The Cow (1969)

Written by: Gholam-Hossen Saedi, Directed by: Dariush Mehrjui 

TheCow1969CoverMy latest trek to the video store led me to stumble upon a work called The Cow. There was something instantly endearing about it: it’s simple, yet striking box art, and it’s comedic premise (which I will not elaborate on here). Upon doing further research I found out the work is considered one of the great pieces of Iranian cinema. At the time of its creation, the film was blocked by (the then monarchic) Iranian government, the reason supposedly being that Iran was eager to present itself as a modern country, and a black and white film about village peasants did not exactly fit that image. The film’s subsequent international success, and Iran’s subsequent change of governments, however, changed it’s fate, helping to establish director Darius Mehrjui as a leading figure in Iranian cinema.

Mehrjui described Italian neo-realism as a key influenced of his, emphasizing the principle that filmmakers should try and create a reality specific to their characters, rather than aspire to meet some more “objective” conception of reality. The idea of this, is that directors who take this approach end up creating a work with a universalist feel to anyway. Viewers who enjoy the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Fiddler on the Roof will find familiar strong points in The Cow. Perhaps “village films/literature” should be recognized as a genre in their own right. The kind of village seen in The Cow is defined by an everybody-knows-everybody dynamic. This in turn makes the quirks and struggles of individual villagers a collective problem.

The film’s central character, Hassan, has moderate similarities to Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, a striking combination of affectionateness and gruffness, and of course, a close relationship with a cow. While Hassan does not burst into song or engage in long polemics with God, in one key way he is far quirkier than Tevye. It is the meeting of Hassan’s quirk and the film’s village dynamic that makes the work so effective. In another kind of film, Hassan’s behaviour might make him repellent to others, or at least the but of jokes. The Cow, however, is notable in that Hassan’s neighbours treat him to active compassion. The cliché goes that it takes a village to raise a child. In this word a village raises a man, while as much possible, not infantilizing him.

Perhaps this review has been devoid of specifics. The Cow, not unlike A Ghost Story is a film with an excellent premise, but with little else in its favour that doesn’t factor into the synopsis. I therefore recommend The Cow as in important, at times endearing piece of cinematic history, but if you can, don’t read the blurb before viewing.

 

Conceptions of Villainy in The Dark Knight and Bonnie and Clyde

SPOILERS AHEAD

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While travelling I recently found myself with the opportunity to catch up on two classic films, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 2008’s The Dark Knight. The two works make for very different viewing experiences: the former makes a (respectful) comedy out of two ultimately tragic lives, the latter tells a gratuitously dark story despite being centre around a clown. Both films feature plenty of gunshots, but only The Dark Knight will alienate those who don’t like their stories to be drowned in action.

What unites these works, however, is that they are stories centre around “villains” (well at least The Dark Knight will be best remembered for its villain). Villains can be the best parts of films, and perhaps no narrative-universe has understood this better than Batman, entertaining viewers with characters like The Penguin, The Riddler, Harley Quinn and of course, The Joker. At the same time, writing a character as a villain can be a literary and ethical dilemma. It’s a literary dilemma as writing complex, three-dimensional humans, means not putting them in the hero-villain binary. Humans do “villainous things” out of need, due to misunderstanding, due to deep internal battles, etc.

Writing characters as villains can be a political dilemma, since the mis-categorization of humans on a good-evil binary is still applied by advocates of tough-on-crime/militaristic policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, extra-judicial detention, torture and the death penalty.

The Dark Knight is certainly not a film that ignores politics, featuring a Mayor, and more prominently, an elected district attorney: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For both of these figures the political issue of central concern in Gotham is crime. If Gotham is in fact New York, the city’s well-known liberal side is nowhere to be seen. Justice in Gotham is simply understood as having a district attorney who can put as many people away as possible.

