Midsommar (2019)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster

Midsommar_(2019_film_poster)[1]Ari Aster’s  Hereditary had a lot going for it. It features memorable acting performances, and visually and conceptually horrifying scenes. It also weaves a complex mosaic of horror motifs together to create something new. Nonetheless, my review of Hereditary was not particularly positive. Essentially, I felt all of Hereditary’s strong points failed to blend. After keeping viewers at the edge of their seats through a series of horror happenings, Hereditary ends witha big reveal that’s too vague to feel like a reveal at all.

I ended up liking Midsommar better than Hereditary, but not because it corrects the former film’s flaws. Instead, in Midsommar, Aster doubles down on his strengths, creating a work that is enticing and terrifying enough that viewers should not be too put off by its vague and meandering qualities.

Midsommar is largely set in a mysterious Swedish commune. It’s worth noting that this a choice that allows Aster to explore a theme of “ethnic otherness,” without risking seeming bigoted or insensitive. The Swedish context also allowed Aster to put together an overpoweringly beautiful visual experience, that combines folkloric art with idyllic shots of cliffs and meadows.

The film does not start beautifully, however. Many of its early scenes are shot in (perhaps too much) darkness (the literal matches the figurative). We are introduced to protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh), who appears to suffer from some sort of anxiety-related mental illness while simultaneously facing a family tragedy.

Shortly after Dani, we are introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his three graduate-student-aged friends: Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper)  and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Christian’s friends try to convince him that dating Dani is not worth the emotional toll, but Christian insists that staying in the relationship is the right thing to do. This is not to say that Christian handles his relationship perfectly, however. When his friend group plans a trip to Sweden (to visit Pelle’s commune), Christian doesn’t feel comfortable either including or excluding Dani, so he awkwardly avoids telling her until the last minute, at which point he invites her to join them .

In the film’s first act Aster sets up viewers to expect a relationship drama. He raises questions such as “What responsibility do people have to care for loved ones whose needs can be mysterious and overwhelming?.” In these early moments, Aster sets up Christian as a flawed-but-loyal male protagonist, and while Mark serves as his outwardly selfish and peer-pressuring foil. Mark, however, rendered palatable via his somewhat goofy disposition.

Based on the film’s first act one might expect Aster to continue to strive to get the most out of Mark as a character, and to centre his story around Dani and Christian as co-protagonists. Both Christian and Mark’s prominence fades, however, as the commune and its inhabitants come to take centre-stage.

Christian’s other two friends, Pelle and Josh, also find their way into the script. Pelle’s status as an ambassador figure between the North American and Swedish characters gives him sustained prominence, whereas Josh, who seems a bit redundant early in the film, is given brief prominence in its middle. One can argue that the three North American men: Mark, Josh and Christian function as some sort of trio out of a fairy-tale fable, where each represents a character flaw that stems from our society. 1) Mark’s story teaches us not to be selfish 2) Josh’s story teaches us not to be so career driven that one misses ones other responsibilities  3) Christian’s story… well I think the worst thing that can be said about Christian is that he is overly passive and thus fails to be a good support system for Dani. The problem with Aster’s handling of these characters, however, is that it is not consistent. Mark and especially Josh aren’t given sufficient stage time to give their characters the charisma they undoubtedly could display. Christian meanwhile, is written inconsistently in a way that doesn’t make sense. Aster clearly wants viewers to notice that Christian forgets Dani’s birthday, but he doesn’t reconcile this with the original-version of Christian who clearly stands up for Dani, despite his friends’ suggestion that he break up with her.

Midsommar has a lot of arguably-present themes. It can be seen as a story, for instance, that challenges us not to judge other cultures without looking for our own moral shortcomings. This message, however, is a difficult sell given that the flaws of the North American characters appear far subtler than the horrors they are faced with. More broadly, the film could be seen as promoting self-empowerment, a call for people to question their support systems and consider drastic change where it is necessary for their mental health. But if this is a moral agenda, it’s one that film seems to advocate for with no regard for proportionality. Aster’s moral-narrative resembles (and was perhaps inspired by) Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (2017), but Aster’s commitment to stunning horror, robs his work of the emotional nuance that makes the older film morally compelling.

Aster’s proportionality problem goes beyond morality and extends to some of his image choices. In one scene, viewers are made to watch a car drive upside down. It’s a surprisingly unique visual, and I suppose it represents Dani’s disorientedness, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling out of place and low-key motion-sickness inducing.

