Raw (2016)

Written and directed by: Julie Decournau

Raw_(film)[1]When I watch movies with a critical mind I regularly find myself thinking something along the lines of “the movie shied away from” or “ignored” its message.” It’s a frame of thinking I’ve developed through writing a series of articles on Marvel movies. In the case of those movies, it’s an appropriate framework. Its quite possible that when producing a major commercial project, writers’ rooms propose mixing and matching storytelling approaches aimed at one part of their demographic, with those aimed at another. This approach to critiquing film, however, has followed me beyond my recent Marvel phase into indie theatre showings of Under the Silver Lake and Her Smell. The problem with applying this kind of thought to auteur’s projects (as opposed to blockbusters) is that there’s a very good chance some sort of consistent philosophy does underline these films. Therefore, when I accuse them of losing sight of their message, all I’m really saying is that they’ve abandoned what I thought their message should have been.

So I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn that when watching Raw, at several points I found myself saying “I think the movie lost sight of its message.” There are lots of ways to describe Raw. Despite overall enjoying the film, “unwatchable” is one adjective I found myself thinking several times: especially in an early moment when students are depicted slowly abusing a horse as part of a frosh week activity. The film’s graphic shock is more than matched however, by its equally vivid (and fully coherent) narrative structure.

Raw is the story of Justine (Garance Marillier) a vegetarian from a vegetarian family, and an academic standout. The film begins as she starts her time at veterinary school, though North American audiences should know, in Belgium, where the film, is set this appears to be the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. As such, Justine’s is a coming of age story, a genre of film on which Raw shines what can be read as a critical light .

I recently wrote about how certain films can make substance-abuse look like an inevitable part of rock-and-roll culture, and my sense is that many films given the “coming of age” brand extend that sense of inevitability to general teenage culture. Take the example of Dazed and Confused, a film that portrays high school (and a 9th grader’s coming of age experience) as a time of drunken parties, hazing rituals and parental absenteeism. While I appreciated the film as a dystopia, I realize that it’s still possible to interpret that film as a work of light fun. Raw, however, is far less ambiguous in its depiction of hazing. Unlike Dazed and Confuses it has a consistent, three-dimensional protagonist and we are made to see how marginalized she feels about her hazing experience.

In its first act, therefore, Raw appears to offer a troika of themes: one is in its scathing depiction of hazing culture, and the other two are vegetarianism and the culture surrounding professional schools. Upon arriving at veterinary school, Justine is compelled to eat a rabbit kidney. That her protest that she can’t because she’s vegetarian is not easily accommodated at a veterinary school in Belgium in 2016 stands out as mind-boggling.

From there the theme of vegetarianism is further developed particularly in a conversation in which Justine objects to the idea of sexually assaulting a monkey. Her compassion is mocked by the boys she shares a lunch table with, before she is ultimately attacked by a female classmate for making what, out of context, sounds like a sexist comment. Justine’s compassion is of a kind that makes her classmates uncomfortable and as such, she is absurdly punished for it.

Just as the themes of vegetarianism and hazing are brought together by the film’s script, so too are the issues of vegetarianism and professional school culture. Justine is quick to raise the absurdity of a veterinary school not anticipating (let alone accommodating) vegetarians in its student body. I read this as a commentary on how, in our current society, many go to medical school seeking prestige and big salaries rather than out of an actual desire to help patients. Similarly, many may go to law school, spouting rhetoric about justice in their cover letters, only to end up doing morally inconsequential (or detrimental) work in corporate fields.

          Raw ultimately takes a dark and surreal turn, a turn that, in my view, undermines its initial themes. While some emotional weight is added to Justine’s ultimate fate given the early emphasis the film puts on her vegetarianism, the two plot points are not fundamentally connected (and furthermore, the film’s narrative-focused second act, marks an escape from the analytic approach of the first act).

