It: Chapter One (2017)

Directed by: Andy Muschietti, Written by:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

Disclaimer: This review treats “It” as a standalone work. I acknowledge that it is an adaptation of a novel by an iconic writer, and recognize that this film’s overall merits cannot be weighed without considering the parameters set by the original text.  

 

It_(2017)_poster            For the time being at least, It is a cultural phenomenon. James Corden featured It’s primary antagonist, Pennywise the dancing clown, in a humorous sketch, The Beaverton has used it to skewer anti-PC demagogue Jordan Peterson, and Pennywise costumes are now on sale for Halloween. In a way this is surprising. “It” is not exactly an original name for a horror film (particularly with recent, more dynamic uses of the title in mind), and a scary clown is not exactly an original monster (anything that’s interesting about Pennywise is presented in a way that is three-fold more interesting by various iterations of the Joker).

As I began to watch the film, I thus worried it would be banal by horror standards. The story wastes no time in introducing its titular clown and does nothing to conceal his dark side (if he even has a non-dark side). Instead, it turns quickly to graphic violence. As the film progresses we learn a bit more about Pennywise (ie he is not just a murderous clown, but a multi-faceted monster), but not enough to make him a particularly memorable personality or psychologically captivating villain.

It’s my belief that horror films, whether they be “high-brow” or “low-brow” are particularly likely to be good watches, as almost by definition they contain suspense and plot twists. This means they hit that ever present standard for good storytelling: unpredictability. Pennywise, for the most part, does not help It check the unpredictability box. Luckily, however, there is a lot more to It than its most advertised personality.

TV series Stranger Things, can partially credit its popularity to its invocation of nostalgia for 1980s culture and classic sci-fi/horror tropes. While I found the ultimate subtlety of (the first season of) Stranger Things made it underwhelming, It’s over-the-top repackaging Stranger Things’ qualities proved successful. One not-too-subtle overlap between the two works is cast member Finn Wolfhard. While Wolfhard was seemingly given thick glasses in It for the soul purpose of clarifying that he is not in fact Mike from stranger things, his character, Richie, is more Lucas (Mike’s sometimes hot-headed, best friend), than Mike, albeit with a magnified personality. Everything about Richie signifies “best-friend” rather than protagonist, yet the character is nonetheless one of the film’s most memorable personas: the writing of the role is perhaps It’s greatest strength.

Richie is part of a friend group of what ultimately turns out to be seven kids. Each of these kids is given at least somewhat of a backstory, and while not all of them are well developed, the ambition of introducing and bringing them all together is another of It’s strong points. It should be noted, however, that the film seems to rely on (an albeit somewhat self aware form of) tokenization. Only one of the seven kids is not-white, and although he has a very compelling backstory, he is absent for much of the middle of the film. Only one of the seven kids is a girl, and she serves as a love interest for two of the film’s male characters. Whether this should be read as a rebuke or excessive-reinforcement of the traditional imagining of a token-female-character as a love interest for geeky, male heroes is a question I imagine, that cannot easily or unambiguously be answered.

So in essence, It is a good horror film due to the flawed but still compelling portrayal of its seven young heroes. That seems like a bit of a weird way to sing the praises of a horror film. Luckily, It, like all good horror movies, situates its characters in a mysterious, terrifying universe, even if that mystery and terror is not entirely the creation of its central villain. The film also features archetypal bullies and (all degrees of) bad parenting. Perhaps another good way of selling It, is noting that it duplicates (without resembling) much of what’s effective about Harry Potter. It is a story of kids engaging in unlikely heroics against a magical villain, in the face of worse-than-Malfoy-esque bullying and adult incompetence and cruelty.

I’ve heard It described as more gross than scary. For the most part that is an apt description, as the film’s villain’s lack of subtlety limits the amount of nail-biting one will do in the lead up to his attacks. While viewers should be aware of potentially triggering content in the film (strong allusion to sexual violence against a minor), non-horror fans should not be put off from seeing It. If you are interested in ambitious narratives, and enjoy tales of rag-tag friend groups, seeing all 2 hours and 15 minutes of It is absolutely worth your while.

