Greenberg (2010)

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

Greenberg_poster          There’s something about a title that doesn’t tell you anything that tells you just enough. Part of me finds it odd when a story is named after a character. That character usually doesn’t exist outside of their own narrative realm, so how can a title possible say anything about their story? How can such titles possibly be remembered in a world full of titles? The answer, it would seem, lies in the non-answer to these questions. A movie simply named after its own characters is making a bold statement: that’s its characters are so memorable, they can afford to be promoted simply by their names.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one such character. The star of a simple, urban story he is, unsurprisingly, a quirky fellow, but even within that archetype he is uniquely written and portrayed. Greenberg’s story is shared with that of Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is a nanny for Greenberg’s brother’s well-off family. When the family takes a trip to Vietnam both are called in to play a role taking care of the house and its dog.

When we are introduced to Greenberg we are left to wonder why we are invested in him as an individual. He plays the song It Never Rains in California upon meeting Florence and it doesn’t quite resonate with her the way it does with him. Perhaps, in his head, at this moment, he is quirky. Perhaps in his head he’s worthy of the bold mononym Greenberg, but to us he could be any person having a conversation.

However, over the course of the film, Greenberg’s odd-ballness is allowed to bloom. The simplest way to describe him is as curmudgeon, albeit at least 15 years too young for the trope. He is also a young-man trying to find himself, albeit 15 years too old for that trope. Finally he is jealous and bullish, though in the least macho way possible. In short, Greenberg is quirky, but not in a way that can be described with a single adjective or stereotype. His story thus manages to be oddball without being cartoonish.

In essence, to watch Greenberg is to watch a rather subtle accomplishment. Films can be realist simply by virtue of their depicting realistic events: such realism can be relatively effortless. Greenberg, however, is a script that searches the mundane for the absurd and broadcasts if back to us in its original, mundane form. It is rife with imagination, yet never takes us into imagination land.

If there is a downside to films like Greenberg it’s that their subtle pace can make it hard to notice when an important detail has in fact been revealed. It can be hard to know which lines and moments should be viewed with greater attention than other component’s of the characters’ banter. This flaw is of limited importance, however, as the effectiveness of films like Greenberg comes from their character developments not their plot. I may struggle to tell you before long exactly what its story is, but this boldly named film certainly lives up to the high standard it sets for itself.

 

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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.

American Animals (2018)

Written and Directed by: Bart Layton

images        Perspective is one of the key themes in Bart Layton’s film American Animals. I say this because the film’s subjects say this. We are repeatedly told that the story we see is not unquestionably the truth: it is simply a recreation of the memory of one of the film’s subjects. This honesty, however, is not the only obvious way American Animals deals with perspective. The film takes a unique approach: rather than simply recounting a historical event, it combines its account with interviews with its subjects.

American Animals is a heist movie. It tells the story of four boys/young men who are inspired to steal a number of rare books, the main one a collection of Audubon paintings, from their college library. The first character Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the one to see the books. We learn from the real Spencer that he felt his life lacked meaning, and he had a sense that as an aspiring painter he needed suffering in his life. We are later introduced to his friend Walter (Evan Peters) a carpe-diem dumpster diver, who is reluctantly at school on an athletic scholarship. The other two members of the team, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) join the fray once the heist is well underway.

American Animals in a way frees itself from realism by openly acknowledging that it can only deal with perspectives (and furthermore, by allowing its interviewed subjects to say they “Don’t remember things that way.”) Nonetheless, one way it lets itself be confined by realism is by Mr. Moleing Spencer. This is a reference to Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows, which sets readers up to think Mr. Mole is its protagonist, before ultimately focusing on the wilder Mr. Toad. American Animals opens like the far darker (and fictional film) Thoroughbreds pairing a mild-mannered, sensitive protagonist who is ambivalent about crime with a more reckless sidekick. In its realism, however, American Animals ends up transitioning so that the reckless sidekick, Warren, comes to be the star: on the practical grounds that it is Warren who has the daring and initiative to immerse himself most in the heist.  This realist decision, I’d argue, is not the film’s best. While the real life Warren is very engaging when interviewed, the ascendance of his cinematic representation leads to Spencer’s drama-script being replaced with a technically-driven-action script (I guess that’s just not my cup of tea). Furthermore, when the film seems to be about Spencer’s role in stealing a rare art book, it feels like a quirky take on the heist movie: a thief driven more so as an artist than by his drive for wealth. When Spencer is moved into the background, however, the film’s unique persona fades a bit.

