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


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.

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.


Faces Places (2017)

Written by: Agnes Varda, Directed by: Varda and JR

Visages,_Villages      It’s not hard to find a good documentary film. There are plenty of subjects worth learning about in two hour sequences of moving, colored images. Great documentaries, however, blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In some cases, producing a documentary like this requires a huge historical coincidence. That was the case with Joshua Oppenheimer’s, The Act of Killing, which explored the eagerness of people who had committed horrid acts of political murder in Indonesia to explore their acts through participation in gangster films.

In other (lighter), cases, however, quasi-fictional documentaries requires the spark of their director’s. Yes, for instance, told the story of a Québecois-Separatist-artist’s journey to immerse himself in the Scottish independence movement. This year saw the release of a similarly inspired documentary: Agnes Varda’s Faces Places.

Faces Places features Varda following JR, a young photographer who prints out giant photographs of his subjects and prints them on public buildings. Varda explains her investment in the project by noting her desire to get to know more people. Each of the film’s subjects is brought to attention for very different reasons: some speak to a history of working class suffering, others ask us to reconsider the dominant farmer-farm-animal relationship, while others are simply locals offered the chance to gnaw on a baguette.

I began to doubt the film’s potential about a third of the way in. While Varda and JR were certainly finding original subjects to portray, I found the art that the film focused on to be getting a bit repetitive. Furthermore, I questioned the approach of always decorating walls with giant cut outs of people. If this film was truly a celebration of faces and places, wouldn’t it be a better idea to make some smaller cut outs, so as not to obscure buildings in their entirety, and so as not to deny the chance of other people involved in the history of a site to be represented?

My fears were soon assuaged, however. While I may maintain some artistic differences with JR, those differences became increasingly irrelevant as the film came to be about Varda and JR, not so much their art. For instance, one of the subjects that Varda proposes JR document is someone she photographed in her past, not necessarily a person with an area defining story. The film also shows us their conversations along the way. We see Varda’s ambivalent relationship to her age (approximately 88 at the time of the filming). On the one hand, as in previous works, she exposes her aging on film via depictions of medical procedures performed on her eyes. On the other hand, she is insistent on maintaining her youth, through example, through her bright orange hair and by contrasting herself with JR’s 100-year old grandmother. JR’s personality, meanwhile, remains more mysterious. Varda, however, regularly questions his reserved tone, particularly his decision to always wear sunglasses.

Faces Places, in short is a little bit political, a little bit educational, and a little bit of an homage to film history. More than anything else, however, its a buddy comedy like none you’ve probably ever seen. While its premise may prove a hard sell, those who do choose to see it will find that it is an easy work to love and perhaps one of the most creative cinematic concepts of the year.

England is Mine (2017)

Directed by Mark Gill, Written by: Gill and William Thacker


England_is_Mine_(One_Sheet)Before he was the frontman of The Smiths, Morrissey was still very much the figure he comes across as in his lyrics: depressed and weary of other humans.  That is essentially the premise of this most recent biopic, which notably cuts-off shortly after he meets Johnny Marr and becomes established as a star. In essence, it is a film based on a mostly-good premise, that due to the narrow confines of the biography-genre ends up being, not awful, but certainly rather boring.

The story follows Morrissey’s (Jack Lowden) struggles as a young worker at an accounting firm, and his outings with various friends/quasi-girlfriends who are clearly impressed with his writing talents and eager to promote his star, but who get little help from him whatsoever. The young Morrissey can write endless strings of insults, and boasts a massive library of classic literature. While he is easily unimpressed, he shows sincere appreciation when he hears quotes from these works or when given the chance to share his record collection. Another ambiguity in his personality is the source of his depression. The film makes clear it is not a mere performative quirk by showing his use of anti-depressants, while simultaneously implying that some of his sadness may be a genuine reaction to his having the seemingly hopeless dream of becoming a rock singer. It is to the film maker’s credit, that all possible explanations for Morrissey’s troubles are presented in moderation. He may have had Disney-esque dreams, but the film rightly knew not to present said dreams with Disney-esque sentiment.

Young Morrissey is a compellingly frustrating character. There are several moments when he seems on the verge of making a human or musical connection, and yet the combination of his shyness and cynicism pulls him away from it. If the writer’s of the film had been willing to take this persona and transform it into a Morrissey-type, or simply take creative liberties with his life story (and perhaps experiment more with non-conventional/non-linear narrative) they might have a created a compelling film. Instead, however, Morrissey’s personality is hung out to dry, as in his realistic existence, it is left with no plot to interact with. While the film ultimately brings Morrissey and Marr together, this ending has little to do with the drama (or lack there of) that ensues before it.

An odd emission, from the work is Morrissey’s vegetarianism (he became vegetarian at age 11). While the topic is hinted at (there is a joke about how he only eats toast), given his otherwise explosive persona, it seems a shame that the film did not use his “meat is murder” sentiments as a means of adding more tension to the screenplay.

England is Mine’s slow realism spares it from sappiness, saving its entertainment value somewhat. Hardcore Morrissey fans, as well as those familiar with the work of his friend, the artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) may still get something out of it. Nonetheless, the flamboyant nihilism of the Smiths unfortunately fails to translate to this mundanely nihilistic story.


Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Written by: James Ivory, Directed by: Luca Guadagnino, based on a novel by André Aciman

CallMeByYourName2017           Call Me By Your Name is the story of a budding romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and his archaeologist father’s live-in grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Hammer, pitched this acclaimed movie by arguing it’s “a rare same-sex love story  where no one gets AIDS, no one has their personal life destroyed and no one gets lynched.”. As such, its an important cinematic innovation: destroying heteronormativity, by definition means creating “normal” non-heterocentric stories. As a result of its low key plot, however, Call Me By Your Name, challenges its viewers to find other (non-narrative based) reasons to engage with it. For some, that will mean relating to the suppressed romantic yearnings of Elio and Oliver.


For others, enjoying this slow placed film requires appreciation for its aesthetic. For many this will not be challenge. As Pedro Almodóvar put it “Everything is beautiful, charming, and desirable in this movie: The boys, the girls, the breakfasts, the fruit, the cigarettes, the reservoirs, the bicycles, the open-air dancing, the 80s, the doubts and the devotion of the protagonists, the sincerity of all the characters, the relationship with their parents.”  For me, viewing Call Be Your Name, however, was a lesson in how fragile and subjective the concept of cinematic excellence truly is. Movies with simple story lines can be amongst the greatest. In finding beautiful shots and compelling drama in everyday life, these movies strike the perfect balance between providing an escape from and shedding new light on our realities. That said, the ability of these films to connect with their viewers is limited by precisely what comes into their cinematography. The simple plot of Paterson, for example, featured creative writing, guitar playing and occasional downtown city scapes. Call Me by Your Name featured lots of apricot juice, characters walking around in soggy bathing suits and, briefly, a fishing handyman. Granted, these are not the only differences between these two low-stakes films, yet I can’t help but imagine that it was these superficial differences that explain why I enjoyed the former much more than the latter.

Regardless, Call Me By Your Name, has an unmistakably a well written script. The characters have developed interests, classical music in Elio’s case, that always leave them with something to talk about. Furthermore, no line in the piece is overly ambitious. No one sentence establishes Elio and Oliver’s feelings for each other, nor tries to explain the struggle of being gay in the 80s. Perhaps one of the film’s shortcomings is that it avoids burdening its characters with the latter problem. While the unstated truth of the film is that Elio and Oliver cannot ultimately be together, and they feel a need to keep their relationship secret, the degree to which this is the result of their orientation as opposed to Oliver’s discomfort with their age gap is ambiguous at best. That said, there is some merit to Hammer’s comments in praise of the film. At one moment, an important character makes a speech that slowly and lovingly reveals their support for gay love. The speech is believeable and intelligent, making its performance a valid substitute, for a higher-stakes, homophobia-ridden plot.

Call Me By Your Name may prove a divisive film amongst audiences, but it is not undeserving of the praise it has received. If believable slow-paced romance, rife with gushy-yet-believably-original lines like “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” is you thing, perhaps your perception of this film will indeed be more like Almodóvar’s and less like mine.

Loving Vincent (2017)

Written by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Directed by: Kobiela and Welchman 

Loving_Vincent            Let me begin by saying that Loving Vincent is a work one should see independent of one’s opinion of its narrative merits. Those who have heard of it previously surely know why. It describes itself (presumably accurately) as the world’s first oil-painted movie. The project consists of 65 000 frames and was painted by a team of 115 painters. In short, it is an animation miracle.

That said, I hope my first paragraph does not sell the film’s narrative short. The movie takes place following Van Gogh’s death and tells the story of Armand Roulin, a young man, and subject of one of Van Gogh’s portraits. Roulin is sent by his postmaster father (also the subject of a Van Gogh painting) to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As Roulin’s task grows more complicated, his journey turns into a mystery, one where he questions whether Van Gogh in fact committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The film is arguably sold short by its title. It is not a predictable, gushy tale of people feeling guilty and learning to love a mentally ill man and his work too late. Rather it is a work that maintains a constant air of mystery. Roulin’s journey to understand Van Gogh ultimately sheds a light on how he does not and perhaps cannot understand Vicent. Perhaps, the film implies, this is because Roulin is not himself an artists, but a more typical hot-headed male hero-figure. An alternative explanation is that the film intentionally limits itself with its medium. Characters move slowly through their viscous, post-impressionist surroundings, surroundings that limit their abilities to express themselves. Therefore, even as the film is a post Van-Gogh work, it ultimately only retells the story that Van Gogh, through his work, had already made public.

While the film is meant to resemble a Van Gogh painting, its artists did not attempt to create facsimiles. Rather, actors were cast in the roles of Van Gogh’s painted subjects, and the film’s painters painted over digital renditions of their faces. Roulin’s features, for instance, are firmer then they are in Van Gogh’s original depiction of him, giving him an air of toughness (in contrast to the sadness Van Gogh may have seen in the then teenage boy, whom the film’s creator’s imply he did not know well).

In essence, viewers should go to Loving Vincent to appreciate its visual singularity, and in doing so can enjoy a decently compelling story. While the animation pace may take some time to get use to, the film makes for a pleasant celebration of a beloved historical figure.