Borgman (2013)

Written and Directed by: Alex van Warmerdam 

220px-Borgman_poster 

            In its early days, this website has explored a number of variants on the horror genre. Get Out was “woke” horror; Colossal was subtle-alt-woke-horror; and My Cousin Rachel was…well, was it horror?

Borgman is yet another category on this list. It can be described as obvious horror, or rather, incredibly obvious horror. The horror in this work is so obvious that perhaps the film isn’t a work of horror at all.

Borgman follows a team of murderers. We see the efficiency with which they operate, but we are never allowed to understand why they do what they do. The film also follows a wealthy suburban/rural family which includes a mother, father, three children and an aupair. The premise of the film is simple, these two groups of characters are brought together, and we can only assume things will not end well for at least certain members of the family.

Borgman’s intrigue thus doesn’t lie in its horror—which is simultaneously under and overstated, but in its other mysteries. Richard, the father (Jeroen Perceval), can be aggressive and is an unabashed elitist racist. The contrast between Richard and his orderly, but caring artist wife Marina (Hodewych Minis) is particularly noticeable. Petty conflicts exists elsewhere in the family, for instance, Marina’s chiding of Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), the au pair, over her work. While tensions ultimately rises between Richard and Marina due to the efforts of the killers, audiences are nonetheless left to wonder whether a comparably intense story could have developed in their absence.

Without the serial killers Borgman could tell the tale of Richard and Marina’s search for a gardener. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but film festival fans would no doubt enjoy seeing a Paterson-esque pseudo story of a borderline-incompatible couple trying to hire a gardener, while their kids and au pair live normally on the sidelines.

With the serial-killers, Borgman transforms, not so much into a horror film as into a horror painting. Borgman is not a film one watches to tremble as one gradually anticipates what it’s horror will be. Instead it presents viewers with a quaint country landscape coupled with a portrait of domestic life; and scattered with a number of violently mischievous little demons.

Borgman is not a work for the faint of heart, but it is not something to be avoided simply because one is put off by horror films in general. If you want to see The Gift, but with less suspense, or Holy Motors, but with (somewhat) less graphic violence and more of a coherent story line, this unapologetically macabre film is right for you.


 

Genius (2017) (Mini-Series)

MV5BMTkyOTcwMjY1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg5MzUwMjI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Developed by: Noah Pink and Ken Biller 

When I picture Albert Einstein I think of the photograph of him with his tongue stuck out; and I hear him saying that imagination is as important as science. One other occasions, when I hear the phrase “Einstein” I don’t think of a man at all—I just hear a synonym for genius. National Geographic’s recently completed mini-series, Genius,* bridges these two understandings of Einstein, providing audiences with an introduction to who he was, and how he fits into history.

 

Biopics (or bio-miniseries’) are often not suited for artistic subtlety. They take a real life, a life surely filled with mundanity, and try to condense it down to its triumphs and scandals. Genius is no exception, as it tell the tale of a dynamic 76 year-long life in 10 episodes—episodes featuring multiple suicides, two world wars, the invention of two horrible weapons, and numerous cameos by historical figures (some of which, though entertaining, feel quite forced), in addition to unending family turmoil.

 

One questionable decision the creators of Genius made was to cast different actors as young (Johnny Flynn) and old (Geoffrey Rush) Einstein. Rush abruptly takes over the role when Einstein is in his 40s, meaning that Einstein suddenly goes from looking like a child amongst his Prussian Academy of Sciences peers to looking a bit older than academy leader Max Planck.

 

But while this casting choice was not seamless, its non-seamlessness is so obvious that I am inclined to forgive it. If anything the choice to cast two Einsteins should be appreciated as a clever artistic strategy. When one lives with a person, it can be hard to notice changes in their appearance or personality. Such changes become noticeable, however, if one only sees a person occasionally. By making “young Einstein” and “old Einstein”  two different roles, Genius insures that we are not de-sensitized to developments in Einstein’s persona (as if we were living with him daily), but rather can see those developments as easily as we can tell the difference between Flynn and Rush.

 

Much of Flynn’s story line details the struggles of Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley). Einstein fell for Maric while they were students together, with the two coming to see themselves as part a romantic and academically egalitarian relationship. As circumstances largely beyond Einstein and Maric’s control prevent Maric from pursuing her own physics career, Einstein grows to resent his wife and becomes increasingly misogynistic.

