A Critique of Critics: When a Rotten Movie is Fresh

When completing my recent review for Glass I glanced at its Rotten Tomatoes page. I’d enjoyed the movie, but acknowledged it had some pacing flaws. I also knew it hadn’t received great reviews. So I went to Rotten Tomatoes expecting a Critics’ Approval score somewhere in the 60% range. What number did I actually see?: 37%.

37% –that’s not merely a disappointing grade: that’s well into F territory. Now in fairness, Rotten Tomatoes percentages are simply based on counts of positive and negative reviews: a film that gets all Cs might thus get an F score (and a film that get’s all B-minuses an A+). Still, given its creativity and positive qualities it surprised me that Glass could fall so low on the Tomato Meter.

It is not Glass, however, that drove my recent frustration with critics. That honor falls to a movie called Serenity (Serenity gets a 21% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics). When I saw Serenity I did not particularly want to review it. Fishing is a major motif in the film, and I wish filmmakers didn’t regularly bombard us with casual images of this violent activity.

Still, I found it an overall well executed piece of filmmaking. Serenity is the story of  fishing-boat captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) whose stubborn obsession with catching a single Tuna (who he names “Justice”) undermines his business prospects and adds further scruff to his already prickly persona. My feelings about the fish motif aside, this is a good literary starting point: one that invokes Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. The film then follows Dill’s attempts to understand why he can’t relate to the townsfolk, as well as his relationship with his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathway). Midway through, the film’s tone is changed as it is overtaken by a supernatural aura.

Between its charismatic personas, provocatively short and mysterious character interactions and rainbow-pallet visuals, Serenity left me fully engaged. As a film reviewer I try to be insightful, but my ultimate task in recommending films is to tell you if I enjoyed what I saw. The overall sense of enjoyment I derived from seeing Serenity was unmistakable.

Do I have such an unusual mindset that I experience film fundamentally differently from the vast majority of critics? Possibly, but I have a hard time believing that’s true. Therefore I can’t but speculate that many professional critics have lost their way: that some have become so obsessed with their personal systems for categorizing and evaluating films that they lose sight of whether on an instinctual level they enjoy what they saw.

In his critique in The New Yorker, Richard Brody bemoans the plethora of clichés in Serenity. Brody is not wrong to notice this trait, but to me this kind of criticism seems to be derived from a pre-conceived philosophy of criticism (ie denouncing clichéd writing) rather than from direct engagement with the film at hand. Yes, the characters surrounding Dill, particularly Karen’s violently misogynistic husband Frank (Jason Clarke) are flat, but when one realizes the film’s twist, this flatness makes perfect sense. If anything, what’s questionable is the inclusion of one non-flat character in addition to Dill: his first-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou).*

Brody is of course not the only writer to have written a damning review of Serenity, and in his defence, he at least maintains a measure of eloquence. Robert Ebert reviewer Christy Lemire writes “Serenity” is terrible and insane, and will surely end up being one of the worst films of 2019.” The more interesting problem with Lemire’s critique comes out in one of her better written lines, however. Lemire accuses writer/director Steven Knight of orchestrating a plot twist in which “he partially pulls the rug out from underneath us about halfway through, then yanks the whole thing out by the end, then waves the rug around in the air as if to joyfully shout: “Ha! This is the rug you were standing on! See? It’s not underneath you anymore!” Lemire is right in this observation, but like Brody she seems so preoccupied with the existence of what in theory sounds like a flaw, that it makes me wonder whether she was really attuned to the film she was watching. Yes the movie’s twist is revealed early on, and there is the odd-line in the script that feels repetitive as a result, but this revelation doesn’t harm the film’s overall feel. The twist’s early revelation doesn’t immediately save Baker Dill from his deep disorientation and doubt, allowing the film to remain engaging for its whole run time.

With or without its twist, Serenity is a film that holds onto a suspenseful, mysterious aura. It’s also a thematically interesting piece, though Richard Brody, with his focus on the overt toxic-masculinity of Frank doesn’t seem to appreciate that. The film is not really about Frank’s over the top flaws. Rather it’s about Baker, who in his Hemingway-esque pursuit of Justice, displays a subtler form of toxic masculinity: one that he is forced to examine as he grasps to preserve a relationship with his far-away son. The masculinity of the son is in turn a relevant, if somewhat mysterious theme.

My problem with critics is not limited to their context-free obsession with their pet issues. I’m also put off by their general comfort with negativity. Observer reviewer Rex Reed gave the film 0/4. Again, it baffles me how often critics feel comfortable giving such low scores. In many school systems 49% is a failing grade, and grades well above 49 still indicate deep concern on a teacher’s part about a students progress.

In Reed’s case, it can at least be said that he commits to his cartoonishly low grade writing:  “The result is a sub-mental waste of time and Diane Lane. The early months of every year are always devoted to the trash Hollywood couldn’t dump in the plethora of Oscar contenders the year before. One expects junk in January. It’s a rule. But it is rare to pull any junk movie from the gutter as spectacularly stupid as Serenity.” Let me say it again. I enjoyed Serenity. I enjoyed it despite wishing one of its key themes (fishing) wasn’t there. And I enjoyed it despite its starting at 11:00 at night: making it highly probable that I would fall asleep in the theatre. Can I believe you liked this film less than me, Rex Reed? Of course. Can I believe that what for me was an 8-or-9 out of 10 experience was for you a zero? Not really, unless I factor in that the very culture of film criticism may incentivize condescension and hyperbolic negativity.

Passionate as this article is, I put it forward modestly. I don’t claim to have the film expertise of many professional critics. Nonetheless, when one’s perception of reality clashes so fundamentally with that of a whole industry, it may be worth questioning whether the industry has systematic problems. I can’t read minds and can’t tell you what individual critics are thinking. If you are a critic, however, I implore that you maintain (what I will assume is your current) commitment to reviewing films sincerely and reserving excessive criticism for when such harshness is actually morally justified.


