First Man (2018)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle Written by: Josh Singer

First_Man_(film)                 The way I see it there are two possible draws for First Man: one is that it’s the story of real-life, iconic space explorer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the other is its director, 2016 Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. To me, the combination is an intriguing one, in large part because first man is not the type of story I would be drawn to were Chazelle not the director. A story of “man goes to space, man is hero!” doesn’t intrigue me. Chazelle’s last two films, however, have seen him create a low-key and realistic yet dystopian presentation of music education (Whiplash) and a dazzling diorama of the Hollywood-dream story (La La Land). If anyone could make an astronaut’s biopic an interesting piece of cinema, it’s Chazelle.

Now here I should plead my ignorance. While Chazelle wrote the two aforementioned films (as well as his enjoyable student debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), I did not realize until the end credits that First Man was not in fact written by Chazelle, but by Josh Singer. I was previously familiar with Singer via 2017’s The Post, a film that bothered me, due to, amongst other things, it’s lack of subtle dialogue. The difference between First Man and The Post in that regard, is night and day. While First Man isn’t exactly subtle in its interpretation of Armstrong’s psychology, it allows this to come out through subtext and Ryan Gosling’s acting. The film’s actual dialogue is realistic rather than expository. Though not particularly memorable, Armstrong’s conversations with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are surprisingly endearing due to their smoothness and low-key humor.

Singer’s script also gave Chazelle plenty of opportunities to include a diversity of backdrops, which aptly set moods. A scene-and-a-half at a pool helps illustrate the ordinariness of Armstrong’s civilian life, while a depiction of centrifuge training contrasts the pains of being an astronaut with Armstrong’s stoic toughness.

Yet despite its being a good-quality production,  First Man was nonetheless little more than a “man goes to space, man is hero” story. The showing I attended opened with a PSA in which Ryan Gosling commends the team behind the movie for all the realistic technology they provided. While I had no qualms with the PSA itself (a call for people to go to the movies) it foreshadowed the film’s problems. The idea of “sitting in a tin can far above the world” is engaging as an idea: but as a realistic visual it’s rather dull (dare I say Wes Anderson should have directed this film). As Armstrong and various other astronauts make it through space, there’s not much to see other than their bodies desperately manipulating around visually un-interesting, highly confined white spaces. In short, Armstrong’s mundane life on earth, ends up being far more interesting than his terrifying journeys through space.

This would not be a problem if Armstrong had much more to his life than his space travels: and there’s a good chance he did. Singer’s interpretation of Armstrong, however, is that he is someone rendered under-communicative by trauma. In isolation this is not a bad approach, and it produces the film’s best scene (in which Armstrong explains the risk of his mission to his sons), but it unfortunately means that the film has little choice but to fill up substantial times with space-travel footage.

On a related note, the film leaves a lot unstated. For example, we are not introduced to Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) until quite late in the film. In many ways, the film’s commitment to maintaining mystery is artistically effective: it makes what we do see of Armstrong’s personality all the more engaging. One thing that remains mysterious, however, is Armstrong’s motivation to go into space in the first place: an oddity given the film’s focus on how terrifying space travel is and was perceived to be. While I won’t call this emission a defect (every movie is not obliged to answer every question), it’s possible that its presence as a theme could have added life to the screenplay.

First Man is rife interesting details throughout its run time, particularly in its reinterpretation of Armstrong’s planting of the American flag (that’s how I’ll put it, I won’t say more). It’s a solid film that should be of interest to space and American history buffs, it just doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its subject matter.

 

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The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)

Directed by: Arthur Lubin Written by: Jameson Brewer, John C. Rose and Joe DiMona

Based on a Novel by: Theodore Pratt                

TIML_poster               As my fascination with The Room has led me to appreciate, the categorization of films as “bad but enjoyable” is not sufficiently sophisticated. Some films (The Room) do things that are conventionally considered bad, but somehow end up amazing. Others (Christian-conservative cinema) have content so horrible they don’t deserve praise yet can be appreciated in a masochistic way. The Fantastic Mr. Limpet is yet another film that belongs in this conversation, and it too denies neat categorization.

Henry Limpet works as a bookkeeper in the world war II era. He has been declared unfit to serve due to, amongst other things, his poor eye sight, in the US military, an uncomfortable truth given that his best friend George (Jack Weston) is serving and his wife Bessie (Carole Cook) is “very patriotic.” We later discover that Limpet and Bessie’s marriage does not appear to be a particularly happy one. He is obsessed with his goldfish, a hobby that for some reason irritates his wife to no end.