Even if one does not like heist movies for their own sake, however, there is still plenty of reason to see American Animals: the source story is too rich not to be engaging. While I would have liked the other characters to be as developed as Warren, there are ways in which his status as leader contributes to the film’s theme of perspective. Not only is Walter both a fictional and real person for us viewers, he is also a thing of mystery to those he guided

American Animals is not a film without a theme. Bart Layton explained this in an interview, saying the driving idea behind his work was the pressure society puts on us to be successful, regardless of what success actually means. Nonetheless, the film’s commitment to exploring perspective also makes it a themeless work in a way. The film is not a happy story for anybody. Its subjects, though legally men, are in many ways boys. They are still in school, their lives are still tied to their parents and their act, in their heads, is a playful one (for more thoughts on this subject see my comments on Bonnie and Clyde). Therefore, the film is largely sympathetic to its subjects and thus reflective of themes that speak to them (like the aforementioned notion of the pressure to be exceptional). At the same time the film also depicts the B.J Gooch (Ann Dowd) librarian from whose collection they try to steal. She was left traumatized by the event, in which she was tasered and tied up. Her appearance means the films ends in a moment of near cognitive dissonance. On the one hand viewers are left sympathetic for the boys and angry at a justice system that punished them far more severely than probably necessary to deter and correct their behavior. On the other hand, this message is not promoted at the expense of erasing the (albeit accidental) consequences of their actions (for the record, Gooch is a fan of the film).

It would be wrong to call a film as real and sombre as American Animals an escape from reality. Nonetheless, its appreciation of “perspective” makes it an escape from a certain kind of reality: a reality made up of politics and political pundits. American Animals rather allows us to escape back to a truer reality: one filled with ideas, enriching ones, but ideas that are not always fully coherent. Is this approach always cinematically satisfying?: not necessarily. At times I wondered if the story would have been better if it focused in on the soul of a single character more than the collective plot of four. Then again, this approach made it all the more effective when the script would briefly zone in on an individual. If you’re looking to see innovative cinema, definitely check out American Animals. How much and why you like it, however, will depend on your relationship with the heist genre.

The Rider (2017)

Written and Directed by: Chloe Zhao

 

251038R1-1What constitutes a modern western? One answer is that it’s a film that involves a hero who rides into town, miraculously solves a problem and swoops out, but is not set in the old west. That’s one answer. But Chloe Zhao’s The Rider get’s at what’s perhaps truly most striking about Westerns: not their structures, but their blatant content: wide open plains, with cowboys and horses bursting through them.

 

The Rider’s protagonist, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is an avid rodeo participant and horse trainer. He has recently suffered a major head injury: an injury that seemingly means he will never rodeo again. Temporarily unable to do his job Brady is left to find work at a grocery store and wilt under the judgmental gaze of his father (Tim Jandreau). The film follows his recovery, and the dreams and responsibilities he takes on along the way. It is a simple story, one that works within the confines of realism. It has a plot arc, but barely.

 

The Rider thus tells us what it means to be a real life, modern cowboy. It does not make the cowboy a metaphor for some “realistic” kind of adventurism, and heroism. Rather, it depicts a person with real cowboy dreams in his struggle to live those dreams within the trenches of reality. One way it does this is through depicting Brady’s affectionate relationships with his horses. The camera zooms in on them, and we the see the expression in their eyes. This in turn leads to another of the film’s themes: the relationship between man and horse. Horses can ultimately be treated as a commodity: they can, for instance, be sold when one’s family is in trouble.

 

Brady appears to differ from his father in that he cares for the individual horses. In Brady’s eyes, his father’s lack of care for the horses is inseparable from his lack of care for his son. The complex truth that the film exposes, however, is that this is not the case. Brady’s father’s love for him is never in doubt, even as he makes it frustratingly difficult for Brady to see tgat.