*If you want to see my (inevitably spoiler-implying) theory as to why Duke is not a flat character see bellow:




The Third Films: Watching Godard and Truffaut Together

1961_Une_femme_est_une_femmeHaving slowly begun the project of watching the canons of new wave icons Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, I’ve inevitably begun to search for parallels in their works. Breathless and The 400 Blows are about as different as you can get, only bearing resemblance today due to their setting and being black and white. The Little Solider and Shoot the Piano Player are also very different films, yet I couldn’t help but notice that they use the similar tactic of employing a pensive, but ideologically-mild protagonist who navigates a world of chaos. The two filmmaker’s third films, however, bear a thematic resemblance that I struggle to see as coincidental.

The two films already have a superficial overlap. A Woman is a Woman was released September 6, 1961 and features a cameo from Shoot the Piano Player star (and Jim and Jules cast member) Marie Dubois. In another scene,Jules and Jim‘s female lead, Jeanne Moreau, plays herself and makes direct reference to the then unreleased Jules and Jim.

The real parallel between Godard and Truffaut’s releases, however, comes in their depiction of romance. A Woman is a Woman is in many ways an aesthetic work. It is Godard’s first venture in color, establishing his signature look. It’s an homage to musical theatre, that also brings in Godard’s typically ambiguous political references. The film’s actual story is simple. Angela (Anna Karina) develops an urge to have a baby. Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), her live-in-partner, is not ready and tells her to wait until marriage. Émile performs his non-readiness by riding around their apartment on a yellow bike, while Angela repeats that “je veux un enfant.” Eventually, with Émile’s partial endorsement, Angela decides to try flirting with his friend Alfred (Jean Paul-Belmondo). Despite its title, the film’s exact gender politics are unclear. While Angela’s fixation on having a child is not exactly convention breaking, the rigid expectations she is subject to (eg in a scene where she prepares Emile dinner) are undoubtedly criticized.

 Jules and Jim meanwhile is the story of two friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) who’s inseparability leads them to fall Jules_et_jim_affiche.jpgfor the same woman and be ok with it. The film explores the two men’s loyalty and intellectual curiosities, which are then accentuated by the romantically-awkward Jules’s free-living girlfriend, and later wife, Catherine (Jeanne Moureau). I should note that  Jules and Jim had some shortcomings for me. Its first half hour is very fast-paced (even with subtitles), meaning it was hard for me to pick up exactly on some of its finer points. I was subsequently confused when the film did finally slow down and focus on the two men’s relationship with Catherine, a relationship which I did not feel was properly built up, or distinguished from other events early in the film. I am admittedly being harder on Jules and Jim than, A Woman is a Woman. With Godard, I’ve come to accept frustrating-ambiguity as part of the style (or at least a fault one must have to deal with), whereas when Truffaut films are opaque, it feels more accidental and thus more worthy of critique.

Godard films seem to break with realism to force viewers to engage with particular social and political themes. A Woman is a Woman asks questions about the character and necessity of romantic partnership. It does this by prioritizing the development of its message over presenting a more straightforward plot. Jules and Jim, however, comes a bit closer to following a convention story line. Godard’s work calls on viewers to deconstruct the idea of love, whereas Truffaut’s asks us to see the lives of people living with such a deconstruction. Godard’s decision to go to color vs Truffaut’s to stick to black and white is also notable. Godard makes his commentary on free love a stunning image of his era. Truffaut, however, sets his story in the first half of the twentieth century, in a way. Jim and Jules are not products of the free love era. Their relationship is thus depoliticized, allowing viewers to think more about the existing human condition than the transformation of society.

Ultimately I don’t think either film answers its radical questions. A Woman is a Woman is too theatrical to do so, whereas Jules and Jim obscures its exact politics in its search for drama.  Jules and Jim‘s Catherine may represent the consequences of breaking with monogamy, and Jim can’t be said to be a shining example of a lover either, given the awkward presence of his partner, Gilberte, in the film’s background. On the other hand, whileJules and Jim doesn’t cast polyamory in a great light, it nonetheless celebrates the open-minded friendship between the titular men, leading some to have read the film as having gay subtext. With both Godard and Truffaut, it’s hard to know exactly when they are endorsing the ideas of their characters, but when analyzing Jules and Jim that ambiguity is particularly relevant.

Of course, these works do not have to be enjoyed in tandem. A Woman is a Woman can be appreciated for its bright-simplicity, whereas Jules and Jim can captivate viewers with its narrative novelty. Then again, the two films have an undeniable thematic overlap. It’s a theme neither quite knows what to do with, so perhaps they are in fact both appreciated and mystified-over as a new wave pair.

The Light Between Omissions: An Analysis on Adaptation and Communication

 I recently rented a film called Chef (NOTE: Spoilers ahead). It appealed to me primarily because it starred its writer-director (Jon Favreau) and also because I’ve been in a bit of a John Leguizamo mood lately. I can’t say that film was my thing: it had a tad too much meat in it and, and it made use of the unsubtle trope of morally-astute-kid-who-is-unrealistically-aware-of-the -shortcomings-of-his-father. I did, however, enjoy the film’s feel good end scene. Chef is the story of Carl Casper, a chef who is stuck between the rock of being creatively constrained by the owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman), and the hard place of being ripped apart for not being bold enough by a food critic (Oliver Platt). The film ends with Casper, now a food truck operator, serving food to the critic, winning him over and then having an exchange, in which the critic tries to rationalize his combative relationship with chefs as a sort of theatre. In a day and age when twitter obnoxiousness is a cultural norm, the critic’s is an oddly reassuring line: people don’t actually enjoy tearing each other apart, they just enjoy playing at it.

The other important exchange in this scene, however, is the one I want to write about today. A newly empowered Casper explains to the critic that he agrees that he did not offer him a sufficiently bold menu, but that this was out of his control due to the orders of his boss. This scene feels cathartic because it addresses an elephant-in-the-room that haunted the whole movie. Casper allowed himself to be ruined by this critic, when if he had only reached out to the critic and tried to explain his context in the first place, his dilemma could have been resolved.

