Listen Up Phillip (2014)

Written and directed by: Alex Ross Perry

Listen_Up_Philip_poster          When I told a friend that Alex Ross Perry’s recent release Her Smell did not click with me as much as it did with him, he said that was too bad, because it thus wasn’t worth if for him to recommend Ross Perry’s other works to me. At the time I was inclined to disagree, seeing my issue with Her Smell (its being overly focused on one character in a way that limited the nuancing of others around her) as very specific to that one film. In that sense I was wrong. Through watching Listen Up Phillip I saw a common thread between it and Your Smell: one even shared with Ross Perry’s far more mainstream Disney contribution, Christopher Robin. Ross Perry likes to write about characters others would characterize as jerks. In the case of Her Smell, some like myself would perceive this characterization of the protagonist as unfair. In Listen Up Phillip, however, Ross Perry does not portray tropic overworked Dad (as in Christopher Robin) nor does he portray someone whose unpleasantness comes from their having lost control (Her Smell). Rather, protagonist Phillip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is just straight-up unpleasant.

Well, technically, nothing is ever that simple. But Phillip’s self-aware misanthrophy is no doubt the film’s defining feature. Phillip is an up-and-coming author: famous but not (yet?) rich. The film opens with a depiction of him waiting for lunch with an ex-girlfriend. She arrives substantially late, stressing out the anxiety-prone Phillip and driving him to berate her with criticism. In these early moments we’re presented with a brief view into Phillip’s psyche: he appears neurotic rather than a jerk. While this scene provides enough fuel to allow for future interpretation of the character, its brevity appears to be a key part of Ross Perry’s style: he likes to portray “jerks,” a vision which requires making audiences uncomfortable with the characters they’re watching.

Another common quality between Her Smell and Listen Up Phillip is that both are divisible into clear segments (units bigger than scenes). Her Smell offers a clear first act, second act, and extended conclusion. Listen Up Phillip meanwhile opens up being almost exclusively about its protagonist, then cuts to a segment on his newly-ex girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and thirdly focuses on Phillip’s relationship with an author-mentor (Jonathan Pryce). Perry explained that he took this approach because in his view a good character study requires seeing how a character makes an impact when not in the room. This segmentation is key to Listen Up Phillip’s appeal and liveliness, as it’s a story in which the character development and plot arc are so subtle, one can’t be blamed for missing them. Ross Perry said one of the challenges of writing Christopher Robin was that he had to give it a satisfying ending, a storytelling approach he felt was not in his arsenal when he was writing Listen Up Phillip, etc.

Despite its indie anti-climactism Listen Up Phillip’s array of scenes and roster of significant secondary characters leave it fairly entertaining. The real secret to watching it, however, is to do so with an active mind. Two paragraphs ago I wrote that Ross Perry’s style involves the portrayal of “jerks,” and also that applying such a label to any person is oversimplistic. Indeed, when listening to Ross Perry discussing Listen Up Phillip he doesn’t speak of him as a simplistic figure. He suggests Phillip is someone who acts on a temptation (to be unapologetically angry and solitary) that many have but know to suppress. He also sees him as someone who has an arc, and most importantly, as someone who is a significantly different character from fellow egotistical writer Zimmerman.

One of my favourite moments in Listen Up Phillip comes when Phillip speaks with Zimmerman’s fed-up daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Phillip is recounting an unpleasant encounter with an ex-girlfriend. Melanie is usually judgemental towards Phillip who she sees as embodying all she loathes in her father. In this case she remains judgemental, but speaks empathetically saying something along the lines of “people don’t like it when you treat them as disposable.” Its one of the few moment in the film when Phillip seems phased by another’s criticism, and the secret seems to be Melanie’s combination of empathy and logical phrasing. The suggestion of the moment is that caustic people aren’t unchangeable, but that in order to be reached they need to be shown an alternative and desirable way of being. Melanie’s conceptual intelligence appeals to Phillip, whereas her emotional intelligence shows him (however briefly) the error of his ways.

In reviewing Her Smell I said that the film started with its climax and had nowhere to go from there. Listen Up Phillip is perhaps guilty of the same flaw. Perhaps it would have been a stronger film from an entertainment-perspective if it didn’t just depict Phillip as an angry man, but rather showed a different side of him. But conceptually, at least, there’s an advantage to the approach Ross Perry took. He makes you ask, “if Phillip was always this way, could Ashley really have fallen in love with him?” The answer, it seems, is yes, since she loves the idea of his idiosyncracy and assertiveness, even if its hard to deal with in practice. Similarly, Phillip’s misanthrophic consistency allows us to ask “would an up and coming writer with an interest in teaching really be so offputting to his students?” The answer, in this film’s logic, is yes, because the film emphasizes that destructive coping mechanisms don’t fade easily. In short, Listen Up Phillip may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a movie, but Phillip Lewis Friedman (and perhaps Ashley and Ike Zimmerman too) should endure as one of indie cinema’s most memorable figures.

