Meditation Park (2017)

Written and Directed by: Mina Shum


257925R1           Meditation Park is somewhat unusual for a piece of a western cinema. Its protagonist is a non-white (Chinese), somewhat elderly woman with limited English skills living in Vancouver. Her name is Maria and she is a soft-spoken housewife. Western viewers (myself included, but-for what I learned at a Q&A session after the movie) may miss out on the irony of her being played by one of China’s most famous actors, martial arts movie veteran Cheng Pei Pei. Meditation Park’s notability as a film, however, is by no means limited to the characters it presents. The film is a realistic one, limited by the mundanity of Maria’s life. It nonetheless manages to captivate audiences by stirring up drama in Maria’s world. Briefly she is caught up in a horror movie as a drone of telephone rings overwhelms her. Later, she is the star of a comic-detective film, stocking her husband by taxi in a very-makeshift disguise. More regularly, she lives in a low-key fantasy world, accompanied by her quirky and colourful parking-business friends,

Meditation Park is a story about marital infidelity. What gives it its unique character, however, is that Maria, for a variety of reasons is unable or unwilling to show the emotion we might most expect of her when she discovers her husband’s indiscretions: anger. Maria’s husband Bing (character actor Tzi Ma, last seen in Arrival) is initially presented as a jolly, loving partner, but as the film develops his traditionalist-patriarchal side becomes more apparent. Arguably both his good and domineering sides play a role in keeping Maria from wanting to confront him. Regardless, what matters is that Maria does not confront him, and instead, ambitiously pursues self help by trying to fundamentally alter her own life story.

Maria’s angerless lifestyle allows us to see her in a number of interesting emotional lights. We see her fear, her empathy and her social awkwardness. One side effect of her not being able to express anger at her mistreatment is that she can come across as a bit light-headed. Through her character, audiences thus get a best of both worlds experience. On the one hand, she is satisfying to root for as your typical loveable loser. On the flip side, we know she is not in fact a naïve or oblivious person and as such we do not see her smiles in the face of defeat as a sign of weakness but as melancholy indications of her predicament. If there is one tragic exception to this rule, it pertains to Maria’s English skills. While she has a heavy accent, she is effectively fluent and never struggles to understand the English speaking characters around her. She nonetheless remains convinced throughout the film that her English is not very good, perhaps a sign of the inferiority complex she has towards her husband.

If I were to offer one criticism of the film it is that it prioritizes resolving its plot over maintaining its artistry. There were two moments where I expected the film to end: a scene where Maria participates in a silent disco, and a subsequent scene where Bing breaks down discussing aging. Both scenes would have made for fitting conclusions consistent with what is unique about Maria’s character (she resists without directly resisting and remains optimistic and loving in the face of sorrow). Nonetheless, the film’s more conventional ending is certainly pleasant enough to watch, and I cannot complain too much about getting to spend a few extra minutes with its characters.

Meditation Park also stars Sandra Oh as Maria’s overworked daughter who is in a (mostly) happy, egalitarian marriage; and Don McKellar (star of my favourite Canadian film, Highway 61) as Maria’s mischievously opportunistic but heartbroken neighbour Gabriel. Enjoyable as an educational, visual and narrative experience, Meditation Park is a solid film, and will hopefully get more screen time than it has received so far.


Thoroughbreds (2017)

Written and Directed by: Corey Finley


Thoroughbreds_(2017_film) Whether or not you watched the trailer going into Thoroughbreds, there is probably something you will pick up quickly: this is a film about dichotomies. The film stars two young-women actors, playing even younger (16/17 year old) characters. One, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), is immediately presented as emotionally-lacking. The character throws around some potential diagnostic labels, showing that this is the lens through which her character is viewed, but dismisses them all and never mentions them again (making it clear we should not view her as a caricature of any one condition). All we are supposed to know about her is that she does not have feelings, at least not, according to her, sadness and joy. Her counterpart is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is timid, initially unassertive and working as an SAT tutor for Amanda. Thus we have our initial dichotomy cold-and-dark vs empathetic-and-sensitive.


Savvy viewers, will quickly begin to question the dichotomy between the girls. In the scene immediately following Amanda’s explanation of her condition, she can be seen playing online poker. Despite her criminal past, Amanda appears to be well off with a supportive mother (Lily, it should be noted is blatantly well off, living in a mansion and attending private school). Therefore, it would seem Amanda is gambling for fun, suggesting she does experience something resembling joy. Moreover, while I am clearly no psychologist, I was instantly troubled by the problem of what it meant for a person to feel no joy. I have heard the phrase “pleasure principle” thrown around to describe human behaviour and it sounds right to me: we seek that which makes us happy: why, therefore, would a person do anything if they don’t feel happiness?