Of course, human psychology is not such a simple thing. Often we let insecurities, even insecurities we know to be irrational get in the way of us doing the common sense thing. This is the link between Favreau’s light-fare and M.L. Stedman’s(/Derek Cianfrance’s) tear-ridden novel(/film) The Light Between Oceans.

The_Light_Between_Oceans_posterThe Light Between Oceans begins as the story of Tom Sherbourne, a WWI veteran who, traumatized by war, decides to take a post operating a lighthouse. That means spending three year terms alone on the Australian island of Janus, where he is only allowed the company of a potential wife and kids, and the occasional visitor. Tom is quiet and guilt (quite possibly PTSD) stricken, but eventually accepts company when he captivates the imagination of Isabelle Graysmarck (Alicia Vikander)  a young woman in the town of Partageuse, looking for some sort of adventure.

Isabelle tries to enjoy her new life on the island, but her mental health takes a turn for the worse after she suffers multiple miscarriages. It is at this point, however, that a boat winds up on the shore of  Janus containing a dead man and a very young baby. While Tom wants to report the incident, Isabelle insists on keeping the baby who they name Lucy and raise as their own. It is only when Lucy is around four-years-old that Tom and Isabelle discover her mother is not dead as they had assumed, but alive and well in Partageuse. Her name is Hannah and she is portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film.  A guilt stricken Tom anonymously informs Hannah that Lucy is alive, leading to a custodial and criminal battle between Hannah and Tom & Isabelle.

In the ways listed above Derek Cianfrance’s film adaptation of  The Light Between Oceans is entirely true to Stedman’s novel. The two stories have similar themes, beginnings and conclusions. Some of the novel, however, was inevitably lost in the process of adaptation. The film notes Tom’s trauma, but not frequently or in detail. This, perhaps, is a reasonable sacrifice given that the film already runs over two hours in length.  Isabelle’s horror at the prospect of the baby being sent to an orphanage, however, is also under-depicted, a more problematic sacrifice.

Meanwhile, a number of plot points are also ommitted from the film. Firstly, the film maintains the idea that Tom’s pushover  friend Bluey reveals Lucy’s whereabouts to Hannah, but does not explain it is only because Bluey was under pressure from his mother to collect reward money for his marriage (Bluey’s subsequent remorse also doesn’t make the film). Secondly, the film also reduces the role of Hannah’s sister Gwen, who in the book takes a more nuanced view on who Lucy’s mother is than does her sister. Most importantly, however, the film omits the ideas that Isabelle and Tom both knew Hannah previously: Isabelle simply as a fellow Partageusian, and Tom, because he saved her from being sexually assaulted by a sailor.

Whether Cianfrance’s cuts are disappointments or not is a question that requires contemplation. The film, like Chef, is a story of failedcommunication. When Lucy’s identity is revealed to Hannah, she comes to view Tom and Isabelle as kidnappers who belong in prison. While reading the book I found myself clenching my fist in frustration. Why can’t Isabelle and Tom just tell Hannah, that having found a baby alone in a boat they reasonably assumed her mother couldn’t have been alive? Why couldn’t they just tell her they didn’t report the baby knowing the dismal conditions children face in orphanages? Why couldn’t they, as people who loved Lucy just as much, if not more so now, than Hannah, have recognized they were mutually suffering and worked out a joint custody agreement? Couldn’t these adults consider the best interest of the actual affected child, rather than resorting to an un-nuanced dispute based essentially in the philosophy of property rights?

These questions apply to the book and movie alike. In the book the case for Tom and Isabelle is stronger: we know of Isabelle’s orphanage trauma, we know that the reconciliatory way of thinking I’m proposing is not unheard of in the charatcers’ world (consider Gwen’s approach), and we know that Hannah knows Tom to be a man with a moral compass who tried to make the best of difficult situation. Yet in the book and film alike Hannah is equally un-nuanced in her response to the situation. She doesn’t want to sit down and talk about restorative justice and Lucy’s well being: she wants the iron fist of the law to do its work.

Cianfrance’s approach, one can thus say is economical. What use is it to include the layers that Stedman includes if they don’t matter? The Light Between Oceans is a story of how good people can end up spitefully irreconcilable, and Cianfrance perhaps portrays a better version of such a situation than Stedman does.

On the other hand, Cianfrance does not completely deviate from Stedman’s approach. He keeps one detail from the novel that could theoretically complicate Hannah’s approach to the Lucy situation. In both the novel and film, Hannah’s late husband is Frank Roenfeldt, a German immigrant who is treated horribly by Partageusans (and ultimately driven out of town) because I suppose at that historical moment, a lot of people struggled to tell the difference between enemy combatants, and ordinary people who simply came from countries Britain happened to be at war with (ok, maybe that’s still a problem). Despite being bombarded with bigotry, Frank remains a friendly community member, explaining to Hannah “you hate forever, you only have to forgive once.”

In the film Hannah sees this line in a flashback. Much like her knowledge of Tom’s past in the book, however, this flashback does not alter Hannah’s behavior as much as one would think. Driven by the dream, she tells Isabelle that she can have Lucy, so long as she testifies against Tom (implying he murdered Frank). Hannah’s behaviour here is interesting: simply negotiating with Isabelle over Lucy’s custody does represent a bold move on her part, yet it’s still, at best, a much-watered-down application of Frank’s ideals (it rings with a sort of deadpan irony). Regardless, this scene shows there is a merit to Stedman’s approach of filling her book with qualifiers that don’t matter: reasons for Hannah to be conciliatory that ultimately don’t have an impact. These qualifiers tell us that while perhaps The Light Between Oceans is a tragedy of under-communication, it may also be a deeper sort of tragedy. Stedman’s book suggests a deep-seeded belief that people may indeed never be able to understand the perspective of others: or perhaps there is one human who can, but he died of a heart attack alone with his infant daughter in a rowboat in the ocean.