 

This different viewpoint on the equality of horse and man becomes important later in the film. Brady argues that both horse and rider have a purpose: and when a rider cannot ride, he has lost this purpose. This in turn raises another theme: the idea of purposelessness, of giving up. When a character falls to these depths, it can make for a gripping narrative element, but it can also feel forced. Life has much to offer and even in states of great pain and misery, people can find new ways to live it. Zhao’s decision to have Brady simply ponder giving up is thus cleverly nuanced. She successfully shows an overwhelming, personal, psychological drama, while acknowledging that such dramas need not become all-consuming or define a person’s life.

 

The Rider is based on a true story: Zhao says it straddles the line between documentary and fiction. Brady Jandreau is a real life, incapacitated former rodeo star. I discovered this while watching the film’s credits. In some ways it was a frustrating discovery. Could the film have the thematic depth I thought it did if it simply portrayed real life (granted, Brady Blackburn is not an exact recreation of Jandreau)? Perhaps you too will be struck by this feeling, but remember it is not necessary. Just because The Rider is based in truth does not take away the fact that it is a narrative: a narrative an author could have built from scratch. Furthermore, its basis in reality reinforces its educational character.

 

The Rider is a work that, unless your grew up with Lakota Rodeo culture, will show you a world you don’t know. It is sad, but not insurmountably so. It is simple, but engaging and therefore a work many should find enjoyable

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 Films that Hooked Me: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis

As I eagerly await my chance to see Wes Anderson’s new release, Isle of Dogs, I look back on how seeing the trailer for his previous release sparked my interest in film and, eventually, gave rise to this blog. 

The_Grand_Budapest_HotelIt wasn’t long ago that I would tell you I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t watch TV either. This was not a conscious choice. Rather, I was raised in the kind of household where sitting in front of the TV for unregulated hours was forbidden. By the time I was in middle school I noticed a clear differentiation between myself and my peers. I watched the odd TV show or family movie that my family went to together because it was a good fit for all of us and/or because it was culturally significant (eg Pixar and Harry Potter films). By contrast, my peers were beginning to binge watch live action TV dramas like Lost, Heroes and various crime shows.

 

My alienation from film viewing was further developed, however, by the movies I did see. The movies that were supposed to excite me didn’t. I got no thrill out of watching action sequences, or the sappy endings to mainstream comedies.

 

I was twenty years old when my mind began to change. I don’t remember what film I was watching (Dallas Buyers Club would be my guess), but I remember seeing a trailer at Varsity Cinema that struck a unique emotion in me. That trailer was for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember thinking “I’m going to make a point of seeing that movie.” Yet that film was not an adaptation of a young adult series I’d enjoyed. It wasn’t a straightforward comedy with an easily explicable humorous hook either. It wasn’t even about a historical event or subject matter that was important to me. Rather, what struck me about it was precisely that I could not articulate what excited me about it. Sure it seemed amusing: the clips of Ralph Fiennes yelling “lobby boy!” gave off that impression, but I didn’t remember individual jokes. I remembered a melange of things: actors, colors, moods and that word “lobby boy.” In other words, it struck me as impressive as a, well, “film.”

 

Seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time was a mixed experience for me. I certainly found parts of it funny, but I also had questions. Why, for example, was the film’s opening narration about a writer, who appears in a flashback telling of how (in a flashback) he met the film’s protagonist (“lobby boy”) Zero Mostel, who (via a long flashback) tells the story that is essentially the whole movie? In short, what was the point of the writer, who in no way factors into the story’s action? I probably wouldn’t be bothered by this aspect of the film today, but at the time this narrative inconventionality was something I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for.

 

Around the same time as The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, another film hit Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Postertheatres. This one, Inside Llewyn Davis, attracted me for less mysterious reasons. It was a film about a folk-singer (I like to think of myself as a folk-singer). It was also written/directed by the Coen brothers, who I knew because they’d directed an adaptation of The Odyssey (O Brother Where Art Thou?).

 

In short, I was drawn to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of its many qualities as a work of art and Inside Llewyn Davis because it was a work by a known writer/director(s). Of course, had my life story been only slightly different, I could reverse those descriptions and they would equally be true. My discovery of Wes Anderson was as important as my re-acquaintance with the Coens. More important than my relationship with either of these directors, however ,was the new way they taught me to appreciate film.