While Thoroughbnreds never answers the question of whether or not Amanda does feel joy and whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her own experiences, the film does ultimately complicate its initial dichotomy. Lily is quickly revealed to have troubles of her own and is willing to act as recklessly as Amanda does. Without saying too much, we go from seeing Amanda as free of feeling and Lilly as full of feeling to seeing Amanda as bold in the face of her feelings (or lack their of) and Lily as a prisoner of her feelings.

Another (false) dichotomy lies in the character’s relationship to neuronormativity. While Amanda may be undiagnosed, we know she has been labelled as worthy of diagnosis. Lily has not been subject to any such process. Therefore we are initially led (and many viewers will no doubt fall into this trap even as the film concludes) to see Lily and Amanda in fundamentally different lights: one is sick, one is merely troubled. This distinction between sick and troubled, however, is completely arbitrary and can be described as the result of different lucky breaks playing out in the two girls’ lives.


Class is yet another important dichotomy in Thoroughbreds. Lily’s mansion-dwelling does not simply provide the film with charming scenery, it also serves as a metaphor: a place in which the girls’ web of secrets can hide amidst the many artifacts. Furthermore, by protecting the girls with socioeconomic privilege, the film is able to avoid other complications from intervening with their stories, and thus cut to what it wants to cover: their psychologies. The class dynamics of Thoroughbreds, however, is played out most through the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin). While Tim is introduced in a negative light, having served prison time for statutory rape and currently making money by selling drugs to kids, he is generally portrayed as timid, pathetic and perhaps even pacifistic in comparison to the film’s protagonists. While it is unclear what his previous socioeconomic status was, for much of the film he works as a dishwasher. His character thus shows the different consequences criminal behaviour can have for people in distinct socioeconomic circumstances.


Innocence and horror have long walked hand in hand. Surely many readers can picture the trope of a child eerily asking you to “come and play.” This too is a dichotomy Thoroughbreds embraces and manipulates. Rather than having them be haunted house props or antagonists, this film puts unsettling children at its centre. We are made to be terrified by them, but precisely because we feel for them and do not want them to be terrifying. Unless you don’t like blood, or suspense (there’s far more of that than blood), Thoroughbreds is a must see

Reflections on the 90th Academy Awards


Frances McDormand winning a human shaped award in some year other than 2018

I’ve listed this post as an essay, but it’s more of a listacle. By listacle standards it’s an essay. I hope you appreciate this commentary even as it horrifyingly lacks an introduction and a conclusion. Without further ado, here are my quips with the Academy.

Time to Split the best Animation Category

I watched the Oscars at a public viewing event. As Coco was given the award for best animated picture the person sitting next to me complained. “How?” he asked, “Could Loving Vincent not win? It’s an OIL PAINTED MOVIE!” Those comments rang both true and false for me. They rang true in that painting a movie surely made for the year’s biggest achievement in animation. They rang false in that acknowledging the fact that Loving Vincent was, literally speaking, the year’s best animation is (to quote Leonard Cohen speaking on the subject of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize) like “pinning a medal on Everest for being the tallest mountain.”

My personal inclination is that the Oscar for best animated picture should go to a kids movie. After all, it’s the one award that most kids will have heard of an entry in, and therefore, the only one which they will likely have a rooting interest for. In that sense I agree that Coco was a better choice than Loving Vincent. To have given the award to Loving Vincent, would be to have given the middle finger to kids. On the other hand to name a Pixar film the year’s best kids movie is also like pinning that medal on Everest.

Clearly we need more good kids movies (or the Oscars needs to do a better job of finding them). On the other hand, it does feel like a shame that notable animated works like Loving Vincent and Anomalisa (a 2016 nominee) have to compete in a category where I, and apparently many voters, feel they have no real place. The Oscars should make a quick and long overdue fix and simply separate the category into best family movie and best animation: problem solved!

Get Your Cause Speech Right

Even with time limits removed, this year’s Oscar speeches were still generally given in traditionally short fashion: rife with thank yous meaningless to most viewers. Of course it is also not unheard of for Oscar winners to use their platform to make a shout out for a social cause of the day that is often related to their film. While I would never be one to tell celebrities to “shut up and act,” the inherent brevity of the Oscar speech often gives these statements a damningly superficial affect. I think this was particularly true in the case of Coco producer Darla K Anderson’s speech in which she plainly stated that the film was made with the intent of representing non-white characters and culture. While it is indeed important to celebrate and promote representation in filmmaking, Anderson’s choice to represent the film solely as a work of representation made the project seem like a mere charity project rather than a multi-faceted, award-worthy film.