Ari Aster is a deeply enticing filmmaker, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar has more appeal if one thinks of it as a collage of lots of stunning (and sometimes excruciatingly violent)  images, rather than a satisfying narrative. Midsommar has it all: black comedy, cinematography and charismatic figures. Having it all is not necessarily “enough,” but in the case of this film, it produces a product that if not perfect, is undoubtedly bedazzling

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Chappie (2015)

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp Written by: Blonkamp and Terri Tatchell

Chappie_poster           I recently saw two new movies. One is a bit action heavy, but deals with the interesting question of whether policing would be made worse if forces were automated, depriving them of “the human element.” The other film is a surprisingly deep and surprisingly funny black comedy about a team of not-as-bad-as-they-seem gangsters (Ninja, Yolandi Visser and José Pablo Castillo) raising an infant robot named Chappie (Sharlto Copley). The first movie is Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. The second movie is also Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie.

The person who I watched Chappie with spent the duration of the film complaining about how bad it was. She said parts of it were boring: I agreed. She complained that Chappie (the character’s) development was rushed: I agreed. She didn’t say anything about how the film’s villain was awkwardly deployed, but I would have agreed with that too. In essence, one might think I did not like Chappie very much, yet it’s a film that left me with too much of an impression to simply put it down.

Chappie’s narrative structure feels as if the story were derived from a novel (it is not). Early in the film we’re introduced to a potential protagonist: Chappie’s maker, Deon (Dev Patel). This character, however, fades from prominence relatively quickly, leaving Chappie and his gangster parents as the film’s stars. Deon returns to the film eventually, but as a result of his absence, Chappie ends up resembling Frankenstein: a novel which features multiple narrators and thus multiple focuses. Chappie begins by introducing Deon’s motives and ambitions, much like Frankenstein introduces its titular scientist. Subsequently, the film focuses on how Chappie holds up and develops anxieties in the world, much like Frankenstein’s Monster. Finally, as is the case in the novel, the two are brought together again, but with loose ends to sort out.

Chappie’s narrative –experimentation shows the complexity of its robot-star’s world and allows for a lot of ideas and moods to come out of it. Unfortunately, much like the child he is, Chappie (and the film about him) cannot focus on one thing for too long. The film’s initial concern, the tyranny of robot-police,  never gets fully developed. While it makes sense that Chappie’s three-dimensionality twists the direction of the previously human-centric story (again, as happens in Frankenstein), this inconsistency ruins two of the film’s potentially memorable characters. Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a soldier-turned engineer who deeply opposes the automation of police work loses his three-dimensionality and weapons manufacturing CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), end up playing almost no role in Chappie and Deon’s narrative climaxes whatsoever, despite being an actor who Bloomkamp was particularly excited to included in his work.

Chappie is what I call a “bullets” movie: it has extended scenes that will not interest anyone who doesn’t like watching the rapid firing of bullets. But while Chappie will never be a personal favourite of mine, it is also a work that shouldn’t be forgotten by film buffs for years to come. Its mixture of What We Do in the Shadows style comedy, sci-fi philosophizing, and Frankenstinian narrative structure is undoubtedly unique and will resonate with viewers long after the final bullets shatter.

The Farewell (2019)

Written and directed by: Lulu Wang

The_Farewell_poster.jpgSometimes, in my zealous commitment to avoid spoilers, I can be guilty of vagueness. That’s not going to be the case with this review. The trailer for The Farewell gives away its most provocative detail, a detail that’s also revealed within the film’s first few scenes: it’s the story of dealing with a grandmother’s impending death.

Billi (Akwafina) is a somewhat archetypal millennial-protagonist. She lives in New York, is pursuing an arts grant, argues with her mother and is constantly hunched over in a plain gray t-shirt, contrasting her with the other characters on screen. Billi’s family (herself, as a six-year old, included) are first-generation Chinese immigrants, and she remains very close to her upbeat Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen). Billi’s moroseness, however, is taken to a new level when she learns that her grandmother is dying of cancer, and, per cultural norms that Billi was not previously aware of, will not be told of her situation until the last minute.

The action of stories can sometimes take the form of a single arch: a gradual build up to a major climax. Other stories, like The Farewell, can take the form of waves: featuring a series of climaxes. What’s unique about The Farewell as a viewing experience is that the dips in its waves are more important than the peaks. When Billi is told that her grandmother is dying, her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) tell her that she cannot come. Billi defies the order. Given Billi’s relationship with her mother, viewers are set up to view this a script-shaking moment. But it’s not. Billi’s parents quickly accept her presence, and don’t even lecture her that much for her choice.

