The Disaster Artist (2017)

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Directed by: James Franco

TheDisastorArtistTeaserPosterThe Disaster Artist is a bromantic collaboration (James and Dave Franco), that tells the story of the tumultuous but unbreakable friendship that collaborated to tell the story of a powerful friendship that fell apart too easily. Put more simply it’s the story of the two men behind a film, The Room (2003), that’s described as the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It is based on a book of same name, by one of these two men (Greg Sestero). I do not regret opening this paragraph with that run-on sentence, however, as it is necessary to acknowledge The Disaster Artist’s truly inter-textual relationship with the movie it references. Just as The Room is an exploration of betrayal, The Disaster Artist is a celebration of loyalty.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) enters the story as an aspiring actor who is too awkward to succeed. James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau, is both Sestero’s opposite and equal: he is too melodramatic and different too succeed. Unlike Greg, Tommy inhabits his own planet. He is wealthy, appears to have no family connections and does what makes him happy. Tommy is a fascinating character, but what truly justifies The Disaster Artist, is that Greg’s everyman story is just as compelling Tommy’s.

Tommy’s story is shaped by a seeming obliviousness to what others expect of him: what is “normal behaviour.” Greg does not share this obliviousness, yet he is utterly infatuated with Tommy. Greg sees Tommy’s idiosyncrasy as a strength, perhaps something he can learn from. Because Tommy lives on his own “planet,” it is as if his defects don’t matter. Things work differently on planet Tommy, so when Greg grows sceptical about his chances on earth, he decides to become a part of Tommy’s world.

Of course, while ultimately about Greg, The Disaster Artist, would not be without Tommy Wiseau. While the script admits to knowing little about him, particularly Wiseau’s pre-room biography, it nonetheless sheds some light on his way of seeing the world, and helps us make sense of his approach to acting. We learn, for instance, that two of Wiseau’s biggest influences are Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. The Room is a relationship drama where little happens, but emotions run-high. It’s protagonist, Johnny, has brief, yet soliloquy-like out-busts. Even as Wiseau’s art does not ultimately resemble that his of his role models, it should nonetheless be recognized as the homage that it is.

Furthermore, The Disaster Artist is by no means a simple celebration of Wiseau. It shows his cold, authoritarian side, while exploring his internal struggle to be seen as a protagonist. This brutal honesty on the part of the film (via the brutal honesty of Greg Sestero’s book), however, ultimately feeds the film’s unique celebration of loyalty. Refusing to accept that his eccentricities can at times be harmful, Tommy repeatedly persuades Greg to stand by him by invoking their vow of loyalty, and emphasizing that the film is “our movie.” Greg’s navigation of Tommy’s flaws shows what loyalty has and doesn’t have to mean. The movie invites us to sit in the discomfort of realizing we can love and not stand someone or something at the same time. This message, of course, does not simply apply to Tommy and Greg, but to The Room itself. When people watch it religiously, calling it a movie that’s so bad it’s good, aren’t they really just saying it’s one of their favourite movies?


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In Search of the Alt-Superhero Film: The Misplaced Hype Around Thor: Ragnorak (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_poster        I don’t make a point of going to superhero films. I went to Thor: Ragnorak based on rumours that it was something different: that if not one of the funniest films of the year, it was one of the funniest superhero films ever made. I also went because of my interest in its director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, and whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have near equal standing in my heart but for my discomfort with hunting.

Unfortunately, while he apparently did some editing, Waititi did not write the script for Ragnorak. Waititi’s influence in the work is certainly noticeable: for example in the understated comedic dialogue in scene I, the appearances by Wilderpeople stars Sam Neil and Rachel House, Waititi’s own character, Korg, etc. Nonetheless, as a whole, the film does not come across as the genre-transforming piece I’d anticipated. It’s not unusual for Superhero Films to employ the odd joke; Spiderman and Iron Man certainly have their sassy sides. Nothing about Ragnorak stands out as going beyond the comedic standards set by these aforementioned sagas. Deadpool with its anti-hero protagonist and regular fourth wall breaking, whatever one thinks of its crassness, was no doubt a more innovative work than Ragnorak.