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Woman at War (2018)

Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson 

Written by: Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson

Woman_at_War                  In some ways Woman at War is just another good example of a film you should watch if you’re into the kind of thing that plays at arthouse cinemas. It’s the story of Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) an eco-activist/”terrorist,” who doesn’t have Mission Impossible quality gear or skills at her disposal. Instead, she uses a modest arsenal of tools to navigate through Iceland’s distinct, mossy-green mountain landscape. In the movie’s first act, we are also introduced to her other life as a choir director. In classic indie fashion, this scene does not feel like a distraction from the main action plot, but rather an equally important sensorial detail.

What sets Woman at War apart from other stylistically similar movies, however, is its environmentalist subject matter. We live in an age where those of us who don’t fall for Republican Party propaganda live in fear of climate crisis, but nonetheless don’t know how to handle it. Is it possible to feel like one is fighting the good fight by recycling, when climate change is largely tied to the business models of a relatively small number of big corporations?

This kind of disorienting anxiety was explored in one of my favourite 2018 releases, First Reformed.  In that story, a character equivocates over taking drastic environmentalist action, all the while it remains unclear whether his actions have as much to do with the world as they do with his own soul. While Halla takes a different path, hers is also a struggle for climate relevance, just as much as it is a struggle for climate justice. Halla puts immense effort into achieving her political ambitions, but since she acts largely alone its unclear what all that effort amounts to. Its worth noting that this is a question that Woman at War raises, but does not necessarily answer, as the shape of the Icelandic political landscape is never examined outside the parameters of Halla’s gaze.

The mysteriousness of Woman at War’s political messaging is part of another of its strong characteristics. For a film that’s opening strength is its indie world building, its second half is wrought with tension. This tension is particularly strong because the film runs beyond its first natural ending. Viewers are given what appears to be an unhappy ending, followed by a happier one. From there the story continues, raising the question of whether melancholy and injustice will strike again.

Full of twists and even, what I perceived as, an odd Empire Strikes Back reference, Woman at War is an entertaining and memorable reflection on activism and parenthood. Its environmental message may be frustrating, but its one that needs to be vented out and sympathized with until climate justice can actually be realized.

Border (2018)

Directed by: Ali Abassi Written by: Abassi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist

Based on a novel by: John Ajvide Lindqvist

border_(2018_film)[1]Border has a misleading title. Given our social contact, one might think it was the story of an immigrant. It’s not: in fact it’s the story of a border guard. It is not however, a story from the opposite political perspective: some sort of Trumpian ode to the nobility of borders. Rather, the film is an example of a piece with bait and switch branding. “The border” serves as a key setting for the film, but it’s really more of a metaphor in a story that does not deal with immigration-status issues at all.

 

Border is based on a novel. I’ve been told by someone who read it that the film holds up, even when one knows its plot in advance. From my perspective, however, this film was best enjoyed as a series of surprises. You think it’s about borders and injustice: it’s not. You think it’s about a border-guard: it’s not.  You think it’s about “ugliness”: well, I can’t say more than that.

 

The initial set up and initial satisfaction of border is as an indie-movie. We don’t see any dramatic scenes in the intiial depiction of the protagonist’s, Tina’s (Eva Melander), border work. She scolds a teenager about sneaking in alcohol, that’s it.  Slowly we’re exposed to her struggles, her home life living with a dog (fighting?) trainer (Jörgen Thorsson), her relationship with her father (Sten Ljunggren)  who lives in a retirement home, etc.

 

The film eventually evolves into a crime story, and then something else more dramatic-still. It nonetheless, never loses its indie feel. In fact, it’s more peculiar elements are well accented by the ordinary world within which they exist.

 

Overall Border has just enough simplicity too it that it can be described positively as a sort of fairy tale. Objectively speaking it is an excellent work: simple enough to vividly remember, aesthetically engaging, and rich with a range of scene dynamics. If I had any qualms with Border its in its approach to expressing its theme. Tina lives on a social
border” where she feels at odds with and/or mistreated by a number of social elements. The result is that the film ends with her distancing herself from two important players in her life. While Tina’s reaction makes sense given the serious wrongs both of these figures have committed, it seems a bit of a shame that the film’s conception of Tina’s existence on the border is one in which she’s condemned to be alienated rather than one from which she can use her perspective to bridge social divides. That said, this is admittedly a philosophical quibble. It does not take away from the fact that Border  is undoubtedly one of the most engaging, thought provoking and well-made releases of 2018.

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 title’s significance. Perhaps (presumably inadvertently) it serves the function of separating the film from  its fellow 2018 indie skating piece Skate Kitchen by emphasizing that it is 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 its nostalgia-inducing hook, mid90s is far too dark 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 scene, like mid90s as a whole, is more aesthetic than it is narrative. Ian gets respectable amount of screen-time, but we never really get to know how his violence 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 precedes 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.

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 I 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.