mid90s (2018)

Written and directed by: Jonah Hill

Mid90s_(2018_movie_poster)                 When I think back nostalgically to my childhood (which was technically the late 90s and 2000s) I think of supersoakers, skateboarders and gameboys. That’s the nostalgia that mid90s celebrates. Beyond that, it’s hard to point to the titles significance. Perhaps (presumably inadvertently) it serves the function of separating the film fellow 2018 indie skating film Skate Kitchen in that its set in a pre-cellphone society. Perhaps it also speaks to the kind of film Hill wanted to make, one that’s aesthetic, rather than story focused.

                  The latter is probably the best explanation for the title. Despite it’s nostalgia-inducing hook, mid90s is far too dark a film to be seen as a film about the pleasures of a (barely) bygone era. Rather it’s a film that covers a short period of time in a character’s life in a fairly confined geographical area (it could easily have been called LA, but I guess that sounds slightly less original). The film begins brutally as we see 13-year-old protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being beaten by his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). This seen, like mid90s as a whole, more aesthetic than it is narrative. Ian gets respectable amount of screentime, but we never really get to know how he came to be, or how Stevie deals with this problem.

                  mid90s has been described as a coming of age story, but given the traits I’ve described, such a descriptor feels inaccurate at best, and tragic at worse. It is not the story of Stevie finding himself, or independence or maturity: rather it is a story of a coping mechanism he uses in a world where such development seems hopeless. Stevie joins a group of teenage skaters: Ruben, Fuckshit, Fourth Grade and Ray (Gio Galicia, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin and Na-kel Smith). While this development happens early in the film, it is essentially the extent of Stevie’s coming of age.

                  From there the movie’s highlights are memorable moments of characters being kind and characters being cruel: with the kindness and cruelty coming both from inside and outside of the skater crew. In one early scene, in typical 90s fashion (and who knows, maybe outside of my urban, progressive bubble in typical 2010s fashion too) one of the crew refers to Stevie’s politeness as “gay.” Though not the film’s most pleasant moment it stuck with me as about as good a representation of the genesis of toxic masculinity as one could produce. Luckily, there are well written moments of endearment to counter balance this one.

                  Because of its aesthetic focus, mid90s struggles to find an ending. While there is major drama near the end, it doesn’t stand out that much given the dramas that precede it. The end of mid90s, simply lacked writing: the writing wasn’t bad, there just wasn’t much. So unfortunately, I left the film without the sense of satisfaction I would have hoped for. In retrospect, however, it had a lot of nice touches along the way. The film’s story wasn’t always pleasant, but through and beyond its unpleasant moments it serves as a strong plea for and defence of all kinds of comraderies.

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We the Animals (2018)

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar Written by: Zagar and Dan Kitrosser 

We_the_Animals.pngI was deeply frustrated with the closing shot of We the Animals. I also found it very beautiful. One school of thinking on such a reaction would say that I should defer to the positive reaction: something that is frustrating but beautiful can be understood as a beauty that just takes thinking to appreciate. I’m open to the possibility that I simply haven’t thought enough about We the Animals (and admittedly I haven’t read the Justin Torres novel it is based on), but I would say I’m fairly confident in my ambivalence about that scene, a reaction that sums up my relationship to the film.

One of We the Animals’ strengths is that it is a deeply sensorial movie. We hear pencil scratches as red bursts onto a child’s page. The camera often aims down showing the soil and water the characters’ feet traverse, while also taking care to show the technologies of their world. As a film based on a semi-autobiographical story this approach makes sense: nothing quite spells nostalgia like a careful recreation of the colors and textures of one’s life.

This sensorial quality goes well with the films title. The movie is “animalistic” in that it asks up to appreciate places and events but not words. The film’s title, however, is also where my criticism stems from. An easy way to understand the title is that it refers to the film’s protagonist, 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two slightly older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The boys often walk around shirtless and find ways to survive in their unstable household. Once the movie really gets underway events take place that plainly make this interpretation come to fruition, but these events are then reversed with plenty of film left to run.