Anyway some stuff happens and Mr. Limpet turns into an animated fish. He meets another fish and a moustachioed Hermit Crab named Krusty (move over Sebastian!) (Paul Frees). He also discovers he can emit powerful sonar waves, for some reason. The film combines Disney-esque animation, military scenes and a few of songs with titles like “I Wish I Were a Fish.” This corny animals-and-militarism plot, when first introduced, appears to have potential to at very least to put The Incredible Mr. Limpet in The Room territory.

Unfortunately, once Henry Limpet turns into a fish, the film substitutes its quirky energy for slow-moving predictability. The film’s songs aren’t memorable as they are sung by a vintage choir rather than by individual, charismatic characters. The other fish character, “Ladyfish” (Elizabeth MacRae), is only entertaining in so far as she introduces a surprise love triangle into the plot, and while Krusty is a slightly more dynamic character, the numerous animated sidekicks that have succeeded him render him relatively forgettable as well. In short The Incredible Mr. Limpet goes from an opening that makes it bad but amazing, to a middle and end that makes me ask “who was this aimed at?” While the beginning of the film can give one hope that its writers were aware their premise was a tad silly, the second half makes it seem as if they can genuinely picture a demographic who wants to unironcally watch uncharismatic marine characters help with world war II and undergo romantic dilemmas.

I suppose it’s hard to know how my mind would have worked in the 60s. Surely, even in a world that predates Finding Nemo, Spongebob Squarepants and The Little Mermaid this wasn’t the best that could be done with anthropomorphic sea creatures. Nonetheless, liking film means being able to see beauty in all sorts of media, and while I can’t say I love it, The Incredible Mr. Limpet still left the cinephile left me awestruck and happy about its existence.

mid90s (2018)

Written and directed by: Jonah Hill

Mid90s_(2018_movie_poster)                 When I think back nostalgically to my childhood (which was technically the late 90s and 2000s) I think of supersoakers, skateboarders and gameboys. That’s the nostalgia that mid90s celebrates. Beyond that, it’s hard to point to the titles significance. Perhaps (presumably inadvertently) it serves the function of separating the film fellow 2018 indie skating film Skate Kitchen in that its set in a pre-cellphone society. Perhaps it also speaks to the kind of film Hill wanted to make, one that’s aesthetic, rather than story focused.

                  The latter is probably the best explanation for the title. Despite it’s nostalgia-inducing hook, mid90s is far too dark a film to be seen as a film about the pleasures of a (barely) bygone era. Rather it’s a film that covers a short period of time in a character’s life in a fairly confined geographical area (it could easily have been called LA, but I guess that sounds slightly less original). The film begins brutally as we see 13-year-old protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being beaten by his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). This seen, like mid90s as a whole, more aesthetic than it is narrative. Ian gets respectable amount of screentime, but we never really get to know how he came to be, or how Stevie deals with this problem.

                  mid90s has been described as a coming of age story, but given the traits I’ve described, such a descriptor feels inaccurate at best, and tragic at worse. It is not the story of Stevie finding himself, or independence or maturity: rather it is a story of a coping mechanism he uses in a world where such development seems hopeless. Stevie joins a group of teenage skaters: Ruben, Fuckshit, Fourth Grade and Ray (Gio Galicia, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin and Na-kel Smith). While this development happens early in the film, it is essentially the extent of Stevie’s coming of age.

                  From there the movie’s highlights are memorable moments of characters being kind and characters being cruel: with the kindness and cruelty coming both from inside and outside of the skater crew. In one early scene, in typical 90s fashion (and who knows, maybe outside of my urban, progressive bubble in typical 2010s fashion too) one of the crew refers to Stevie’s politeness as “gay.” Though not the film’s most pleasant moment it stuck with me as about as good a representation of the genesis of toxic masculinity as one could produce. Luckily, there are well written moments of endearment to counter balance this one.

                  Because of its aesthetic focus, mid90s struggles to find an ending. While there is major drama near the end, it doesn’t stand out that much given the dramas that precede it. The end of mid90s, simply lacked writing: the writing wasn’t bad, there just wasn’t much. So unfortunately, I left the film without the sense of satisfaction I would have hoped for. In retrospect, however, it had a lot of nice touches along the way. The film’s story wasn’t always pleasant, but through and beyond its unpleasant moments it serves as a strong plea for and defence of all kinds of comraderies.

Wiener-Dog (2016)

Written and directed by: Todd Solondz

Wiener-Dog_film_poster                If you’re curious, go on Youtube and look up a trailer for Todd Solondz’s Wiener Dog. You’ll notice a lot of angry commenters lambasting it for being a terrible movie. I’m not sure whether to be frustrated or amused by such comments. Much like those who ensured Darren Aronofsky’s mother! got a series of Razzie nominations, it seems like a lot of youtube commenters don’t know how to distinguish their not enjoying a style of filmmaking from a film actually being bad.