The film continues to tease at having breaking points, but it never quite does. Billi occasionally hints that she is tempted to break cultural norms and tell her grandmother the truth, but those hints are just that: hints. At times this slow-burning approach to the film’s tension can feel repetitive. Relatively late in the film, Billi meets an English speaking Chinese doctor and discusses the issue with him. While the scene employs language comprehension issues to give it a unique flavour, it is largely a rehashing of conversations Billi has already hat with her parents, uncle and great-aunt.

The film’s repetitiveness, however, serves two important functions. Firstly, it makes the story a realist one. Billi’s dramas don’t come from one extended incident, but from her run ins with mildly quirky people and situations in the midst of an emotionally difficult vacation. The film’s conclusion also feeds into the work’s appealing realism. Billi’s story ends with what in her head may be a bold dramatic gesture, but to outsiders is a but a little, symbolic motion (the end of another recent-ish release, The Last Black Man in San Francisco works for similar reasons).

The other function of the film’s repetitiveness is that it sets up audiences for the mid-film scene that is arguably the film’s climax. Billi complains about, but never really battles the cultural norm of not telling her grandmother about her illness, because while the norm is strange for her, her animosity to it does not come from disagreement. Values are not produced in a vacuum, and Billi’s relationship to Chinese end-of-life-customs, are thus not an isolated moral position, but part of her broader relationship to her birth-country.

Some films have great premises and some films have great executions. Often films fail because they are made with solely the premise and no plan-of-action in mind. The Farewell can seem, at times, like it falls into this trap: that it has a great premise, but no sense of how to make that premise a feature-length story. The truth, however, is The Farewell is a well-executed film, it’s just that its execution is more loosely tied to its premise than one would expect.

The Farewell’s premise is a sad one, and sadness is often tied to our sense that art is “profound.” The Farewell’s greatest accomplishment is thus how it takes that artistic norm and turns it upside down. The Farewell has an endearingly tragic premise, but the film resonates because it carries that premise out with a litany of joy.

Yesterday (2019)

Directed by: Danny Boyle Written by: Richard Curtis

   Yesterday_(2019_poster)[2] As a participant in the film-fan community, I can’t help but feel a pressure to categorize films as  either “mainstream” or “high art.” There are exceptions to this binary, but, generally speaking, the exceptions themselves are approved by community consensus. For example, there is no dispute that film fans are allowed to like Black Panther despite its mainstream status.

Yesterday is not a “high art” film, nor did it feel like one of the sanctioned exceptions to the binary. Nonetheless, the film which I went to, more out of a sense of obligation than anticipation, showed that, at least sometimes, this pretentious binary is one we can afford to ignore. Yesterday has an intriguing, but accessible premise that is spelled out early in its run time. The overall arc of its script is also one that can be described as “feel-good.” But simplicity does not necessitate genericness. “Feel-good” does not imply “cliched.” “Accessible” does not mean “shallow.”

Yesterday is the story of Jack Malek (Himesh Patel) a talented but unsuccessful singer-songwriter in his late twenties. His story takes off with a scene of him complaining to his manager (Lily James) about how he will never make it. She reassures him with messaging about dreams coming true. Thus, early on, Yesterday establishes itself as a familiar, “inspirational” story. While some might find this moment cliched, as a musician I don’t read this scene as delivering Disney-fied, “work-hard, believe-hard-dreams-come-true” moralism. Rather, this scene simply acknowledges that wanting the unattainable is almost an inherent part of participating in arts such as music. Music is often about sharing oneself with audiences, a practice which inevitably creates a drive for fame (for more people to engage with). While, on the surface, Yesterday is about Jack’s dreams coming true, the film is really not about the result, but the underlying desire.

This initial scene is followed by a science-fiction sequence, in which a melodic element from The Beatles “A Day in the Life” is cleverly deployed, and the film’s defining plot point is put into play. Everyone, except Jack, is somehow left without knowledge/memory of The Beatles. This allows Jack to take the music scene by storm, by claiming The Beatles’ catalogue as his own (music nerd question: did he also go for “Imagine,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Sweet Lord,” etc?).  From here, Jack’s classic feel-good arc takes off, with Jack becoming famous and suffering some heartache along the way.

