansand anti-Papal rhetoric, would a Cromwell figure actually be a friend of the Irish independence movement? That it’s impossible to say is part of what makes his cinematic-story such a unique one.

The other way that Cromwell manages to be art and not just mere retelling is in its Shakespearian character. In its Cromwell’s first scenes, Oliver (Richard Harris) is very forward in his political analysis. In that scene I felt the film was primarily a work of exposition, rushing to make its point. When a few scenes later King Charles I (Alec Guiness) is introduced, however, it becomes clear that there is something more artistic to the film’s expositional quality. At this early point in the film, neither Cromwell or Charles are presented as ideological hardliners (though Cromwell begins the transformation quite quickly). Both mull over their options, listening to the stronger-willed voices around them. Charles’s Queen, Henrietta (Dorothy Tutin), even has an air of Lady MacBeth to her. Yet despite their initial moderation, and their ability to be civil with one another, Charles and Cromwell alike (much like the initially uncorrupted Lord MacBeth), both come to make drastic decisions and gradually become more confident about having done so.

This Shakespearian portrayal of Cromwell and Charles is undoubtedly a creative decision. I say this not only because it explains some of the film’s historical liberties, but also because the very idea of reducing a historical event to the tale of two complex characters living in a sea of empty talking-heads is a political statement of sorts. How exactly Oliver Cromwell is perceived often depends on whether the perceiver sees him more as an austere dictator or a proto-democratic revolutionary. Through portraying Cromwell as uniquely introspective, however, this film not only challenges this dichotomy, but also way democracy is celebrated in the west. We often assess the general benevolence of states based on whether they have liberal-democratic governments or not. By contrasting Oliver with the less ideologically-astute parliamentarians, however, Cromwell shows this way of thinking is inadequate. What good is a government that has good form if (to borrow Cromwell’s Christian parlance) it has no soul?

       Cromwell’s biggest downside is its runtime (2 hours twenty minutes), no doubt over-extended via the film’s depiction of the actual English civil war. My overall experience, with the film, however, was a good one. Through its Shakespearian approach, it manages to show its sympathies to the anti-monarchic cause, while still portraying Charles as an individually engaging character (particularly in his final scene with his children). More importantly, it’s a film that portrays Cromwell as he requested, “warts and all,” and in doing so it makes a unique statement in favor of the individual in politics.

Raw (2016)

Written and directed by: Julie Decournau

Raw_(film)[1]When I watch movies with a critical mind I regularly find myself thinking something along the lines of “the movie shied away from” or “ignored” its message.” It’s a frame of thinking I’ve developed through writing a series of articles on Marvel movies. In the case of those movies, it’s an appropriate framework. Its quite possible that when producing a major commercial project, writers’ rooms propose mixing and matching storytelling approaches aimed at one part of their demographic, with those aimed at another. This approach to critiquing film, however, has followed me beyond my recent Marvel phase into indie theatre showings of Under the Silver Lake and Her Smell. The problem with applying this kind of thought to auteur’s projects (as opposed to blockbusters) is that there’s a very good chance some sort of consistent philosophy does underline these films. Therefore, when I accuse them of losing sight of their message, all I’m really saying is that they’ve abandoned what I thought their message should have been.

So I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn that when watching Raw, at several points I found myself saying “I think the movie lost sight of its message.” There are lots of ways to describe Raw. Despite overall enjoying the film, “unwatchable” is one adjective I found myself thinking several times: especially in an early moment when students are depicted slowly abusing a horse as part of a frosh week activity. The film’s graphic shock is more than matched however, by its equally vivid (and fully coherent) narrative structure.

Raw is the story of Justine (Garance Marillier) a vegetarian from a vegetarian family, and an academic standout. The film begins as she starts her time at veterinary school, though North American audiences should know, in Belgium, where the film, is set this appears to be the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. As such, Justine’s is a coming of age story, a genre of film on which Raw shines what can be read as a critical light .

I recently wrote about how certain films can make substance-abuse look like an inevitable part of rock-and-roll culture, and my sense is that many films given the “coming of age” brand extend that sense of inevitability to general teenage culture. Take the example of Dazed and Confused, a film that portrays high school (and a 9th grader’s coming of age experience) as a time of drunken parties, hazing rituals and parental absenteeism. While I appreciated the film as a dystopia, I realize that it’s still possible to interpret that film as a work of light fun. Raw, however, is far less ambiguous in its depiction of hazing. Unlike Dazed and Confuses it has a consistent, three-dimensional protagonist and we are made to see how marginalized she feels about her hazing experience.

In its first act, therefore, Raw appears to offer a troika of themes: one is in its scathing depiction of hazing culture, and the other two are vegetarianism and the culture surrounding professional schools. Upon arriving at veterinary school, Justine is compelled to eat a rabbit kidney. That her protest that she can’t because she’s vegetarian is not easily accommodated at a veterinary school in Belgium in 2016 stands out as mind-boggling.