Now don’t get me wrong. I won’t turn on Wiener-Dog and fondly rewatch it when I’m in need of cheering up, but that’s the point of Solondz’s cinema. He explores the uglier sides of human existence by having his characters speak and sometimes act in appalling ways. This dynamic is perhaps best expressed in the film’s first story (the film has four parts each of which cover the relationship between different people and a dachshund). This vignette centres around Remi, a 7-year old cancer survivor, who’s given a pet dachshund, which he plainly names “Wiener-Dog.” This name shows a great deal of love: he doesn’t need to give her a special name for her to matter to him: she’s the only wiener-dog in the world as far as he’s concerned. Unfortunately for Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke ) , his mother Dina (Julie Delpy, in a role loosely connected to a few of her lines in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy) is not a fan of his having a dog, and his father (Tracy Letts ) is fickle on the matter as well. It seems every conversation Remi and his mother have is a serious one, and at times she can be quite blunt. In some conversations she comes across horribly. In others, she comes across as more normal, yet nonetheless her contrast with Remi allows his “naïve” higher sense of moral urgency to shine through.

Wiener-Dog charms through its use of different aesthetics (the intermission is no doubt one of the film’s highlights) and personas. Greta Gerwig plays a classic indie protagonist (Dawn Wiener of Solondz’s Take Me to the Doll House), Danny Devito plays a curmudgeony film school professor, Zosia Mamet plays a Girls-like (though not necessarily her Girls character) figure, and Ellen Burstyn plays a misanthropic grandmother. Therefore, even while Wiener Dog peaks early, its continued innovations make it a solid film from start to finish.

While I bemoan those who lack the nuance to understand Solondz’ shock based approach, I can’t help but have questions myself about exactly how it should have been applied. In one of her conversations with Remi, Dina makes an implicitly racist remark about a dog named Mohamed, and because this interaction is with her 7-year old son there’s no one present to call out this dog-whistle remark. Given the film’s overall presentation one can only assume that Solondz trusts his audience to be critical of the character’s comment. Nonetheless, the scene does raise some moral questions of what directors need to do to distance themselves from the views of their charters (I’m not saying I have the answer).

Similarly, there’s another scene in which Dawn and her travel companion Brandon (Kieran Culkin) make comments implying Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown) shouldn’t have kids because they have down syndrome. While the very fact that Solondz included three-dimensional portrayals of people with down syndrome in his screenplay is a good sign that he does not share in his characters bigoted views, he does nothing in the script to particularly challenge them. This is perhaps more problematic than the “Mohamed scene” since this form of ableism is not an every-day cable issue, and as such may not seem as shocking to viewers (it doesn’t help that Dawn is a more likeable character than Dina).

For all its strengths and potential weaknesses, Wiener-Dog is a film that should be watched with careful inquisitiveness. Perhaps, as the Youtube comments suggest, the way it’s made already filters out many of those who aren’t prepared to watch it as such. In all, Wiener-Dog is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen in a while. You just have to accept that it’s the kind of thing that will impress you and make you uncomfortable in equal proportions.

Best F(r)iends: Volume I

Directed by: Justin MacGregor Written by: Greg Sestero

BestF(r)iends                 In making his screenwriting debut, Greg Sestero had big shoes to fill. It’s hard to say what exactly those shoes are. Best F(r)iends essentially marks the return to the screen for Sestero and Tommy Wiseau since the pair acted in the latter’s self-written-directed cult hit The Room. The Room is often described as the greatest (most enjoyable) bad movie of all time. So what was Sestero obliged to accomplish with his debut? Was he to create his own bad-masterpiece, or was he to show he and Wiseau could create conventionally good cinema?

Sestero seemed aware of the contradictory standards he had to meet. As such he created an homage to The Room that is nonetheless different enough from the original that it doesn’t risk being dismissed as a less good sequel.

Best F(r)iends starts in a compelling, “indie” fashion. We meet Jon, (Sestero) a bearded homeless man covered in blood who experiments with using different signs to assist in his begging. Jon’s fortunes change when he meets Harvey (Wiseau) a mortician working in a not exactly luxurious funeral home. Harvey offers Jon a way out of poverty, but unable to believe his luck Jon becomes torn between pursuing his employment opportunity with Harvey and engaging in illicit activity.