Once Jonah, Joel and Manny’s animalistic state is interrupted the film never quite picks up again. This is not to say it doesn’t have memorable moments (it has plenty), but they stop feeling like they add up to something. At this point the story is no longer one that pits the three “animals” against their parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand), but rather Jonah, to varying degrees against the world. This feels an odd decision in a story called We the Animals: at best it’s a tale of We the Animal. And this is a problem even before the film moves away from Jonah’s brothers, for while the film does feature important brother bonding moments, it makes no effort to define Manny and Joel as individuals. When they stop being relevant in their role as Jonah’s brothers, their status as titular animals becomes entirely forgettable.

The closing shot of We the Animals depicts the forest surrounding the family’s house from the air. As I said, it’s striking, but I also don’t get it. It could be said to represent Jonah’s smallness in a big world, yet given that his family’s lives are not restricted to their immediate, forested surroundings, this imagery does not feel particularly fitting. It’s beautiful, but I don’t get it: and I can’t help but assume that We the Animals offers a kind of indie realism (coupled with a little magical realism) where there really is nothing to get.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

 Directed by: Crystal Moselle Written by: Moselle, Jen Silverman and Aslıhan Ünaldı

263825R1Genre-wise Skate Kitchen is a film in the same vein as another recent release, The Rider. Both are the products of directors who immersed themselves in communities, recreated those communities on camera, and cast actual community members as stars. On top of that, both are stories of riding (horses/skateboards), and both feature characters who try to forbid the riding. In Skate Kitchen the rider is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a high school senior(/recent graduate (?)) and passionate skateboarder, and the “forbidder” is her mother, who after Camille suffers what appears to be a relatively minor injury tells her she is forbidden to skate. Camille subsequently takes a train to Manhattan where she quickly befriends an all-girl group of skaters she discovered through Instagram.

The experience of watching The Rider and Skate Kitchen is similar. Both are celebrations of landscapes and feel particularly fit for viewing on the big screen. What differentiates the two films, however, is that Skate Kitchen is a piece with two acts. While the plot of the film’s first act has some qualities in common with The Rider, the film’s second act takes it into entirely different territory. Having glanced at other reviews before seeing Skate Kitchen, I’d noticed that some labelled it a feminist movie. Unless these critics were really taken in by the one scene in which the skaters discuss the concept of gas-lighting (a good reflection of how political vocabulary has taken a foundation in otherwise apolitical millennial and generation-z spaces) I imagine the film really garnered its feminist label from the fact that it is a Bechdel-test-passing, serious movie in which a group of girls form a community and engage in athletic activity.

With that in mind, I couldn’t help but begin to draw mental parallels between Skate Sandlot_posterKitchen and The Sandlot. The latter is a popular kid’s movie in which a group of 11-year old boys bond over their pickup baseball league. The Sandlot is certainly no feminist-flick: its female cast is limited to a generic mom-figure, and a lifeguard who one of the boys tricks into kissing him. The Sandlot also tried to improve its gender-politics with a sequel (The Sandlot 2) that featured three girl players, but unfortunately, two of them were background characters, and the film as a whole felt so contrived that the one who wasn’t a background character was not exactly memorable either.

Nonetheless, the idea of a good-version of The Sandlot aimed at girls feels like an important idea. Despite the film’s flaws, The Sandlot manages to be a pleasant celebration of comradery, immaturity, urban legend and passion-for-a-sport. Skate Kitchen is all of those things (albeit for an older audience), and on top of that, it manages to be socially conscious and thematically serious.

But there’s one strong quality that the The Sandlot has, that Skate Kitchen lacks. Cleverly mirroring the experience of baseball fandom, The Sandlot has two heroes: an everyman narrator who many viewers can relate to (Scotty Smalls), and another character who Scotty emulates and who ultimately completes the film’s heroic objective (Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez). The Sandlot may celebrate comradery within a flawed boy-community, but a big reason it makes this work is that Benny is the exception to this community’s rules. While the other boys bully Scotty for his lack of athletic skills, Benny, the best player of them all, helps coach him. And while Benny never does anything explicitly feminist in the movie, he at very least doesn’t come across as someone who, like his teammate Ham Porter, would scream “you play like a girl!”

