A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

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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.

 

The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by: Michael Showalter Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.

The_Big_SickThe premise of The Big Sick is simple. It’s the story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a Pakistani-American comedian, who falls for Emily, a white psychology graduate student (Zoe Kazan). They break up, only for them to be reunited when Emily goes into a coma that takes up a significant portion of the film.

 

            I was not expecting to enjoy the Big Sick. Romantic comedies, even when funny, often follow a formula. The first third of the film is entertaining, but then one character, usually the man, makes a predictable mistake or displays a predictable flaw, and then spends the rest of the (often now unfunny) film showing that he can redeem himself and (unsurprisingly) win back his love interest.

 

The Big Sick breaks this mould in two important ways. Firstly, it’s based on a true story (I won’t say more since viewers who go into the film knowing nothing about it will be pleasantly surprised by its credits). This solves the predictability problem, as it means audiences can watch The Big Sick, not to see what will happen, but to see how things happen.

 

The second key difference between The Big Sick and other romantic comedies is that its main character doesn’t have a clearcut, over-generalized flaw. He is not “SELFISH,” “A LIAR,” etc. Rather his problems comes from having perfectly reasonable divided loyalties between his (in some ways) conservative Muslim-Pakistani family, and his white girlfriend.

 

The Big Sick keeps audiences interested through showing Kumail as part of three different worlds—his family’s world, his girlfriend’s family’s world, and the comedy world. Of the three, the third is the least entertaining (which is mostly a good thing—the film is funny without having to bring on characters who directly tell jokes). The problem with the comedians is simply that we don’t get to see much of their material, and of that material, only a portion is funny (and half of that humor is the result of Kumail’s roommate’s failed attempts at jokes). The two families, on the other hand, get to explore a range of scenes and jokes. We are not left wondering what problems exist in these families (we are largely told that up front), but instead are allowed to see how the families live in the worlds that these problems partially create.

 

Another of the film’s strengths is its supporting cast. In addition to giving a reasonable amount of screen time to Youtube star Bo Burnham (check him out here), the film prominently features Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in the roles of Emily’s parents. Romano’s character maintains a fairly consistent tone throughout the film. He is always funny, yet still believable in his portrayal of a person dealing with the potential loss of a child. Hunter’s character shows a greater range of emotion (and more outward grief) than Romano’s, but is not without funny moments of her own. Hunter and Romano’s performances perhaps best represent The Big Sick’s success as a romantic comedy—the characters, and the film, are funny sans vulgarity and sombre sans sappiness.

 

Of course there is far more to The Big Sick than I can reasonably comment on—namely the politics of how Kumail’s family is represented. In an interview with Vice, Kumail Nanjiani described the film as a mostly accurate representation of the family life he grew up with, though acknowledged he was taking a risk of perpetuating anti-south Asian stereotypes by depicting a family that practiced arranged marriage.

It can be easy to draw a line between good cinema and accessible cinema, but (if it hasn’t already been said) once a style of thought starts to sound a tad elitist, it’s probably not entirely true. The Big Sick is simply put a really good movie and can be enjoyed by causal movie goers and cinema snobs alike.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

 

Written and Directed by: Roger Michell

Disclaimer: This review treats My Cousin Rachel as a standalone work. I acknowledge that this 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.  

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Based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel with (to my understanding) a slightly different plot structure, My Cousin Rachel is advertised as a work shrouded in mystery. Is it a period piece? A thriller? The film’s exploration of genre is perhaps its strongest point. Long running scenes of Victorian banter are occasionally interrupted with eerie-flashback-montages, and viewers are left wondering whether the dreary mansion where the film is set feels so dark simply because, well… its the Victorian era, or whether something more sinister is at play.

 

Just as the film’s genre is a mystery, the film’s story is a mystery. It follows Phillip, a 24 year old heir to a substantial fortune who finds himself living with Rachel, a cousin he has never met and who he suspects of, well…murder (I won’t say more). While the mystery of the film’s genre is a striking feature, one that adds a sinister energy to the film’s beautiful settings, the film’s mystery plot is underwhelming.

 

In a critique of Passengers (2016), youtuber Nerdwriter1 discussed one of that film’s weak-points by presenting its plot as a tree diagram, noting that once the film’s midpoint is reached there are only two possible outcomes for its (male) protagonist. Since both options are predictable, audiences are left under-engaged for a significant portion of Passengers’ run time. My Cousin Rachel has the same weakness, only it is far more exaggerated. The audience finds out mere minutes into the film that Rachel is suspected of a murder, and for the remainder of the film, the audience is left waiting for one of two possible outcomes: she dunnit or she didn’t.  Rachel’s personality is such that neither outcome would feel like a surprise. Her tender-vulnerability makes her being found innocent a highly foreseeable outcome, yet simultaneously, the audience knows they are seeing Rachel through Phillip’s naïve gaze, allowing for Rachel’s potential culpability to feel just as predictable as her potential innocence. This problem is further compounded by the film’s complete lack of a secondary plot: the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence is all the film has to offer.