 

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Lucky (2017)

Directed by: John Caroll Lynch. Written by: Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja

Lucky_(2017_film)

Lucky’s story is simple, so there is little one can say about it without giving too much away. That is not to say, however, that the film is unenjoyable. Lucky can be described as being in the same, broad style as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, but is far more accessible than the 2016 film. Both works follow characters through the repetitive mundanity of their days, and in both films audiences are challenged to glean enjoyment by identifying heavily with the realist lives of their protagonists (for example exchanging pleasantries with the quirky folks at one’s local watering hole), rather than looking for some fantastical escape. Unlike Paterson, a film with almost no plot )save for some poetically-quaint tragedy at its end), Lucky is quick to introduce viewers to a weighty point of struggle in its protagonist’s life: his bout with mortality.

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan reminds us in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” For many of us that way of thinking is an ever-present but subtle demon in our heads. Death may come, but not for an eternity. Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton)’s dilemma is he does not know what head space to put that thought in. He is lucky in that despite being a very thin, pack-a-day-smoker at an advanced age, he passes his health exams with flying colors. His miracle body is as healthy as it has ever been. This means that on the one hand he can put the thought of death in the back of his mind with much of the rest of us. On the other hand, however,  he is old, so despite Lucky’s general good health, his doctor nonetheless feels compelled to put existential thoughts into his head. Lucky thus exposes the ultimate limits of luck. A person can be “lucky” in the sense of living for a long time, yet even such “lucky” people must exist with the burden of knowing that each time a new day arrives, they are one day closer to death. This tension contributes to Lucky’s subtle, but compelling dilemma. He is a steadfast socially awkward man who must decide whether he is in a hurry or not to overcome his shortcomings and be at peace with his eventual demise.

 

When I watched the film I did not realize its star, Harry Dean Stanton, had died two weeks previously. While it would be a mistake to project an actor’s personality onto a superficially similar character he portrays, that knowledge will no doubt allow viewers to appreciate the film with an additional degree of depth. Lucky is the light and sometimes funny story of a man contemplating his ultimate legacy, so Stanton’s playing the role is poetically fitting. If simple, multi-tonal, gently-existential filmmaking is of interest to you, or if you simply like David Lynch and tortoises, check out Lucky in theatres today!

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)

imagesDirected by: Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maioran 

Perhaps you’ve heard the narrative that rock and roll music was born when a teenage truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley did an upbeat cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mamma.” Perhaps you’ve also heard the criticism that this story erases the degree to which rock and roll was a black invention developed by figures like Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The seeming ambition of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is to look at where another of America’s defining racial groups fits into this story. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this documentary opens in the 50s. We see black and white footage, a dance hall, side burns, and Link Wray, the Shawnee rockabilly who wrote the film’s titular song.

After telling some of Wray’s story, the film goes on to explore the likes of other indigenous musicians from the 20th century: we hear the rhythmic blues guitar of Charlie Patton, the drums of Randy Castillo, the jazz vocals of Mildred Bailey and the rhymes of Taboo. The films biggest success, can thus be said to be the scope of who it covers. The film spans decades and genres and in doing so makes visible numerous indigenous icons in American musical history. This itself is a feat worth commending: representing members of marginalized groups in popular media is one way of making that media become even more inclusive in the future.

On the other hand, the film is plagued by serious narrative and pacing problems. Part of this stems from the fact a number of the featured artists were instrumentalists. As compelling an artistic choice it was for the film to open with Wray, an indigenous Elvis-figure of sorts, there are only so many interviewers one can hear about the sound of his power chords before losing interest. While Wray had a lengthy career as a vocalist and lyricist as well as a guitar player, the film made the odd decision to reduce his legacy to one, albeit iconic, instrumental track. Similarly, Randy Castillo and Jesse Ed Davis come across as having interesting, and tragic stories, yet their segments are underwhelming to the film’s over focus on snippets of their instrumental work. I say this, I must emphasize, not as a non-connoisseur of music, but out of the realization that music is a language of its own that can’t always be readily described with words. Davis’ solo in “Dr. My Eyes,” is indeed phenomenal, but even hearing the reliably cool and articulate Jackson Browne talk about it, does not make for good entertainment.

