Brigsby Bear (2017)

Written by: Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello. Directed by: Dave McCrary

Brigsby_BearComfortable, yet disconcerted. That’s how I felt while watching the opening of Brigsby Bear. We are introduced to James (Kyle Mooney), the film’s protagonist, as he watches  what appears to be a children’s TV show centred around, well, Brigbsy BearBrigsby is a Barney-the-dinosaur like entity, but the structure of his show is about as unconventional as it gets. He is a sci-fi hero who teaches bizarre moral lessons using mathematical equations. James eagerly absorbs the show from the comfort of his wooden, 1980s-style bedroom, made cozy with a thorough library of VCR tapes and Brigsby memorabilia. James is no child, so viewers can tell something is amiss. Nonetheless, for the most part, James’ world just seems wonderful; his parents even understand and support his Brigsby hobby.

Movies serve to entertain us, thus they require that something in the lives of the characters be not quite right. There needs to be a source of suspense: a dose of adventure. Yet movies are also a chance to escape, a means to break free from the stresses of the world. This is why the opening of Brigsby Bear is so effective: it is the perfect blend of alluring paradise and provocative mystery.

Much of the film does not, however, resemble its opening. James is thrust rudely into the real world, which it turns out is not a 1980s-nerd-utopia. The film subsequently follows his journey to reconcile his past and present. To a degree, therefore, it looses its charm. As James’ story become more conventional, Brigsby Bear is deprived of its escapist magic. Perhaps if it had not lost this feeling, I would not be writing now that Brigsby Bear is one of the most underrated cinematic efforts of 2017. The film indeed has flaws. Once its beginning gives way to the film’s main plot, what follows lacks narrative complexity , while not quite having the poetic simplicity of films like A Ghost Story.

But I repeat, Brigsby Bear is indeed an underrated film. While it loses its soul somewhere around the 1/3 mark, it quickly develops a new identity as a feel good story; and importantly, a feel good story that doesn’t rely on clichéd messaging. While Brigsby Bear’s ultimate feel is partly a result of its quirky foundations, it is equally a product of the provocative politics of its writers. Brigsby Bear’s story line is based around a crime. It is, not, however, a whodunit or a chronicling of the pursuit of justice (aka vengeance). Instead, it is a tale of healing.

Brigsby Bear is a film that rejects good-evil binaries. It’s primary antagonist notably disappears for a significant swathe of the film. While the fact that he committed the crime the film revolves around is never really questioned, when he actually appears on camera he is largely portrayed in a positive light. Director Dave McCrary likens him to “a fucked up Jim Henson teaching weird lessons about the world in a loving way.”  The complexity of this character is not lost on James, who talks to him as respectfully and fearlessly as he does to any other person.

James’ defining obsession is the Brigsby Bear tv show, a hobby that authority figures in his life, including a notably harsh psychologist (Claire Danes), try to take away from him. Were Brigsby Bear a feel good film in the truly clichéd sense of the word, its message could simply be reduced do celebrating “being oneself.” James’ defiant love for his favourite television show, however, is not just a statement about his (not so) rugged individualism. Instead it hits on something deeper: that is ok to love people and things that are intrinsically linked to your personal tragedies, and that “moving on” need not be an absolute proposition.

Brigsby Bear is in short a piece rife with imagination, made whole by its unique idealism. It also showcases Mark Hamill testing out the gruff-mentor persona he brought to Luke in The Last Jedi. Greg Kinnear also feature as a convention-breaking masculine authority figure.  So check out this film, but don’t think about it too much beforehand since, as Brigsby advises us, “curiosity is not a healthy emotion.”


Ferdinand (2017)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha. Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland

Ferdinand_(film)What makes a film good or not is subjective, that’s no controversial statement. Nonetheless, when writing criticisms, rationally or not, one senses a limit to that logic. I explored this idea in my thoughts on Call Me By Your Name, a film I wasn’t thrilled to watch but nonetheless could tell was a commendable oeuvre. By contrast, while watching Ferdinand, I was wrapped in cognitive dissonance. I liked what I saw, but I had a sense I wasn’t supposed to. Indeed, an after-the-film web search showed me that that Ferdinand is widely seen as a run-of-the-mill mediocre children’s film.