 

This is not to say My Cousin Rachel is dull or irredeemable. Rachel is both vulnerable and independent-minded, making her character engaging, even while her character’s story is not.film is worth checking out if you like to dabble in horror without risking nightmares and/or are eager to see a new work with a (well filmed) Victorian aesthetic.


 

It Comes at Night (2017)

Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

It_Comes_at_Night“Watch a Patriarchy Crumble in It Comes at Night,” proclaims Rich Juzwiak of Jezebel. Juzwiak’s summation of the film is not a bad one. It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as Paul: a cold, strong father who will kill when he has to, and insists no one outside of his family can be trusted. Paul even runs his own family in a dictatorial fashion, a dynamic made particularly plain by the (unstated) possibility that he is the stepfather to the family’s comparatively gentle son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Yet while It Comes At Night undoubtedly depicts a patriarchal family, the film is arguably not so much about patriarchy or distrust as it is about inevitability. Vegetarians, vegans and animal lovers will notice this theme first, when Will (Christopher Abbot) offers Paul’s family food, and by food he means live chickens and goats (one supposedly played by Charlie (Black Phillip from The Witch). Perhaps some audience members will squirm at the sight of these animals, fearing they will be featured in a slaughter scene (don’t worry, there is none). Despite their squirming they will not be able to blame the humans of this film for having to find ways to eat in their desolate, post-apocalyptic living conditions.

In It Comes at Night, this sad-logic of the life of farm animals comes to effect the film’s humans. When Paul kills, as much as audiences may be repulsed by his comfort with his actions, they will not be able to dismiss him as a bad character. If what Paul, and to a lesser extent the other characters, says is true, he has no choice but to kill those who have been infected by “it” in order to protect his family. Nothing can persuade him to act differently, regardless of how conflicted he may feel internally. His violence is inevitable.

The true terror of It Comes at Night is thus not Paul’s brutality in itself, but the horrible thought that Paul’s killings may very well be justified. It’s one thing to endure the psychological pain that comes with fleeing a raging gun man—it quite another to have to both endure this pain and the pain of knowing the gunman is chasing you with justice running by his side.

It Comes at Night is a well-paced story with a good range of characters: many of whom are likeable, but all of whom remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Viewers in search of a well told, discussion-provoking horror movie should check it out.

 

 

Colossal (2017)

Written and Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo

Colossal_(film)I don’t believe in spoiling films in my reviews, but that’s a challenge with Colossal. Much like Wes Anderson films (which Colossal briefly references), Colossal’s trailer gives viewers the impression they are to see a quirky comedy. Unlike Anderson’s works however, which only diverge slightly from the comedy genre, Colossal truly goes in an unpredictable direction. If you are willing to have that element of surprise taken away from you, read on.

Along with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Colossal could help make 2017 the year of the “woke” horror movie. The former deals with race, the latter with gender. The difference between the two is that Get Out makes no effort to hide its theme, while Colossal’s effectiveness comes from its message’s discrete build up. But while plot twists are of course an important part of the horror genre (Get Out has a somewhat political twist of its own), Colossal’s plot-twist stands out because it is accompanied by a genre twist. While Colossal arguably opens as a horror film, its invocation of the Godzilla-trope sets up viewers for pastiche and comic parody, not actual terror.

 

Colossal then goes on to tell a story of gendered violence. Because viewers do not see this kind of horror coming, and because the perpetrator is not (in more ways then one) a “traditional” domestic abuser, it’s all the more effective. As in many actually cases of abuse, the protagonist, Gloria (Anne Hatheway) is not explicitly told what she is going through, but rather, along with the audience, has to figure it out herself.

 

Colossal’s approach to topical filmmaking allows it to have a powerful conclusion, but this comes at a cost. The middle portion of the film is a genre-less wasteland in which Gloria hangs out with a comedic-ish-friend-group whose interactions never get that funny. Meanwhile, the film also drifts away from a key part of its premise, scenes of a monster reeking havoc on Korea. As audiences are left underwhelmed by Gloria’s daily happenings, and disappointed by the dreary small-town scenes shown in place of glimmering downtown Seoul, they are secretly being integrated into the dreary world in which Gloria is being held prisoner.