The Light Between Oceans film ends with an elderly (he, interestingly, doesn’t look that much older), lonely Tom looking out to a sunset. The scene suggests his story has gone full circle. He was lonely, he met Isabelle and now he ends up lonely again. It’s a mysterious moment, suggesting the entire drama we just saw was but one way of contextualizing the misery of a single broken person, rather than the story of several. In a way, however, it’s fitting that both Stedman’s novel and Cianfrance’s adaptations are tales of situations that could have been resolved, but largely weren’t. They are calls for people to be more like Frank and Gwen, but they are characterized by a pessimism that implies many us will end up at odds like Hannah and Isabelle, or at very least, forever hopeless like Tom.

Disney Dreamers and Oppressors: a bug or a feature?

Disney occupies two conflicting places in my imaginary. On the one hand, Disney is the source of some of my favourite songs (“Under the Sea,” “Why Should I Worry,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Two Worlds one Family,” “We Are One” etc) as well as the animation studio behind some of my favourite cartoon characters (Sebastian, Lumiere, Napoleon & Lafayette, etc). Part of me thus sees Disney as part of modern children’s folklore.

On the flip side, there’s the part of me that sees Disney as a massive brand that iron-fistedly enforces its IP rights, perpetuates unnecessary gendered-market-segmentation through its heavily girl-coded “Disney Princess” concept, and is predictable and sappy in its story telling. The first two issues are of limited relevance to film review, but the third issue is one I can talk about. If part of me has strong affection for Disney, why do I so deeply associate their brand with cheesiness?

Part of the answer came to me when I watched video-essayist Lindsay Ellis’ analysis of Beauty and the Beast in which she notes that Disney renaissance films (the animated musicals of the 90s) are characterized by their giving their main characters a belted song about not fitting in/needing to search for purpose. These songs are “Part of Your World,” (The Little Mermaid) “Belle (There must be more than this provincial life…)” (Beauty and the Beast), “Just Around the River Bend,” (Pocahontas) “I Can Go the Distance,” (Hercules), “Reflection” (Mulan), and (years later) “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana). While I don’t think these songs in themselves are innately cheesy (it took Ellis’ video for me to notice they’re a pattern), they create an oversimplified binary between their singers and the world around them. The singer has a dream, and the authorities in their life thus come to occupy the opposite position of dream-oppressor.

kerchak new Of course, the notion of having a dream that differentiates you from those around you is broad and thus rightfully belongs in a lot of stories.  However, some films make clear that dreamer-and-dream-oppressor binaries are a trope and not mere reflections of everyday reality: Tarzan, for instance. The film tells the story of a boy who is adopted by a gorilla mother. As he grows up his first dream is to be accepted as a gorilla. His mother’s husband, Kerchak, meanwhile fills the role of dream oppressor. Kerchak initially advises his partner against adopting a human because…well, he’s not a gorilla. Tarzan grows up under the constant, blatantly-hostile gaze of Kerchak. Therefore, Tarzan’s anxiety about his identity is not simply the result of teasing from immature kids or an unnecessary childhood-neuroticism; rather it’s particularly the product of his adoptive father refusing to identify as his father, and explicitly stating that Tarzan doesn’t belong. While Tarzan is perhaps best remembered as a romance between a gorilla-man and a woman from typical human society, the film’s real arc is built around Tarzan’s search for approval from Kerchak.

While I can’t say for sure at what age predictable/unsubtle dialogue becomes apparent (I was six the last time I saw Tarzan and all I remember is being bothered by the sight of Tarzan sliding around on tree bark since that would surely hurt his hand), speaking as an adult who likes good children’s media, this is my biggest problem with Tarzan. His tension with Kerchak loses some of its effectiveness by virtue of how contrived it seems. We don’t see Kerchak and Tarzan as characters at odds, but stand-ins for the ideas of dreaming-misfit and dream-oppressor.

One reality that Tarzan fails to capture is that real-life dream oppressors are not necessarily real people. Rather they are caricatures of real people that exist in the heads of dreamers. These “oppressors” may be ambivalent about or even supportive of the “dreamers,” but the dreamer’s biases and neuroses lead them to pessimistically ignore this complexity. This concept is illustrated in Tiny Furniture in which the protagonist rails at her mother for being unsympathetic towards her struggles, even as her mother is, in fact, largely a laid-back, non-judgmental artist (then again, I note in my review that Tiny Furniture goes too far in this direction).

So should Disney strive not to portray characters like Kerchak? Not necessarily. Again, Disney can be understood as a source of modern folklore, and as such its approach to storytelling can be understood as part of a tradition: a tradition that includes belted-search-for-purpose-songs and dream oppressor characters. So how can the maintenance of this tradition be balanced with the need to create richer stories? One film that effectively navigates this dichotomy is Moana.

images-1            Moana’s opening is the opposite of subtle. When she is surely way too young to process the concept, her father leads a song to her explicitly laying out that her duty is to stay on their island and not wander off. Unlike Tarzan, however, Moana takes advantage of the fact that it overstates is message early on, to become more subtle as the film develops. Moana’s father is about as explicit as Kerchak about being her dream-oppressor, but his influence over her is quickly diminished as she escapes to sea. While Moana’s psychology is no doubt shaped by her having been raised by a dream-oppressor, her conflicts with other antagonists (cute-pirate-creatures, Tamatoa the crab, the vastness of the ocean and of course Te Kā the lava monster) are really what define the script. In essence, having a dream oppressor is part of Moana’s mythology, bringing her into the Disney folkloric-imaginery, but it is not the be all and end all of her story.

           Patterns in film are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something satisfying about seeing, for instance, enough Wes Anderson films and saying “ah, ha, there’s that familiar artistic element!” Children’s films, however, must be careful when they use patterns. Since they are created to be consumed as direct stories, and not necessarily pieces of art, their being predictable can particularly undermine their quality. Clichés are unavoidable, as nothing is original. The question is, how aware is Disney of its dream-oppressor cliché, and how creative can Disney be in transforming it for the better?

