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.

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Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.

 

Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.

 

The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.

 

It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.

 

Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.

 

Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.

It: Chapter One (2017)

Directed by: Andy Muschietti, Written by:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

Disclaimer: This review treats “It” as a standalone work. I acknowledge that it 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.  

 

It_(2017)_poster            For the time being at least, It is a cultural phenomenon. James Corden featured It’s primary antagonist, Pennywise the dancing clown, in a humorous sketch, The Beaverton has used it to skewer anti-PC demagogue Jordan Peterson, and Pennywise costumes are now on sale for Halloween. In a way this is surprising. “It” is not exactly an original name for a horror film (particularly with recent, more dynamic uses of the title in mind), and a scary clown is not exactly an original monster (anything that’s interesting about Pennywise is presented in a way that is three-fold more interesting by various iterations of the Joker).

As I began to watch the film, I thus worried it would be banal by horror standards. The story wastes no time in introducing its titular clown and does nothing to conceal his dark side (if he even has a non-dark side). Instead, it turns quickly to graphic violence. As the film progresses we learn a bit more about Pennywise (ie he is not just a murderous clown, but a multi-faceted monster), but not enough to make him a particularly memorable personality or psychologically captivating villain.

It’s my belief that horror films, whether they be “high-brow” or “low-brow” are particularly likely to be good watches, as almost by definition they contain suspense and plot twists. This means they hit that ever present standard for good storytelling: unpredictability. Pennywise, for the most part, does not help It check the unpredictability box. Luckily, however, there is a lot more to It than its most advertised personality.

TV series Stranger Things, can partially credit its popularity to its invocation of nostalgia for 1980s culture and classic sci-fi/horror tropes. While I found the ultimate subtlety of (the first season of) Stranger Things made it underwhelming, It’s over-the-top repackaging Stranger Things’ qualities proved successful. One not-too-subtle overlap between the two works is cast member Finn Wolfhard. While Wolfhard was seemingly given thick glasses in It for the soul purpose of clarifying that he is not in fact Mike from stranger things, his character, Richie, is more Lucas (Mike’s sometimes hot-headed, best friend), than Mike, albeit with a magnified personality. Everything about Richie signifies “best-friend” rather than protagonist, yet the character is nonetheless one of the film’s most memorable personas: the writing of the role is perhaps It’s greatest strength.

Richie is part of a friend group of what ultimately turns out to be seven kids. Each of these kids is given at least somewhat of a backstory, and while not all of them are well developed, the ambition of introducing and bringing them all together is another of It’s strong points. It should be noted, however, that the film seems to rely on (an albeit somewhat self aware form of) tokenization. Only one of the seven kids is not-white, and although he has a very compelling backstory, he is absent for much of the middle of the film. Only one of the seven kids is a girl, and she serves as a love interest for two of the film’s male characters. Whether this should be read as a rebuke or excessive-reinforcement of the traditional imagining of a token-female-character as a love interest for geeky, male heroes is a question I imagine, that cannot easily or unambiguously be answered.

So in essence, It is a good horror film due to the flawed but still compelling portrayal of its seven young heroes. That seems like a bit of a weird way to sing the praises of a horror film. Luckily, It, like all good horror movies, situates its characters in a mysterious, terrifying universe, even if that mystery and terror is not entirely the creation of its central villain. The film also features archetypal bullies and (all degrees of) bad parenting. Perhaps another good way of selling It, is noting that it duplicates (without resembling) much of what’s effective about Harry Potter. It is a story of kids engaging in unlikely heroics against a magical villain, in the face of worse-than-Malfoy-esque bullying and adult incompetence and cruelty.

I’ve heard It described as more gross than scary. For the most part that is an apt description, as the film’s villain’s lack of subtlety limits the amount of nail-biting one will do in the lead up to his attacks. While viewers should be aware of potentially triggering content in the film (strong allusion to sexual violence against a minor), non-horror fans should not be put off from seeing It. If you are interested in ambitious narratives, and enjoy tales of rag-tag friend groups, seeing all 2 hours and 15 minutes of It is absolutely worth your while.

 

A Huey Newton Story (2001)

Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith. Directed by: Spike Lee

AhueypnewtonstoryLook closely at the Spike Lee film of the Roger Guenveur Smith one man play and you’ll notice it’s called A Huey Newton story. This title is in the spirit of the post-modern idea that history is not one story but many that can be both contradictory and true. In the case of this work “A” takes on even more significance. This piece is not the dramatic tale of the Black Panthers co-founder cumulating with his murder. Rather, the piece is an imagination of how Huey Newton might tell his story if given the chance: there is an emphasis on history and anti-racism, but that is not the full scope of the work.