Nonetheless, I should be mindful, of accusing auteurs of abandoning their thematic commitments when I cannot read their minds. While Raw moves away from the specific themes that engaged me in its first half, it nonetheless maintains a broad commitment to depicting the plight of social outcasts. Justine is not just punished for her vegetarianism, but for her academic success, her clothing choices, etc. And importantly, Justine is not the film’s only outcast. Her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) is abruptly introduces when she expresses indignation that she was not matched with another girl. He responds by saying “I’m a f*g I guess that counts for them.” While at the time this line feels like a throwaway joke, Adrien gradually gains prominence as a character. His own outsider status makes him a beacon of hope for Justine, a fact that’s not unequivocally good for him.

Finally, Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also an outsider, though it is hard for Justine to realize this since, Alexia’s outsider-status stems from her rebellion against her parents (whereas Justine is an outsider because she is loyal to the principles on which she was raised). Justine and Alexia are opposites, but Raw makes clear that “opposite” people can, in a limited way, have a lot in common: strong personalities of all kinds can be penalized for their deviance from a rigid society.

Raw is not a movie for the easily grossed out, and perhaps it’s not 100% the story I wanted it to be. Those disclaimers aside, it’s the kind of work that never has a slow moment and is rife with creative energy from beginning to end. If you’re looking to see some out-there cinema, or are in the mood to se hazing culture crudely taken on, this can be the movie for you.


Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Written and directed by: David Robert Mitchell 

Under_the_Silver_Lake               Sometimes a movie captures your imagination because of its subject matter. Sometimes it seduces with cinematography. Sometimes eccentric characters do the trick. Under the Silver Lake is by no means devoid of such trappings, but they don’t begin to describes its memorability. This particular film, does not so much seduce as overwhelm. And in this case, being overwhelmed is a thoroughly satisfying feeling.

Under the Silver Lake follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a young man on the verge of eviction for non-payment of rent. One of the first things we learn about Sam is that he practices voyeurism, using binoculars to spy on his semi-clothed women neighbors. This initial gendered-plot set-up proceeds to fade into the film’s overall plot soup. Sam eventually meets and appears to initiate a relationship with one of the women he spies on, Sarah (Riley Keough), before she mysteriously disappears leaving Sam to seek out her whereabouts.

Over the course of his story Sam meets a number of people and ends up on a series of escapades, some of which seem climatic but do not bring the film to its conclusion. While regularly engaging, Under the Silver Lake’s exact aesthetic wavers between modern-class-ambiguous-Great Gatsby and one of outright magical realism. As it goes through its various oscillations Under the Silver Lake overwhelms, not just through its shear volume of content, but through its ability to reference itself. Each self-reference sets viewers up to think the film’s plot is about to become clear, but that’s never quite the case.

Upon discussing the film with a fellow blogger, I was told that the confusion behind the film’s meaning owes to the fact that that’s what the film is about: falsely seeking out meaning. That’s certainly one lens through which the film can be examined, though I, for one, am not satisfied with it. Mitchell’s world is too lively and imaginative for it all just to exist for the sake of a cop-out, “hah, you fell for that!” punch-line.

Meanwhile, I left the film confused by the relevance of its initial theme of the male gaze, one that recurs through the behaviour of different characters throughout the movie. The film’s tone in its early moments makes clear that it is not apologizing for Sam’ voyeurism, yet its script also fails to show Sam the error of his ways. The closest thing the film offers to a trajectory on this issue is in following Sam on a journey through which he goes from objectifying a woman, to trying to save her (interpret the word “save” as you will) in a chaotic, perhaps oblivious or uncaring society.

For me, Under the Silver Lake’s themes become most compelling when one filters them through the lens of Sam’s impending eviction. The film shows Sam both as a selfish voyeur and as a wannabe hero on a mission. He is never shown in the middle ground position of being calm and casually decent. Well, there’s a glimpse of him when he briefly is, but this moment only comes when the eviction issue appears to have been resolved. In other words, perhaps the film is saying that both selfishness and selflessness are two sides of the same coin: both products of a sick society that we can’t count on to take care of others and ourselves. Sam is sometimes selfish, and sometimes recklessly selfless, because societal pressures give him the illusion that he has to be one extreme or the other.

