The Cow (1969)

Written by: Gholam-Hossen Saedi, Directed by: Dariush Mehrjui 

TheCow1969CoverMy latest trek to the video store led me to stumble upon a work called The Cow. There was something instantly endearing about it: it’s simple, yet striking box art, and it’s comedic premise (which I will not elaborate on here). Upon doing further research I found out the work is considered one of the great pieces of Iranian cinema. At the time of its creation, the film was blocked by (the then monarchic) Iranian government, the reason supposedly being that Iran was eager to present itself as a modern country, and a black and white film about village peasants did not exactly fit that image. The film’s subsequent international success, and Iran’s subsequent change of governments, however, changed it’s fate, helping to establish director Darius Mehrjui as a leading figure in Iranian cinema.

Mehrjui described Italian neo-realism as a key influenced of his, emphasizing the principle that filmmakers should try and create a reality specific to their characters, rather than aspire to meet some more “objective” conception of reality. The idea of this, is that directors who take this approach end up creating a work with a universalist feel to anyway. Viewers who enjoy the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Fiddler on the Roof will find familiar strong points in The Cow. Perhaps “village films/literature” should be recognized as a genre in their own right. The kind of village seen in The Cow is defined by an everybody-knows-everybody dynamic. This in turn makes the quirks and struggles of individual villagers a collective problem.

The film’s central character, Hassan, has moderate similarities to Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, a striking combination of affectionateness and gruffness, and of course, a close relationship with a cow. While Hassan does not burst into song or engage in long polemics with God, in one key way he is far quirkier than Tevye. It is the meeting of Hassan’s quirk and the film’s village dynamic that makes the work so effective. In another kind of film, Hassan’s behaviour might make him repellent to others, or at least the but of jokes. The Cow, however, is notable in that Hassan’s neighbours treat him to active compassion. The cliché goes that it takes a village to raise a child. In this word a village raises a man, while as much possible, not infantilizing him.

Perhaps this review has been devoid of specifics. The Cow, not unlike A Ghost Story is a film with an excellent premise, but with little else in its favour that doesn’t factor into the synopsis. I therefore recommend The Cow as in important, at times endearing piece of cinematic history, but if you can, don’t read the blurb before viewing.

 

The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by: Michael Showalter Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.

The_Big_SickThe premise of The Big Sick is simple. It’s the story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a Pakistani-American comedian, who falls for Emily, a white psychology graduate student (Zoe Kazan). They break up, only for them to be reunited when Emily goes into a coma that takes up a significant portion of the film.

 

            I was not expecting to enjoy the Big Sick. Romantic comedies, even when funny, often follow a formula. The first third of the film is entertaining, but then one character, usually the man, makes a predictable mistake or displays a predictable flaw, and then spends the rest of the (often now unfunny) film showing that he can redeem himself and (unsurprisingly) win back his love interest.

 

The Big Sick breaks this mould in two important ways. Firstly, it’s based on a true story (I won’t say more since viewers who go into the film knowing nothing about it will be pleasantly surprised by its credits). This solves the predictability problem, as it means audiences can watch The Big Sick, not to see what will happen, but to see how things happen.

 

The second key difference between The Big Sick and other romantic comedies is that its main character doesn’t have a clearcut, over-generalized flaw. He is not “SELFISH,” “A LIAR,” etc. Rather his problems comes from having perfectly reasonable divided loyalties between his (in some ways) conservative Muslim-Pakistani family, and his white girlfriend.

 

The Big Sick keeps audiences interested through showing Kumail as part of three different worlds—his family’s world, his girlfriend’s family’s world, and the comedy world. Of the three, the third is the least entertaining (which is mostly a good thing—the film is funny without having to bring on characters who directly tell jokes). The problem with the comedians is simply that we don’t get to see much of their material, and of that material, only a portion is funny (and half of that humor is the result of Kumail’s roommate’s failed attempts at jokes). The two families, on the other hand, get to explore a range of scenes and jokes. We are not left wondering what problems exist in these families (we are largely told that up front), but instead are allowed to see how the families live in the worlds that these problems partially create.