 

In watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found a bit of the old me. I liked the movie because of what it was about: because there were characters based off of Jim& Jean and Tom Paxton. Yet there were also frustrating elements to the film in that regard: Llewyn’s interest in pre-Dylan folk and the film’s anti-climactic ending. There were also things that the burgeoning new film fan in me enjoyed. The film incorporated a not yet famous Adam Driver as character that was very memorable, despite being insignificant to the plot. The film also used John Goodman in a similar regard. Goodman’s character has an eerie feel to him that briefly makes him seem like the film’s villain. In fact, however, he’s simply a quirky, self-promoting man with dehabilitating health problems.

 

Much like Driver’s character, Goodman’s character doesn’t “matter.” Then again, no character in Inside Llewyn Davis really does: the film’s frustrating ending is the revelation that Llewyn’s story is cyclical (a trait also seen in the Coen’s An Irrational Man). As such, Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a narrative, but a diorama: a depiction of Greenwhich village and the universe around it from the perspective of one of the numerous folk singers who did not get to be Bob Dylan. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that John Goodman’s curmudgeony, jazz musician does not serve the function of a traditional villain. He fills an important place in the diorama, sitting in his sunglasses behind his chauffeur, and waiting to capture the viewer’s eye and imagination.

 

Speaking of dioramas, what film better embodies that metaphor than The Grand Budapest Hotel? While it is a story that takes its protagonists to numerous places, its true soul comes out in every utterance of that phrase “lobby boy!” It is the adventure of a purple uniform as much as it the adventure of its unassuming protagonis. The unfirom dashes through an exquisite pink hotel, which itself exists with in the mind of a man buried in a beautiful, key covered monument. Furthermore, while The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a thoroughly non-traditional story (unlike Inside Llewyn Davis it features a traditional villain), it too is peppered with characters who briskly come in and out (including Owen Wilson’s “Monsieur Chuck”), making them more funky-dolls in a diorama than characters in a story.

 

By the time I started film-blogging over three years had passed since I watched these films. They changed me, yes, but it wasn’t a change I became aware of at once. In the year following my seeing those titles I continued to see the occasional flick at the suggestion of a film student friend of mine. It took me 10 months before I truly began consuming film on my own. I lived near Toronto’s Bay St Video at the time, and when I had to watch Children of Men for an assignment, I decided to sign up for membership and rent the DVD.

 

Then, I began to rent more. I rapidly went through all of Wes Anderson’s filmography. I rented Linklater’s Boyhood, the Coen’s A Serious Man as well as a lot of JeanLuc Godard. Having never received a formal film education, I’m sure I missed out on some of the key innovations in Godard’s work. I did however come to appreciate its blatant characteristics: long shots of natural and industrialized environments, philosophical monologues often peppered with references to Marxism and history, and a lack of a traditional storyline: In other words, the oddness of Wes Anderson and the Coens’ approaches to narrative pales in comparison.

 

The challenge of learning to appreciate works like Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Adieu_au_Langage_poster.pngleft me with a strong desire to parody. For me the mindsets of wanting to parody something, and having genuine sense of affection for it are not too far removed from each other. Therefore, when I made a makeshift, imitation Godard film called “La Mort et la Famille” in the summer of 2015 (just under a year and a half since I’d the two titular films came into my life, and just under two years before I started blogging), it wasn’t just a joke: it was a moment of self discovery. There was (and still is) a lot for me to see, but suddenly I could say it: “I liked movies.”

 

There is a reason I realized I liked movies then and couldn’t before. For me, my ability to enjoy films if often rooted in my sense of connection with their director and/or writer. I cannot simply be an audience member being entertained (which is why generic, big budget fight scenes don’t do it for me); rather I wanted to admire and philosophize about the idea of crafting the movie before me. In parodying Godard I awakened a way of thinking that had been stirring in my head since I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer. I was now finally seeing films not as standalone pieces of entertainment, but as intertextual expressions of writer-directors’ imaginations.

 

It took another year and a half for me to first articulate this relationship, however. Moonlight and La, La Land were competing neck and neck for best picture, and in my social media world the competition was tense. This tension was of course political, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement motivating some of the support for Moonlight. To be clear, I agree with this cause and have no interest in arguing with its proponents, however, I did feel that this politicized environment lead to some misguided statements about La, La Land. For those judging the film through a political lens, La, La Land was a predictable repetition of the Hollywood-celebrating-itself trope. If that’s how one saw Damien Chazelle’s movie, I can indeed understand why one would feel it was inferior to Moonlight: a ground-breaking indie film about the intersections of race, sexuality and poverty.