Nonetheless, Jack’s journey to the top is not so much an arc, but a staggered staircase, an approach that shows the thought that went into the film’s writing. The initial reaction to Jack’s songs is mild acclaim. In the “Let it Be,” scene viewers are temporarily left to wonder whether Jack will in fact attain celebrity status.

Yesterday is a film that can be said to have primary and secondary themes. The primary themes are the classic ones: gratitude, believing in yourself, listening to your heart, etc. The secondary themes, however, are smarter, and in turn make it easier to enjoy the films more cliched moments of sentimentality. When Jack’s initial struggle for fame is depicted in the film’s first act, and when his clashes with his marketing team come up later on, viewers are reminded just how socially-constructed musical celebrity is. The Beatles is not an exceptional group because it consisted of exceptional musical visionaries. Rather, it is exceptional because it was a group of great musicians who exceptionally came together, and found the space to express themselves at the right historical moment.

Yesterday hints at this idea, but doesn’t force it. Its writers, probably rightly, realized that hinting at the non-exceptionality of The Beatles can be inspiring, but to belt it would be to ruin a near-universal source of joy and connection. Yesterday’s writers perhaps could have crossed the bridge from “mainstream” to “high art” by making their secondary story the primary one. The film could have had a slow-baking twist where Jack never becomes famous: where the mild roadblocks he encounters with “Yesterday” and “Let it Be” grow bigger and more tragically ironic. And while Yesterday didn’t go there, I think its clear that its creative team knew that such a story was a possibility. In turn, the depth of their thought process  is reflected in how they executed the safer choice they ultimately made

One difference between “high-art” and “mainstream films” is that “high-art” subverts expectations. Mainstream films can of course subvert expectations, but when they do they either become polarizing (like Star Wars VIII) or they establish themselves as candidates for “cult” or “quasi-high art” status. This distinction (perhaps like the high-art/mainstream distinction in general) really shouldn’t exist. Subverting expectations doesn’t always have to take the form of giant, provocative twists. Taken literally, a script that subverts expectations is simply a script that is conceived by a writer(s) who has ideas of their own and is not simply putting preassembled parts together. Yesterday is a great example of how a film can subvert expectations without ever seeming weird. For example, when the film opted not to use a predictable cameo, replacing it with another, more powerful one, that subverted my expectations. The film also subverts expectations when, at various moments, it jets away from (or at least nuances) its seeming moral trajectory. The film’s core is very much a classic Rom-Com (a stylization that leads to the most choppiness in the film’s writing) , but Patel and James’ performances even subverts this cliche (just a tad) by making their story feel like a believable rift between mutually-adoring people and not a stock clash between a Flawed-Man and The Woman Who Got Away.

Yesterday is a film written to broadly appeal, much likes it source material. But much like The Beatles, its being a crowd-pleaser should not be read as a knock against its artistic merits. When the magic of “I am the Walrus,” meets  the big-time simplicity of “All You Need is Love” the result is a “Yesterday” that will resonate for many tomorrows to come.

The Art of Self Defense

Written and directed by: Riley Stearns

The_Art_of_Self-DefenseYou are probably familiar with at least one character who is a “fighter that doesn’t like fighting.” This trope is embodied by figures including Captain America, Mufasa and the Jedi knights. Perhaps the most blatant example is Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. Miyagi denounces a group of bullies for using karate to beat up his student, explaining that karate was developed for self-defence. 

Miyagi and other karate senseis emphasize that theirs is a noble art; it is this nobility that The Art of Self Defence appears to explore. 

The Art of Self Defence does not open with reference to karate, however. Instead, the film calls in viewers by introducing its engaging protagonist Casey (Jessie Eisenberg), a soft-spoken accountant who lives with his dachshund. Casey’s geekiness is somewhat cartoonish, a personality trait that amusingly interrupts the realism of his story. The very fact that this figure is set up to be the protagonist of a martial arts movie is itself, a bit of a punchline. 

Casey’s stilted persona is not unique in The Art of Self Defence’s script. He is joined first by a trio of overly-mundane bro-ish co-workers, an ambitious but personable classmate (David Zellner), a surprisingly likeable gun salesman (Davey Johnson), and of course Casey’s  karate sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Together these figures create an atmosphere that comedically resembles What We do in the Shadows. But while the former film revels in being a consistently understated vampire comedy, The Art of Self Defence has a script that doesn’t stay still.

