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. 

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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.

Hereditary (2018)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster 

   Hereditary               Last fall, commenting on some of the horror highlights of 2017, I noted they had a quality which I described as “thorough horror.” This is to say that these films were rife with disturbing details, which either were mere compliments to the main horror (It) or were complete red-herrings (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Hereditary feels like a film made in a similar vein. The good side of this is that it regularly reinvigorates viewers with shots of eerie excitement. The negative side is that, unlike the aforementioned movies, thorough horror is not a mere trait of Hereditary, but its premise.

In order to explain this matter further I will have to spoil a little of the film, not too much, but perhaps more than I’d like. Since surprise is particularly important to the experience of watching a horror film, consider yourself warned.

 

Hereditary opens with a funeral eulogy, as miniaturist artist and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collette) speaks on the life of her mother, a woman who was distant from her family and whom we latter learn struggled with a mental illness. When Graham and her family return home we get the sense that her son Peter (aged roughly 16) (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (13) (Milly Shapiro) did not feel close to, or at least can not be outwardly emotional about their grandmother. We further learn that Charlie never cried as a baby. Finally, we learn she is into art projects, one of which involves decapitating a pigeon corpse.

When I said I would have to spoil things I’ll say this much: the grandmother is a red herring (to a degree at least), and Charlie, the disturbed grand-daughter is certainly a red herring. Can I say certainly? It’s hard to say with the plot of this film: anyway, Charlie is not one of the film’s antagonists, and the grandmother’s funeral feels like the first five minutes of a Simpson’s episode (as in its there to be interesting, but is almost unnecessary for the ultimate plot trajectory).

Another oddity in the film’s development is its use of a dollhouse motif. We regularly see Annie at work. The instant appearance of the dollhouse in the film sets up the audience to figure it is part of the logic of the film’s horror. Annie, we are lead to believe, is intentionally or unintentionally doing some sort of voodoo work. This (as far as I could tell), is yet again a red herring. The logic of the film’s horror has nothing to do with dollhouse voodooism.

Now you may say, why do you keep throwing the term red herring around like it’s a bad thing? Horror movies are mysteries in a way, and red herrings are an essential part of the mystery genre. I agree on this point, and thus should qualify, Hereditary is not a bad film due to its rifeness with red-herrings. It can be appreciated as a collection of vignettes: a bit with a séance, a bit with a cult, a bit with sleepwalking, etc. What frustrated me about Hereditary, however, is that a) these vignettes were not quite vignettes (alone they did not have beginnings, middles and ends) and b) they did not feel like they were contributing to a thorough story. Sure, it matters that Peter and Annie have deep issues between each other, but this never seems to add up to anything, and only marginally matters when the film’s final confrontation takes place.

It’s hard to say what it would take to fix Hereditary since lots of its individual components are strong. The dialogue is believable, the horror/occult elements are creatively introduced, and the concluding scene is visually, if not narratively, satisfying. Perhaps, its problem, however, is that it tries to both be a thorough horror film, while also maintaining a subtle affect. Perhaps horror films don’t need to make sense, they can be collections of beautiful chaos. It’s hard, however, to be beautifully chaotic, when you constantly interrupt your nightmare scenes with realist depictions of mourning family dynamics. Another way to put it, is that horror movies can have two possible agendas: 1) to scare, or 2) to leverage horror as a mechanism to tell a witty story. Aesthetically, Hereditary took approach 2, but its aspirations seem more in line with agenda 1.

Then again, I could be missing something. I, for one. still find the title confusing, unless the writers felt simply having a family in your story justifies it being called Hereditary.

Revenge (2017)

Written and Directed by: Coralie Fargeat

255300R1There are two ways to watch Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. One is as a simple splatter film replete with both serious and Looney Tunes style violence. Another is as an exploration, if not a statement, on contemporary gender politics.

Revenge follows Jen (Matilda Lutz) as she stays with her romantic partner Richard (Kevin Janssen) at his extravagant hunting lodge in a desolate location. While Jen at first appears to be living the high life, dramatic twists in her fate leave her sexually assaulted and nearly dead. Bloodied and lost, she develops a taste for vengeance.

Jen’s story exposes a tension between different generations of/approaches to feminism. She has few lines in the movie, and prior to her assault she is most prominently portrayed as being seductive towards Richard as well as his guests. The camera regularly shows her from the waist down. Were the film shot by a male director one might be inclined to call Jen’s portrayal exploitative: while Jen’s is a story about sexual assault, the camera nonetheless objectifies her. This is a conclusion many second wave feminists would likely reach.

Revenge, however, was written and directed by a woman, leading me to think there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to its exploitative appreance. Critics of rape culture will often note that victims of sexual assault are blamed for what they wore, how they were behaving, etc.. Therefore, one could interpret the highly sexualized portrayal of Jen as a way of drawing attention to the problem of victim-blaming; a way of making clear that nothing justifies what happened to her.

Revenge does not only hit at divides in feminist thought: it also depicts fault lines within patriarchal male society. Perhaps you have become aware of a sub-type of misogynist known as the “incel” (involuntarily celebate). Incels essentialy see the world as one giant teen-movie high school in which women shun nerds for attractive/jock men (known in incel parlance as “Chads”). The difference between incels and stereotypical nerds, however, is that incels do not embrace their romantic awkwardness while finding self-worth in academic pursuits, fan-culture, etc. Instead, incels aspire to be like the Chads, and when they fail to reach this status, turn to violent, misogynistic revenge fantasies as a source of personal comfort.

