Thelma and Louise (1991)

Written by: Callie Khourie Directed by: Ridley Scot

  Thelma_&_Louiseposter                It’s a sign of my still amateurish relationship to film, that until taking it out of the library the other day I had barely heard of Thelma and Louise. Perhaps I had, but had simply confused it in my head with the numerous other “duo things” I hadn’t seen: Cheech and Chong, Starsky and Hutch, etc. I trust that these works are not very apt comparisons to the film I just saw, but part of me wonders if that’s not a problem. Thelma and Louise is a serious, political movie, yet its character perhaps comes from the fact that it is in fact disguised as something else.

Thelma and Louise is a buddy movie, a roadtrip movie. This setup implies comedy, as did the film’s trailer. I would not say it’s not a comic film: it has its share of light, and comedically shocking lines. But to call the film a comedy, even a black comedy, would miss that it’s a story not focused around its jokes, but around its core theme.

Without giving too much away, Thelma and Louise is a story about gendered violence and how women who fall victim to it are not believed in their accounts of what happened. This is a problem Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) decide to deal with by escaping into the power and hedonistic thrill of an outlaw lifestyle. The film’s “comedic” story is thus not unlike that of Life is Beautiful: it can be appreciated as comedy, but only if one acknowledges that that comedy is an act of rebellion.

The film’s feminism is made obvious by its political premise: one that is explicitly, though not unnaturally, stated in the script. When a movie passes the Bechdel test, however, there will likely be more feminism to it than meets the eye. When we meet Louise and Thelma they fill somewhat familiar roles: Louise the grizzled veteran who knows what she’s talking about, Thelma the naïve sidekick. The film, however, is called Thelma and Louise not Louise and Thelma. This is perhaps because it is Thelma who suffers and transforms more in the period of time depicted on camera; and her transformation eventually allows her to upstage Louise. Thelma thus breaks what one might expect from a character in a buddy comedy: she can be naïve, but this is not her defining feature: in the right situation, she can be the strong, daring and articulate character. The film thus takes a transformative and not a mere reformist approach to the “ditz stereotype,” allowing Thelma to break free from its chains, while not denying her the chance to also show off her naïve side.

To elaborate on the Bechedelian point, the film’s unique feminist status can be seen in how its depicts men. Yes, one man stands out as an antagonist, but there are other problematic men along the way, including cops, who are like enemy robots, in their inability to look beyond the law and empathize with Thelma and Louise’ situation. An other male still is rendered fodder for one of the film’s road comedy scenes. Just as the film is feminist in its depictions of various male dangers, it also finds feminism in its strategic depiction of (sort of) good men (Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt). These characters enter the script providing color and additional layers of emotional complexity in the plot. Their greatest significance, however, is their inability to help the protagonists. Thelma and Louise only have each other, or at least, they come to see it that way.

Thelma and Louise find liberation, but that liberation relies on illusion and carpe diem (again, not unlike Life is Beautiful). This is a powerful image, one beautifully nailed in the film’s classic final scene. Perhaps you’ll spend some moments disappointed about the low ratio of gags to screen time in a film that you may expect to be a buddy comedy in Thelma and Louise, but ultimately it’s the kind of work where its thematic cohesiveness leaves one thoroughly satisfied.

Advertisements

Greenberg (2010)

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

Greenberg_poster          There’s something about a title that doesn’t tell you anything that tells you just enough. Part of me finds it odd when a story is named after a character. That character usually doesn’t exist outside of their own narrative realm, so how can a title possible say anything about their story? How can such titles possibly be remembered in a world full of titles? The answer, it would seem, lies in the non-answer to these questions. A movie simply named after its own characters is making a bold statement: that’s its characters are so memorable, they can afford to be promoted simply by their names.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one such character. The star of a simple, urban story he is, unsurprisingly, a quirky fellow, but even within that archetype he is uniquely written and portrayed. Greenberg’s story is shared with that of Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is a nanny for Greenberg’s brother’s well-off family. When the family takes a trip to Vietnam both are called in to play a role taking care of the house and its dog.

When we are introduced to Greenberg we are left to wonder why we are invested in him as an individual. He plays the song It Never Rains in California upon meeting Florence and it doesn’t quite resonate with her the way it does with him. Perhaps, in his head, at this moment, he is quirky. Perhaps in his head he’s worthy of the bold mononym Greenberg, but to us he could be any person having a conversation.