Generally speaking, when I like a movie it has one of two qualities (if not both): subtlety and escalation. The Art of Self Defence lacks the former trait, but it capitalizes on the latter. Escalation-based movies often stand out as particular favorites of mine. Physiologically they rile me up, and cognitively they impress me with their tendency to cleverly build upon details, big and small, from their stories’ beginnings. 

Escalation worked particularly well as a storytelling tactic in 2018’s Sorry to Bother You. That’s because the idea behind that film is more or less “how absurd does capitalism have to get for people to notice and do something?” As someone engaging in film criticism I was admittedly guilty of overthinking when watching The Art of Self Defence. That said, while I thoroughly enjoyed its escalation, I couldn’t entirely free myself from the thought that in the case of the film, the over-the-topness had nothing to do with (and perhaps came at the expense of) the film’s potential messaging.

To state what will become quickly obvious to anyone who sees The Art of Self Defence, the film explores the theme of macho-masculinity. As I have already noted, karate (unlike say boxing, football, etc) is a provocative choice of sport through which to explore this issue. Idealized karate practitioners, after all, are not violence-loving bros but gentle bonsai trimmers like Mr. Miyagi. That said, an anti-macho critique of karate practitioners and other anti-fighting fighters  is certainly possible. The Jedi knights of the world may say and sincerely believe that theirs is an art of self defence. But can a culture of self-defence really flourish in medium that presumably draw people in because they are awed by the coolness of having fighting-powers? After all, even the karate kid ends with its protagonist participating in a fighting tournament. 

Furthermore, one can argue that karate is also implicitly reactionary due to  its emphasis on hierarchy. While I may be relying too much on one mildly-traumatic memory here, 6-year old me felt deeply excluded from karate culture, when he briefly took classes and was told my the instructor that he was the only student not ready for a belt by the time the class came to an end. It so happens that The Art of Defence does critique karate for its hierarchal belt system(and in quite the comedic fashion), but due to the film’s Tarantinoesque stylization, it does  not apply this critique consistently. Ideologically the film recognizes the harm that can come from the celebration of power inequality, but it also understands that acts of condescension can make for great deadpan humor.

The real messaging problem, however, doesn’t come from the film’s handling of hierarchy, but from its handling of violence and masculinity. In most cases this violence-and-masculinity link is spelled out and exaggerated (eg in a scene where Casey’s co-workers list their favorite sex positions). This over-the-topness is entertaining and produces a few great one liners, but it deprives the film of thematic uniqueness. 

At one moment in the film’s runtime, Casey announces his intent to quit karate. His coach, with Miyagi like grace, responds by telling Casey to keep his chin up and assuring him that no matter what path he goes on his karate experience will never leave him. This moment where a parallel between the Sensei and Mr. Miyagi shows up is just that, however: a moment.  

In short, The Art of Self Defence is a masterful piece of storytelling, but if it aspired to be a provocative  anti-sequel to The Karate Kid it fell a bit short. While the film undoubtedly has good politics, at times it felt like all it was saying was the obvious: that toxic masculinity is bad. Is that all the film aspires to say politically? Does the character of Anna (Imogen Poots) show the good and the bad of liberal (elite-oriented) feminism as she appears to, or is this ambivalence not what the film was going for? And does this film teach, as it proclaims, “the art of self defence,” or much like its sensei is it still only offering offence in disguise?

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1996)

Directed by: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Written by: Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Jonathan Roberts

HunchbackposterWhen it comes to relating to films there’s a notable contrast between my childhood and my adulthood. As someone who browses videostores and reads up on movies and movie-culture online, I now systematically try to watch the works of directors, film studios, etc. As a child, by contrast, I would watch what came to me because they were on TV or because my parents decided to rent them. Therefore, it is only in the last few years that I’ve watched a number of important Disney films, feeling its better to know the animation giant’s full cannon, then to simply cling to the memories derived from my parents repeatedly renting me The Aristocats and Robin Hood

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film that fits prominently into my childhood consciousness, despite my never having come close to seeing it as a kid (The same is true of The Lion King, though that film and its plot are so ubiquitous I might as well have seen it). I have vivid memories of Quasimodo (or as I would have thought of him back then, the green-shirted man) and his talking gargoyle companions, gracing tv screens and children’s book covers. As I finally watched the film, I was also reminded of being struck, perhaps made a bit physically uncomfortable, by shots of Quasimodo climbing impossibly thin poles and sliding down roofs on the palms of his hands. 