Pocahontas and the Spectre of Tybalt



Clockwise from top left: Tybalt (Basil Rathbone, Michael York, John Leguizamo), Bernardo (George Chakiris), Nuka and Kocoum.


As my regular readers know, I recently saw Bambi for the first time. I can now also add Pocahontas to the list of Disney classics I’ve seen in full. I knew in advance that it was a work where political discussion was unavoidable. On the one hand Pocahontas was arguably Disney’s most explicitly “strong-and-independent” “princess” character to date. The film also can at least be said to lean in the right direction on the question of settler-colonial injustice. On the other hand, the film (and its sequel) made the odd decision of using the names of historical figures. In doing so it obscured the fact that the real Pocahontas was ultimately kidnapped by the English and died young. As for the real John Smith, though at one point he was honoured by the Powhatin nation, and though he claimed to have befriended Pocahontas, he was ultimately a proponent of the settler colonial project.

So can Pocahontas be called clunkily progressive? For the most part, but the clunkyness goes beyond its weird relationship with history. It seems as if Pocahontas was the product of two unrelated bases for a story. One was the desire to depict indigenous and settler culture at an early moment of colonial contact. The film’s other foundation seems to be to depict a Romeo and Juliet style story; or, to be more precise, a West Side Story adaptation, given that it’s a film about race relation, and given the resemblance between monologues given by Pocahontas and (West Side Story’s) Maria.

A Romeo and Juliet story is most fundamentally understood as a romance between lovers from worlds at odds with each other. That said, perhaps its next most important piece is its depiction of enemies from these two worlds; enemies who are of emotional significance to the individual lovers, but themselves cannot be reconciled. In West Side Story these characters are Riff and Bernardo. In Romeo and Juliet these characters are Mercutio and Tybalt. In Pocahontas those characters are Thomas and Kocoum.

What character traits define “a Tybalt”? For one, this character must be brutish: willing, and a bit to eager, to fight to the death for their ends. Secondly, the character’s brutishness must in no ways reduce their reputation amongst other characters. In the context of Romeo and Juliet, we are made to understand that Tybalt is unequivocally loved by his cousin Juliet and her family (even if his tender side is never displayed). Thirdly, the Tybalt character is “the other.” In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt’s rival, Mercutio, is a light-hearted character, whose winding up in a duel with Tybalt permanently darkens the play’s tone. In lacking Mercutio’s warmth, Tybalt is the other: when he draws his sword we see not a conflicted soul, but a Boba Fett-like, mysterious killer.

West Side Story’s Bernardo is also portrayed in line with these rules. He is a gang leader, but despite his rough side he is unequivocally loved by the film’s Puerto Rican characters. He is also an “other,” as unlike Riff (who sings “When You’re a Jet”) he doesn’t get a father-figure song, and as such, the audience is not seduced to care for him. Bernardo, notably, is also “an other” in the Edward Said sense of the word. He is a racial-minority-gang leader who is made to face Riff, a white-gang leader. West Side Story makes some interesting decisions in its dealings with race. As a Romeo and Juliet style script, it on the one hand creates the illusion that its two gangs are equally-flawed and equally-redeemable entities (much like Romeo and Juliet’s houses of Capulet and Montague), but on the other hand it does include enough references to racism to problematize its own dichotomy (particularly through the character of Anita—a character who has a loose equivalent in Pocahontas’ Nakoma). West Side Story’s racial consciousness led to Riff and Bernardo not being exact duplicates of Mercutio and Tybalt. In West Side Story, the two rivals do not embody the comic-relief and brute niches from Romeo and Juliet: rather, Riff and Bernardo have near-identical personalities. In making this decision, West Side Story was able to play off of Tybalt’s “otherness” by depicting Bernardo as a “racial other,” but at the same time, avoided perpetuating the trope of the racialized brute.

One of Pocahantas’s mistakes is that it lacks this sensitivity displayed in West Side Story. West Side Story starts by giving you a sense of equality between its two sides , and then problematizes that false equality. By contrast, Pocahontas moves in the opposite direction, particularly near its climax when its two sides sing a song calling each other “Savages” (undermining the racist connotations of the word). Also unlike West Side Story, Pocahontas fails to appropriately modify its Mercutio-Tybalt characters for the racial context. Pocohontas’ Tybalt is Kocoum. Like Bernardo in West Side Story, Kocoum is non-white, the racial other. Unlike Bernardo, and like Tybalt, he is portrayed as the bigger brute than his rival. Pocahontas’ Mercutio character is Thomas. Like Mercutio, he is a misfit in a duel: he is timid, and though an enthusiastic product of his racist context, displays a level of sensitivity implying he can be reformed. Kocoum, by contrast, is only portrayed as an attractive, brave warrior. While his status as a racial other makes him more sympathetic than Tybalt, he is not given the depth he deserves.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about how awkwardly Pocahontas straddles the line between progressive and problematic. As someone whose general belief is that most media can be appreciated for its good qualities, so long as viewers are exposed to sufficient critical discourse, I’ll end my commentary on a positive note, pointing out that the film ultimately does favour its Powhatin over its colonial characters (albeit via the not only historically inaccurate, but entirely implausible explanation that colonialism’s sins can largely be pinned on one greedy man)) and that Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon are fun to watch.