The strongest moment of the film comes when it discusses artists from the 60s: Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter La Farge (and by extension Johnny Cash). These artists were not simply indigenous musicians who produced hypnotic sounds, but radical lyricists and storytellers. Their presence in the film therefore is more dynamic than that of their peers. Not only can Sainte-Marie and La Farge be celebrated for being representation of indigenous peoples, but also as ambassadors of indigenous causes: singers whose lyrics terrified American authorities with their calls for a just, decolonized world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is replete with interesting information and has the potential to intrigue popular music fanatics. Unfortunately, it is still a bit lacking as an artistic work. Perhaps the presence of a narrator, unifying the film’s many figures could have made it more engaging. Alternatively, the film could have covered fewer artists but with better depth. Regardless of its shortcomings, Rumble’s release is still a cause for celebration: a reminder to fire up the old turn table and give tracks like “The Weight,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Rumble,” a spin.

 

 

 

The Little Hours (2017)

Written and directed by: Jeff Baena

The_Little_Hours_posterIf you put popular comic actors in a nunnery, how long can they keep up the image of propriety? That’s the premise of The Little Hours, and it does not take long to unravel. A minute or two into the film a chain of f-bombs spews from the mouth of Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Other reviewers have described the film in a mildly-positive light, calling it a work that does a respectable job of sustaining itself on one joke (its premise) for its short-ish runtime.

There is an unquestionable charm to the film. It opens to minstrel music, rustic countryside and credits with medieval-stylized font. While I’m sure that historians could find ways to tear the film’s aesthetic apart, The Little Hours does a reasonably good job of convincing viewers they are truly watching a medieval story. The script further contributes to this allusion: while its scenes are predominantly wacky, there are moments, such as when the nuns take communion, that comedy takes a back seat to maintaining a degree of historical realism.

While critics may be right in calling out The Little Hours’ low-brow humour, the film’s unique brand of “realism” makes it a worthy watch. The Little Hours in fact, at times, shares a tone with What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s critically acclaimed Vampire mockumentary. Both films depict smut and gore, yet rather than relying on the cheap thrills, treat audiences to mild-mannered characters mundanely navigating their universea. For example, when Father Tommasso (John C. Reily) drunkenly threatens Massetto, the humors comes not from his drunkenness, nor even from the idea that a priest is drunk, but rather his distress over having tipped his cart full of embroidery and having to awkwardly dry its contents by a rocky strem. The Little Hours’s supporting cast also includes Nick Offerman as a vengeful warlord who’s defining characteristic is not his military might but his ability to provoke a barrage of sarcasm from his wife; and Fred Armisan as a bishop who strictly enforces Catholic doctrine, with just enough doubt in his voice to expose the absurdity of his judgement. Reilly and Molly Shannon feature as a priest and mother superior who are essentially cool parents: they don the garb and fill the function of authority without really policing the behaviour to their flock.

The three main nuns, meanwhile, are played by a good spectrum of personalities. Sister Alessandra (Allison Brie) is introduced in a moment of sadness, playing a straight-woman of sorts who nevertheless has her share of comedic, awkward scenes. Plaza and Kate Micucci (as Sister Genevra) revive their respective deadpan-goth and awkwardly-innocent personas from Parks and Recreation and Garfunkel and Oates. While Micucci’s type fits right-in in a nunnery comedy, Plaza’s tendency for 4th wall-breaking-glances, at times, feels a bit out of place. On the other hand, the ultimate twist with Plaza’s character is a good one, and film viewers can appreciate Sister Fernanda as April Ludgate on steroids.