History is often told with particular reference made to heroes and villains: heads of state and revolutionaries alike. This is a logic that many movements and political figures try to counter, saying that what matters is not them but their movement and their goals. In practice, the representation of movements through canonized individuals will likely never go away. Joining the cause of an individual has a certain intimateness to it that joining a broad struggle for idealism never will.

A Huey Newton story is above all else an exploration of the mental struggle between honouring heroes and honouring causes. The film puts Newton on a pedestal: to be more precise: a chair on a stage where Newton sits in front of an adulating audience. Newton then begins his film-spanning monologue. He is almost a stand-up comedian, but not quite, as his stream-of-consciousness style presentation varies in tone from sombre, to comedic, to academic, to vulnerable, to unintelligible. His faceless audience laughs at all of his jokes as if he is a standup comedian: but he is clearly not one an. In this sense we are presented with the image of cult of personality: the audience adores Newton not simply because of his jokes but because he is Huey P. Newton

But while the film allows us to enjoy (or at least enjoy others enjoying) Newton’s personality cult, he deconstructs it. Newton reads his poems and questions the meaning of his own existence, one poem asking what part of his body is essentially him (ie if he could continue to exist if they are all stripped away). At another moment Newton embodies loneliness, expressively moving to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” like an archetypal moody teenager. While Newton shares his political theory, including his views on the violence-non-violence continuum and the role of the Panthers as a political vanguard, he avoids fiery ideological preaching in favour of jokes, introspection and more anecdotal commentary on racism (Eg decrying a radio station for playing the Eric Clapton version of “I Shot the Sheriff”).

Cigarette smoke factors regularly into the film’s artistic aesthetic. Newton sits and dances in billows of smoke while waiting to make profound and profoundly-empty statements. Newton breaks down the granduous mistake of even this part of his image, denouncing cigarettes as “reactionary suicide.”

Those unfamiliar with one man shows may be sceptical as to the art form’s potential to entertain, especially in the film format. A Huey Newton story, however, is very easy to appreciate. Guenveur Smith’s Newton dazzles with his wit and moodiness, while Lee’s shots accentuate the vividness of Newton’s persona. If you’re interested in social justice and history absolutely check out A Huey Newton Story, but do so realizing it is simply “A” story. It may not help you pass your history test, but it does provide a stunning, complex and sympathetic portrait of a historical figure in a manner that is both thought provoking and encapsulating.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)

imagesDirected by: Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maioran 

Perhaps you’ve heard the narrative that rock and roll music was born when a teenage truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley did an upbeat cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mamma.” Perhaps you’ve also heard the criticism that this story erases the degree to which rock and roll was a black invention developed by figures like Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The seeming ambition of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is to look at where another of America’s defining racial groups fits into this story. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this documentary opens in the 50s. We see black and white footage, a dance hall, side burns, and Link Wray, the Shawnee rockabilly who wrote the film’s titular song.

After telling some of Wray’s story, the film goes on to explore the likes of other indigenous musicians from the 20th century: we hear the rhythmic blues guitar of Charlie Patton, the drums of Randy Castillo, the jazz vocals of Mildred Bailey and the rhymes of Taboo. The films biggest success, can thus be said to be the scope of who it covers. The film spans decades and genres and in doing so makes visible numerous indigenous icons in American musical history. This itself is a feat worth commending: representing members of marginalized groups in popular media is one way of making that media become even more inclusive in the future.

On the other hand, the film is plagued by serious narrative and pacing problems. Part of this stems from the fact a number of the featured artists were instrumentalists. As compelling an artistic choice it was for the film to open with Wray, an indigenous Elvis-figure of sorts, there are only so many interviewers one can hear about the sound of his power chords before losing interest. While Wray had a lengthy career as a vocalist and lyricist as well as a guitar player, the film made the odd decision to reduce his legacy to one, albeit iconic, instrumental track. Similarly, Randy Castillo and Jesse Ed Davis come across as having interesting, and tragic stories, yet their segments are underwhelming to the film’s over focus on snippets of their instrumental work. I say this, I must emphasize, not as a non-connoisseur of music, but out of the realization that music is a language of its own that can’t always be readily described with words. Davis’ solo in “Dr. My Eyes,” is indeed phenomenal, but even hearing the reliably cool and articulate Jackson Browne talk about it, does not make for good entertainment.