From there the theme of vegetarianism is further developed particularly in a conversation in which Justine objects to the idea of sexually assaulting a monkey. Her compassion is mocked by the boys she shares a lunch table with, before she is ultimately attacked by a female classmate for making what, out of context, sounds like a sexist comment. Justine’s compassion is of a kind that makes her classmates uncomfortable and as such, she is absurdly punished for it.

Just as the themes of vegetarianism and hazing are brought together by the film’s script, so too are the issues of vegetarianism and professional school culture. Justine is quick to raise the absurdity of a veterinary school not anticipating (let alone accommodating) vegetarians in its student body. I read this as a commentary on how, in our current society, many go to medical school seeking prestige and big salaries rather than out of an actual desire to help patients. Similarly, many may go to law school, spouting rhetoric about justice in their cover letters, only to end up doing morally inconsequential (or detrimental) work in corporate fields.

          Raw ultimately takes a dark and surreal turn, a turn that, in my view, undermines its initial themes. While some emotional weight is added to Justine’s ultimate fate given the early emphasis the film puts on her vegetarianism, the two plot points are not fundamentally connected (and furthermore, the film’s narrative-focused second act, marks an escape from the analytic approach of the first act).

Nonetheless, I should be mindful, of accusing auteurs of abandoning their thematic commitments when I cannot read their minds. While Raw moves away from the specific themes that engaged me in its first half, it nonetheless maintains a broad commitment to depicting the plight of social outcasts. Justine is not just punished for her vegetarianism, but for her academic success, her clothing choices, etc. And importantly, Justine is not the film’s only outcast. Her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) is abruptly introduces when she expresses indignation that she was not matched with another girl. He responds by saying “I’m a f*g I guess that counts for them.” While at the time this line feels like a throwaway joke, Adrien gradually gains prominence as a character. His own outsider status makes him a beacon of hope for Justine, a fact that’s not unequivocally good for him.

Finally, Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also an outsider, though it is hard for Justine to realize this since, Alexia’s outsider-status stems from her rebellion against her parents (whereas Justine is an outsider because she is loyal to the principles on which she was raised). Justine and Alexia are opposites, but Raw makes clear that “opposite” people can, in a limited way, have a lot in common: strong personalities of all kinds can be penalized for their deviance from a rigid society.

Raw is not a movie for the easily grossed out, and perhaps it’s not 100% the story I wanted it to be. Those disclaimers aside, it’s the kind of work that never has a slow moment and is rife with creative energy from beginning to end. If you’re looking to see some out-there cinema, or are in the mood to se hazing culture crudely taken on, this can be the movie for you.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018)

Directed by: Michael Crowley

Story Editing by: Joss Epstein

  v1                John Lennon may be the most famous Beatle. He died young at the hands of a gunman and his song “Imagine,” is probably the most well known solo tune by any of the fab four. But how well do most people know his post-Beatle music? Above Us Only Sky is an unfortunately over-focused documentary in that it tells of the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono primarily around the time John was working on his second post-Beatle record. In that sense, it does not provide much in the way of consumable information on his post-Beatles work. Nonetheless, the film does offer a thesis: that John and Yoko were in a way one, and through that thesis it both provides insight into their music while also introducing viewers to Yoko’s art.

Above Us Only Sky does not get off to an excellent start. It shows Tittenhurst Park, John and Yoko’s countryside home, and the recording studio John built there. Much of the film’s interview content discusses the building of this studio and how John’s early in-studio jam sessions proceeded. While committed fans might enjoy this footage, including depictions of a quiet, very-focused George Harrison, it doesn’t really build up to anything. Viewers who make it through these scene, however, will likely appreciate what they come to see.

Yoko’s prominence in the documentary gradually rises. Her first extensive depiction is interview footage of her describing one of her earliest artistic memories. The film only discusses a few of her projects, projects that may sound very simple to outsiders. What’s striking, however, is how much those projects captivated John. The film makes only brief reference to the story that Yoko “broke up the Beatles,” but it quickly makes clear that this narrative has a causation problem. Yoko didn’t take a sledgehammer to the band, but rather, upon meeting her, John’s identity changed.

One of the Lennon songs that partially makes it into the movie is “Cold Turkey.” We see a long-haired John playing the song alongside Yoko, an image which renders plain just how strange a song “Cold Turkey,” is, and in turn, just how a different an artist Beatle and post-Beatle John were. Post-Beatle John did not concern himself which composing musical hooks. At most, he was concerned with getting ideas out, and he put music behind them to represent his moods, un-catchy as those moods might be.

In some ways its hard to fully appreciate John and Yoko’s art out of context. Modern art has proliferated, and “Merry Xmas War is Over,” a song Yoko describes as a proactive call for people to think of the world differently has become ubiquitous. Nonetheless, even if one can’t look at Yoko’s “Yes” piece with the same wonder that John did fifty years ago, the film still resonates. Its portrayal of two minds merging is very convincing, and it should makes those two dismiss Yoko as the scream-singer think-twice about their understanding of her as a musician