However, over the course of the film, Greenberg’s odd-ballness is allowed to bloom. The simplest way to describe him is as curmudgeon, albeit at least 15 years too young for the trope. He is also a young-man trying to find himself, albeit 15 years too old for that trope. Finally he is jealous and bullish, though in the least macho way possible. In short, Greenberg is quirky, but not in a way that can be described with a single adjective or stereotype. His story thus manages to be oddball without being cartoonish.

In essence, to watch Greenberg is to watch a rather subtle accomplishment. Films can be realist simply by virtue of their depicting realistic events: such realism can be relatively effortless. Greenberg, however, is a script that searches the mundane for the absurd and broadcasts if back to us in its original, mundane form. It is rife with imagination, yet never takes us into imagination land.

If there is a downside to films like Greenberg it’s that their subtle pace can make it hard to notice when an important detail has in fact been revealed. It can be hard to know which lines and moments should be viewed with greater attention than other component’s of the characters’ banter. This flaw is of limited importance, however, as the effectiveness of films like Greenberg comes from their character developments not their plot. I may struggle to tell you before long exactly what its story is, but this boldly named film certainly lives up to the high standard it sets for itself.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Written by: Steve Conrad Directed by: Ben Stiller

 

The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterIt’s easy to be dismissive of a film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film follows an “inspiration trajectory,” by which I mean its beginning tells us exactly how its going to end. It is the story of Mitty (Ben Stiller) a photography editor for Life magazine who struggles with an inability to form romantic connections, a slightly offbeat (though I wouldn’t say dysfunctional) family and employment precarity, as Life is taken over by a “modernizing” new manager (Adam Scott). Walter’s problems fit into neat thematic categories, so I can understand why certain film critics might be put off by the film’s having a “predictable,” “inspirational” message.

Nonetheless, I am also weary of people deciding whether or not they like a film because of pre-conceived metrics like “predictability” and “preachiness” (in my last few posts I’ve similarly criticized by own heuristic of “subtlety”). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is particularly cloying in its final moment, but when it comes to appreciating the film, this shouldn’t matter. That’s because, despite being the tale of a spiritual journey, Walter Mitty is decidedly secular.

After a photo by famed photographer James O’Connell goes missing (costing Walter his job), Walter decides to find the photographer, a decision that leads him to overcome his mundane existence and take a helicopter to Greenland. This moment, however, is not a celebration of Walter “facing his fears,” “seizing the day” or some other clichéd value: rather, it’s a mildly captivating moment of magical realist randomness. Smitten by love, and having recently discovered the song “Space Oddity,” Walter takes to the sky. Walter’s journey to Greenland sets up the domino chain of events that define his stories. He proceeds to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Again, one could jump to the conclusion that this trajectory of Walter going from nobody to worldly traveller reeks too much of self-help books to be thematically interesting. This kind of judgement, however, is one I believe critics reach after-the-fact. While watching Walter’s story, I found his character development to be perfectly paced. A weird episode leads him to Greenland, and from there he becomes impressed with his new coolness and experiences self-actualization at a believeable rate. Walter’s character development thus blends in smoothly with his dramatic surroundings. Audiences are thus not left to gaze too closely at the film’s feel good plot, but rather to appreciate the sparkling photography Walter’s journey passes: mirror lakes and abyss-laden mountain ranges.

For a spiritual journey, Walter’s is also a rather silly one. The leadup to his journey features a cutaway to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The conclusion of his journey introduces him to a spiritual guru of sorts, who in fact is a carelessly playful, not all that insightful, famous actor in an extended-cameo. Along, the way Walter is also exposed to a recurring character (Patton Oswalt) who’s very becoming a recurring character is itself a playful gesture.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is visually ambitious, moderately experimental and certainly has funny moments. These qualities combine to make it at very least an interesting viewing experience. Critics have found reason to criticize it, but, and I levy this criticism cautiously, in this case I feel they are simply thinking too hard, instead of appreciating the easily captivating creative, and sensorial experience that is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Written by: Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana Directed by: Ang Lee

Brokeback_mountainThere are various reasons I take films off the the shelf at the video store or library. Sometimes I systematically try to watch certain works. Other times I go for the oddball covers. In the case of finally seeing Brokeback Mountain, I suppose I was chasing a memory. 2006 was the first year in which I was broadly aware of what films were nominated for the Oscars, even though I was too young to have seen any of them. While my interest was admittedly peaked because a movie about one of my favourite singers (Johnny Cash/Walk the Line) was part of the conversation, I nonetheless retained memories of the names of actors and movies that were not necessarily atop the tabloid world: actors including Brokeback Stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gylenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway,

So what did I think of Brokeback Mountain? I enjoyed it, though perhaps I felt it did not live up to the mystical stature it held as the first “great” (modern) movie to have slipped into my consciousness. In drama classes, a common piece of advice is “show not tell.” Clearly, I think this is good advice, as I regularly find myself using “subtlety” as a near synonym for quality when discussing film. When storytellers, “show and not tell,” they make more powerful statements about the issues they are dealing with, than if they name the issue head on: they allow the issue to emerge in a raw, more natural form.