Political questions aside, however, this discussion still leaves with a literary question: what is to be done with the Tybalt trope. I see no reason why the Romeo and Juliet-story can’t and won’t continue to be told, and its hard to imagine it being retold without the Tybalt-Mercutio clash. Tybalt is a perplexing character, however, in that he adds great depth to Romeo and Juliet without being so deep himself. Interestingly, Disney has addressed this problem and reimagined the Tybalt character, just not in Pocahontas. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, as it tells of love between Simba’s daughter Kiara, and Scar’s heir/lookalike Kovu. While the film’s Mercutio (Timon/Pumba) does not end up in a plot-altering fight, Simba does, and, in the Mercutio-Tybalt-spirit, his fight pits him against Kovu’s brutish-brother, Nuka. Nuka is not like Tybalt, Bernardo or Kocoum, however. He is not a conventionally-attractive alpha male, but a flea-bitten lion-version of (Arrested Devlopment’s) Gob Bluth. While he has an alpha-male agenda, he simultaneously retains loveable loser traits. As far as characters from Disney-direct-to-video sequel characters go, Nuka is memorable, and as far villains go, he is endearing. Furthermore, despite the differences between him and his Shakespearian equivalent, his niche in The Lion King 2 is unquestionable: if you know the film is based on Romeo and Juliet, you won’t be left with doubts as to who Tybalt is.                     Nuka’s existence, of course, does not singlehandedly solve the Tybalt problem. It should serve as a reminder to writers, however, that one can and should be creative in depicting future versions of the Tybalt character. Characters can and should be deep and compelling, even if they flip their lids at the sight of someone biting a thumb in their direction

Is Isle of Dogs Appropriative? (and is that even the right question?)


(L to R): Wes Anderson, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schrieber, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura. The Photo is from Wikipedia where it is credited to Diana Ringo https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

As promised, I wrote this follow-up piece on Isle of Dogs. To see my original (conventional) review, click here.

Before even going to see Isle of Dogs, I knew it was the subject of controversy. Shortly after its release (almost a month ago now) Justin Chang of the LA Times wrote a review in which he suggests its cultural “sensitivity is lost in translation.” The sirens went off in my head: was Isle of Dogs “Cultural Appropriation!!!?”


I scoured the internet for references to what Chang meant, but only now read his original article. Reading his piece helped reveal that we are in a culture obsessed with buzz-words and categories. Chang’s review in fact balances praise for the film with criticism of how its Japanese subjects are portrayed. Most notably, Chang never explicitly uses the word “appropriation” to frame his disappointment (though I should note that this language does come up more in his discussion with fellow film writer Jen Yamato, also included in the link above).


But in our society of categorization and buzzwords, discussions like the one above are often reduced to the question of “appropriation” versus “appreciation.” Appropriation means using concepts from a marginalized culture in a way that is disrespectful to the source. For example, promoting offensive “cowboy and Indian” tropes by dressing up as a generic indigenous person for Halloween. Appreciation, needless to say, is the opposite of this: it implies reverence and thorough-engagement with the culture that one borrows from.


Chang’s main criticism of Isle of Dogs is its use of language: the dogs speak “dog,” but it is dubbed into English. The film’s humans, meanwhile, primarily speak Japanese. In his original conception of the film, Anderson had decided that this Japanese would not be subtitled, giving it a level of authenticity. This is where Chang sees a problem. Anderson has made numerous films about white people, (a few stand-alone characters are exceptions), and gives those people a chance to express themselves. In Isle of Dogs he has finally made a film about not-white people: and yet, because of his decision about language, the Japanese humans are not given a chance to express themselves.


What Chang has identified is no doubt, on its surface, a problem. There are two potential responses to this. One is that Anderson is not silencing his Japanese characters but simply maintaining a  subversive relationship to language politics by making a film that is not exclusively catered to English audiences. This defence is not particularly strong given that, according to some of the film’s critics (this is a matter I cannot comment on) the Japanese dialogue is not very interesting: it is written to be simple enough that English speakers who do not understand it are not missing out on much. Furthermore, as I will discuss later, Anderson waters down this prima facie subversive use of language by regularly employing (non-subtitle) translator-technologies.


That said, I do find the second defence for Anderson’s use of language to be more convincing: it is that Isle of Dogs is, well, a movie about dogs. Humans cannot understand the nuances of dog barking, but can often figure out more or less what dogs are getting at. In Isle of Dogs this logic is flipped to apply to humans.


Isle of Dog’s other big “cultural appropriation” problem is the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student, who critics of the film point out is yet another example of the white-savior trope (ie a white character who singularly solves the problems of a non-white society). While Walker is not the film’s action hero (that role is split between Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and the dogs), her ideas and spunk are the determining factors in the lead-up to the film’s climax. In short, the “white savior” problem is pretty indisputable.


It should be noted, however, that the experience of watching Isle of Dogs is not conducive to seeing Walker as a white saviour. Her initial appearance in the film is somewhat of a joke. Despite Anderson’s initial vision of making his human characters speak un-subtitled Japanese throughout his film, his desire not to hide all of his dialogue behind the language barrier led him to concoct various ways around his no-subtitle rule. In one case, a retro-translation device narrates a phone call between Mayor Kobayashi and his associates. In government presentation sessions, simultaneous translation is provided by an interpreter in a booth (Frances McDormand). The interpreter’s existence is effectively a break-the-fourth-wall joke, as while she exists in the movie’s universe, there is no English-speak population in the film to provide practical justification for her existence.

Both the radio and the translation booth fit well into the Anderson universe of beautiful,  vintage artifacts. Every time Anderson introduces a new translation technology audiences are left to marvel at the absurdity of it all, thinking: why is he doing this, wouldn’t subtitling or dubbing have been easier (redundancy/arbitrariness is, of course, yet another charm of the Anderson universe as seen in the opening to The Grand Budapest Hotel)? When, finally, Anderson imports an American human into his world, he is simply taking this redundant-technology joke to the extreme.


The defence of Tracy as an Andersonian-technology-joke, however, can only go so far. Were her appearances brief, or were she a more bumbling hero, she would come across as the technology gag she was conceived as. Tracy, however, is no side-show, and she crystallizes into the film’s resident Hermione Granger.