            Granted, perhaps it is not my place to criticize Ragnorak. Its target audience is not people like me, but avid followers of the Marvael universe who are able to remember who the heck Idris Elba’s character was from the previous Thor films and get excited by action sequences. That said, surely some superhero films, do strive to be transcendently appealing, and with that in mind, I think its worth exploring how Ragnorak falls short.

The story of Ragnorak is essentially that Thor’s evil sister, Hela the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of Asgardian prison and declares herself Queen of Asgard, and then promptly starts a killing spree. Thor and a his god-of-mischief-brother Loki must work to overthrow her, but along the way Thor is captured on behalf of another planet’s villainous “Grandmaster” (Jeff Goldblum) where he is detained to participate in prize-fights. This high stakes plot stands in stark contrast to Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary about vampires who eat some people, befriend others and go to an awkward party. The simplicity of this plot means that it derives its life from the personalities of its characters: the unexplainable awe the vampires hold for an IT worker named Stu, their fear of being exposed by non-humans (except the ones making the documentary) and their house rules and flat meetings. Ragnorak, by contrast, calls on its characters to overcome their quirks to participate in a high stakes, big budget battle to the death. While the battle scenes are not free of funny moments (Eg Thor suddenly remembering mid battle he is the god of thunder), they ultimately serve to divert the film from its comic potential.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, provides another lens through which Ragnorak can be critiqued. That film does have a high stakes plot (a boy and his gruff, adopted father take to the woods to avoid his being found by child services). Unlike Ragnorak, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s central antagonists are funny. Thor Ragnorak has no lack of silly bad guys. Goldblum’s character is whimsical and arbitrary in his tyranny. Loki, as god of mischief, is Thor’s friend one second, and his playful enemy the next. The film, however finds its sense of direction in the character’s confrontation with Hela, a conventional, clad in darkness villain who kills mercilessly in pursuit of power, leaving the more amusing Thor vs Loki (or even Thor vs Grandmaster) dynamics, underdeveloped.

My disappointment with Ragnorak is indeed largely attributable to its reputation as comedic, a reputation, I would argue, it fails to live up to. Its flaws, however, can more broadly be attributed not to how much humor it has, but the non-impact of the humor on the film’s skeletal plot structure.

Since seeing Ragnorak, I have also taken the time to see M. Night Shymalan’s UnbreakableposterwillisUnbreakable. The latter film is incomparable to Ragnorak in that it does not aspire to be comedic. Nonetheless, the contrast between these two works illustrates what it takes to make an interesting superhero film. Shyamalan has described the film as an “origin story that the audience doesn’t know is an origin story until its last image.” Unbreakable, thus satisfies audiences by taking traditional constructs (heroes and villains) and sneakily forcing viewers to reimagine them. Ragnorak may have its creative moments, but it is ultimately still the story of a hero overcoming (by his standards not overwhelming) odds to take on a plain-stated villain.

Unbreakable is also an interesting example of how a work can quickly redeem itself. Much of the film lies in an emotional grey zone: the character’s are clearly dealing with serious issues, yet these issues don’t always seem serious enough to feel like they’re going anywhere. When the film all comes together at its end, however, audiences are able to retrospectively appreciate the whole work. Unbreakable stands out in that its hero’s self-doubt is his defining feature (rather than the more typical lingering-back-of-the-mind concern). Its villain, meanwhile, stands out in that we get to know them almost entirely for their endearing personality and only minimally for their villainy. Unbreakable closes by taking its viewers into a novel emotional space. When it finally creates a confrontation between good and evil it is not exciting or nerve wracking, but tragically beautiful.

Ragnorak may make audiences laugh, but audiences will not laugh at its central thesis: the confrontation of Hela and Thor. The world needs more films like Unbreakable, or even Deadpool. If Marvel studios is going to keep riding on the talents of directors like Waititi, it should consider giving them the creative space to truly develop the superhero genre.