 

For me, however, La, La Land was far more than its theme. It was, well, a dazzling

LLL d 10_1990.NEF

Chazelle directing La, La Land

diorama: a magical realist extravaganza that guides its protagonists around a world so wondrous and vast that they end up with happy endings while still being miserably lost. That it was about Hollywood and dreams coming true was not what made it entertaining: Chazelle’s world-building skills were.

I used to be the guy who didn’t like movies. Then I became more like “everyone else” and learned to like movies. The 2017 Oscars reminded me that maybe I was still in fact not like everyone else. I never learned to watch movies in the way that others do: I’d rather developed a distinct hobby that was like that of the regular movie goer in that it also involved looking at a film on a screen.

 

I suppose I could have named this blog post after La, La Land or Godard’s La Chinoise. Other works including Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were also part of that process. That said, I’m going to take the Coen brothers’ approach of going full circle. I started blogging in May 2017, roughly within one month of my re-seeing and re-appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis. I still have a lot to work on: seeing more classics, improving my cinematic vocabulary, and finding more non-white male directors to count amongst my influences. That said, in this regard, I’m not the same person I was 4 years ago, so “…p…p…please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer space,” I hear they don’t have video stores up there.

The Beaver (2011)

Directed by: Jodie Foster Written by: Kyle Killen

The_Beaver_PosterRoger Ebert wasn’t quite impressed with The Beaver writing “”The Beaver” is almost successful, despite the premise of its screenplay.” In response to this comment I cannot help but ask, what premise is Ebert referring to? The Beaver features four main characters: a severely depressed businessman named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), Meredith his wife (Jodie Foster), his son Porter (Aton Yelchin) and Norah, the class valedictorian on whom Porter has a crush (Jennifer Lawrence). The Beaver is thus the tale of two romantic relationships, that are connected due to Porter and Walter appeared being part of a multi-generational chain of fathers raising sons who hate their fathers.

 

While I must admit I am not familiar with the intricacies of Roger Ebert’s tastes, something tells me it is not this premise he is referring to. Rather, it is the film’s more obvious premise: the Australian beaver puppet on Walter Black’s hand.

 

Ebert, it seems, is troubled by a trait that I quite enjoy in film: multi-tonality. He complains that whatever compelling seriousness is in The Beaver is ruined by the absurd premise of an adult man dealing with his depression by expressing himself through a hand puppet. In this respect, I will have to denounce Ebert’s reactionary curmudgeonness. The moments that The Beaver pushes us closest to the ends of our seat are in fact the moments when Walter takes his commitment to the puppet to the next level. Sure, we can accept that the puppet is part of his life, but is he really taking it out at work; is he really talking to it himself; is he seriously using it to have a threesome?

 

There is nonetheless some truth in Ebert’s reaction. The Beaver strikes me as a film that’s not sure if it wants to be indie or not. The film’s plot relies on Walter’s commitment to the beaver, and the other character’s bewilderment and frustration with it. There’s something about the degree of this bewilderment and frustration that undermines the film. It’s almost as if rather than boldly being a work with an unusual take on human psychology, The Beaver simply puts that psychology forward for the sake of it being taken apart and pulled back towards normalcy.

 

This problem is most apparent when one considers that The Beaver implies that Porter is at risk of following in Walter’s footsteps. While Porter has his share of self-destructive behaviors his storyline feels less inspired than Walter’s. In one scene, for example, he makes an inappropriate comment to a character about suicide. If Porter were written a little differently this could have been a defining moment for him: his problem could be that he is empathetic but is pathologically bad at expressing his empathy. His problem could also be that he has no filter. Neither of these approaches are used, however. Instead, Porter is simply a relatively ordinary, angsty-teen protagonist whose blatant expression of his feelings is used when the plot needs advancing.

 

So perhaps Ebert was right: The Beaver is almost successful. It makes a traditionally tough-guy actor vulnerable through his unique relationship with his puppet. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the film’s imaginative quality and this excellent premise is not played out to its full potential.