 

Another of the film’s strengths is its supporting cast. In addition to giving a reasonable amount of screen time to Youtube star Bo Burnham (check him out here), the film prominently features Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in the roles of Emily’s parents. Romano’s character maintains a fairly consistent tone throughout the film. He is always funny, yet still believable in his portrayal of a person dealing with the potential loss of a child. Hunter’s character shows a greater range of emotion (and more outward grief) than Romano’s, but is not without funny moments of her own. Hunter and Romano’s performances perhaps best represent The Big Sick’s success as a romantic comedy—the characters, and the film, are funny sans vulgarity and sombre sans sappiness.

 

Of course there is far more to The Big Sick than I can reasonably comment on—namely the politics of how Kumail’s family is represented. In an interview with Vice, Kumail Nanjiani described the film as a mostly accurate representation of the family life he grew up with, though acknowledged he was taking a risk of perpetuating anti-south Asian stereotypes by depicting a family that practiced arranged marriage.

It can be easy to draw a line between good cinema and accessible cinema, but (if it hasn’t already been said) once a style of thought starts to sound a tad elitist, it’s probably not entirely true. The Big Sick is simply put a really good movie and can be enjoyed by causal movie goers and cinema snobs alike.

 

 

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.


 

Fences (2016)

Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington

Fences_(film)            As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.

Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.

Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.

Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.

Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

 

Written and Directed by: Roger Michell

Disclaimer: This review treats My Cousin Rachel as a standalone work. I acknowledge that this is an adaptation of a novel by an iconic writer, and recognize that this film’s overall merits cannot be weighed without considering the parameters set by the original text.  

My_Cousin_Rachel_(2017_film)

Based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel with (to my understanding) a slightly different plot structure, My Cousin Rachel is advertised as a work shrouded in mystery. Is it a period piece? A thriller? The film’s exploration of genre is perhaps its strongest point. Long running scenes of Victorian banter are occasionally interrupted with eerie-flashback-montages, and viewers are left wondering whether the dreary mansion where the film is set feels so dark simply because, well… its the Victorian era, or whether something more sinister is at play.

 

Just as the film’s genre is a mystery, the film’s story is a mystery. It follows Phillip, a 24 year old heir to a substantial fortune who finds himself living with Rachel, a cousin he has never met and who he suspects of, well…murder (I won’t say more). While the mystery of the film’s genre is a striking feature, one that adds a sinister energy to the film’s beautiful settings, the film’s mystery plot is underwhelming.

 

In a critique of Passengers (2016), youtuber Nerdwriter1 discussed one of that film’s weak-points by presenting its plot as a tree diagram, noting that once the film’s midpoint is reached there are only two possible outcomes for its (male) protagonist. Since both options are predictable, audiences are left under-engaged for a significant portion of Passengers’ run time. My Cousin Rachel has the same weakness, only it is far more exaggerated. The audience finds out mere minutes into the film that Rachel is suspected of a murder, and for the remainder of the film, the audience is left waiting for one of two possible outcomes: she dunnit or she didn’t.  Rachel’s personality is such that neither outcome would feel like a surprise. Her tender-vulnerability makes her being found innocent a highly foreseeable outcome, yet simultaneously, the audience knows they are seeing Rachel through Phillip’s naïve gaze, allowing for Rachel’s potential culpability to feel just as predictable as her potential innocence. This problem is further compounded by the film’s complete lack of a secondary plot: the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence is all the film has to offer.

 

This is not to say My Cousin Rachel is dull or irredeemable. Rachel is both vulnerable and independent-minded, making her character engaging, even while her character’s story is not.film is worth checking out if you like to dabble in horror without risking nightmares and/or are eager to see a new work with a (well filmed) Victorian aesthetic.


 

It Comes at Night (2017)

Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

It_Comes_at_Night“Watch a Patriarchy Crumble in It Comes at Night,” proclaims Rich Juzwiak of Jezebel. Juzwiak’s summation of the film is not a bad one. It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as Paul: a cold, strong father who will kill when he has to, and insists no one outside of his family can be trusted. Paul even runs his own family in a dictatorial fashion, a dynamic made particularly plain by the (unstated) possibility that he is the stepfather to the family’s comparatively gentle son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Yet while It Comes At Night undoubtedly depicts a patriarchal family, the film is arguably not so much about patriarchy or distrust as it is about inevitability. Vegetarians, vegans and animal lovers will notice this theme first, when Will (Christopher Abbot) offers Paul’s family food, and by food he means live chickens and goats (one supposedly played by Charlie (Black Phillip from The Witch). Perhaps some audience members will squirm at the sight of these animals, fearing they will be featured in a slaughter scene (don’t worry, there is none). Despite their squirming they will not be able to blame the humans of this film for having to find ways to eat in their desolate, post-apocalyptic living conditions.