Skate Kitchen does not have a Benny-figure. Instead, it features Camille both as its vulnerable narrator and its moral decision maker. This is not in and of itself a problem: again, the Scotty-Benny dynamic in The Sandlot is a unique one, and furthermore, the girls of Skate Kitchen are generally speaking far nicer than the boys of The Sandlot. Nonetheless, as Camille comes into conflict with her crew members toward the end of Skate Kitchen, the lack of a Benny-figure (or some other solution) felt like a real shortcoming.

Camille is defined by having a lot of dualistic traits. She is poor, but she lives in suburbia. She is the well-behaved, soft-spoken member of her friend group yet her story is defined by her rebellious streak. Similarly, she comes across as reasonable and agreeable, yet she constantly feels inclined to flee the people in her life all-together. All in all she is sympathetic and vulnerable, but most importantly feels like the only member of her crew who has three-dimensional thoughts and emotions. In the film’s most heartbreaking moments, she feels like the one reasonable character in a sea of immaturity and un-nuanced anger. Yet somehow, because Skate Kitchen is a celebration of comradery, it is not her group-members or other characters, but Camille who is ultimately compelled to grow at the end of the film. Messaging-wise, this didn’t sit right with me..

Skate Kitchen has a lot going for it. It’s lively, colourful, realistic, dark and funny. Similar to The Florida Project it features a cast of largely amateur actors teamed up with a single star (Jaden Smith) in a memorable, but supporting role. I suppose my one issue with it is how it holds up as an inspirational piece (whether it aspired to be one, I can’t say). On the one hand, it envisions how variously marginalized youth can escape into their own solidaristic communities, but on the other hand it also shows the degree to which membership in such communities can require unpleasant conformity. Of course it’s good and right for filmmaker’s to depict imperfect realities: the problem is when they seem to want us to accept them.

Before Midnight (2013)

Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Before_Midnight_posterThis review of an “older movie” is of the third part of a trilogy. This is a trilogy, in which the three instalments are intentionally filmed many years apart, should really be appreciated as a whole, and as such readers not familiar with the first two films should not continue for the sake of avoiding a key spoiler.

 One of the first films I saw in my transition to identifying as a “film person” was Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the story of a young, not-quite-couple exploring Europe and developing a deep sense of connection in a single night together. Thematically, the film could be said to be about the idea of finding “true love.” The “right person” can come at the wrong time, forcing lovers to live in the moment and not worry that their future may not be as perfect as the present.

If one thinks of the trilogy thematically, Before Midnight is its logical conclusion. The first film tells the story of a love that can only last for a moment, while this third film reintroduces the lovers as a married couple of several years. If, however, one thinks of the previous Before films not in terms of their themes, but in terms of their character, the premise of Before Midnight is a bit more surprising. What captured my imagination about Before Sunrise was that it was a largely action-less and even plot-less film. It simply featured two characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (July Delpy) having a very long conversation. The conversation was varied and animated, and I left the film with a new understanding of what I could find entertaining. Two years later I saw Before Sunset a film, that aside from being set 9 years later, changes little from Before Sunrise formula. Upon seeing that film I thought “wow, Linklater did it again.”

Who knows if Linklater could have done it yet again? The fact is, when it came to Before Midnight he opted not to. While the film’s middle certainly resembles its prequels, its beginning and end are uniquely focused. Jesse has married Céline despite the fact that they live on different continents, and Jesse was already married with a son. Again, thematically, this was the logical place for this third Before movie to go (perhaps, some might argue, it was the logical place for the second movie to go). The first film is about a neither-mature-nor-immature young couple who know that they can’t be together. The third film re-introduces them in their forties, when they are supposed to be, and largely are, mature, but are caught up in the fallout of one of their rare (arguably) immature decisions.