Ferdinand is based on a 1937 children’s book of the same name by Munro Leaf. Leaf’s book is the story of a gentle, flower-loving bull who is mistakenly viewed as having fighting potential when he is seen jumping around in pain from a bee sting. The film does not deviate from the book per se, as it is simply a much longer, more detailed imagining of the original premise. According to Tim Brayton of Alternative Endings, there in lies the problem. The original text of Ferdinand was a classic, he says, but a “demented goat,” “a meat-processing facility that has the internal logic of a 1950s Warner cartoon,” and “three hedgehogs whose primary contribution to the plot is musical numbers” are the epitome of mediocre filler.

Aside from his failure to recognize the moderate cleverness of including a calming goat as a sidekick, I don’t disagree with Brayton. For its humor Ferdinand relied on meh-slapstick scenes, German and Scottish accents, the arbitrarily blue and purple hedgehogs, and the antics of Lupe the goat who is essentially a poor-man’s Dory. What I believe Brayton, and Vikram Murthi miss, however, is that the appeal of Ferdinand lies not in its humor, but in its plot. Both critics describe the heart of the film as its clichéd, be-yourself message. This generalization misses the obvious, that Ferdinand is a story about a bull.

Despite its cute aesthetic, Ferdinand’s opening is thoroughly morbid. The film begins in the Spanish countryside at Casa del Toro, where young bulls butt heads, not ignorant to, but certainly naïve about the horrible end they are training for (the bull fight). These morbid stakes are raised further when we discover that these young bulls live at the same venue as their fathers. The calves, particularly Ferdinand’s bully Valiente (Jack Gore, Bobby Canavale as an adult), eagerly cheer on their father’s attempts to make the bullfights, Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy, John Cena as an adult), being the exception to this rule. In his brief appearance, Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) makes for one the of the film’s more nuanced characters. In gently explaining to his son that bulls are destined to fight, he illustrates how the film’s bulls are overwhelmingly trapped in a toxic-masculine, or at very least fatalist, culture without embodying any of said culture’s  brutish coldness.

That the bulls live with their fathers and not mothers is another interesting choice on the film’s part (in the book Ferdinand is raised by his mother). Ferdinand has always been perceived as a story that challenges traditional gender roles, since it stars a flower loving, pacifistic alpha-male. While Ferdinand the film includes somewhat prominent female characters (Lupe (Kate McKinnon), Una the hedgehog (Gina Rodriguez) and Nina, his adoptive owner (Julia Saldanha, later Lilly Day), its male-centric set-up is actually what makes its anti-patriarchal politics so effective . Rather than tempering their machismo with guidance from more level-headed and morally authoritative female characters, the bulls of Ferdinand must escape from the prison of their toxic masculinity themselves.

But, let’s go back to the importance of Ferdinand being about bulls. We have acknowledged that the film opens morbidly to a scene of bulls being raised for a bloody-sport and being brainwashed into being excited about this. We then get to know Ferdinand who realizes fighting is not for him, yet after an incident with a bee is forced back into the fighting world, despite his knowledge of the dangers that lie with it. The plots gets even darker as slaughter-houses are made part of the equation. The film’s approach to the slaughter house is not uninteresting. When one prominent character is sent away to be butchered, the other characters do nothing. While parents should rest assured that Ferdinand ultimately ends as a play-it-safe, feel-good kid’s film, it does truly force its viewers to accept the gnawing reality of the abattoir. The inside of slaughter-house, meanwhile, is presented as dark, empty, and functioning without the presence of humans. This is because part of Ferdinand’s darkness, with the partial exception of a matador, lies in its carefullness not to present humans as bad guys: the humans are simply following the rules of their society. There is unquestionably something sinister about the fact that Ferdinand and his fellow bulls are brought face to face with death, by the mundane, softspoken owner of Casa del Toro. It should also be noted that the imagery of the empty slaughter-house further enforces the film’s theme of self-imprisonment.

Ferdinand’s story may be simple, but it is one that flows naturally and compellingly. In that regard it’s worth comparing to Coco (which gets a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Ferdinand’s 71%). While Coco’s premise and aesthetic may be more inventive than Ferdinand’s, parts of its story seems forced: namely the absoluteness of Miguel’s family’s opposition to music and the sudden-emergence-of and over-the-top-explanation-for Hector’s death. Is it fair that Ferdinand is seen as mediocre because of its second-rate comedy writing, while Coco is given a pass on its rushed-plot development? Or is this perhaps an example of how our pre-conceived biases (Pixar=good, Blue Sky=mediocre) shape our viewing experiences?