The strongest moment of the film comes when it discusses artists from the 60s: Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter La Farge (and by extension Johnny Cash). These artists were not simply indigenous musicians who produced hypnotic sounds, but radical lyricists and storytellers. Their presence in the film therefore is more dynamic than that of their peers. Not only can Sainte-Marie and La Farge be celebrated for being representation of indigenous peoples, but also as ambassadors of indigenous causes: singers whose lyrics terrified American authorities with their calls for a just, decolonized world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is replete with interesting information and has the potential to intrigue popular music fanatics. Unfortunately, it is still a bit lacking as an artistic work. Perhaps the presence of a narrator, unifying the film’s many figures could have made it more engaging. Alternatively, the film could have covered fewer artists but with better depth. Regardless of its shortcomings, Rumble’s release is still a cause for celebration: a reminder to fire up the old turn table and give tracks like “The Weight,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Rumble,” a spin.

 

 

 

The Little Hours (2017)

Written and directed by: Jeff Baena

The_Little_Hours_posterIf you put popular comic actors in a nunnery, how long can they keep up the image of propriety? That’s the premise of The Little Hours, and it does not take long to unravel. A minute or two into the film a chain of f-bombs spews from the mouth of Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Other reviewers have described the film in a mildly-positive light, calling it a work that does a respectable job of sustaining itself on one joke (its premise) for its short-ish runtime.

There is an unquestionable charm to the film. It opens to minstrel music, rustic countryside and credits with medieval-stylized font. While I’m sure that historians could find ways to tear the film’s aesthetic apart, The Little Hours does a reasonably good job of convincing viewers they are truly watching a medieval story. The script further contributes to this allusion: while its scenes are predominantly wacky, there are moments, such as when the nuns take communion, that comedy takes a back seat to maintaining a degree of historical realism.

While critics may be right in calling out The Little Hours’ low-brow humour, the film’s unique brand of “realism” makes it a worthy watch. The Little Hours in fact, at times, shares a tone with What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s critically acclaimed Vampire mockumentary. Both films depict smut and gore, yet rather than relying on the cheap thrills, treat audiences to mild-mannered characters mundanely navigating their universea. For example, when Father Tommasso (John C. Reily) drunkenly threatens Massetto, the humors comes not from his drunkenness, nor even from the idea that a priest is drunk, but rather his distress over having tipped his cart full of embroidery and having to awkwardly dry its contents by a rocky strem. The Little Hours’s supporting cast also includes Nick Offerman as a vengeful warlord who’s defining characteristic is not his military might but his ability to provoke a barrage of sarcasm from his wife; and Fred Armisan as a bishop who strictly enforces Catholic doctrine, with just enough doubt in his voice to expose the absurdity of his judgement. Reilly and Molly Shannon feature as a priest and mother superior who are essentially cool parents: they don the garb and fill the function of authority without really policing the behaviour to their flock.

The three main nuns, meanwhile, are played by a good spectrum of personalities. Sister Alessandra (Allison Brie) is introduced in a moment of sadness, playing a straight-woman of sorts who nevertheless has her share of comedic, awkward scenes. Plaza and Kate Micucci (as Sister Genevra) revive their respective deadpan-goth and awkwardly-innocent personas from Parks and Recreation and Garfunkel and Oates. While Micucci’s type fits right-in in a nunnery comedy, Plaza’s tendency for 4th wall-breaking-glances, at times, feels a bit out of place. On the other hand, the ultimate twist with Plaza’s character is a good one, and film viewers can appreciate Sister Fernanda as April Ludgate on steroids.

Ultimately The Little Hours does fall a bit short of What We Do in the Shadows. This is largely because The Little Hours opts to have a conventional story arc. After a solid first half, it reaches its apex with a build up of sexually-explicit chaos, followed by reconciliation and, ultimately, hero(in)ism. This narrative approach arguably costs the film a few jokes. Nevertheless, the film provides plenty to laugh at it via its collection of personalities, its period humor, and occasionally turns to the absurd. If you are not put off by vulgarity, and are curious to see nuns who show that Maria is not a problem whatsoever, The Little Hours is absolutely worth seeing.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.