The Florida Project (2017)

Written and directed by: Sean Baker

The_Florida_ProjectLook at the poster for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Above a rainbow you’ll see a tagline in small white font: “find your kingdom.” Baker has a knack for producing dark comedies, and in the case of The Florida Project, he’s produced a rainbow-colored dark comedy. The tagline thus serves as an important invitation: an invitation to see the film through the awestruck eyes of its child stars, rather than to simply lament in its misery.

 

The film tells the story of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) a 6-year-old girl who lives in a motel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is immersed in a small community of her friends: Scooty, Dicky and Jancey (Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malick and Valeria Cotto) who accompany her on adventures. Moonee’s main interests seem to be mischief and breakfast food. Her mischievous-side leads her to have regular run ins with the motels’ sometimes fatherly, sometimes pragmatic and opaque manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and to cause trouble for her mother.

 

Living just outside of Disneyworld, Moonee is able to lead her friends through a series of quasi-palatial structures: a restaurant/store with a giant orange on top, another store decorated with a giant wizard’s head, and an ice cream-shaped-ice-cream-stand where she can get “free” ice cream. The motel itself is called the magic castle and despite being a rundown “dump,” it still stuns with its faux-turrets and light-purple color. To some degree, these visuals signify Moonee’s childhood naivety. She does not know she lives in poverty because in her head she lives in a castle. That said, the film is clearly one that prides itself in its visuals. Its intent is clearly for audiences to both feel sorry for Moonee and to take genuine pleasure in enjoying her kingdom which stuns despite its desolate, highway location.

 

Moonee is not the only one who lives in a fantasy world. Her mother Halley also savours the reckless freedom she can find, despite constantly being under pressure to put money together. Many of the perks of Moonee’s kingdom are in fact, put in place by Halley, who facilitates various ways for Moonee to get free breakfast and explore her community. The film emphasizes Halley’s similarty to Moonee, by contrasting Halley with her with her friend Ashley (Mela Murder), a fellow motel-dwelling-young-mother who shows more concern about her kid, Scooty’s, behaviour.Halley is precariously (to put it mildly) employed, and has a penchant for vulgarity that makes it hard for her to win sympathizers.

 

Unlike Moonee’s story, which permits audiences to separate the beautiful from the tragic, Halley’s story is more thoroughly disheartening. Halley regularly gets herself into trouble as a result of her rebellious, profanity laden speech. While at first Halley’s expletives seem like more adult-versions of Moonee’s gleeful cries of “biatch,” the film eventually makes it apparent that Halley’s vernacular is a deep part of her existence. As Halley’s story becomes more tragic, audiences are forced to struggle with the notion that while Halley could seemingly improve her standing with others by cutting down on the swears, it may in fact be impossible for Halley to speak any other way.

 

It is the complex nature of Halley’s “wild” behaviour that shapes the tragic side of The Florida Project. Halley’s struggles stem from the fact that the traits that make her a bad mom and good mom are highly inseparable: she feeds her child by stealing, she teaches her child bad manners to protect her from equally obnoxious adults, etc.

 

Aside from Dafoe, The Florida Project relies on a cast of rookie actors. This use of unknown voices is part of director Sean Baker’s broader vision of telling untold stories. The Florida Project tells the unknown story of impoverished-motel-dwellers, and through Halley it provocatively explores the causes of cycles of poverty. Despite these sombre ambitions, however, the film also tells the (semi-)unknown story of a child’s imagination. In doing so it masterfully presents a product rooted in gritty, tragic realism that in its own way finds its fairy tale happily ever after.