This is not to say I do not have problems with how Ferdinand was written. While it surprises me that Ferdinand’s dual terrors of human disregard for animal life, and the self-imposed prison of toxic masculinity was not more universally compelling, the writing of Ferdinand’s adult character undoubtedly watered down the effectiveness of the film’s plot. Ferdinand’s one flaw is not being aware of his own size (he essentially sees himself as a puppy). Aside from that, he is kind, courageous, and most importantly very aware of the futility of bull fighting. Unlike the less anthropomorphic version of Ferdinand in Leaf’s book, the film character is not a naïve, gentle-giant, but a model citizen who teaches the other bulls to stop being self-destructively competitive and to find self-actualization outside of the bullring. Were Ferdinand less self-aware, and thus less capable of engineering an escape plan, perhaps his plights would have seemed more overwhelming and thus more striking to critics. Even this criticism, however, I must bracket with nuance. The trope of the naïve-gentle-giant is not always a bad one, but the world needs to look beyond it. Do we want to live in a world where we assume giants are only gentle because they are simple-minded (in fairness to the original Ferdinand, it’s not so much that he’s simple minded, but that’s he’s a quasi-realistic bull who’s thoughts are thus inaccessible to us)?

In short, Ferdinand is not the most inventive piece when it comes to comedy or allegory. That said, if you can bring yourself to take it literally, not as a kids comedy for humans, but a potentially-tragic epic about bulls, you might find it more affective than some of its less forgiving reviewers. Regardless of what you think of the film, you should at very least check out the book and its fascinating history.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh

CW: This film deals with bluntly with sexual and domestic violence, and also addresses police brutality and racism (a focus of this review).

Three_Billboards_Outside_Ebbing,_Missouri            When you see a title as verbose as that of TBOEM (sorry, that’s what I’m to call it), you know you’re in for an unusual viewing experience. TBOEM is the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a rape-and-murder victim enraged at the failure of police to find her daughter’s assailant. She expresses her rage by renting three abandoned billboards on which she denounces the town’s beloved police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards are mundane in their color-scheme and brutally graphic in their words. They are significant in that they come to mean something greater to Mildred than the direct political purpose they serve. That said, the quirk of the film lies not so much in the billboards, as in the conflict they stir.

Harrelson is well cast as Willoughby, a character whose personality lies somewhere on the spectrum of Albus Dumbledore (powerful man with a surprisingly gentle soul) to Long John Silver (megalomaniac who manages to have a gentle soul on the side). Whether Harrelson is more Dumbledore or Silver depends of course on what one assumes about the film’s subtext (ie what the Ebbing police were up to when the camera wasn’t running). Political assumptions aside (we’ll get back to that later), Willoughby’s gentleness certainly stands out. While other citizens of Ebbing, which seems be a town where everyone knows everyone, are quick to denounce the billboards, Willoughby humors them and speaks empathetically of Hayes. He is simultaneously affectionate towards his loose cannon colleague, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

Willoughby’s gentleness enables one of the film’s notable characteristics: genre-bending. Willoughby speaks wryly and light-heartedly, despite delivering some quite heavy lines. The result of his characterization is that it frees the audience from having to simply experience TBOEM as a literal, realist story. Instead, audiences can appreciate the film as an exploration of how different kinds of police-in-small-town-storylines (fictional and real) in contemporary American can play out. Hayes’ son (Lucas Hedges) and friendly barfly James (Peter Dinklage) also make important contributions to the film’s wonderfully awkward gesticulations between its sombre and slapstick moods.

TBOEM is reminiscent of Coen brothers and Tarantino films. It features occasional outburst of violence that is swept under the rug with relative ease. This violence, much like in Tarantino’s political works, Jango Unchained and Unglorious Bastards, can be read as a metaphor for the intensity of its character’s feelings, the violent oppression they face and the urgency and validness of their causes. More so than in Tarantino films, however, the violence in TBOEM boils up at a moment’s notice, giving audiences the particularly uncomfortable experience of not knowing whether to take it literally or even that seriously. Some of TBOEM’s violence fits into the story at such a sharp angle that it comes across as a very dark form of physical comedy.

TBOEM also attempts to factor racism into its storyline. This is where the film gets sloppy. Martin McDonagh made a film in which a police department is criticized for not working hard enough to make an arrest. It seems that he worried his message would be misconstrued as a claim that the problem with America’s police is that they don’t police enough. Therefore, it seems, he threw in a number of references to racist (and homophobic) behaviour from Ebbing police officers, particularly Dixon, so that his film would not be interpreted as oblivious to these ills. McDonagh includes three black characters in his script, all of who appear just enough to be remembered, but not enough to be memorable. For example, one black character, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested for marijuana possession, as a way of illustrating police racism. Denise, however, is never shown objecting to or suffering through her incarceration. Rather, her suffering is objectified as a self-righteous talking point for her friend Mildred Hayes.