 

However, once the nature of Gloria’s existence becomes apparent, the film is able to explore its gendered theme in a much more animated fashion. Colossal ends with a sad-faced, black-eyed Gloria forcefully pushing for her freedom. This too is one of the film’s strong points, as it is the writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s way of responding to the age-old question of whether the oppressed should resist with force or by turning the other cheek. Colossal ultimately choses force, but by showing Gloria’s face to be confused and broken, not bloodshot, it does not do so unambiguously.

 

Colossal in short, is not always the most captivating film, but its less exciting plot points ultimately feed into its poignant conclusion. Gloria, for instance, starts a mid-film, casual relationship with a character who is too devoid of personality on his own to bring much to the story. At the end of the film, however, it becomes clear that Gloria’s interest in this character is a statement of her refusal to participate in/be subject to the “good-man-bad-man” dichotomy that exists between two of the film’s other central characters. Watch Colossal if you are interested in seeing a convention-defying work which reaches its resolution in memorable fashion.

I, Daniel Blake | Film Review

Directed by Ken Loach, Written by Paul LavertyI,_Daniel_Blake

I, Daniel Blake, first released almost a year ago, has recently hit Toronto cinemas. The film tells the story of a 59-year-old Newcastle man, burdened with a weak heart and computer illiteracy, who befriends a homeless single mother and her two kids; and challenges a welfare bureaucracy that displays Catch-22 levels of absurdity. British Labour MP John McDonnell praised the film stating ““We’re living in an I, Daniel Blake society as a result of having the Tories in power for six years. The government should be caring for sick and disabled people, not making their lives worse.”

The film’s relevance was, in a way, highlighted, by a recent “scandal” in which Guardians of the Galaxy actor Chris Pratt complained that there were not enough Hollywood movies about “blue collar” characters (characters he could relate to). Pratt’s comments were criticized as, amongst other things, baseless, and he briskly apologized. Why am I evoking this tabloid (non-)story? Because regardless of how informed Chris Pratt’s comment was, it might have been on to something.

Yes, there may be no shortage of films about blue collars Americans, and yes, especially in the Trump era, rhetoric about “blue collar Americans” has developed racial (ie white privileging) undertones. But while those facts may problematize Pratt’s comment, they does not invalidate it. Manchester by the Sea may have starred a working class character, but its primary focus was on his struggle with grief. Paterson might have been the story of a bus driver, but his socioeconomic status was presented as, at worst, a source of monotony, not marginalization. Chris Pratt may have played a shoeshine boy on Parks and Recreation, but his character was not so much a struggling worker, but a loveable man-child. There may be no lack of media depictions of working class characters, but how many of these pieces question the socioeconomic system that creates working class people? Perhaps what Pratt should have said is that there is a lack of films with blue collar consciousness.

The power of I, Daniel Blake is that it brims with class-consciousness; it is a story about how un-nuanced, sanction-happy, state bureaucracies perpetuate poverty. The film’s protagonist himself is class conscious. Daniel never misses a chance to criticize the failings of the British welfare system, be it with gentle anger or a deriding grin. I, Daniel Blake is also important in that it tells a working class story, a working class anti-government story, and yet it falls firmly on the left, even as right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and Theresa May claim to be voices of the working class. And while I, Daniel Blake is still centered around a white man, it makes clear its understanding of “the working class” is inclusive, as seen through Daniel’s teasing, but friendly relationship with his neighbour China, a young black man, and more prominently his investment in the wellbeing of secondary protagonist Katie.

I, Daniel Blake is an important film and its importance arguably overshadows its limitations. Daniel is an incredibly sympathetic figure, and his bittersweet story arc may not appeal to those who seek more experimental characters and story lines. At the same time, Daniel’s excessive goodness is not without its merits. In a piece for Daily Extra, Cicley-Belle Blain, discussed how powerful the moment in Moonlight is in which Juan assures a young Chiron that “f****t” is a nasty words and that it is ok to be gay. Blain, noted how audiences have been biased against African American men to a degree that seeing one as not-homophobic is somehow shocking. I, Daniel Blake similarly “shocks” audiences by showing a (white) working class man, not as an angry, misogynistic, Brexiter but a compassionate soul, who is not above a little peaceful civil disobedience now and then.

I, Daniel Blake is a politically important film…perhaps a first step in reclaiming “working class” as an identity of the left. While its message perhaps compromises the quality of its narrative, the film is not without powerful and informative scenes: most notably its depictions of the absurd conversations Daniel has in welfare offices. Be sure to catch this film in cinemas if you want to do your part towards making Chris Pratt feel better represented in the word of cinema.