Brokeback Mountain, literally speaking, is a subtle film. Its protagonist, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) doesn’t say much, and his silence certainly plays a role in shaping the film’s trajectory. Upon deeper examination, however, Brokeback Mountain is not a subtle work. It’s quite plainly “the gay cowboy” story, even if the word “gay” is never used in the script. Brokeback Mountain straddles the line between “mainstream” and “alternative”: it is realist and lacks (with one brief, but significant exception) action, yet at the same time is dramatic and unambiguous in its messaging.

An obvious way to think about Brokeback Mountain is as a piece of gay (or queer) cinema, a lens which for me evokes, the memory of recent releases Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight. Moonlight is a story that takes place in this modern era, one in which “gay rights” enjoy broad support (even as homophobia can clearly still take a violent toll on society). Call Me By Your Name is slightly pre-modern as far as the gay-rights conversations goes, however, since it is set in a small world populated by liberal intellectuals the significance of this time difference is somewhat negated. Brokeback Mountain thus, in a way, feels different than those two works. It opens in rural America in the 60s: a world which we can assume is predominantly homophobic. What is interesting about the film,, again, that “gayness” is rarely explicitly mentioned. As such, the degree to which it influences the plot’s dramatic tension is left at least somewhat ambiguous. Yes, we can assume that a gay couple probably couldn’t be out and proud in the world of Brokeback Mountain, but does this homophobia go so far as to prevent its characters from being out in the small world of their family and social groups? This second question is left unanswered. We never get to know whether the film’s protagonists are entirely victims of homophobia, or whether it is their internal fears and self-hate that prevent them from finding happiness.

I suppose it can be said that this ambiguity is the feature that gives Brokeback Mountain its reputation. It’s this feature that allows the film to run on, even where dramatic events are few and far between. Ennis may not have enemies, but he does have his own personality to conquer: a personality that silences him no matter who the listener is.

The film is also a joy aesthetically. It’s score is simple, but interesting. It consists of acoustic guitar riffs: plucked strings breaking out with the Brokeback mountain sunrise over the fresh morning dew. To anyone who ever over-generalizes and says they hate country music, I dare them to see this movie, and take in country as it emerges from its natural habitat.

Unfortunately it is not 2006 and I cannot appreciate how Brokeback Mountain would have come across when it first came out. Perhaps at the times its politics were more revolutionary, making its theme feel richer or at least more original than it does today. This vague gripe aside, I thoroughly appreciated the modern classic. Just remember to put on the subtitles: That Heath Ledger sure can mumble.

Brother Bear (2003)

Written by: Tab Murphy, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, Steve Bencich, and Ron J. Friedman. Directed by: Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker.

Brother_Bear_PosterDisney is often described as having a renaissance. Rightly or wrongly,  the 90s is seen as one of the studio’s high points. While this perception may be justified, it may also simply be a reflection of the subject matter it took on in that period. Renaissance films were primarily, though not exclusively, retellings of classic stories. Despite their being classics, however, Disney made it so its versions of these stories would be the one’s that are remembered. Today when we think of Beauty and the Beast, we assume it is a story that includes a singing candelabra and teapot. When we think of The Little Mermaid we think more readily of the version that doesn’t involve her (spoiler alert) melting into the sea. Post-renaissance films simply couldn’t fill this cultural niche. While I may be biased as a fan of Muppet Treasure Island, I doubt that most people who hear the name Long John Silver picture the Treasure Planet character, ahead of some generic image of a wooden-legged pirate.

Brother Bear is not an adaption of a well known fairy tale or piece of mythology. It lacks the glow of the renaissance and as such has been left sadly underrated. It tells the story of three Inuit brothers: Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), Denahi (Jason Raize) and Sitka (D.B. Sweeney). In other words, the film is set up to have a folkloric feel. Each of the brothers has a distinct niche. Sitka, the eldest, is a patient leader. Kenai, the youngest, is carefree. Denahi is more mature than Kenai, though clearly too grumpy about this to really be called mature himself. Kenai has come of age and is given his totem (symbolized by a necklace): a bear of love. Embarassed not to have been given a more “manly” totum, Kenai acts out and soon finds himself immersed in the world of bears.