Frances McDormand, by contrast, came a bit closer to figuring out how best to politicize an Oscar speech. Rather than taking on a big subject (such as representation) and failing to present it with nuanced judgement, she was to the point, specific, and narrow. She championed “inclusion riders”: the idea that actors (with clout) can use their contract negotiations as a platform from which to negotiate on behalf of woman and minority actors other than themselves. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say actors should only talk about subjects that fit into 30 second speeches (I’m for all flavors of progressive provocativeness), plans of action beat vague rhetoric in most situations.

Is the Academy Afraid of Great Documentaries?

Perhaps that heading is a bit provocative, as the issue here is not so much about quality but character. Greta Gerwig and Laura Dern presented the best documentary category by describing documentarians as truth tellers, implicitly championing them and other kinds of journalists in the age of Trump. If that is the view the Oscars have of the role of documentaries I can understand why they did not award the playful, unlikely-friendship-centred Faces and Places. Then again, the film that did win (which, to be fair, I haven’t seen) Icarus seems to have been propelled to the top on American Olympic patriotism; I hardly see the notion that Russia systematically cheats as sports as a pressing issue of the day. As far as I’m concerned, Faces Places was simultaneously an exploration of various French proletarian stories, a quirky adventure movie, and an homage to the life of une legende de cinema nouvelle vague. If that’s not a “best documentary,” I don’t know what is.

Faces Places’ snub reminded me of the loss of The Act of Killing back in 2014. The_Act_of_Killing_(2012_film)That loss felt more absurd given that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary was in fact about a pressing issue (it lost to a film about the experience of being a career backup singer). Like Faces and Places, however, The Act of Killing, did not simply teach but also told a story. While nominally about the brutal anti-communist killings of the Indonesian coup in 1965 and the murderous-machismo culture that stemmed from them, the film goes on to examine the personalities of individual killers and how they explore, and in some cases come to regret, their relationship to violence and power through the arts.


I am a hypocrite in that on principle I don’t like the idea of awards (I’m a participation trophy loving millennial, get over it conservatives), but also enjoy talking about and watching the Oscars. I can reconcile this tension, partially, by citing the approach of Youtuber nerdwriter1, who says he doesn’t care about who wins, but sees the list of nominations as a chance to celebrate a year in filmmaking. In that sense I think its important to acknowledge some of the nominations that could have been.

As I discussed previously, I found Downsizing to be on the of most-bizarrely mis-rated films of the year, and was disappointed to see its costar Hong Chau not nominated for best supporting actress. The way Chau’s character is written, puts her at risk of being seen as a joke by racist audiences: she has a heavy Vietnamese accent, is headstrong and is just a tad vulgar. Chau, however, brings the character to life as an anarchic jolt in Downsizing’s dark story, turning what is at that point a visual-based film into a compelling adventure.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer also went unacknowledged at the Oscars, which is a shame given that it was the pinnacle film in a year of what I call “thorough horror.” It’s distinct use of deadpan acting should have garnerned nominations for writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and supporting actor and spaghetti eater Barry Keoghan.

Finally, if I had to pick a film of the year, it’s The Florida Project. The film got one nomination for supporting actor Willem Dafoe, a nomination that while deserved feels like an insult to the film’s approach of largely casting amateur actors. While I can understand not nominating Brooklyn Prince for best actress on the grounds that it might be unethical to put a seven year old through the stress of being nominated, I’m disappointed that her co-star Bria Vinaite was not nominated in her place. Vinaite took on similar challenges to Saoirse Ronan who was nominated for her role in Lady Bird, playing a young woman who is playful, but regularly plagued with sadness. The difference of course, is that Vinaite’s character, Halley, has to take on this spectrum of moods within far more painful circumstances, and with less avenue for self expression than Lady Bird has.

I would also, of course, have liked the film to have been nominated for best picture. If you want to know why you can read my review, or check out this great argument by nerdwriter1 who I quoted earlier in this entry.




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.”

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 Post (2017)

Written by: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer Directed by: Stephen Spielberg

The_Post_(film)While speaking at the golden globes, Seth Meyers joked about The Post by introducing it as a Spielberg directed film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, while an assistant pre-emptively came out with an arm full of trophies. “Not yet, we have to wait,” Meyers responded. That joke was not unlike my own thoughts when I first saw a poster for The Post go up. The sight of it instantly irritated me. “Please,” I thought. “Please say this doesn’t count as a 2017 film.” It’s always irked me that it seems like the bulk of Oscar contending films come out late in the year. It contributes to the sense that the academy awards are not a meaningful celebration of achievements of a year in filmmaking, but a manufactured, self-congratulatory bore. My frustration with seeing The Post advertised went beyond that however. 2017 twisted horror tropes into social commentary in Get Out, it found pastel-colored beauty in tragic circumstances in The Florida Project , and produced a fascinating eerie world in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. These and other films are worth celebrating because they are inspired pieces of art: labors of imagination. And yet films like these could ultimately be ignored come award season in favour of a piece based on true story starring those two actors who always win.