Lucky (2017)

Directed by: John Caroll Lynch. Written by: Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja

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Lucky’s story is simple, so there is little one can say about it without giving too much away. That is not to say, however, that the film is unenjoyable. Lucky can be described as being in the same, broad style as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, but is far more accessible than the 2016 film. Both works follow characters through the repetitive mundanity of their days, and in both films audiences are challenged to glean enjoyment by identifying heavily with the realist lives of their protagonists (for example exchanging pleasantries with the quirky folks at one’s local watering hole), rather than looking for some fantastical escape. Unlike Paterson, a film with almost no plot )save for some poetically-quaint tragedy at its end), Lucky is quick to introduce viewers to a weighty point of struggle in its protagonist’s life: his bout with mortality.

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan reminds us in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” For many of us that way of thinking is an ever-present but subtle demon in our heads. Death may come, but not for an eternity. Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton)’s dilemma is he does not know what head space to put that thought in. He is lucky in that despite being a very thin, pack-a-day-smoker at an advanced age, he passes his health exams with flying colors. His miracle body is as healthy as it has ever been. This means that on the one hand he can put the thought of death in the back of his mind with much of the rest of us. On the other hand, however,  he is old, so despite Lucky’s general good health, his doctor nonetheless feels compelled to put existential thoughts into his head. Lucky thus exposes the ultimate limits of luck. A person can be “lucky” in the sense of living for a long time, yet even such “lucky” people must exist with the burden of knowing that each time a new day arrives, they are one day closer to death. This tension contributes to Lucky’s subtle, but compelling dilemma. He is a steadfast socially awkward man who must decide whether he is in a hurry or not to overcome his shortcomings and be at peace with his eventual demise.

 

When I watched the film I did not realize its star, Harry Dean Stanton, had died two weeks previously. While it would be a mistake to project an actor’s personality onto a superficially similar character he portrays, that knowledge will no doubt allow viewers to appreciate the film with an additional degree of depth. Lucky is the light and sometimes funny story of a man contemplating his ultimate legacy, so Stanton’s playing the role is poetically fitting. If simple, multi-tonal, gently-existential filmmaking is of interest to you, or if you simply like David Lynch and tortoises, check out Lucky in theatres today!

“Horror” May be a Lowbrow Genre: but Genre is a Lie:

A Response to James’ Granger’s Toronto Star Op-Ed

It_Follows_(poster)On July 22nd, the front page of the Toronto Star entertainment section featured a small picture of a terrified Chris from Get Out, topped with the headline “Horror films are at heart lowbrow art”. As someone whose relationship to film has been nurtured by the recent emergence of “highbrow” horror, I decided to challenge my views and check out the op-ed. The side of me that wanted to have my views criticized was left disappointed.

The first half of the article builds up to being a critique of Get Out (and It Follows, and potentially other recent highbrow horror highlights). We learn that the critic, James Granger, sees the films as unoriginal—“The Stepford Wives substituting race relations for feminism.” He then makes an unrelated critique of It Follows, saying the film abandons (what he interprets to be its premise) of dealing with post-rape trauma in favour of “a mumble-core coming of age story.” Finally Granger dismisses new film A Ghost Story, simply because he knows it features a man in a two-holes-and-a-sheet ghost costume (never mind that A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror film).

How does Granger unite his, arguably idiosyncratic, unrelated critiques of these three films? He reverses on himself and praises them, saying they are “too smart…to scare the audience for very long.” Granger’s thesis ultimately comes as a surprise. His claim that horror is lowbrow art, named after a “primitive” emotion, is not meant as a criticism but a respectful observation. He is not saying that Get Out is a lowbrow film, but that it fails because it is not a lowbrow film.

Now maybe I’m not the right person to be responding to this piece. I can’t begin to relate to the kind of people who say they like amusement parks because they like getting scared, so perhaps I can’t relate to the kind of viewer who wants their horror to be as gory and traumatizing as possible. For me, the thrill of watching so-called horror-films is experiencing the psychological struggles of characters as they are confronted with exceptions to the norms of reality. The genius of much of today’s highbrow horror is how it tinkers with that formula. Get Out, for instance, depicts a fantastical-source of terror that does exist in the real world (racism), leaving viewers to juggle with the question of where the line between magic and realism in Get Out truly lies. The Witch similarly experimented with the horror formula by depicting a historical moment in which witches and other horrific beings were accepted as part of reality. Viewers of The Witch are thus in the unique position of knowing they are watching a horror story, while the film’s characters do not understand themselves as participating in one.