That all said, does Anderson “appropriate” Japanese culture? Or, despite the Tracy Walker mess-up, does he appreciate it? Again, I find this an unhelpful binary Some critics might say he is appropriative rather than appreciative, as in depicting Japanese architecture and culture without developing deep Japanese characters he is objectifying Japanese society. This point can certainly be raised to suggest that Isle of Dogs does not “appreciate” Japanese culture as deeply as it could have, but I don’t think it adds up to suggesting that the film is “appropriative” either. Anderson is a filmmaker known for his aesthetic. That he draws more upon Japanese imagery than on Japanese personalities does not make him appropriative, it simply means he made yet another Wes Anderson film, this one set in Japan.


Anderson’s Japanese-human characters also do not fit neatly into an appropriation-appreciation binary. While these characters are not necessarily deep, they are not cultural stereotypes either. While some may draw parallels between Mayor Kobayashi and Japan’s fascist past, the character strikes me as far more directly analogical to Donald Trump given his fear-mongering speeches, and given that his political opposition comes from a Science Party (“dang Democrats and their global warming!”). Furthermore, Mayor Kobayashi is showed to have a soft spot as the film reaches its conclusion.


Another character worth noting is the student who Tracy Walker confronts in her first scene. He responds to her with cocky skepticism in mildly-accented-fluent-English. While this minor character’s brief existence does not in itself cleanse Tracy Walker of her white-savior-status, he does address the worst elements of this trope. In engaging with Walker he challenges one of the characteristics of white-saviors: that they are voices for a “voiceless,” “helpless” population. While it is still problematic that she alone knows what it takes to save Megasaki, her school mate’s existence makes clear that Walker doesn’t have to be the only one who could save their city.


When discussing films, the concept of cultural appropriation often goes unseparated from the #OscarsSoWhite movement. While both are concepts that deal with race, however, they are not synonymous. A film cam not “appropriate” any elements from non-white cultures, but still have a whitewashed cast. I’m of the view that cultural-appropriation-based critiques of Isle of Dogs are misguided, but simply because they are using a not-quite-right word. Does Isle of Dogs appropriate from, ie, disrespect Japanese people or culture? I wouldn’t say so. Does it put an appreciative spotlight on Japanese people? I wouldn’t say it does that either.


I can understand where the concept of Tracy Walker comes from. She was born out of the Andersonian script’s need for translator-technology, and, as the story-team grew attached to her, was further imagined in the western cinematic tradition of spunky girls: she’s orphan Annie-meets Lady Bird. It’s this kind of implicit bias, however, that movements like #OscarsSoWhite expose. The idea of foreign-exchange-student-as-translator-device was a good one, but why couldn’t she have been an American exchange student of color? Why not a Japanese American? Why not (here’s an Andersonian idea) a Japanese student with a distinct, intricately designed, steam punk outfit who has methodically read every Victorian classic, and, as such, speaks idiosyncratically-fluent English?


Isle of Dogs exists in the context of a world that has grown conscious of Asian-American under-representation in cinema. As such films about Asian societies that to do not actively break with this trend are subject to particular scrutiny, even if as individual works they are not problematic. Isle of Dogs is not a particularly nor singularly problematic film, and should be enjoyed for the innovative piece of animation that it is. That said, we cannot let our affection for this film get in the way of having important conversations about cinema. We can enjoy Wes Anderson films while also hoping that actors like Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura and (why not) Yoko Ono continue to get cast and challenged in them.

The Films that Hooked Me: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis

As I eagerly await my chance to see Wes Anderson’s new release, Isle of Dogs, I look back on how seeing the trailer for his previous release sparked my interest in film and, eventually, gave rise to this blog. 

The_Grand_Budapest_HotelIt wasn’t long ago that I would tell you I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t watch TV either. This was not a conscious choice. Rather, I was raised in the kind of household where sitting in front of the TV for unregulated hours was forbidden. By the time I was in middle school I noticed a clear differentiation between myself and my peers. I watched the odd TV show or family movie that my family went to together because it was a good fit for all of us and/or because it was culturally significant (eg Pixar and Harry Potter films). By contrast, my peers were beginning to binge watch live action TV dramas like Lost, Heroes and various crime shows.


My alienation from film viewing was further developed, however, by the movies I did see. The movies that were supposed to excite me didn’t. I got no thrill out of watching action sequences, or the sappy endings to mainstream comedies.


I was twenty years old when my mind began to change. I don’t remember what film I was watching (Dallas Buyers Club would be my guess), but I remember seeing a trailer at Varsity Cinema that struck a unique emotion in me. That trailer was for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember thinking “I’m going to make a point of seeing that movie.” Yet that film was not an adaptation of a young adult series I’d enjoyed. It wasn’t a straightforward comedy with an easily explicable humorous hook either. It wasn’t even about a historical event or subject matter that was important to me. Rather, what struck me about it was precisely that I could not articulate what excited me about it. Sure it seemed amusing: the clips of Ralph Fiennes yelling “lobby boy!” gave off that impression, but I didn’t remember individual jokes. I remembered a melange of things: actors, colors, moods and that word “lobby boy.” In other words, it struck me as impressive as a, well, “film.”


Seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time was a mixed experience for me. I certainly found parts of it funny, but I also had questions. Why, for example, was the film’s opening narration about a writer, who appears in a flashback telling of how (in a flashback) he met the film’s protagonist (“lobby boy”) Zero Mostel, who (via a long flashback) tells the story that is essentially the whole movie? In short, what was the point of the writer, who in no way factors into the story’s action? I probably wouldn’t be bothered by this aspect of the film today, but at the time this narrative unconventionality was something I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for.


Around the same time as The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, another film hit Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Postertheatres. This one, Inside Llewyn Davis, attracted me for less mysterious reasons. It was a film about a folk-singer (I like to think of myself as a folk-singer). It was also written/directed by the Coen brothers, who I knew because they’d directed an adaptation of The Odyssey (O Brother Where Art Thou?).