Us (2019)

Written and directed by: Jordan Peele 

Us_(2019)_theatrical_poster                 Who would have guessed three years ago that MadTV comedian Jordan Peele would emerge as a leading horror auteur? With the release of Us that is exactly what has happened. Peele made his mark two years ago with the academy award winning Get Out. While Get Out was a tale of horror, its use of horror was, in a way, a gimmick. Us, by contrast, is pure horror: its political messaging a subtle undertone of, rather than a hand-in-hand-partner to, its terrors.

Early in its runtime, Us screams autership, as the opening credits are rolled over a slowly-zoomed out shot of a wall full of rabbits; rabbits whose significance is only explained much later. In the act leading up to the film’s first “big-reveal,” Us continues on a subtle, mysterious track. It introduces us to its central family featuring a vaguely archetypical father (Winston Duke), believably assertive children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Jason Wilson) and a trauma-struck mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o). We are slowly immersed in their world. It seems mundane but for the viewers’  knowledge that Us is a horror film, and as such,  Adelaide’s paranoia is probably justified.

Less than halfway into the film one of its major revelations is made. The “horror” is made lucid, and all of the main characters are equally aware of its existence. It was at this point that I began to develop some frustration with Us. The film’s middle puts it in the zombie-movie tradition. While at times this allows for physical comedy (an Alexa-like device and a NWA song make the perfect combination), I feel it took away from the film’s psychological potential. The emotional resonance of who the film’s monsters are is abruptly doused, when it is made clear that the specifics of their motives is secondary to the question of how they can physically be evaded and destroyed.

Readers will not be surprised to realize, however, that it finally turns out that Us’s villains are not mere zombies for target practice: there is a logic to who they are. I, however, found this logic somewhat unsatisfying. What is stated, alone, does not seem to account for the degree of violence in the movie. It seems Peele trusts his audience to accept that such violent confrontation makes sense, and that a more targeted or multi-faceted approach to the human-monster conflict was not possible. In that sense, I suppose, I was not the model audience. I find horror most thrilling when a late reveal makes everything shockingly come together. Us’ final reveal is significant and brought a lot together, but, perhaps because I predicted it, and perhaps because of my ideological aversion to violence, it didn’t feel like it quite did that.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed Us more if, like one of my savvier film peers, I had observed its socio-political undertones. In hindsight, it’s an observation I find quite instructive. While Us is not a race-film in the same sense that Get Out is, it instrumentalizes race in an interesting fashion. The film’s central family are friends (or at least neighbours) with a wealthy white family, and there is some degree of awkwardness when members of the two families communicate with one another. While some viewers may be led by these interactions to think Us is simply a subtler follow-up to Get Out, its political focus is actually quite different. Peele overtly shows the white family to highlight their differences from Adelaide’s, but the fact that they are Adelaide’s neighbors and face similar security problems, is equally telling.

Perhaps if I give Us another chance later down the road, I’ll be in a better state to enjoy it. My sense of how good it was, based on the analysis of others, awkwardly mismatches by own viewing experience. What I can say, however, is that when viewed in conjunction with Get Out, Us speaks to Peele’s future potential as an auteur. He first made a horror flick with a strong, but perhaps too unsubtle premise. With his second effort the pendulum has perhaps swung too far the other way. Given the relatively strong output he’s provided on both ends of this subtlety-spectrum, however, it feels safe to say that Jordan Peele will soon find a strong middle ground.

Climax (2018)

Written and directed by: Gaspar Noé

  Climax_(2018_movie_poster)                In these last three days I’ve reviewed three films that seem to have the message “society is messed up.” That’s a painfully vague description, I know. It’s not how I would describe the similar messages of Capernaum and Assassination Nation. In the case of Climax, however, it’s hard to be specific. The film is the story of a French dance troop. The members of the troop are introduced individually in an extended interview montage . Because the characters are named, viewers are given the option of focusing on them as individuals. Perhaps if Climax gains a cult following some viewers will get to know its protagonists better: watching the film repeatedly with one character’s perspective in mind at a time.