If cinema is an escape from reality, the first two Before movies were an escape from reality and cinema. It wasn’t like other movies: it could be smart without having to have some sort of important theme. Before Sunrise, for better or for worse robs viewers of that quality. The magically written conversation, of the first film, we’re told, is not some magical quality that Hawke and Delpy’s characters possess, it is a product of their love, a love that becomes very hard to sustain when they actually act on it.

Before Midnight is not without it’s Before moments, be they Delpy’s impression of a “bimbo” or her painful kitten story. The film also ends on a Before-like note, with the protagonist connecting through an acted-romantic interaction. This last scene, however, lacks the vivacity of the playful moments in the earlier films, because of how tied up it is in the movie’s unifying theme. Perhaps this review has come across as negative, but I don’t think it has to be read that way. All I’m saying is that despite sharing qualities of its predecessors Before Midnight is a substantially less magical film. And since it is a story of lovers struggling with the loss of new love’s spark, I suppose that it achieved what it set out to.

Support the Girls (2018)

Written and directed by: Andrew Bujalski

Support_the_GirlsIn one sentence Support the Girls is a story about a Hooters (known as “Double Whammies” in this story) told in the absence of the male gaze (not literally given who the writer/director is). This premise alone is enough to make it an interesting work. The film’s protagonist is restaurant manager Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) and much of the movie follows her adventures: handling a break in, supervising a servers’ kid (Jermaine Le Gray) and dealing with the restaurant’s abrasive owner (James Le Gros).

One of the film’s strengths is its cathartic performance of empathy. Given the film’s setting: a niche place in the service industry aimed at profiting off of male lust, one might expect Double Whammies to treat its staff horribly. Lisa, however, “supports the girls” as most evidenced when she insists a customer leave after he makes a “joke” about one of the servers being fat. As fans of the character Juan from Moonlight or Gabo in A Fantastic Woman well know, a well placed empathetic line, underlined by unstated social commentary, can really make a scene or even a movie.

On the flip side, Lisa’s empathy is inevitably limited by her circumstances, and perhaps by her sense of duty, as someone in a management role. She is involved in two firings over the course of the film, and while she handles these about as well as she can, this shows the limits of making a manager your hero. This is not to say that all movies should be tailored to have the perfect ideological message, but rather to get at a more apolitical criticism I have with the film.

Perhaps this is not a problem if you go into Support the Girls without expectations. In my case, however, the film’s premise led me to expect a film with the intensity of a low-end comedy, made better through being more principled and being more politically self-aware. I was disappointed however, to find that despite all its chaos, the first ½ to 2/3 of Support the Girls somehow comes across as understated. This is why I think it’s a shame that Lisa’s empathy wasn’t even more radical. A scene in which a manager offers a reference letter to a flawed employee is just a scene. A scene in which a manager actually comes up with a way to keep an even more flawed employee on staff, by contrast, would substantially liven up the film and its supposedly chaotic universe.

Support the Girls ultimately embraces its chaotic potential in it’s final third. And while it’s final two scenes are not as chaotic, they nonetheless complete the film in a satisfying way. I can’t say too much about it, but it gets at how the Hooters/Double Whammies industry really is a universe of its own.

Support the Girls tells stories about characters that might otherwise not be told, and might certainly not otherwise be told in as respectful a light. Are there ways it could have been more radical? Yes. By centreing its story around a manager it maintains a distance from Double Whammies actual workers. Of course, this approach has its benefits (particularly in the penultimate scene). Still, I can’t help but wonder what the film could have been like if it embraced its zany potential.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Directed by: Debra Granki Written by: Anne Rosselini

Based on My Abandonment: by Peter Rock

Leave_No_Trace[1]  I don’t know if there’s a name for a movie made with two largely distinct motives. Leave No Trace is one such movie. It is on, the one hand, a piece of scenic exploration that leads its characters from place to place, unapologetic when potential plot points are left unresolved. On the other hand it is a social film, an exploration of a, one could say politicized, mental illness. These two elements of the film are not disconnected as the mental illness of one of the characters explains their constant movement. Nonetheless, there’s a disunity in the film’s two underlying traits. Some version of Leave No Trace still would have been made even if mental illness wasn’t the driving force behind its plot, and similarly, its message about mental illness is too important not to have eventually been the subject of one film or another.

