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.

 

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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.

Diplomacy (2014)

Directed by: Volker Schlöndorf. Written by: Cyril Gely (playwrite), Schlöndorf (screenplay edits)

Diplomatie_posterLet’s start with the basics; Diplomacy is a film adaptation of a play based on historical events. With defeat eminent for the Nazis, Hitler has concocted a final, unthinkable plot to be carried out in occupied Paris. Hitler, however, is not a character in the film. Instead the story centres around Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz, who is set to carry out Hitler’s orders, and a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, bent on stopping them. The film’s title is not subtle metaphor—the story is a plea for belief in diplomacy and a tribute to the Swedish diplomat’s negotiating skills.

Diplomacy, as a WWII film, had it works cut out for it. Few governments/warring parties are as universally despised as Hitler and Nazi Germany. Artists who depict WWII and its ensuing tragedies are thus challenged to make statements that go beyond what everybody knows—that war is bad, that WWII was particularly bad, and that that particularly badness stemmed from Hitler’s distinctly-intentional genocide. At times, Diplomacy feels like it cannot meet the high bar that WWII films must overcome. The diplomat tells the general that senseless killing and Nazism are wrong. “How profound!” many audiences will think sarcastically.

Yet even in these moments of weakness, Diplomacy begins to reveal its strength. I thought of the moments I’ve spent watching Fox News, exasperated by its ideological bias. I also thought of a scene in the comi-tragic TV show Atlanta, when Earn (Donald Glover) an unemployed, bankrupt father tries to order a kids meal at a restaurant (due to his financial situation), and is refused. A voice was screaming in my head as I watched that scene; why couldn’t some character have just told the cashier to be decent, and prioritize Earn’s right to eat over enforcing a fast food chain’s bureaucratic rules!? Why couldn’t someone have told the Fox News broadcasters to stop spewing bullshit about universal health care being a tyrannical disaster? Diplomacy gives us a character who does just that. He calmly stares a Nazi in the face and tells him to act conscientiously. It sounds absurd, but I came to realize it’s what I wanted to see, and perhaps what many will want to see.

Diplomacy not only imagines a world in which a character tells a Nazi to be decent…it imagines a world in which the tactic works. The film should be praised for this political work alone. Far too often, as news of international conflict is brought before the public, many will think “the enemy” cannot be reasoned with: that the enemy simply enjoys its brutality (or alleged brutality) too much. Diplomacy reminds viewers that aversion to killing is a near universal human trait, and therefore, diplomatic solutions should never be written off as utopian/hopeless.

One of the film’s great lines comes when the Swedish diplomat references the story of Isaac and Abraham, begging the Nazi general not to follow the orders of a “God” that would have him kill his “son” (the city of Paris). While the film is based on true events (limiting its ability for creative experimentation), and while the direction its plot takes is ultimately endearing, the delivery of this line still left me questioning Diplomacy’s playwright. What if, I pondered, the general and not the diplomat had raised the Isaac and Abraham comparison? The diplomat raises this argument simply so that he can rebut it. By contrast, if the general had raised the argument, surely he would have fleshed it out. The point he would be making is that as a humble servant of “God” (Hitler, in this case) he was in no position to question the morality of his master. Abraham did not want to kill Isaac, but was prepared to do so to follow orders. Similarly, the general did not want to follow Hitler’s orders but shows a firm preparedness to do so regardless.

This kind of “following orders” character is also represented in James Cameron’s Avatar through the figure of Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is simultaneously a kindly, father figure, and someone willing to mercilessly kill all those who stand in his way (including his former pupil) when duty calls.

Like Quaritch’s, the general’s conduct represents an inherent flaw of many militaries: their internal codes of honour often come into conflict with more fundamental rules of morality. A good soldier loyally follows the orders of commanding officers and political officials. A good person doesn’t commit acts of genocide. Needless to say, in the context of Nazi Germany (which is just one example), these two coders were at odds.