After years of having nothing but this mysterious half-impression of the film, I finally saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Overall I was impressed with what I saw, but I nonetheless have a hard time imagining watching it as a kid. 

The film tells the story of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), a man degradingly named (Quasimodo means half-formed) by his abusive caregiver Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) a seeming political authority in Paris. The action starts when Quasimodo defies Frollo by sneaking out of his bell tower, and, along the way ,meeting a Romani dancer named Esmerelda (Demi Moore). After initially enjoying his freedom, Quasimodo finds himself tormented by the outside world, and returns to his life with the displeased Frollo. Frollo meanwhile , already an anti-Roma bigot,  develops a specific fixation with arresting and killing Esmerelda. 

The film’s themes, for the most part, are not subtly stated but they are not raised sappily either. The lack of subtlety is also made up for by the uniqueness of the themes to the Disney-animated format. The film’s themes include othering and genocide, and (more unusually) conservative moral hypocrisy. Frollo’s song “Hellfire” is a confession that he lusts for Esmerelda, meaning that his violence towards her is motivated by a weird combination of racist bigotry, being spurned as a lover and, finally for seeing his own sexual yearning as disgusting. In short, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a PG13 film, that only gets to call itself a kids movie because it presents itself in Disney drag (musical animation featuring goofy gargoyles and a playful goat). 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame  in fact feels like it belongs more in the world of Victor Hugo media than it does in the Disney cannon. Unlike other Disney renaissance movies, the film lacks a single catchy upbeat song, only even really trying with the gargoyles’ number. But while its songs aren’t “hits” that doesn’t stop them from being compelling. The film’s opening number “The Bells of Notre Dame,” shares the sombre intensity of the opening number of fellow Hugo musical, Les Miserable. It’s a chilling song, but it will never feel like a personal anthem in the same way that “Under the Sea,” “Why Should I Worry,” or “Son of Man” do. 

But to return to the question of themes, while The Hunchback of Notre Dame stands out for its unique darkness, that doesn’t mean its portrayal of genocide isn’t in some ways quite sloppy. With the obvious exception of Esmerelda, the film is not quite committal on the matter of which characters are Roma and which are not. It is unclear if the film’s ensemble cast (“the people of Paris”), are in fact a collectively oppressed, multi-ethnic proletariat, or whether they are residents of an oppressed Roma neighborhood.

Quasimodo himself has Roma parents, a detail I would feel bad for spoiling but for the fact it is revealed in the film’s opening scene. Either the film’s animators forgot this detail, however, or it was maliciously whitewashed, as the red-haired Quasimodo lacks the shared dark hair and skin of his mother and father.  Granted, Quasimodo’s not realizing he is Roma is essential to the film’s character development. Quasimodo and Esmerelda deepen their understandings of their otherness, not through finding common ground right away, but instead by learning to empathize which one another. What The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s writers should have done was not reveal Quasimodo’s backstory at the film’s opening, setting up a later reveal that he is a child of  a (white-passing) Roma couple.

In watching this “family film” as an adult I of course noticed what I likely would have missed had I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a six-year old. I also, however, re-appreciated what struck young me in the film’s trailers. How, I asked then, could a man slide down walls and climb on flag poles without the fear of, at-worst, falling to his death and, at best, horribly scraping his palms? Now when I watch (and admittedly still grimace) at these points, I take them less literally and instead think of them in terms of film tropes. While The Hunchback of Notre Dame may stand out as the Victor Hugo-Disney film, it also has an element of superheroism in it: in particular it channels the X-Men universe. The X-Men are othered because they are “mutants,” even though their mutations are what in other comic books would simply be called super-powers. While Quasimodo is othered for his physical appearance, rather than his powers, per se, it’s hard not to read his appearance and strength as emanating from the same inner force (whatever that may be). Quasimodo’s “powers” undoubtedly add richness to the film, even as they border on providing a deus ex-machina at one point. A key thematic idea embedded in Quasimodo’s strength is how it subverts the trope of the powerful other. Unlike say, the minotaur or Goliath, Quasimodo’s being powerful does not make him dangerous. This subversion serves as a nice compliment to the film’s surprisingly progressive take on masculinity and relationships; the short of it is that Quasimodo, in more ways than one, both gets to be and doesn’t get to be your traditional knight in shining armor.