Note, I have not as of yet described Leave No Trace as a nature movie. Those who’ve seen its trailer or movie poster, perhaps even those who have simply heard its title, may be surprised by this omission. Leave No Trace can certainly be called a nature movie, however it’s one that breaks the rules of the genre, so much so that it’s probably safer to avoid labelling it a nature movie altogether. I would avoid this absolutist position and argue it is a nature movie in so far as it explores the concept of “nature” as something separate from “humanity” and hints at the question of what it means to go back to nature. Another positive, from my perspective, is that it is one of the few nature/survival movies I’ve ever seen that does not depict the killing of animals.

The quality of subverting expectations has notably been attributed to The Last Jedi. Other recent films that fit the description include Sorry to Bother You (in terms of its absurdity) and Mother! (in terms of the ridiculous degree to which it intensifies). All of these films, however, are science fiction works and rife with vicious energy. As I left Leave No Trace I was unsure as to whether subverting expectations works in a film where the subversive moments are all realistic and gently stated. It certainly made for an interesting work, but it also left me with an ambiguous feeling of calm unease.

The subversion of expectations continues up until Leave No Trace’s final moment; a moment when the film’s mental illness theme is really brought to the forefront. It is an opaque scene when a seemingly drastic, divisive and heartbreaking decision is made, but the characters involved handle it cooly. Perhaps this scene was a revolutionary imagining of human social potential: one critic hailed the film as one in which “compassion fills every frame” and I think they might be on to something. In my critique of  The Light Between Oceans, I asked why movies had to rely on the trope of characters refusing to understand each other (a trope we should be trying to overcome in our day to day interactions), and in its conclusion Leave No Trace indeed suggests its possible for people with radically different world views to accept each other.

Still, part of me was left frustrated by this application of the trend of  indie-movie-ending-ambiguously. I agree, admitting ignorance can be more powerful, empathetic, and intellectually rigorous then coming forward with more blatant, but forced analysis. Nonetheless, since Leave No Trace dealt with a particular mental illness and was clearly trying to teach something about it, its refusal to be more lucid about the affected character left me feeling something was missing.

Even if Leave No Trace falls a bit short as an-issue movie, it’s aesthetic motif is absolutely on point. The film shows us hidden campsites, Portland transit, the christmas tree industry and a youth agricultural fair to name a few things. While logically connected, the film’s locations nonetheless come across as individually inspired choices.

In short, Leave No Trace is a solid, artistic film which in retrospect has a lot of traits (its imagining of human and interspecies relationships, its breaks with cliche, etc) that speak to me as an individual viewer. I suspect viewers who are particularly passionate about the survival genre and stories of parent-child relationships should find this film and its radical empathy even more captivating than I did.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

The_Squid_and_the_Whale_posterThe Squid and the Whale is a gift. I say this not to offer saccharine, grandiose praise but to note something quite specific. The film deals with a number of anxieties, one of which is the fear of being a philistine. One of the film’s subjects, father and disgruntled author Bernard (Jeff Daniels) defines a philistine as someone who is not interested in “books and interesting films.” Anxiety about one’s own philistinism can be quite overwhelming as it is a hard problem to cure. Every year numerous important books and films come out, and that’s on top of the enormous back catalogue one must catch up with.

