Crash Course: The Films of Xavier Dolan

Part of getting older is realizing that your age is no longer the main reason you don’t have a long list of wonderful accomplishments under your belt and the first thing that makes you realize this is when you start to notice people who are about your age or even younger than you but who still have careers that have accomplished more than you likely ever will.  For instance, there’s this French Canadian guy named Xavier Dolan who has already directed five fully produced feature length films and won a major award at the Cannes Film Festival despite being about twenty seven years old.  I’ve had a fifteen month head start on life over this guy and in the same span of time I’ve successfully started a seldom read movie blog, accumulated a semi respectable number of Letterboxd followers, and beaten a decent number of video games… yeah, maybe this is the wrong person to play “keeping up with the Joneses with.”  In my defense, Dolan did benefit from quite a bit of privileged along the way.  His father was an actor with a a bit of sway in the Canadian entertainment industry (dude apparently voiced Rodrigo Borgia in “Assassins Creed II”) and he used his connections to give his son a career as a child actor who performed in a number of Quebecois voice dubs of major Hollywood films (he’s apparently the French-Canadian voice of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series).  As such he had a lot of connections and money to parlay into his directing career… but there are a lot of child stars and rich kids out there, they don’t all end up winning the Grand Prix at major film festivals.  One way or another I had to figure out what was making this dude’s filmmaking was all about before he got even more famous.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

Xavier Dolan’s first film was released in 2009 when he would have been 20, meaning he must have been as young as 19 when he made it and even younger when he was first writing it.  This is an important thing to note because the film wasn’t some kind of genre exercise; it was a piece of personal filmmaking that Dolan has claimed to be semi-autobiographical.  The thing about that is when you’re an upper middle class 19 year old the only real life experiences you’re likely to be able to draw on are your experiences being a bratty teenager and that is largely what this movie is about.  Specifically the movie is about the various conflicts between Dolan’s surrogate and his mother. Before you ask, no, the title is not literal but there are certainly a number of screaming matches between the two over issues that seem kind of trivial to the outside observer.  I don’t want to say that the mother is completely blameless in all of this as she does provoke some of this tension needlessly and could probably have stood to have a little more empathy for how some of the things she does would come off to an immature teenage mind, but she isn’t abusive or anything and if anything seemed downright permissive from my perspective and the protagonist’s anger towards her mostly seems irrational from the outside looking in.  It’s not entirely clear how much Dolan expects us to agree with this protagonist’s disdain for his mother.  There are certainly moments in the movie that seem to suggest that he understands that this woman is doing the best she can, but he also doesn’t seem too interested in judging his younger self for his immaturity and one’s tolerance for the movie will largely depend on their willingness to go along with this character’s kind of whiney worldview.  Either way this is not bad for an indie debut.  Probably more of a festival type movie than the kind of thing I’d recommend to people who aren’t film devotees, but Dolan has a clear sense of how to block out a scene and the performances are pretty good for a film made at this level.

Hearbeats (2010)

Having gotten his semi-autobiographical coming of age indie out of the way with I Killed My Mother Xavier Dolan moved on to the other major pillar of indie filmmaking: movies about the petty romantic travails of hip young adults who don’t have any real problems.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mumblecore movie, but it’s in the neighborhood.  Needless to say this is a brand of indie I have a lot less patience for and in general Heartbeats didn’t do a lot for me, but I think the movie’s problems go a little deeper than mere matters of taste.  The film is about two friends, a gay man and a straight woman, who both find themselves attracted to the same guy and who are both simultaneously “friend-zoned” by this guy over the course of the film.  That’s kind of a thin concept to begin with and the movie didn’t do a whole lot to interest me in either of these two characters and it isn’t exactly clear what it was about this guy that interested them so much beyond basic physical attraction.  I also feel like this is a step backwards in terms of basic visual filmmaking with Dolan experimenting with handheld documentrary-ish photography that often has a bunch of random zooms in it.  The aesthetic is just noticeable enough to be obnoxious but not experimental enough to actually be interesting and given the general disinterest I had in the love triangle at the film’s center that’s a problem.  This is definitely a sophomore slump for Dolan, but it’s such a minor blip of a movie that it isn’t the kind of thing you’re likely to hold too much against him.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