The first part of Best F(r)iends thus has an undeniable eccentricity to it, while also maintaining an intertextual relationship with The Room. A small example of this is a scene in which Jon and Harvey play basketball, a reference to The Room’s football trope. This scene becomes more than mere homage, however, as it gives way to a beautiful aerial shot.

Best F(r)iends also has an intertextual relationship with The Disaster Artist, a book by Sestero that inspired a 2016 movie (disclaimer: my knowledge at this point is entirely based on the movie). One of the ideas that comes out in that film is Wiseau’s insistance that he can  be a hero, while casting agents say his only hope in Hollywood is to be cast as a villain. Best F(r)iends in a way feels like The Room/The Disaster Artist from Sestero’s unique perspective. It sympathetically presents Wiseau as the fatherly philanthropist he sees himself as, while nonetheless casting him in a role more in line with his conventional Hollywood potential.

The film’s third major character, Traci (Kristen StephensonPino) makes reference to both The Room’s Lisa and The Disaster Artist’s Amber. Like the latter character, the Greg Sestero/Jon meets her while she’s working at a bar and they quickly form a relationship. This relationship, also echoing The Disaster Artist, becomes at odds with Sestero/Jon’s relationship with Wiseau/Harvey. Like other characters before her, Traci quotes The Room echoing Lisa’s line of “let’s ditch the creep,” though in a context quite distinct from the original line.

Just as Harvey is both very much like and markedly different from Johnny, Traci’s relationship to Lisa is also ambivalent. Lisa is The Room’s undeniable villain, yet the extent of her evil plot is cheating in order to avoid a loving but overbearingly traditionalist partner (leaving room for some to interpret The Room as a cryptically feminist film in which Lisa, not Johnny is to be understood as the hero). In writing Best F(r)iends Greg Sestero juggled, and perhaps was indecisive on whether he was paying homage to or improving upon Wiseau’s work. Thus in some ways Best F(r)iends duplicates the boys-club dynamic of The Room , but there are also times when it seems more aware of this problematic tone. Traci’s complexity as a character develops toward the end of the film in a way that intentionally subverts her original presentation.

Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are both fans of vintage Hollywood cinema, with brief references to James Dean appearing in The Room and The Disaster Artist alike. While The Room channels Shakespeare and A Streetcar Named Desire through its passionate acting, Best F(r)iends appears to have been influenced by Double Indemnity, at least in so far as it’s a story that blurs the line between antagonists and protagonists. Unfortunately the film’s quality runs into one major roadblock. Its first act is a creative reimagining of the Tommy/Johnny—Greg/Mark relationship: whereas its second act focuses more on its crime-thriller element. The flow between these two kinds of stories isn’t quite natural: in fact it relies on a surprisingly forgiving decision by Harvey midway through the movie.

Maybe this will all make more sense when I see Volume II, or maybe the problem is that the film is broken into two volumes to begin with. Volume I ended up a tad over-extended and thus watered down. Regardless, Best F(r)iends is a must watch for The Room fans, and while no work will ever equal Wiseau’s unconventional masterpiece, the differences between the films renders the comparison unnecessary (and makes the similarities all the more enjoyable). Even non-fans of The Room can find a lot to enjoy here. Sestero is clearly a creative screenwriter, and I can only hope that he continues to work on content both related to and entirely separate from The Room.

The Visit (2015)

Written and directed by: M Night Shyamalan 

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterSomething quickly charmed me about The Visit. The film is told from the perspective of two kids visiting their grandparents for the first time: “rapper” Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and “filmmaker” Becca (Olivia DeJong). The Visit is supposedly Becca’s documentary, a point regularly alluded to, as she lectures Tyler on her art. There is something that’s just-right about Becca’s filmmaker identity. She is too amateur for the film to be read as a clichéd homage to “the artist,” yet she knows too much of what she’s talking about for her documentary to be dismissed as a joke. One thing to take from this is that she has a very specific and thus believable identity. Another, is that as a gifted, but still vulnerable amateur documentarian, her presence adds to the film’s affect: it feels as if she is masterfully documenting her own doom.

The Visit starts with an intriguing if somewhat unlikely premise: these kids have never seen their grandparents, due to a dispute between the grandparents and the mom. For a while, it seems Shyamalan has created a uniquely realistic horror film. His protagonists find themselves in an unusual situation and they’re creeped out by it: that’s all there is too it. Becca’s grandmother may ask her to crawl all the way into the oven, but this only bears aesthetic resemblance to Hansel and Gretel, it is not actually a fatal act.