The Squid and the Whale is a gift, simply put, because it is one hour and sixteen minutes long. It’s about as short as a feature film can be, and yet it fulfills its mandate.  The Squid and the Whale tells an emotionally laden story without making explicit what it wants viewers to think. In this way, it is an anti-philistinic film. Yet it also undoubtedly anti-pretentious. Another way to explain this seeming contradiction is that the film is critical of Bernard while nonetheless aimed at a viewership who can almost identify with him. So on behalf of all my fellow wannabe-non-philistines (a group that I can only imagine is quite large) looking for accessible, quality art, thank you Noah Baumbach.

So what is this film about? It’s the story of a family undergoing a divorce. The family includes pre-teen/young teenage son Frank (aka Pickle) (Own Kline) and older teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg). Both show strong emotional reactions to the divorce, despite of (or because of) its being a fairly mundane one. The parents (Daniels and Laura Linney)  have agreed to joint custody and plan to live a mere five subway stops from each other.

The film has a down-to-earth plot in that its centred around one, ordinary issue (divorce). What gives the film an intriguing architecture, however, is that the different characters’ relationships to the divorce are not mere mirror images. Walt, for instance, is unequivocally on his dad’s side. His younger brother Frank mirrors this somewhat in that his sympathies lean towards his mother and his mother’s eventual love interest. That said, Frank is not anti-the dad to the same degree Walt  is anti-the mom. And despite their different worldviews, the two brothers themselves basically get along.

Finally, the irony of Walt sharing the worldview of his father is that he comes to be the father’s rival as well as his adoring fan: thus implying an interesting relationship between admiration and jealousy. The asymmetry of the film’s relationships both sell it as a realist work and sustain its dramatic tension.

Perhaps the appeal of The Squid and the Whale boils down to it being simple and complicated at the same time. As the film concludes, it clearly points viewer sympathies toward one parent over the other, and perhaps an obvious moral can be read out of that. Another obvious moral of the film is that parental conflict inevitably effects children. But I think the more interesting observation of The Squid and the Whale is its theory on where our sense of morality comes from. Morality, the film posits, is not something we know innately, but we pick up from authority figures in our lives. And this is why a parental divorce is so disturbing. When two people who are supposedly moral authorities fight, it disturbs one’s sense of order. Together, these individuals are supposed to form a bastion of virtue. Where can one turn to to learn right and wrong if one’s own parents aren’t confident on the subject? This is the proverbial fight between the giant squid and the whale and it’s a pressure Walt copes with by picking a side.

As far as the philosophy of the film goes, Walt is the point of focus. As a pure artistic creation, however, Frank is the more interesting brother. Wes Anderson produced The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach film’s have always struck me as the less eccentric distant cousins of Anderson films. The younger brother is striking because its left ambiguous whether one should appreciate him in a Baumbachian or Andersonian fashion. Does he exist as an exploration of how a child might react to a divorce or is his kid-dultishness in fact, an aesthetic tool, a more Andersonian creature who adds drama to the older brother’s life?

I would be remiss of course to forget to mention the film’s three major female characters. This near omission is the result of the film’s existing on the borderline of being an ensemble-movie. While many characters share roughly even screen time, Walt subtly stands out as the character whose development the film follows. The next most important characters are Bernard and Frank. The father, Bernard, is prominent, but a little flat. The younger brother is not flat, but his nature is laid out less for us than Walt’s: he’s mysterious. The most prominent woman character is the  mother, Joan . Like Frank she is prominent and not as flat as the father, but since the film is ultimately not her story, her soul remains on the mysterious side. The other girls/women, Walt’s girlfriend Sophie Greenberg (any relation to another Baumbach character?)(Halley Feiffer) and Bernard’s student Lili (Anna Pacquin) are more like the father, important but flat and existing solely in the context of their relationships to Walt and Bernard. None of this is to say that The Squid and the Whale is a sexist film, but it is worth noting that it’s a film that deals with gendered issues largely through the lens of male self-critique.

In summation, The Squid and the Whale is artfully concise, offers interesting ideas and a good range of characters. Unless one is put off by abrupt endings this (unfortunately not literal) undersea struggle should appeal to a broad range of philistines and cultural savants alike.