In short, I was drawn to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of its many qualities as a work of art and Inside Llewyn Davis because it was a work by a known writer/director(s). Of course, had my life story been only slightly different, I could reverse those descriptions and they would equally be true. My discovery of Wes Anderson was as important as my re-acquaintance with the Coens. More important than my relationship with either of these directors, however ,was the new way they taught me to appreciate film.


In watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found a bit of the old me. I liked the movie because of what it was about: because there were characters based off of Jim& Jean and Tom Paxton. Yet there were also frustrating elements to the film in that regard: Llewyn’s interest in pre-Dylan folk and the film’s anti-climactic ending. There were also things that the burgeoning new film fan in me enjoyed. The film incorporated a not yet famous Adam Driver as character that was very memorable, despite being insignificant to the plot. The film also used John Goodman in a similar regard. Goodman’s character has an eerie feel to him that briefly makes him seem like the film’s villain. In fact, however, he’s simply a quirky, self-promoting man with dehabilitating health problems.


Much like Driver’s character, Goodman’s character doesn’t “matter.” Then again, no character in Inside Llewyn Davis really does: the film’s frustrating ending is the revelation that Llewyn’s story is cyclical (a trait also seen in the Coen’s An Irrational Man). As such, Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a narrative, but a diorama: a depiction of Greenwich village and the universe around it from the perspective of one of the numerous folk singers who did not get to be Bob Dylan. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that John Goodman’s curmudgeony, jazz musician does not serve the function of a traditional villain. He fills an important place in the diorama, sitting in his sunglasses behind his chauffeur, and waiting to capture the viewer’s eye and imagination.


Speaking of dioramas, what film better embodies that metaphor than The Grand Budapest Hotel? While it is a story that takes its protagonists to numerous places, its true soul comes out in every utterance of that phrase “lobby boy!” It is the adventure of a purple uniform as much as it the adventure of its unassuming protagonist. The uniform dashes through an exquisite pink hotel, which itself exists with in the mind of a man buried in a beautiful, key covered monument. Furthermore, while The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a thoroughly non-traditional story (unlike Inside Llewyn Davis it features a traditional villain), it too is peppered with characters who briskly come in and out (including Owen Wilson’s “Monsieur Chuck”), making them more funky-dolls in a diorama than characters in a story.


By the time I started film-blogging over three years had passed since I watched these films. They changed me, yes, but it wasn’t a change I became aware of at once. In the year following my seeing those titles I continued to see the occasional flick at the suggestion of a film-student friend of mine. It took me 10 months before I truly began consuming film on my own. I lived near Toronto’s Bay St Video at the time, and when I had to watch Children of Men for an assignment, I decided to sign up for membership and rent the DVD.


Then, I began to rent more. I rapidly went through all of Wes Anderson’s filmography. I rented Linklater’s Boyhood, the Coen’s A Serious Man as well as a lot of JeanLuc Godard. Having never received a formal film education, I’m sure I missed out on some of the key innovations in Godard’s work. I did however come to appreciate its blatant characteristics: long shots of natural and industrialized environments, philosophical monologues often peppered with references to Marxism and history, and a lack of a traditional storyline: In other words, the oddness of Wes Anderson and the Coens’ approaches to narrative pales in comparison.


The challenge of learning to appreciate works like Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Adieu_au_Langage_poster.pngleft me with a strong desire to parody. For me the mindsets of wanting to parody something, and having genuine sense of affection for it are not too far removed from each other. Therefore, when I made a makeshift, imitation Godard film called “La Mort et la Famille” in the summer of 2015 (just under a year and a half since the two titular films of this piece came into my life, and just under two years before I started blogging), it wasn’t just a joke: it was a moment of self discovery. There was (and still is) a lot for me to see, but suddenly I could say it: “I liked movies.”


There is a reason I realized I liked movies then and couldn’t before. For me, my ability to enjoy films is often rooted in my sense of connection with their director and/or writer. I cannot simply be an audience member being entertained (which is why generic, big budget fight scenes don’t do it for me); rather I wanted to admire and philosophize about the idea of crafting the movie before me. In parodying Godard I awakened a way of thinking that had been stirring in my head since I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer. I was now finally seeing films not as standalone pieces of entertainment, but as intertextual expressions of writer-directors’ imaginations.


It took another year and a half for me to first articulate this relationship, however. Moonlight and La, La Land were competing neck-and-neck for best picture, and in my social media world the competition was tense. This tension was of course political, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement motivating some of the support for Moonlight. To be clear, I agree with this cause and have no interest in arguing with its proponents, however, I did feel that this politicized environment lead to some misguided statements about La, La Land. For those judging the film through a political lens, La, La Land was a predictable repetition of the Hollywood-celebrating-itself trope. If that’s how one saw Damien Chazelle’s movie, I can indeed understand why one would feel it was inferior to Moonlight: a ground-breaking indie film about the intersections of race, sexuality and poverty.


For me, however, La, La Land was far more than its theme. It was, well, a dazzling

LLL d 10_1990.NEF

Chazelle directing La, La Land

diorama: a magical realist extravaganza that guides its protagonists around a world so wondrous and vast that they end up with happy endings while still being miserably lost. That it was about Hollywood and dreams coming true was not what made it entertaining: Chazelle’s world-building skills were.

I used to be the guy who didn’t like movies. Then I became more like “everyone else” and learned to like movies. The 2017 Oscars reminded me that maybe I was still in fact not like everyone else. I never learned to watch movies in the way that others do: I’d rather developed a distinct hobby that was like that of the regular movie goer in that it also involved looking at a film on a screen.


I suppose I could have named this blog post after La, La Land or Godard’s La Chinoise. Other works including Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were also part of that process. That said, I’m going to take the Coen brothers’ approach of going full circle. I started blogging in May 2017, roughly within one month of my re-seeing and re-appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis. I still have a lot to work on: seeing more classics, improving my cinematic vocabulary, and finding more non-white male directors to count amongst my influences. That said, in this regard, I’m not the same person I was 4 years ago, so “…p…p…please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer space,” I hear they don’t have video stores up there.