In It Comes at Night, this sad-logic of the life of farm animals comes to effect the film’s humans. When Paul kills, as much as audiences may be repulsed by his comfort with his actions, they will not be able to dismiss him as a bad character. If what Paul, and to a lesser extent the other characters, says is true, he has no choice but to kill those who have been infected by “it” in order to protect his family. Nothing can persuade him to act differently, regardless of how conflicted he may feel internally. His violence is inevitable.

The true terror of It Comes at Night is thus not Paul’s brutality in itself, but the horrible thought that Paul’s killings may very well be justified. It’s one thing to endure the psychological pain that comes with fleeing a raging gun man—it quite another to have to both endure this pain and the pain of knowing the gunman is chasing you with justice running by his side.

It Comes at Night is a well-paced story with a good range of characters: many of whom are likeable, but all of whom remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Viewers in search of a well told, discussion-provoking horror movie should check it out.

 

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

Written and Directed by: Damien ChazelleGuy_and_Madeline_on_a_Park_Bench_Theatrical_Poster

At the time of its release, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was compared to (early) Jean-Luc Godard films. Were it released today (and simultaneously still released in 2009), this work would be called the proto-La La Land. As with writer-director Damien Chazelle’s recent breakout, Guy and Madeline is a musical-ish simple love story that pays homage to jazz. If you take La La Land, take out the color (literally), take out the theatre-story-line, and take out the latter film’s most intense emotional and introspective moments, you get Guy and Madeline.

 

During the lead up to Moonlight’s almost-denied-victory at the 2017 Oscars, La La Land was portrayed by some as predictable-white-nostalgia, in contrast to Moonlight’s conscientious brilliance. While, broadly speaking, this was a fair point to make from a critical-race perspective, it’s not a great way of understanding La La Land, a film that has less of a message or an ideology, than its critics make it out to have. La La Land, is not so much a story as a moving sculpture: a diorama of dazzling dance numbers set against Hollywood stars navigated by characters exploring a variety of jazz and Broadway sounds, while participating in a love story that is just nuanced enough to be interesting.

 

This understanding of La La Land is reinforced by Guy and Madeline. La La Land tells a simple, bittersweet love story; Guy and Madeline tells a bittersweet love story that couldn’t be simpler. La La Land featured just enough songs to be considered (by some, not me) a musical, rather than a quirky film with random musical outbreaks; Guy and Madeline drifts even further from the “musical” label, featuring numerous songs that feed the film’s jazz aesthetic, but do not directly forward its plot.

 

The (non-spoiled) story of Guy and Madeline is simple: sometimes there is love, sometimes there is heartache, but there is always jazz (unless you’re that one character who doesn’t appreciate jazz).

 

It would be wrong to say Chazelle’s film making is devoid of nostalgia; a black-and-white film about the popular music of bygone decades certainly fits that bill. But, as with La La Land, Guy and Madeline is not a film you watch to be passionate; it is a film you watch simply to be. It’s a film that casts aside the distraction of color, and, with its constant zoom-ins on the smiles (and grimaces) of its characters, invites viewers to enjoy and share in their simple pleasures (and frustrations). When Guy joyously lists composers, some viewers may hear ordinary dialogue, but others may share in his moment of ambition and passion, recalling their own mundane “adventures” in the world of music fandom.

 

The film’s subtlety makes its highlights easy to miss without a re-watch. The titular scene is silent and brief, but the ordinary role played by Guy’s small, light-colored, trumpet case, makes the scene one of the film’s highlights.

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is not written to be popular cinema, but it’s not inaccessible: it’s deceptively simple. Viewers looking to “lose their heart in Cincinnati” (or New York, or Boston, viewers will get the reference), or simply study Chazelles small, but excellent, cannon, should check