Ultimately, The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t do anything to make it my favorite Disney film. Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed it and can say with confidence that it is one of the most notable Disney films. Can something be notable and enjoyable without being “a favorite?” If you can’t picture what I mean, you may want to give the Disney renaissance’s most sinister entry a shot. 

Logan (2017)

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mangold, Frank Scott and Michael Green

Logan_2017_posterPerhaps its kind of silly, but for a while now I’ve judged superhero movies by a “it’s not like other superhero movies” standard. At the time of its release I was mildly tempted to see Logan, but was advised by a viewer with a similar mindset to my own that it was in fact “like other superhero movies.” 

This year, however, I went through a superhero phase. Excited by the releases of Endgame (because I got caught up in the hype), and Dark Phoenix (because I’ve always been loosely aware of/compelled by Jean Grey’s storyline) I decided to finally get into Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.) and X-Men movies. While I did end up seeing Endgame and Dark Phoenix , I now feel that the true light at the end of my movie watching journey was Logan. 

Despite being creations of the Marvel comic book brand, when it comes to movies, the X-Men and Marvel are two different franchises (that may soon change with Disney’s recent aquisition of Fox). Throughout their histories, both MCU and X-Men filmmakers have struggled to produce films that can be pitched to people who are not reasonably committed superhero fans. These struggles, however, have taken markedly different forms. M.C.U. films are consistently hard to knock (I know some people describe them as “fun”), but lack a boldness that could make them interesting to film-buff-type-viewers. X-Men films, meanwhile lack the M.C.U.’s consistency in their quality and character. They tend to have more subtly (better) written dialogue, and have compelling moral/philosophy dilemmas at the hearts of their stories.  Nonetheless, factors ranging from having too many underdeveloped characters, to lacking humor, to being too visually dreary cause the preliminarily smarter X-Men films to end up less entertaining than their M.C.U. counterparts.

Perhaps a shared quality of the M.C.U and X-Men serieses is that they both contain a prolific amount of movies, and operate on the assumption that fans will commit to seeing most or all of them. This can be frustrating for movie fans, eager to see the masterpieces, but not necessarily the entire catalogues of these film universes. 

In the case of M.C.U. films, the benefit fans get from seeing most/all of the movies is that it allows them to pick up on nuanced differences between superficially similar characters, when those characters are brought together in films like Infinity War and End Game. Movies that at first glance appear to be slugfest can come to be seen as engaging depictions of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, etc-portrayed figures. 

 Logan, by contrast, lacks even the vapid layer of fun of the M.C.U.’s slugfests: it is a film that, had I viewed it out of context, I think I would have found boring: its two hours and seventeen minutes long despite having few characters and a relatively simple plot. However, unlike M.C.U. films, Logan can be hailed as an interesting (mostly) stand-alone work, and not simply a satisfying conclusion to a years-long content parade. I say “mostly” because its not a good movie to go into, if you don’t know who “Logan” is. 

So what is the context you need to know to appreciate Logan? Firstly, you need to know its protagonist is James “Logan” Howlett aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). I make this, perhaps obvious, statement because while  visibility wise, Wolverine (who I mistakenly referred to as “X-Man” as a child), is up there with A-List superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, the specifics of his identity aren’t as culturally embedded. Wolverine’s superpowers include the ability to rapidly recover from nearly all injuries, a seeming inability to age (but note the gray in his bear in this film), and claws that can burst from his hands, that early in his career were coated with a powerful metal known as adamantium. Furthermore, in addition to having a “solo career,” Wolverine is a key member of a superhero team known as the X-Men, who are lead by the telepathic Professor X (Patrick Stewart). All X-Men are mutants, and while technically this means they are humans with (highly-fictionalized) genetic mutations, within the logic of the X-Men universe, being any sort of “mutant” renders one part of the same, socially marginalized human subspecies.  

Aside from the above, there are small details from the past X-Men films that can enrich one’s Logan experience. The film echoes 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine by having its protagonist be taken in by a farm family;2000’s The X-Men by having Wolverine serve as a mentor figure for a girl (teenage, new-superhero Rogue in X-Men and the even younger Laura in Logan); and these and other films that develop the pain associated with Wolverine’s immortality.