Despite these foundations, The Dark Knight does not give in to promoting a right-wing, good-evil dichotomy. How it avoids doing this is fascinating. Rather than showing us the moral of complexity of (most of) its villains, The Dark Knight introduces a villain in The Joker (Heath Ledger) who “just wants to watch the world burn.” The Joker defies the categories of (realistic) evil villain and complex-human-driven-to-evil-by-circumstances. Instead, his villainy manifests itself through his expression of a bizarre system of principles. When offered an immense sum of money for his work, the Joker sets it on fire, implying that evil should be done for its own sake. Another interesting choice on the writers’ part was to explicitly deny the Joker a backstory that explains his circumstances. A recurring motif in the film is Joker monologues beginning with the line “Do you know how I got these scars?” This line, superficially links the joker with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III and (fellow Dark Knight villain) Two-Face; characters who explain their turn to the dark side citing marginalization related to their physical deformities. The Joker, however, defies this script by offering different explanations whenever he explains his scars; he does not explain his turn to evil, he mocks the idea of explaining his turn to evil.

As The Joker baffles audiences, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script performs a bait and switch. The joker sets up an explosive system and presents two ships escaping Gotham with detonators, telling the passengers the only way to save themselves is to set off their detonator and destroy the other ship. After long deliberation both ships’ passengers refuse to give into temptation. Most notably, the first ship to refuse is the one populated by convicts. In this moment, the Nolans spell out that the Joker is not a rule, but an exception—a cartoonish exception. Contrary to Alfred’s advice to Batman, one should not read villains as simply “want[ing] to see the world burn.” The Dark Knight has its cake and eats it too. It thrives on the portrayal of a deeply evil character (the Joker), while still making clear that real criminals are not “evil” people who deserve to be detonated.

The Nolans further illustrate the message that there is no such thing as pure, irredeemable evil through the character of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face. Dent, who is portrayed as a hero at the beginning and end of the film, nonetheless develops a disproportionate, vengeful urge to kill innocents after the traumatic experience of having his face burned while learning his fiancé has died in an explosion.

I digress here to note that Dent’s portrayal is otherwise not one of The Dark Knight’s strong suits. Despite the film’s lengthy runtime, Dent’s turn to the dark side feels rushed and forced. A further oddity in Dent’s portrayal is that his corrupting is revealed to be a plot by the Joker to show that even the purest of souls can be turned evil. While (as I just noted) the contrast between pre-trauma Dent and Two Face is stark, Dent never comes across as a kindly or idealistic figure; his virtuosity only goes so far as prosecuting criminals (he even has a Joker like tendency of flipping a coin as a way of making moral decisions). While perhaps the Nolans aim is to challenge viewers to have a sense of morality that goes beyond what is plainly stated to them by the film’s cast, the presentation of pre-Two Face Dent as a “white knight” arguably realigns the film with a right-wing understanding of crime and justice, that the scene with the detonators rejects.

 

Despite its missteps in portraying Dent, The Dark Knight should still be recognized as a work that centred its plot around criminal exploits, without touting a tough-on-crime political message. Bonnie and Clyde, though otherwise a very different film than The Dark Knight, should be hailed for achieving the same feat. The latter film wastes no time in establishing its leads as criminals (carjacks and bank robbers, to be clear, we’re not talking Joker level villainy). It also wastes no time in establishing Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) motive—escaping her mundane life, and perhaps (though not explicitly stated) the limits placed on her as a woman in rural 1930s Texas. Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) motivations are less clear, though his own psychological side is exposed through his moments of brooding, and his attempt to celebrate his “career” choice as a stand against bank-tyranny.

Bonnie and Clyde, however, is not a biopic that sought to capture the psychological realities of two people. The film can instead be reasonably described as tragi-comedy. It uses the comic trope of an awkwardly put-together gang featuring the adventurous Parker, the troubled but equally adventurous Barrow, a naïve but eager youngster (Michael J Pollard), Barrow’s doesn’t-want-to-be-there-daughter-of-a-preacher sister in law (Estelle Parsons), and (briefly) a couple of very gracious hostages played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans (yes, as far as I can tell that’s her real name).

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is not simply a comedy to its viewers, but in a way, a comedy to its participants. An unmistakeable characteristic of Parker is her playful side, seen most notably when the gang ties up an unsuspecting Sheriff and takes a goofy photo with him. Bonnie and the gang’s criminality thus essentially comes across as a game of cops and robbers. In the eyes of the gang members they are not stealing and shooting so much as they are playing.

Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately assassinated by a sheriff and posse, but crucially, not mid-robbery or at the hands of someone they had shot at. Rather, their killer is the same sheriff they had earlier humiliated (a historical inaccuracy, as the posse was in fact headed by a sheriff who had never deal with them before). This was an important decision on the part of the writer. Viewers are thus not inclined to see Bonnie and Clyde as having faced their just deserts, but instead as having faced a cruel end to their game at the hands of a humourless sheriff.

There is much stylistic difference between Bonnie and Clyde and The Dark Knight, but the two share a common accomplishment—making good art about crime, without making reactionary statements about the role of crime in the real world. The Dark Knight depicts its central criminal as the twisted being that many want to write off real criminals as, while making it clear that this cartoon villain is not at all representative of crime in the real world. Bonnie and Clyde, meanwhile avoids making its titular bank robbers symbols of real world criminal danger by making their criminal exploits appear (both to viewers and the characters themselves) as playful escapades. In doing so, it simultaneously separates the character’s actions from real world criminality, while also sympathetically portraying a psychological state that some real criminals may have (a playful naivety to the consequences of their actions).

So riddle me this Batman, can we have a cinema rich in crime that isn’t tough on crime? These two films suggest we can.

 

A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

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In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.

The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by: Michael Showalter Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.

The_Big_SickThe premise of The Big Sick is simple. It’s the story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a Pakistani-American comedian, who falls for Emily, a white psychology graduate student (Zoe Kazan). They break up, only for them to be reunited when Emily goes into a coma that takes up a significant portion of the film.

 

            I was not expecting to enjoy the Big Sick. Romantic comedies, even when funny, often follow a formula. The first third of the film is entertaining, but then one character, usually the man, makes a predictable mistake or displays a predictable flaw, and then spends the rest of the (often now unfunny) film showing that he can redeem himself and (unsurprisingly) win back his love interest.

 

The Big Sick breaks this mould in two important ways. Firstly, it’s based on a true story (I won’t say more since viewers who go into the film knowing nothing about it will be pleasantly surprised by its credits). This solves the predictability problem, as it means audiences can watch The Big Sick, not to see what will happen, but to see how things happen.

 

The second key difference between The Big Sick and other romantic comedies is that its main character doesn’t have a clearcut, over-generalized flaw. He is not “SELFISH,” “A LIAR,” etc. Rather his problems comes from having perfectly reasonable divided loyalties between his (in some ways) conservative Muslim-Pakistani family, and his white girlfriend.

 

The Big Sick keeps audiences interested through showing Kumail as part of three different worlds—his family’s world, his girlfriend’s family’s world, and the comedy world. Of the three, the third is the least entertaining (which is mostly a good thing—the film is funny without having to bring on characters who directly tell jokes). The problem with the comedians is simply that we don’t get to see much of their material, and of that material, only a portion is funny (and half of that humor is the result of Kumail’s roommate’s failed attempts at jokes). The two families, on the other hand, get to explore a range of scenes and jokes. We are not left wondering what problems exist in these families (we are largely told that up front), but instead are allowed to see how the families live in the worlds that these problems partially create.

 

Another of the film’s strengths is its supporting cast. In addition to giving a reasonable amount of screen time to Youtube star Bo Burnham (check him out here), the film prominently features Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in the roles of Emily’s parents. Romano’s character maintains a fairly consistent tone throughout the film. He is always funny, yet still believable in his portrayal of a person dealing with the potential loss of a child. Hunter’s character shows a greater range of emotion (and more outward grief) than Romano’s, but is not without funny moments of her own. Hunter and Romano’s performances perhaps best represent The Big Sick’s success as a romantic comedy—the characters, and the film, are funny sans vulgarity and sombre sans sappiness.

 

Of course there is far more to The Big Sick than I can reasonably comment on—namely the politics of how Kumail’s family is represented. In an interview with Vice, Kumail Nanjiani described the film as a mostly accurate representation of the family life he grew up with, though acknowledged he was taking a risk of perpetuating anti-south Asian stereotypes by depicting a family that practiced arranged marriage.

It can be easy to draw a line between good cinema and accessible cinema, but (if it hasn’t already been said) once a style of thought starts to sound a tad elitist, it’s probably not entirely true. The Big Sick is simply put a really good movie and can be enjoyed by causal movie goers and cinema snobs alike.

 

 

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.  

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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.

 

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