But at first glance at least, Climax introduces you to its characters only to tell you they are parts of a society: the parts of society that can turn on one another. Climax is a dance movie: it’s no ballet, but its dance sequences are lengthy. Even when the characters are not dancing, the camera’s frantic movement, and the plot’s multi-facetedness, keep viewers entangled in the many-bodied, barely-legible world of dance.

Dance’s absence is just as notable a characteristic of Climax as its presence. In the opening montage the characters talk about how they would do anything for their art. Yet when the film starts, dance seems to be the last thing on the characters’ minds. Their dialogues are preoccupied with drugs, parenting, pregnancy, sex and sexual violence. Furthermore, outside of the literal dances, the characters seem to lack any sense of unity: a necessary component of the artistic medium. True there are moments where racial and gender-solidarity break the film’s surface, but these solidarities are never presented in a well-developed or idealistic fashion. It’s as if the film is saying all people are part of a single (destructive) human condition: our hobbies (eg dance) and identities are but a thin façade for our destructive potential.

With the aid of a mysterious drug, Climax takes its full chaotic form as its characters fall into a panic and engage in a range of disturbing behaviors. When the film nears its end a title card comes up that makes a statement (the exact wording of which I don’t recall) about the impossibility of social harmony. The film’s use of title cards gives it a Godard-like affect. Godard films, like Climax, are deeply confusing and aided by title cards, but unlike Climax, they at least seem to have some sort of ideological (Marxist) raison d’être. Climax seems to lack such ideology and that’s what makes its presentation of social incohesion so frustrating: is Gaspar Noé simply a deep pessimist about the human condition, or is there a more specific message about why his characters are so destructive buried somewhere in his film?

Climax is confusing and unconventional, but on a rudimentary level it’s not hard to follow. It is a shocking montage of what young people armed largely with toxic ideas, confusion and, in one case, a knife can do to teach other. No matter how much coherent philosophy you are able to derive from the film,  Climax is an opportunity to see just how off-the-rails of conventional narrative cinema can go.

The House that Jack Built (2018)

Written and directed by: Lars von Trier

the_house_that_jack_builtI walked into The House that Jack Built not having seen any other Lars Von Trier films. I nonetheless knew the basics: he is considered a shockingly graphic director. This unofficial trigger warning spared me from most of the film’s shocks.

The film’s protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) goes through a number of dark vignettes, all the while discussing them with an analyst figure (Bruno Ganz) that those familiar with medieval literature will quickly come to recognize.

The House that Jack Built is the first film I’ve seen since July’s Sorry to Bother You, that truly brimmed with life and inspiration in each of its scenes. In that sense it was a very strong work. But the question of whether one likes this film will probably have less to do with its production quality, and more with how one feels about Von Trier’s approach to violence and storytelling.

If you want to get the most out of The House Jack Built, approach it, as I did, prepared for the worst in terms of graphicness and shock-value. Secondly, you should know that Von Trier doesn’t use violence for a single end. In some moments, The House that Jack Built is a black comedy. The first few acts of violence are shaped by the murderer’s quirkiness and followed up with macabre humor.  In a way, violence is simply Von Trier’s aesthetic: violence is the backdrop to his story much as symmetrical, pastel-colored set pieces are to those of Wes Anderson. But it would be wrong to outright label Von Trier’s violent scenes as soulless. The analysis in Jack’s dialogues color them with sometimes cryptic, sometimes accessible, meaning.

Those put off by the film’s violence may find it’s inconsistent tone (intentional vs black comedic) tasteless. It’s worth noting that much of the violence in the film is carried out against women, a choice I was prepared to critique until the film meaningfully incorporated it into the dialogue between the analyst and Jack. One way to describe The House that Jack Built is as Todd Solondz on steroids, as both directors explore social dysfunction and isolation through anti-social behavior. The House that Jack Built‘s message thus seems to be not that there is extreme variance in the human condition, but rather that subtle variance can produce tragically different people. While this message doesn’t justify all of Von Trier’s choices (there’s a vignette featuring Riley Keough that, at least in the director’s cut, is particularly excessive), it shows some of the method behind his macabreness.  