 

Rush meanwhile plays Einstein after his separation with Maric. Flynn’s Einstein is a realistic character, one whose boyish ambition and obliviousness leads him to make both brilliant and horrible decisions. Rush’s (who is 32 years Flynn’s senior) entrance marks a complete break with Flynn’s boyishness, and an abrupt end to the character’s development. Rush is Einstein as the public knows him—a Dumbledoresque figure: elderly, idealist, and eager to teach to the young and believe in humanity.

 

Together Flynn and Rush show us multiple ways we can enjoy and learn from history. Rush gives us the comfort of a familiar persona and shows us how we can love him more. Rush’s Einstein emphasizes that math and science are to be enjoyed, and should be enjoyed by all, challenging the stereotype of the cold scientist who arrogantly looks down upon society. He also challenges the notion that scientists should be apolitical, and separate from the world of social justice by speaking out on various causes, making him a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s.

 

Flynn’s Einstein, however, exposes the downside of lionizing historical giants. Historical icons are disproportionately white and male, meaning there fame can at least partially be attributed to injustice. Flynn’s storyline suggests, for instance that despite collaborating with Maric, Einstein did not ultimately credit her on their joint papers (perhaps for fear of how society would read it, or perhaps because of his own dismissiveness of her contributions).

 

Genius is able to accomplish the important objective of criticizing Einstein and promoting the memory of Maric, while still allowing viewers to celebrate the ultimate good (humanitarian and scientific) that came from Einstein’s life. This complex portrayal of Einstein is the result of the distinct contributions of Flynn and Rush. Flynn’s 3D portrayal of Einstein allows us to both see Einstein’s flaws and understand the social conditions that created them. Rush’s more caricatured (though still wonderfully acted) portrayal allows viewers to see what Einstein became, despite the errors of his formative years, and what we can admire about him.

Genius may not be considered revolutionary or artistic television (a possibility that the Einstein story could allow for, given Einstein’s imaginative approaches to solving and explaining physics problems), but it is captivating and educational. Those who wish to know more about the biography of a scientist: what he lived through, how he saw the world, and, to a limited degree, what he discovered, should absolutely consider giving the series a try.

*Genius will have another season, but focus on a different historical figure

Fences (2016)

Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington

Fences_(film)            As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.

Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.

Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.

Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.

Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?

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.  

My_Cousin_Rachel_(2017_film)

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.


 

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Taking_woodstockWritten by: James Schamus, Directed by: Ang Lee

Bob Dylan…The Rolling Stones…these are the mythic figures in the world of Taking Woodstock; their auras shape the movements of the characters. Yet, strangely enough, in the world of Taking Woodstock, we never see the faces of any Woodstock act, let alone Dylan (who didn’t perform at the actual event). As much as I enjoy cameo depictions of historical figures (such as the Presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler), taking Woodstock’s non-inclusion of musicians is an important artistic choice.

Rod Stewart, a last minute-no-show for Woodstock later said “seen one outdoor festival, you’ve seen them all.” If Taking Woodstock were about the actual musical icons of hippyism, it likely would have had to find magic where there was none; magic in performers playing songs for the umpteenth time that in themselves may not have contained very much counter-cultural wisdom. Instead, Schamus and Lee have created a film that captures what really made Woodstock a historically important event: its organizers and audience.

The film’s story is of the underdog ilk. On of its underdogs is Elliot Teichberg (stand-up comedian Demetri Martin), the young president of his (miniscule and folksy) town chamber of commerce, who attempts to save his family’s motel business by bringing Woodstock to rural Whitelake, New York. The underdog motif goes beyond Elliot, however. Elliot’s whole generation are underdogs, who gather to collectively form what will be known as Woodstock, despite the anger of Whitelake’s residents.

Watching Taking Woodstock in the age of Trump, sheds fresh light on some of the film’s features. The Teichbergs are a Jewish, and when Whitelakians become unhappy with the looming prospect of hippies destroying their town ,some of them express this by turning to anti-semitism. This is mirrored in how the rise of open bigotry in Trumpian America has been accompanied by a rise in anti-youth language (the bashing of “special snowflakes”).

But could there be a film like Taking Woodstock about this generation? What are millenials? Millenials may be defined by their critics who see them as phone-addicted, entitled, whiny avocado connoisseurs, but do millennials have an internal sense of identity? A common cause? Perhaps not, but the hippy generation(at least in our historical imagining) certainly did. Taking Woodstock’s saviours are thus not Dylan and The Stones, but the young people who idolized them; young people who champion peace and love, and stand strong in the face of opposition from older generations.