A common refrain about WWII is the question: why didn’t good people stand up to Hitler? With its “Abraham and Isaac” line, Diplomacy hints at one of the answers: military (and police) ethics can mean not questioning even the atrocious orders of one’s leaders. Diplomacy, however, doesn’t end up taking this “Abraham and Isaac” approach very far. Perhaps this is because the question and answer may not prove satisfying to those who want to see the Nazis presented as a distinctly evil. Perhaps some would find it tasteless to see an explanation proposed for Nazi brutality that could also be applied to explain atrocities committed by western liberal democracies.

That digression aside, Diplomacy should be commended as a work that convincingly retells a historic episode to promote a message of peace. It is mostly well written, even if at times the unambiguous moral superiority of the diplomat can cause the writing to feel predictable. Diplomacy is the act of thinking through what may seem like hopeless situations and getting another to think in a similar way. By giving viewers a chance to see this kind of thinking in action, as well as allowing them space to imagine how it could go differently, Diplomacy has achieved its important moral end.

Columbus (2017)

Written and directed by: kogonadaColumbusPoster

Invoking the recent memories of Paterson and Manchester by the Sea, Columbus gives viewers another shot at watching a melancholy, slow-realist film named after its location. Unlike the others, Columbus struck me as a bit deceiving. One could not go into Manchester by the Sea expecting Manchester, England—the small, New England location is readily apparent. I’m not sure the same can be said of Columbus, a film that may not even explicitly mention its set in Columbus, Indiana (the small birthplace of Mike Pence) rather than Columbus, the capital of Ohio and a city of 800 000 people.

Why do I mention this deception? Why is my mistake (if it is just my mistake) relevant to reviewing a film? Because watching Columbus as if it is in fact about the bigger city, gives the title greater meaning.

In an early scene, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a sophomore-aged young woman tells a friend at college in LA that she has no inclination to leave Columbus. At this moment, it seems Casey has an unusual, be not unreasonable attachment to her not-New York-LA-or-Chicago-glamorous city. As the film progresses, we see some of Columbus, exposed through the lens of Casey’s interest in architecture. What we see, however, is an odd collection. Each of Casey’s favorite buildings are isolated. Often the camera fails to even depict the whole building, showing nothing but a couple of glass panels. Again, if the viewer approaches this scene with the assumption that the film is about Columbus, Ohio, they will get the impression that Casey’s passion for her city is deeply idiosyncratic and tied to personal experience. By contrast, if the viewer knows the film is set in Columbus, Indiana, the choice of what is shown feels far less striking: Casey, in that context, is simply working with what she has.

As the film develops, we come to understand Casey’s pain and why she feels confined to Columbus. She befriends Jin (John Cho), a Korean-English translator who is similarly confined to Columbus due a pain of his own, one not dissimilar to Casey’s. While I cannot say more about their respective struggles and the dynamic of their relationship without spoiling the film’s relatively simple plot, I can again comment on the significance of being mistaken about their location. Were the film set in big-city Columbus, Casey and Jin could be said to be making their big home small as a result of their pain. Columbus to them is just a library, a university and a hospital, all seen in isolation, rather than as part of an urban cityscape. This is their Columbus because these are the locations they escape to, the locations that shape their conversations, and the locations that define their own sense of the city. Columbus Indiana, by contrast, is just a town: just a place to be a stuck: a place that probably can be defined by individual building in isolation. If one understands the film as set in the latter Columbus, one learns a lot less about Casey (being confined too a town vs. being so confined that a big city feels like a town), and even less about Jin (as Columbus is only a temporary home for him, making his confinement to the actual small town feel relatively insignificant).

Again, perhaps I was not supposed to make a mistake about the film’s location. If after all, the film is more interesting if its interpreted as making Columbus Ohio feel like a small town, rather than simply being set in a small town, why wouldn’t the writer just have set it in Columbus, Ohio? Then again, it is truly peculiar that the film is named after a large, American capital city, yet is not set there, nor does the film’s dialogue mention that it is not set there.

The film ends with shots of various, often uninspiring locations in Columbus, Indiana. It is at this final moment, that interestingly it doesn’t matter where on believes the film is set. Either way, the film honors Casey’s memories of her home: be it her confined home on the outskirts of a metropolis, or her home in a small, unexciting town.