Others have criticized TBOEM’s approach to race on the grounds that Dixon is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light despite passing references in the film to his “torturing black people” (and no suggestion that his racial politics improve). The film’s quirky style leaves it unclear what exactly these accusations mean: are they to be taken literally, or as grain-of-truth-accusations from his critics. On the one hand, the accusations are repeated and never rebutted. On the other hand, they are referenced so casually, that it is hard to fully accept that they are true. I can therefore, on the one hand, understand the criticism the film has garnered. In real life, anti-black violence from police is readily brushed over, so it makes sense that some viewers could interpret the film as a reinforcement of this unjust order. On the other hand, this critique ignores that TBOEM is not exactly a realist film; let alone one with clear messages. Dixon should not be understood as a person, but as a post-modern character who simultaneously inhabits (perhaps exaggerated versions of) different interpretations of white American masculinity. The emergence of Dixon-as-hero (and not exactly an angelic hero) therefore does not erase the problem of Dixon-as-racial-oppressor. I suppose therefore, I would defend McDonagh from some critiques while readily acknowledging that these critiques are a justified consequence for the film’s failure to meaningfully develop its own black characters

TBOEM brings together a great cast of characters into a story with well written dialogue and excellent melange of tones. Whether it will ultimately be remembered as perhaps this year’s best effort in narrative constructions or for its political shortcomings (and, as always, I hope both viewpoints can be understood and held in appropriate balance by as many viewers as possible) is a question that remains to be answered, though I’m sure its one this year’s academy awards will not fail to bring to a boil.

Coco (2017)

Directed by: Lee Unkrich Written by: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich

Coco_(2017_film)_posterCoco marks at least two major innovations in the history of Pixar filmmaking. One is that it is Pixar’s first “ethnically” themed film (well there’s Ratatouille and Brave, but  it’s Pixar’s first ethnically themed film where insensitive cultural representation was a risk). The other is that it is the first Pixar film to revolve around a child: 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez).

Coco’s Mexicanness is essential, as it takes place during The Day of the Dead: a holiday with traditions that are explicitly explained in the film. That said, Coco’s focus on a demographic of humans, should not be viewed as an abandonment of the Pixar tradition of making films about groupings-of-things. I once came across an internet meme that described Pixar’s approach as follows: “what if toys had feelings?, what if bugs had feelings?, what if monsters had feelings?….what if feelings had feelings?” Coco follows this pattern by asking “what if the dead had feelings?” Coco thus could have been a Tim Burtonesque movie: a tale of gory skeletons looking for meaning in a dreary world. By taking its cues from Mexican culture, however, Coco came up with a concept of the “dead” that is far more profound than the slapstick gore-fest it could have otherwise been. Coco’s dead are not defined by being corpses; in fact, their skeleton forms are quite cartoonish and retain humanoid eyeballs and hair. Rather they are defined by their relationship to the living: a drive not to be forgotten by those on the other side.

Coco’s being centred around a child, on the other hand, was a more questionable tactic. The compelling nature of many Pixar’s protagonists comes from the fact that they are flawed despite being superficially mature. Toy Story’s Woody is beacon of good citizenry who must relearn compassion when he discovers he is in fact highly jealous of challengers to his top-dog status. Finding Nemo’s Marlin must overcome his overwhelming fear of all things-potentially-dangerous. Up’s Carl deals with loss, by committing full heartedly to a goal he set earlier in life, forcing him to relearn how to find happiness when life sends him in new directions. While Coco’s Miguel can perhaps be a bit hot-headed at times, for the most part, he is a perfectly reasonable child, surrounded by often unreasonable adults. While admittedly, a child might be a good fit for a story that teaches about a cultural holiday (an adult would be less likely to need training in their own cultural traditions), Miguel in my opinion, is ultimately not as memorable as some of Pixar’s other protagonists. I would add, as a thought experiment, Coco might have benefited from centering instead around the skeleton Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal). While Hector seems like a natural sidekick-type, his story is not unlike A Bug’s Life’s Flik (with some darker undertones). (I suppose this gives rise to the parallel thought experiment of what A Bug’s Life would be like if Dot, and not Flik, was its hero).