Taking Woodstock’s approach of telling the story of a generation comes at a cost. The film has a good ensemble of characters including an alienated, hippy-haired veteran, a transwoman security guard (portrayed not unproblematically, but still positively), and Elliot’s eccentric parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). None of these characters are developed or used enough due to the film’s lack of a story line beyond the festival’s happening. This underdevelopment is perhaps most problematic in the case of Elliot’s mother, a very-stereotypical Jewish matriarch.

Elliot’s character also remains shrouded in mystery, due to his character’s toned-down personality. The real Elliot Tiber (born Teichberg) was gay and attended the Stonewall riots. Taking Woodstock portrays Elliot as a diplomatic figure who can mediate between generations. Elliot’s preference for the ways of his generation, over the conservatism of older Whitelakeians is always depicted as awkward and subtle. Therefore when he kisses a man at a Woodstock party, it comes across more as him participating in an awkward dare than a sincere, liberating, and euphoric expression of his sexuality.

Elliot’s toned-down personality is nonetheless textually and politically significant. Despite his articulateness and relatively-straight-laced behaviour, even he is not fully able to bridge the generational divide and win the respect of older Whitelakians. This contributes to the film’s exploration of intergenerational conflict, and seems particularly relevant in a day and age when social-media has allegedly allowed us to live in political-bubbles, that make it even harder to speak persuasively to our political adversaries or even acknowledge that they exist.

Taking Woodstock is slightly on the long side, and does not have a story that will blow viewers away. At the same time, it is not dull, and its regular introduction of new, charismatic characters will keep viewers engaged, while the film submerses them into its broader celebration of counter culture and the generation that embodied it.

 

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.

 

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

Written and Directed by: Damien ChazelleGuy_and_Madeline_on_a_Park_Bench_Theatrical_Poster

At the time of its release, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was compared to (early) Jean-Luc Godard films. Were it released today (and simultaneously still released in 2009), this work would be called the proto-La La Land. As with writer-director Damien Chazelle’s recent breakout, Guy and Madeline is a musical-ish simple love story that pays homage to jazz. If you take La La Land, take out the color (literally), take out the theatre-story-line, and take out the latter film’s most intense emotional and introspective moments, you get Guy and Madeline.

 

During the lead up to Moonlight’s almost-denied-victory at the 2017 Oscars, La La Land was portrayed by some as predictable-white-nostalgia, in contrast to Moonlight’s conscientious brilliance. While, broadly speaking, this was a fair point to make from a critical-race perspective, it’s not a great way of understanding La La Land, a film that has less of a message or an ideology, than its critics make it out to have. La La Land, is not so much a story as a moving sculpture: a diorama of dazzling dance numbers set against Hollywood stars navigated by characters exploring a variety of jazz and Broadway sounds, while participating in a love story that is just nuanced enough to be interesting.

 

This understanding of La La Land is reinforced by Guy and Madeline. La La Land tells a simple, bittersweet love story; Guy and Madeline tells a bittersweet love story that couldn’t be simpler. La La Land featured just enough songs to be considered (by some, not me) a musical, rather than a quirky film with random musical outbreaks; Guy and Madeline drifts even further from the “musical” label, featuring numerous songs that feed the film’s jazz aesthetic, but do not directly forward its plot.

 

The (non-spoiled) story of Guy and Madeline is simple: sometimes there is love, sometimes there is heartache, but there is always jazz (unless you’re that one character who doesn’t appreciate jazz).

 

It would be wrong to say Chazelle’s film making is devoid of nostalgia; a black-and-white film about the popular music of bygone decades certainly fits that bill. But, as with La La Land, Guy and Madeline is not a film you watch to be passionate; it is a film you watch simply to be. It’s a film that casts aside the distraction of color, and, with its constant zoom-ins on the smiles (and grimaces) of its characters, invites viewers to enjoy and share in their simple pleasures (and frustrations). When Guy joyously lists composers, some viewers may hear ordinary dialogue, but others may share in his moment of ambition and passion, recalling their own mundane “adventures” in the world of music fandom.

 

The film’s subtlety makes its highlights easy to miss without a re-watch. The titular scene is silent and brief, but the ordinary role played by Guy’s small, light-colored, trumpet case, makes the scene one of the film’s highlights.

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is not written to be popular cinema, but it’s not inaccessible: it’s deceptively simple. Viewers looking to “lose their heart in Cincinnati” (or New York, or Boston, viewers will get the reference), or simply study Chazelles small, but excellent, cannon, should check