Another strength of “highbrow horror” is that it often substitutes graphic visuals of monsters/evil, with simple, realistic shots. It Follows and It Comes at Night, are both examples of works in which the monster was never shown to be more than “it.” In Granger’s eyes this makes the films disappointments. If anything, however, the (non)presence of “its” makes these films better as audiences are dealt with the dual horror of both knowing that an “it” exists, while also experiencing the horrific ways in which the fluid entity that is it permeates into the characters—scaring them and becoming part of them. I should add here, that as someone who partially enjoys art not just as a viewer but as a (very, very amateur) creator, there’s a certain thrill in seeing low budget horror. I might not be able to make home movies about zombies, but I can certainly be inspired to create projects featuring “its” and “sheet-ghosts.”

Is highbrow horror possible? On the one hand, recent innovations in the genre, such as the explicit conscientiousness of Get Out, the subtle horror of Colossal and the magical-historical-fiction of The Witch show that of course it is possible, even as these films are not above criticism. To call these films “non-horror” or disappointments in the genre is to miss that their strength stems from a constant eerie sense that something is not quite right, and that that may be due to a supernatural force being at play. Perhaps these films should not be considered good horror for failing to meet Granger’s standard for scariness. But if that’s the only problem, then let’s do all of ourselves a favour and stop worrying about the lie that is genre. Just as Willie Nelson should not be kept out of the rock and roll hall of fame because some voters think “country” (which is folk-rock music sung with a southern accent) is a “different genre” than “rock,” great horror films like “It Comes at Night,” should not be dismissed because they are “not scary.”

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.

 

Borgman (2013)

Written and Directed by: Alex van Warmerdam 

220px-Borgman_poster 

            In its early days, this website has explored a number of variants on the horror genre. Get Out was “woke” horror; Colossal was subtle-alt-woke-horror; and My Cousin Rachel was…well, was it horror?

Borgman is yet another category on this list. It can be described as obvious horror, or rather, incredibly obvious horror. The horror in this work is so obvious that perhaps the film isn’t a work of horror at all.

Borgman follows a team of murderers. We see the efficiency with which they operate, but we are never allowed to understand why they do what they do. The film also follows a wealthy suburban/rural family which includes a mother, father, three children and an aupair. The premise of the film is simple, these two groups of characters are brought together, and we can only assume things will not end well for at least certain members of the family.

Borgman’s intrigue thus doesn’t lie in its horror—which is simultaneously under and overstated, but in its other mysteries. Richard, the father (Jeroen Perceval), can be aggressive and is an unabashed elitist racist. The contrast between Richard and his orderly, but caring artist wife Marina (Hodewych Minis) is particularly noticeable. Petty conflicts exists elsewhere in the family, for instance, Marina’s chiding of Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), the au pair, over her work. While tensions ultimately rises between Richard and Marina due to the efforts of the killers, audiences are nonetheless left to wonder whether a comparably intense story could have developed in their absence.

Without the serial killers Borgman could tell the tale of Richard and Marina’s search for a gardener. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but film festival fans would no doubt enjoy seeing a Paterson-esque pseudo story of a borderline-incompatible couple trying to hire a gardener, while their kids and au pair live normally on the sidelines.

With the serial-killers, Borgman transforms, not so much into a horror film as into a horror painting. Borgman is not a film one watches to tremble as one gradually anticipates what it’s horror will be. Instead it presents viewers with a quaint country landscape coupled with a portrait of domestic life; and scattered with a number of violently mischievous little demons.

Borgman is not a work for the faint of heart, but it is not something to be avoided simply because one is put off by horror films in general. If you want to see The Gift, but with less suspense, or Holy Motors, but with (somewhat) less graphic violence and more of a coherent story line, this unapologetically macabre film is right for you.