Plot-wise Coco is bolstered by the novelty of its world of the dead, and that world’s intricately imagined scenery. Its narrative itself is perhaps a bit too plain-stated early on and feels a bit derived from Monster’s Inc., Inside Out, and Up at later moments. That said, one recycled trope, a reference to A Bug’s Life’s Heimlich, is fresh and funny in the Coco context.

I often explain my love for A Bug’s Life as follows: though its premise is that it’s a story about bugs, it might be a good film even without Pixar’s “What if X had feelings formula.” A Bug’s Life is the story of a naïve but spunky inventor who accidentally hires an army of clowns to liberate his people from a colonizing bully: that sounds like it could be a good story even if it starred ordinary humans. Coco, on the other hand, is not necessarily more than its Pixar formula, as without its particular brand of vibrant skeletons (and a persistent street dog) its story would not necessarily stand out. Then again, that is a mere thought experiment, and as it actually is (with its skeletons) Coco is a fun, emotional film that like its Pixar predecessors will linger as a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages.




The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza’s punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes include), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.

Tiny Furniture (2010)

Written and directed by: Lena Dunham

Tiny_furniture_poster           Before there was Girls, Lena Dunham’s mildly-comedic, mildly-melancholic brand of stories-about-nothing was seen in her film Tiny Furniture. While not technically a prequel to Girls, it might as well be. The protagonist Aura (Dunham) is fresh out of college, and beginning to be interested in employment and independent living while nonetheless un-thrilled about the perils of adulthood. The film also stars Girls cast members Jemime Kirk and Alex Karpovsky. Kirk’s character, Charlotte, might as well be her Girls character, Jessa.

Unlike Girls, the film also features two of Dunham’s relatives. Her sister Grace plays Aura’s sister Nadine, and her mother Laurie Simmon plays Aura’s mother Siri. These characters draw heavily on the biographies of the actors who play them. While in Nadine’s case, the result is a likeable and entertaining sibling rival for Aura, in Siri’s case this approach is questionable.

Siri is a successful photographer, and that is seemingly the only career she’s ever had. Siri’s professional identity throws off what viewers might anticipate in a story about a recent college graduate struggling to face adulthood. One might expect Aura’s mother to give her a hard time about her head-in-the-clouds dreams of being an artist. As an artist herself, however, Siri can not judge her daughter and is therefore quirkily patient with Aura’s idiosyncracies. While, theoretically, Siri’s characterization makes her an interesting, novel figure, in practice her contradictory roles as mother and free-thinking artist negate each other. Siri is just impatient enough with Aura to allow some mother-daughter tension to simmer. This impatience is not enough, however, to truly drive fear into Aura, nor is it absent enough to make Siri’s tolerance for her daughter a comic trope.

Tiny Furniture is a subtle, realist, low-action film. In order to work, such films usually need to stumble upon some minimal form of a plot arc. In Paterson, this manifests in the final drama over Paterson’s notebook. In Lucky , the protagonist’s story is given meaning after he attends the birthday of his bodega owner’s son. Tiny Furniture’s plot arc seems to be structured around Aura’s relationship with Siri, however, and because of the weird middle ground between antagonist and supporter that Siri inhabits, the negotiation of her “dilemmas” with Aura doesn’t truly feel like a fitting focal point for the entire film to revolve around.

I do not mean to give the impression that Tiny Furniture is a bad film. I enjoyed parts of it, and would categorize it as on the cusp of being very good, but burdened by subtle mistakes. Aura is simultaneously vulnerable and privileged, a character dynamic that Dunham explores again and more effectively through Hannah Horvath in Girls. The problem with Dunham’s writing of this identity, however, is that she never thoroughly explores its highs and lows. For instance, even though Aura would rather go into the arts than pursue a practical career we are never really led to see the zaniness of her imagination, her level of drive to pursue the arts, or, as previously mentioned, a clash with her mother (or another “real world” figure) over her impracticality.

Tonally, however, Aura is effectively portrayed by Dunham. She is joined by other engaging characters including the regally rebellious Charlotte, snobby but likeable sister Nadine, literary hipster-bro Keith (David Call), and mysterious youtuber Jed (Karpovsky). These characters together form a dynamic universe, one which Dunham imagined for herself in a way that many viewers (especially those in the college and immediately-post-college phases of their lives) no doubt do as well. What would have made this film a classic, more than just a prequel to Girls? Oddly enough, more hipsterdom, more youthful entitlement, and perhaps (since it is described as shaping the lives of Siri and Aura alike) more tiny furniture.