Great as the premise I described sounds, it’s hard to imagine where it could be taken: how can you end a movie that’s ultimately anti-climatic. So Shyamalan ultimately does make his a horror film. The horror-moment is set up subtlely, though its odd how late in the film the setup is put in place.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s non-commitment keeps this film from being as strong in its narrative as it is in its aesthetic. It never builds up its horror quite enough to be scary, while also not finding a bold way to work from start-to-finish with its early realist-not-actually-horror approach. The Visit is nonetheless a strong enough film that it can be enjoyed along with Shyamalan’s other acclaimed works, as part of a strong aesthetic portfolio. If you’re interested in getting to know him as a director or if you simply want to try a less-intense horror flick, it’s absolutely worth the watch.

A Star is Born (2018)

Directed by: Bradley Cooper Written by: Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with this film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

A_Star_is_Born                 In my review of the 1937 film version of A Star is Born I commented on a trait that felt a tad too obvious: its datedness. Yet this quality seems like a perfect starting point for understanding how the film’s most recent remake came to be. In the original A Star is Born, protagonist Esther Blodgett dreams of being a Hollywood star, but despite her unmistakable determinedness, there seems to be no basis (ie acting experience) for that dream.

In its attempt to be modern, the latest of the version replaces Esther with Ally (Lady Gaga), who has no hopes of being famous but is very confident in her abilities as a singer and performer (she’s also a songwriter, though she’s less confident about that). While both Esther and Ally’s stars are born through their developing relationships with established stars Norman Maine and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) respectively, the detail with which the films lay out these paths are very different. Esther takes the more marketable stage name of Vicky Lester, meets and then gets to star in a movie with Norman Maine and somehow becomes Hollywood’s next darling. Ally and Jackson, by contrast have a long conversation in which it becomes clear to Jackson that Ally is his artistic equal. This, along with his feelings for her, inspires him to promote her talents.

Therefore, in its first act, A Star is Born seems like a brilliantly conceived remake. It takes an appealing but simple and dated story, and updates it with realist dialogue and better gender politics. The spirit of the original movie is undoubtedly present, yet Cooper’s version feels like an original tale in its own right.

Unfortunately, as A Star is Born progresses, its commitment to being a remake holds it back a bit. From the get-go it focuses its story around Jackson and Ally, trying to stick to the framework of the story of Esther and Norman. Due to the film’s extended runtime, and the simplicity of the source material, the script ultimately feels over-extended.

An undeniable theme of the original film is emasculation as Norman’s pre-existing problem of alcoholism is exacerbated as he watches Esther succeed while his star fades. The over-extension of the 2018 film seems the result of not knowing how to present such a story in 2018. At times, the film considers emphasizing the other elements of Maine’s depression, partially through the introduction of a hard to remember (though well portrayed) supporting character in Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot). A three dimensional portrayal of Maine’s sadness would require a script more like that of Manchester by the Sea, but unfortunately creating such a script would have undermined the degree to which it was indeed a remake of A Star is Born. Personally, I wish the writers had gone in that direction and done more to develop supporting characters and subplots (they had no lack of memorable personas with actors like Elliot and Dave Chapelle in the cast), but its easy to see why such a choice was avoided.

The film did take one interesting path to updating the emasculation subplot. In one scene Jackson and Ally get into a fight over her recording a moderately raunchy pop song. Maine’s anger here can both be said to be a sincere expression of concern that Ally is selling herself short, while also an example of unconscious sexism (modern pop singing being a woman-dominated genre). If this scene had come to define the movie before, the work could be said to have struck a nice balance between depicting a modern, egalitarian relationship while still employing the gendered motifs of the source material. Unfortunately, this scene was largely a standalone artefact, and in fairness to the writer, its hard to image how it could have been extended further.

As A Star is Born (2018) concludes, a version of the classic “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” line is used. The line is undoubtedly a modernization of the original, but its not exactly feminist either. It also ends up being symptomatic of the ambitions and shortcomings of the whole movie. The 1937 version of A Star is Born is dated in a way that means it cannot compare to the best drama screenplays of this epoch, but it nonetheless holds up as a folk tale of sorts. The 2018 film, is a bit too subtle to be a charming fairy tale, but that unfortunately leaves it in a worst of both worlds camp: it’s too detailed to be a fable, and too simple to be a continually captivating script. On the other hand, Bradley Cooper does make a convincing singer-songwriter, while Lady Gaga is equally memorable in a role that clearly shows off her acting skills rather than simply allowing her to play a part. And both of course get to put in some solid vocal performances. A Star is Born has a lot of good pieces, it’s just a shame it didn’t have more songs, or more subplots, or more anything. I don’t mean to take a crack at Romeo and Juliet but sometimes tragic romance isn’t enough.