It’s hard to write much about this film without spoiling key points. What I can say this is. I recommend it as far as it is a multi-faceted work with a diverse visual pallet and a unique blend of analysis and comedy. Is it ideal as a film with a message? No, because it’s message isn’t clear, and given the film’s tonal shifts, perhaps it’s not meant to be. Is it a film for everybody? Absolutely not. No doubt different viewers will have different perspectives on what is watchable and what kinds of evil are too much to display on screen. Film viewers, you know yourselves better than I do. The question of whether you should see this work is entirely up to you. 

The Visit (2015)

Written and directed by: M Night Shyamalan 

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

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

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

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

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Directed by: Edgar Wright Written by: Wright and Simon Pegg

Shaun-of-the-dead.jpg         I tried to watch George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead recently. I derived some mild pleasure out of the experience, but only because there’s something about the not-quite modern aesthetic of the 70s-90s that pleases me. For the most part I was frustratingly bored by what may be the film with the highest action to substantive content ratio I’d ever seen. I was thus thoroughly surprised that I quite enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, a film supposedly inspired by Romero’s work.

This is not to say that there is no simiilarity between the two zombie films. In addition to prominently featuring zombies the two movies can both be said to make light of killing. Dawn does this simply in that it features armed characters who show little to no hesitancy when it comes to carrying out their kill-or-be-killed mission. Shaun, by contrast makes light of killing by throwing in jokes that highlight how other zombie films make light of killing. Shaun’s characters speak like they are out of episodes of Flight of the Conchords: in an awkward banter that is neither deadpan nor fully engaged with the serious events that surround it.

The joy of Shaun of the Dead may is in fact, that it manages to be comedic without really undermining its status as a horror film. The film follows Shaun (Simon Pegg), a man who can’t get his act together, as he helps his friends and family escape the fate of being bitten by zombies. Zombie attacks turn victims into zombies themselves, meaning Shaun and his cohorts are increasingly surrounded by an ever-growing rank of enemies. This structure inevitably produces suspense, suspense that is maintained throughout the film: even in its silly moments. Shaun of the Dead’s jokes do not break the illusion of horror and suspense they simply capitalize on it. We see limbs ripped apart, and bodies torn to shreds, their innards ripped out like spaghetti. This violence produces screams from the humans: who scream not so much out of genuine fear, but as if they are in a screaming contest.

Shaun of the Dead is a film filled with action, and yet as someone who does not like action, I did not feel alienated by these moments. That’s because bits like “the screaming contest” mean that Shaun of the Dead‘s characters are “talking” even when the film is caught up in action moments. Another such moment features characters beating up their enemies while Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” plays on a juke box. This is not mere background music, as the characters’ attacks line up with it perfectly. Sure, the events depicted are a life-and-death battle, but what we see are characters moving-in-sync-with-a-rhythm: dancing their troubles away.

Shaun of the Dead also distinguishes itself from Dawn of the Dead in that, given that it’s a quick, character-dense action movie, it nonetheless manages to meaningfully differentiate and create tensions between its characters: they are not mere bodies to carry guns in the zombie war. Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and reluctant travelling companion David (Dylan Moran) stand out amongst the film’s personalities. Shaun’s story, meanwhile, is that of a loser making something of himself, and it is, nonetheless, free of a forced, phoney moral: it’s driven by jokes and character relationships instead. Shaun is a loveable loser, but he feels three-dimensional and not a mere trope, in large part because one of his key motivators is his loyalty to his even bigger loser-friend (Nick Frost). This loyalty is not unjustified: both characters are developed protagonists in the piece: the difference being that one is more aware of his shortcoming than the other.

Shaun of the Dead may not be that deep, perhaps not even as deep as the source material it references. However, it is constantly alive and constantly true to its characters. If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of liking a lowbrow zombie movie, but can’t imagine yourself actually enjoying such a film, then surprisingly, there somehow exists a work , in Shaun of the Dead ,that can fulfill your oxymoronic needs.