 While slow and not completely devoid of the specifics of superhero mythos, Logan is fundamentally a film that engages viewers via its themes. One such theme is mortality/age.  The film is set in 2029, a significant choice since the first X-Men prequel film (First Class (2011)) is set in 1962, and the first prequel film starring  Wolverine’s “peer” X-Men is set in 1982. In short by 2029 one can assume that. at very least, there would be no young X-Men left in the world save for the ageless Logan (it is in fact implied that all the other notable mutants are dead, but noticing this detail is not necessary to appreciate the film’s sombre mood).

Facing the pain of his immortality is nothing new for Wolverine. In 2013’s The The_Wolverine_posterUS.jpgWolverine for instance, he is haunted by visions of a dead companion. But despite dealing with similar themes, Logan is far more heart-wrenching than its predecessor. There are two reasons for this. One, is that The Wolverine’s main- plot, and the source of Logan’s pain are only loosely connected. The other, is that in The Wolverine Logan mourns a single, and iconic death, confining that film’s themes to the world of comic books. Logan, by contrast, generalizes its protagonist’s suffering, giving viewers far more time to channel Wolverine’s anguish. 

While time is an important theme in Logan it is also one the X-Men series has struggled with. The prequel X-Men  films (First Class, Days of Futures Past, Apocalyps and Dark Phoenix) take place over a forty year period, yet its stars don’t appear to age at all. The best defence against such criticisms is to say that they don’t matter: that if consistency gets in the way of a sequel’s concept (such as wanting to set a story in a given decade), consistency can afford to be compromised.

Unlike previous X-Men films, however, Logan leans in to the idea that it might not be entirely consistent with the other X-Men films. Adding a whiff of contrast to his film’s  (crisp but) dusty color scheme,  Logan discovers an X-Men comic book in the possession of his young ward Laura (Dafne Keen), lecturing her that the content of these comics is fictional. This scene announces that it’s ok to make a film that is closely inspired by, but not necessarily a pure sequel to its predecessors. Beyond that the line also hints at the film’s ambitions: making a superhero film (rooted in absurdly simple pseudo-genetics) that’s also realistic. Skeptical viewers might dismiss this scene as a cheap gag, awkwardly placed in an unfunny movie. I, however, see it as a fitting nod to and development upon a series that has always maintained a healthy distance from its source materials. In comic books Wolverine wears a an iconic yellow suit. X-Men filmmakers have avoided this approach seeing it as too cartoonish. Director James Manigold explained he didn’t see having a superhero cosume as consistent with Wolverine’s non-egotistical personality. Manigold’s Wolverine is literally fictional, but also far more real than his suited-up, comic-book counterpart. Manigold thus made a film about separating “the man and the legend,” even though legends are his medium.  

I began this piece by discussing the idea of “not being like other superhero movies.” So far we have established that Logan is about a (sort of) elderly superhero, and it is about a figure who both does and doesn’t live in a world where superheroes are real. This second idea also speaks to a broader quality of Logan: that what you see both is and isn’t what you think it is. When I was told that Logan is “like other superhero movies” a big reason for that is that it is filled with violence. The character of this violence, however, is unique. In a movie like The Avengers, audiences are supposed to take violence as straightforward entertainment. Logan’s violence, however, is designed to disturb; particularly in one slow motion scene when we watch Logan stick his claws straight-through his enemies heads. Viewers watching this scene are not supposed to think “wow Logan is so strong.” Rather, they are enticed to wonder how Logan endures such a Hobbesian existence.

Another common trait of superhero movies is moralism: eg an egotistical character learns to be selfish. In Logan this trope is taken on through his relationship with Laura. But while the Logan-Laura plot is set up in such a way that viewers are led to think “Logan better learn to be a good dad for his abandoned child,” the relationship between Logan and Laura is rendered unique by the fact that Logan is not in fact the kind of man who would have and then recklessly abandon a child, and his struggles and triumphs in relating to Laura are rooted in something far more complex than simple immaturity.

So is Logan “like other superhero movies?” I would say the answer is no, but that’s also something one might not appreciate if one does not know what it means to be “like other superhero movies” in the first place. Viewers strictly averse to action-based stories might easily grow impatient with Logan. Those more accustomed to superhero works and those more patient with action, however, can expect quite the cinematic experience from Jackman’s final X-Men series performance. When looking at the film’s poster they will not see Logan’s BATTLE scars, but his battle SCARS.  Logan’s troubled lead and his charismatic travel companions, give the film incredible emotional weight. Regardless of how aware you were of that superhero in the yellow suit before you saw Logan, there’s a strong chance that once you do see it, it is the version of the hero who acts without a suit you will come to remember.