Downsizing (2017)

Directed by: Alexander Payne. Written by: Payne and Jim Taylor

DownsizingIn a year of films misrepresented or sold short by their trailer’s (Colossal, Beatriz at Dinner, Lady Bird, etc.) Downsizing, takes the cake. For reference this was the trailer I saw repeatedly in theatres. While it gives hints of the film’s beauty, it largely makes the film comes across as a fairly mundane romantic-comedy with a not all-that unusual sci-fi twist. For that matter, unless my memory is failing me, parts of this trailer didn’t even seem to be in the film (Matt Damon’s character is, importantly, an occupational therapist, not a generic cubicle worker).

Seen as a full film, Downsizing perfectly combines visual ambition with an emotional melange. The film is the story of Paul Safranek (Damon), a man dissatisfied with his life and financial situation, who along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decides to “downsize”: the process of shrinking one’s body, generally with the intention of living in a miniaturized community. One of the film’s main underlying tensions quickly becomes apparent. Downsizing is a process invented to address the problem of overpopulation (or over consumption, depending on how one likes to look at it), an issue that is not lost on Paul. Through other characters, however, it is suggested that environmental concerns are not the primary driver behind the development of downsizing. Rather, downsizers are motivated by the chance to convert their modest incomes into wealth, as resources become a lot cheaper when bought at the sizes necessary to serve a downsized person.

Downsizing thus is an escape in two senses of the word. It is a necessary and potentially useful escape from the risk of climate change, and it is a distraction-escape: a way for the characters to forget the troubles of the world, and kick back in their cheap mansions. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come as these two meanings are blurred. There is one scene near the end of the film where Paul excitedly says that ten years ago he never could have believed he would have been discussing the end of the world with a famous scientist while on a luxurious river cruise. In this scene Paul is simultaneously both kinds of escapists, exposing an interesting, but familiar cognitive dissonance in his personality. No doubt many of us embody this contradiction as we consider the perils of climate change; we are motivated to want to find both an actual escape (a green society) and a mental escape (pleasurable distractions).

Downsizing has not exactly charmed critics. It currently has a 51% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the fan rating is far worse. The critical “consensus” seems to be that while the film is driven by an ambitious idea, it does not have a fully developed story. This criticism is technically accurate. It would also be accurate to question how Paul’s character is written. There are two moments in the film where he becomes decisively angry, allowing him to unflinchingly cut other characters from his life. This behaviour is not commented on by other characters, seems inconsistent with Paul’s otherwise empathetic and accommodating personality, and (oh so) conveniently advances the script, so I can understand why some critics may perceive it as sloppy writing. Nonetheless, Downsizing is an example of the whole being better than the sum of the parts. Paul manages to go on a journey and transform as a person over the course of the film. This means that even as Downsizing lacks a full-fledged plot arc, what it has instead is emotionally resonant enough that it is quite possible you wont notice the difference (I certainly didn’t). The intrigue of the film’s plot (or not-quite-plot, depending on your viewpoint) is certainly bolstered by the presence of Paul’s companions: the friendly, yet problematically hedonistic Dusan Merkovic (Christoph Waltz), and the persistent-idealistic Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau: who’s portrayal was influenced in part by Flannery O’Connor and Berta Caceres).

Downsizing’s other strength is it’s aesthetic. Seeing the architecture in Leisureland (the downsized community Paul lives in) is like watching the work of a passionate dollhouse collector, as various styles of architecture and luxury are brought together in a wonderful arrangement. The film’s dollhouse-like scenes, however, come even before miniaturization is brought into play, for instance in the cluttered, yet pristine biology lab where the film opens. While the film’s aesthetic was clearly a big budget effort, it nonetheless manages to have fun with simple-size play as well. There’s a scene where Paul decorates his house with a non miniaturized rose, a visual that should stun audiences as much it stuns Paul’s neighbor Dusan.

Downsizing can be a bleak movie, but it’s a relaxing bleakness that takes you down a beautiful river of color. It is a story of sad characters. Paul is haunted by the loneliness and frustrations of his own life. Tran is driven by her far darker past as a political dissent who was forcibly downsized. The film nonetheless manages to be light-hearted due to Paul’s constant willingness to explore solutions to his problems and Tran’s seemingly hapless pursuit of her idealism. Perhaps Downsizing lacks a fully developed story line, but contrary to what many critics seem to say, I don’t think that failure makes a meh movie out of a good idea: rather, it only suggests that this great movie could have been even better.