While I can’t say much more, the film proceeds effectively from its opening due to a number of its traits. For one, it has a distinct, striking aesthetic punctuated by its depiction of the northern lights. Secondly, its characters convincingly vary in temperament. Kenai’s character arc is kick-started by his desire for revenge. While his desire is initially condemned by Denahi, it is ultimately Denahi whose role in the film is vengeance-driven. The film thus compellingly shows the divide between the different kinds of principles that drive human actions, and how emotional stimulation rather than calm rationalization often drives which part of our mind we listen to.

 

Like other Disney Classics Brother Bear features a decent selection of songs. They are written by Phil Collins, and performed by artists including Collins, Tina Turner and a Bulgarian Woman’s Choir. Because Brother Bear is not a musical, however, these songs are not always perfectly incorporated into the film’s soundscape. This leaves the film without a single memorable track. Nonetheless,  when listened to on the soundtrack, its songs are still very enjoyable.

 

A final highlight of the film, is its contribution to the world of Disney-sidekicks, a pair of moose named Tuke and Rutt (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis). The two are gentle, but rowdy. They are also oblivious to the greater issues happening around them, making them pleasantly distinct as comic relief figures.

 

Brother Bear may not be the most action packed Disney film, nor can it be sold as a quasi musical. It’s also slightly dark for a kids’ movie. Nonetheless, it should be appreciated as the stellar piece of storytelling that it is. It weaves together the destinies of three characters, when a weaker film could easily have cast two of them to the wayside. Brother Bear is a fable, and as such its beginning and ending are truly connected: that connection is what kicks its ending up a notch from being simply sentimental, to being truly satisfying.

Bambi (1942)

Directed by (supervising): David Hand+many others

Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, etc.

Walt_Disney's_Bambi_posterDespite its being a children’s classic, I only saw Bambi for the first time the other day. I knew the basics going in: it was about a deer, and that something tragic, certainly by kids’ movie standards, befalls him. Bambi is a simple film, and therefore the above description does it some justice. Nonetheless, it should be further noted that Bambi has a tone that makes it comparable to few other children’s films. It feels primitive, but not in a bad way.

Had I not done my research, I might have supposed that Bambi was the first ever Disney animated feature-film (it’s not, Snow WhitePinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo all predate it). Through the eyes of its young protagonist, Bambi uncovers the wonders of the woods, and these moments of wondrous discovery have a meta-quality to them. It is as if the animators are not just saying “look Bambi has found water,” but “look at how beautifully we can animate water.”

It is undeniable that Bambi is a film about its aesthetic. The turning of the seasons is another of its important plot points, and a source of the film’s beauty. This is especially noticeable as fall comes around and the animation is simplified to represent the chaos of a hunt. Bambi’s being an aesthetic-focused film is also seen in the way it uses music. Unlike its predecessors, Bambi’s characters don’t sing, instead (as seen in later films like Peter Pan), songs are performed by an invisible chorus. Such a song is used, for instance, to show the pleasant side of raindrops “drip, drip, drip go the April showers.”

But Bambi’s not being a musical simultaneously points to the film’s other provocative trait. Again, many will watch Bambi knowing a major, tragic, spoiler (one out of principal, perhaps absurdly, I won’t spell out). This tragedy has to be understood in context, however. A good point of comparison here would be Finding Nemo. The latter film includes realistic looking fish, living within a realistic looking environment, but within that environment it anthropomorphizes them as much as it reasonably can: a fish can read, and there are sharks that want to be vegetarian. Most importantly, however, its protagonist, Marlin, is neurotic. Marlin is not like other fish: a trauma leads him to become uniquely overprotective of his son. Bambi, like Marlin, suffers a trauma, and yet this trauma is not shown to impact Bambi’s psychology. The eeriness of what happens to Bambi therefore, is not simply that it happens to him, but that it is stripped of emotional weight: we are supposed to understand it as part of the life of a deer, and then forget about it. So why do characters as distinct as Snow White, Claude Frollo and Thomas O’Malley sing, but Bambi doesn’t? Because, unlike those and most other Disney characters, Bambi lives without an individualized sense of purpose and struggle.