Ultimately The Little Hours does fall a bit short of What We Do in the Shadows. This is largely because The Little Hours opts to have a conventional story arc. After a solid first half, it reaches its apex with a build up of sexually-explicit chaos, followed by reconciliation and, ultimately, hero(in)ism. This narrative approach arguably costs the film a few jokes. Nevertheless, the film provides plenty to laugh at it via its collection of personalities, its period humor, and occasionally turns to the absurd. If you are not put off by vulgarity, and are curious to see nuns who show that Maria is not a problem whatsoever, The Little Hours is absolutely worth seeing.

Columbus (2017)

Written and directed by: kogonadaColumbusPoster

Invoking the recent memories of Paterson and Manchester by the Sea, Columbus gives viewers another shot at watching a melancholy, slow-realist film named after its location. Unlike the others, Columbus struck me as a bit deceiving. One could not go into Manchester by the Sea expecting Manchester, England—the small, New England location is readily apparent. I’m not sure the same can be said of Columbus, a film that may not even explicitly mention its set in Columbus, Indiana (the small birthplace of Mike Pence) rather than Columbus, the capital of Ohio and a city of 800 000 people.

Why do I mention this deception? Why is my mistake (if it is just my mistake) relevant to reviewing a film? Because watching Columbus as if it is in fact about the bigger city, gives the title greater meaning.

In an early scene, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a sophomore-aged young woman tells a friend at college in LA that she has no inclination to leave Columbus. At this moment, it seems Casey has an unusual, be not unreasonable attachment to her not-New York-LA-or-Chicago-glamorous city. As the film progresses, we see some of Columbus, exposed through the lens of Casey’s interest in architecture. What we see, however, is an odd collection. Each of Casey’s favorite buildings are isolated. Often the camera fails to even depict the whole building, showing nothing but a couple of glass panels. Again, if the viewer approaches this scene with the assumption that the film is about Columbus, Ohio, they will get the impression that Casey’s passion for her city is deeply idiosyncratic and tied to personal experience. By contrast, if the viewer knows the film is set in Columbus, Indiana, the choice of what is shown feels far less striking: Casey, in that context, is simply working with what she has.

As the film develops, we come to understand Casey’s pain and why she feels confined to Columbus. She befriends Jin (John Cho), a Korean-English translator who is similarly confined to Columbus due a pain of his own, one not dissimilar to Casey’s. While I cannot say more about their respective struggles and the dynamic of their relationship without spoiling the film’s relatively simple plot, I can again comment on the significance of being mistaken about their location. Were the film set in big-city Columbus, Casey and Jin could be said to be making their big home small as a result of their pain. Columbus to them is just a library, a university and a hospital, all seen in isolation, rather than as part of an urban cityscape. This is their Columbus because these are the locations they escape to, the locations that shape their conversations, and the locations that define their own sense of the city. Columbus Indiana, by contrast, is just a town: just a place to be a stuck: a place that probably can be defined by individual building in isolation. If one understands the film as set in the latter Columbus, one learns a lot less about Casey (being confined too a town vs. being so confined that a big city feels like a town), and even less about Jin (as Columbus is only a temporary home for him, making his confinement to the actual small town feel relatively insignificant).

Again, perhaps I was not supposed to make a mistake about the film’s location. If after all, the film is more interesting if its interpreted as making Columbus Ohio feel like a small town, rather than simply being set in a small town, why wouldn’t the writer just have set it in Columbus, Ohio? Then again, it is truly peculiar that the film is named after a large, American capital city, yet is not set there, nor does the film’s dialogue mention that it is not set there.

The film ends with shots of various, often uninspiring locations in Columbus, Indiana. It is at this final moment, that interestingly it doesn’t matter where on believes the film is set. Either way, the film honors Casey’s memories of her home: be it her confined home on the outskirts of a metropolis, or her home in a small, unexciting town.

 

 

A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

A_Ghost_Story_poster

In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.