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.

 

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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 writers 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 beforehand.

An odd omission 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 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-original lines like “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” is your 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.

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.