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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.

 

Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.

 

The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.

 

It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.

 

Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.

 

Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.

The Florida Project (2017)

Written and directed by: Sean Baker

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

A_Ghost_Story_poster

In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.