Revenge features two main misogynist antagonists. One is, effectively, an incel, and one is a “Chad.” The incel character is the one who commits the sexual assault, but the Chad emerges as the film’s ultimate villain. In some ways, this serves as a commentary on the relationship between power dynamics and oppression. In the company of the Chad, the incel character is shaky, weak and shows he may even have some moral principles. When he is the most powerful man in a room, however, he become the tyrant himself, as further evidenced in a scene in which he gleefully drowns a spider with his urine.

So is Revenge saying that harmful behaviour is ultimately the result of personal insecurity? Does it preach that the path to overcoming oppression lies in challenging power relations and bullying-dynamics across the board? Perhaps its hints at that idea, but ultimately it’s a film that’s limited in its ability to philosophize due to its stylistic commitments. Therefore, the film’s real employment of power dynamics is to create two different kinds of villains. The Chad character is sinister. The incel, however, becomes Wiley Coyote. At times he is menacing, but more often than not, he is the victim of his own, and others’ plots.

Cinematically, Revenge’s depiction of its incel character is effective. As a film with very few characters and a simple story, its character differentiation is essential to its quality. Politically, however, the film’s depiction of the incel character is problematic. The character exists in a weird gray area between coming off as despicable and as worthy of pity. The result of the character’s coming across as pitiful is that the script does not seem to take his initial crime seriously. Conversely, by making the character’s pitifulness a joke, the film also fails in its attempt to reveal the complex, not-black-and-white, mindset that may  underline his criminal behavior.

In short Revenge reeks of politics, but the scent is empty. Is Revenge feminist or  is it not? Is it a critique of rape culture or is it not? Is it a statement about the root causes of criminality or is it not? I’m not sure. Then again, at very least Revenge is an artistic success in that it takes an overly simple concept, and with just enough pinches of cinematographic whimsy, character differentiation, and absurd grotesqueness, manages to make it engaging. In short, there are two ways to watch Revenge. Even if you find it comes up short in its explorations of gender politics, it at very least makes for a decent splatter film.

 

A Quiet Place (2018)

Directed by: John Krasinksi Written by: Brian Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski

A_Quiet_Place_film_poster       A Quiet Place: it sounds like a metaphorical title, but its actually quite literal. This film is a simple horror story that documents the life of a family as it hides from a monster that comes to kill anyone who makes a discernible sound. The title is also a commentary on film aesthetics. A common difference between indie and big budget films, is that indie work often allow everyday sounds: footsteps on floors, pies being eaten, etc to be heard. In A Quiet Place this aesthetic trait has practical ramifications. Every time viewers hear the faint sound of an object being placed on a table they are left to wonder whether that sound was too loud: whether the monster is coming.

As a work of horror, A Quiet Place is huge success. Viewers are conditioned to be afraid of sound, and sound is everywhere: listen to the theatre goer behind you kicking on your seat. On the other hand, the film’s horrifying-aura is sometimes forced. Despite employing an indie soundscape, A Quiet Place also makes prominent use of a soundtrack. In one instance, the father, Lee (John Krasinksi) and his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) run into what we soon discover is a source of danger. Rather than letting the danger emerge in due course, the film instantly alerts us to its presence with eerie music.

Such forced horror moments are symptomatic of a broader problem with A Quiet Place: it sits in a no-man’s land between indie and big budget horror. Indie horror films, like It Comes at Night (as well as post-horror films like A Ghost Story) often make simple-narrative structures work. It Comes at Night barely features a literal monster. Instead, it develops a unique, chilling quality through its portrayal of paranoid, hierarchal family dynamics. A Ghost Story’s simplicity works because, well, simplicity is its point. It is about loss and mortality, two sources of pain that simply cannot be overcome. The universal simplicity of this pain is amplified by A Ghost Story’s simple structure.

A Quiet Place, however, is not like these films. The antagonist in the film is a literal monster, and the key to defeating the monster is not an act with deeper meaning: it is a specific, technological solution. The result is that even as A Quiet Place is satisfyingly scary and its characters are pleasantly portrayed, it can still leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed. It does not have a clever plot twist, nor does it cleverly omit a plot twist. It is simply a story in which a scary entity exists and the relatively ordinary characters have to find a way to overcome it.

Perhaps one external factor that enriches A Quiet Place, however, is its relationship to It Comes at Night. Both are horror films that forgo depictions of friend groups in favour of families. As I noted at the time of its release, some called It Comes at Night a depiction of a patriarchy. Indeed it is a film in which a family is led by a tough, no-nonsense father, and the father’s lack of sentimentality is a key element of that film’s horror aesthetic. A Quiet Place‘s world, by contrast, can be characterized as patriarchy-lite. The mother, Evelyn, (Emily Blunt) is supposedly a doctor, and she appears to be in an egalitarian relationship with her husband. Nonetheless, there also appears to be a gendered division of labor in the film’s family, as seen for instance when the father takes his son out on an expedition, leaving his strong-willed daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) behind. Bearded, and always in control, Krasinki’s character bears superficial resemblance to Joel Edgerton’s father-character in It Comes at Night. In this way, the two films complement each other. In It Comes at Night the “good” father can be as “Scary” as the evil “it.” In A Quiet Place Lee is unequivocally good but, I at least, couldn’t help but be unsettled by his presence.

A Quiet Place is an unsettling work. It is also unique in its heavy reliance on American Sign Language, used both to evade the monster and because Regan (like her portrayer) is deaf. In short, it’s very much worth seeing: it’s just missing a little extra something in the narrative creativity department.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza’s punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes include), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.