The oddness of seeing Bambi in contrast to the numerous animated films about animals that have been produced since is that it does not have room for “deer who are not like other deer.” Bambi’s dramas are not the result of his own personality traits, but the inevitable outcome of his being a deer growing up in a world of predators and prey. While I honestly have no idea how I would have reacted to the film had I seen it as a child, in some ways I found it kind of disturbing. The name Bambi has become synonymous with a degree of personality: we think of the expression “Bambi eyes,” and thus associate with the name with gentleness, innocence, flirtatiousness, etc. Maybe there is no one way to be “a Bambi,” but “Bambi” is certainly a way of being. The original Bambi, disappoints or at least defies our expectations in this regard, however. His “Bambiness” is merely a function of his young childhood, and as he grows up he leaves his “Bambiness” behind and becomes indistinguishable from his father (who is himself somewhat of a blank canvass).

There are a number of ways to think about Bambi. One could think of it as being about the woodland-aesthetic, and its decision to star a de-individualized protagonist stems from that. Alternatively, one could posit the opposite theory: the creators decided a deer couldn’t be individualized, and as such Bambi became an aesthetic rather than a plot driven film. Thirdly, perhaps Bambi’s deindividualization is not just the result of a lack of anthropomorphization, but reflective of an old fashioned understanding of masculinity: boys are boys, then they man up and become men; protective, but emotionally distant men.

In short, there is something sets apart the experience of watching Bambi from watching other Disney Classics: it is not so much a story as it is the tracing of a life cycle of a deer. That said, readers who have not seen the work should not mistake my analysis for saying Bambi is an experimental oddity. It more or less has a linear plot, and, like many classic Disney works, it is brightened up via dynamic supporting characters: Thumper, a chipper bunny, Flower, a grateful-for-any-affection skunk, and the gentle curmudgeon Friend Owl. For those whose Disney education is Frozen and Moana, Bambi may feel somewhat unrecognizable, but it can still give children and film fans alike something to appreciate

 

The Beaver (2011)

Directed by: Jodie Foster Written by: Kyle Killen

The_Beaver_PosterRoger Ebert wasn’t quite impressed with The Beaver writing “”The Beaver” is almost successful, despite the premise of its screenplay.” In response to this comment I cannot help but ask, what premise is Ebert referring to? The Beaver features four main characters: a severely depressed businessman named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), Meredith his wife (Jodie Foster), his son Porter (Aton Yelchin) and Norah, the class valedictorian on whom Porter has a crush (Jennifer Lawrence). The Beaver is thus the tale of two romantic relationships, that are connected due to Porter and Walter appeared being part of a multi-generational chain of fathers raising sons who hate their fathers.

 

While I must admit I am not familiar with the intricacies of Roger Ebert’s tastes, something tells me it is not this premise he is referring to. Rather, it is the film’s more obvious premise: the Australian beaver puppet on Walter Black’s hand.

 

Ebert, it seems, is troubled by a trait that I quite enjoy in film: multi-tonality. He complains that whatever compelling seriousness is in The Beaver is ruined by the absurd premise of an adult man dealing with his depression by expressing himself through a hand puppet. In this respect, I will have to denounce Ebert’s reactionary curmudgeonness. The moments that The Beaver pushes us closest to the ends of our seat are in fact the moments when Walter takes his commitment to the puppet to the next level. Sure, we can accept that the puppet is part of his life, but is he really taking it out at work; is he really talking to it himself; is he seriously using it to have a threesome?

 

There is nonetheless some truth in Ebert’s reaction. The Beaver strikes me as a film that’s not sure if it wants to be indie or not. The film’s plot relies on Walter’s commitment to the beaver, and the other character’s bewilderment and frustration with it. There’s something about the degree of this bewilderment and frustration that undermines the film. It’s almost as if rather than boldly being a work with an unusual take on human psychology, The Beaver simply puts that psychology forward for the sake of it being taken apart and pulled back towards normalcy.

 

This problem is most apparent when one considers that The Beaver implies that Porter is at risk of following in Walter’s footsteps. While Porter has his share of self-destructive behaviors his storyline feels less inspired than Walter’s. In one scene, for example, he makes an inappropriate comment to a character about suicide. If Porter were written a little differently this could have been a defining moment for him: his problem could be that he is empathetic but is pathologically bad at expressing his empathy. His problem could also be that he has no filter. Neither of these approaches are used, however. Instead, Porter is simply a relatively ordinary, angsty-teen protagonist whose blatant expression of his feelings is used when the plot needs advancing.

 

So perhaps Ebert was right: The Beaver is almost successful. It makes a traditionally tough-guy actor vulnerable through his unique relationship with his puppet. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the film’s imaginative quality and this excellent premise is not played out to its full potential.