As it so happens, The Post did not win a golden globe for best picture, and there’s a very good chance my fears about its Oscar chances are overly pessimistic. Nonetheless, my frustration has given me pause. Have I simply become too obsessed with a certain kind of film, that I can no appreciate the greatness of works like The Post (or Thor Ragnorak, which I review disappointedly, perhaps due to a bias against superhero films)?

The fact that I am writing this means I have since seen The Post. While it would be wrong of me to deny that my perception of it was shaped by my pre-existing bias, I am nonetheless fairly confident that my instinct about the film was correct. Perhaps it is worth seeing, but, in my eyes, it is certainly no Best Picture.

Streep and Hanks star as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and executive editor respectively of The Washington Post. The story follows their deliberations on whether to publish the pentagon papers: documents released by now famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) exposing the injustice and futility of US involvement in the Vietnam war. The film starts with an action sequence in Vietnam, a sequence which perhaps hints at how the film is bound to go wrong. The Post is no subtle work. Almost every line deals with a political or moral question, or at very least speaks bluntly about the relationships between the characters. In this sense it can be said that The Post aspires to be an action movie: its characters always testing their battle cries. The Post’s problem, however, is that given that it’s cast is lead by high-ups in the newspaper business, people who defend themselves with lawyers, rather than swords and shields, it doesn’t actually have the substance to be an action movie. The Post thus occupies a weird cinematic middle-ground: it’s not written subtly enough to be interesting as a script, yet its characters’ relative power means it doesn’t exactly provide the suspense one would expect from an action thriller either.

Proponents of The Post will no doubt champion its politics. It is an important film, some can argue, in a day and age when the President of the US has presented himself as an enemy of major media outlets branding them “fake news.” The Post champions a press not only as an honourable institution, but one that uses its freedom to challenge the powers that be. Indeed, The Post presents historical facts that show the darker sides of (“not as bad as Trump”) presidents including Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson (and, less surprisingly, Nixon). Aside from these revelations, however, The Post is largely Clintonesque in its politics. The big scandal that the film’s heroic journalists seek to expose is that the US has been fighting a war it cannot win, meaning American boys were sent to die for nothing. No concern is expressed for Vietnamese victims of the war, nor do the journalists question the validity of fighting even a winnable war for the sole purpose of quashing communism. These politics are again, partially the result of who the film chose as its subject. Just as the publisher and executive editor of a large paper don’t exactly live action-packed lives, they are not particularly likely to have strongly progressive politics either. To be fair, social change does usually require some level of change of heart from powerful, non-radical actors, and may be worth documenting on film. This form of struggle, the battle to change hearts and minds so to speak, does not shape The Post either, however While Graham and Bradlee are faced with opposition from their lawyers and investors, they themselves need little persuasion to be convinced that the pentagon papers should be published.

The film does touch on some interesting dilemmas. In addition to its central subject (the publishing of the pentagon papers), it also covers the themes of publicly criticizing friends (Kay Graham is close to the Kennedys, Johnsons, and former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara), and old boys’ clubs. While Streep, as a soft-spoken but stubborn and conviction-driven publisher, and Hanks, as a gruff but idealisict editor, breathe some life into them, these themes are of limited interest. This is again, because they are not stated with due subtlety: the screenwriters lay bare everything they want you to think. Also engaging is Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara. While McNamara’s appearance in the film is brief, his ideological complexity as an architect of the Vietnam War, who nonetheless tries to understand his enemies (as depicted in the regret-tinged documentary The Fog of War) makes his confrontation with Graham the film’s most compelling scene.

Aside from that, I enjoyed watching the reconstruction of a newspaper production machine shot with modern film technology. The film also ends with a strong quasi-cliff-hanger. The Post , however, is ultimately a film that rests on the laurels of being about an inspiring historical moment. Audiences may gravitate towards such films, but they are made at a cost. When writers feel compelled to write without imagination, they may fear to fill in gaps, leaving dialogue wooden. That certainly feels like the case with The PostThe Post may make for a good history lesson, but personally, I’d prefer to see the free-press and anti-war politics championed in a more creative and radical light.