Xavier Dolan’s 2012 film Laurence Anyways marks a number of firsts for the filmmaker.  For one thing, it’s the first of his directorial efforts that he doesn’t also star in and it’s also arguably the first of his films that really puts queer struggles front and center rather than as a secondary theme.  More importantly this feels like a transition away from semi-amateur “learning efforts” into actual accomplished filmmaking.  The film begins in the early 1990s and tells the story of Laurence, a thirty-something literature teacher who decides to come out as a transgender woman and begins to present as such in public.  This being the 90s this doesn’t exactly go well and it puts quite the strain on her relationship with her girlfriend, especially as she starts to withdraw from the general public after the awkward situations become too much.  It’s pretty crazy that Dolan was able to write a movie about ten years if the lives of two adults given that the dude had only himself been an adult for four years when he wrote the damn thing and if I didn’t know any better I would have guessed he was adapting a novel, but this is in fact a very ambitious original screenplay.  As bold as it was for Dolan to tackle something like this, he may have bitten off a little more than he could chew.  The movie is 168 minutes long and while I could envision a version of this movie that earns that running time I’m not sure this is it.  The movie really feels like its spinning its wheels towards the end and I’m not sure I ever really connected with the central character, who was kind of a stubborn asshole.  I like that the film didn’t feel obligated to make Laurence into some kind of flawless victim but at times it felt like it went more than a little too far in the other direction.

Tom at the Farm (2013)

Xavier Dolan’s first two movies had a very millennial view of homosexuality, which is to say that it was something that had its downsides but ultimately wasn’t that big a deal.  In his third and fourth films he seems to have sought to tell stories that moved away from the safe confines of modern Montreal and examined the more difficult experiences of people who lived in less tolerant times and places.  This is particularly true of his fourth film, Tom at the Farm, which is about a city-dwelling homosexual who drives out to a rural area for the funeral of a deceased lover only to learn that no one there knew about his departed boyfriend’s sexual orientation or his relation to Tom.  From that description you would probably expect this to be a sort of sedate melodrama where family secrets are confronted and everyone learns a lesson… but no, instead this is a weird sort of Hitchcockian thriller/psychodrama where Tom must confront his deceased lover’s psychotic brother who seems at times wildly homophobic and at other times like he’s actually himself a self-hating closet-case.  Rather than an entirely sympathetic victim, Tom himself emerges as a sort of self-destructive masochist who puts up with this crazy brother-in-law of sorts way longer than any rational person would and starts to take on a sort of Stockholm syndrome of sorts in the film’s second half.  I can’t say that I entirely followed the psychology behind all this.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Stranger by the Lake (which debuted the same year) in that it was a queer tinged thriller in which the protagonist seems to put himself in harm’s way for reasons that seem like they’d make more sense to a gay audience than they do to me.  Still, Dolan takes to the film’s genre elements with a pretty adept hand and is clearly improving more and more as a filmmaker.

Mommy (2014)

For me Xavier Dolan didn’t really seem to become a force in international cinema until he made the film Mommy in 2014, which won the Gran Prix at Cannes (where he tied with Jean-Luc Godard, a canny move in which the oldest and youngest directors with movies in competition shared a prize) and then finally got some legit American distribution.  It’s the first Dolan film without a queer element (which I’d like to hope isn’t the main reason it got a wider audience) but in some ways feels like a bit of a redo of his first film I Killed My Mother in that it focuses in on a relationship between a single mother and her troubled son.  The difference is that this feels less autobiographical and also because things are turned up a lot.  Here the son isn’t just a little bratty, he’s a borderline juvenile delinquent with some sort of serious behavioral disorder, and the mother is a bit younger and less capable.  Contrast this latest movie with that first movie and you can definitely see that Dolan’s vision as a filmmaker has been honed in the short five years since his debut although he is still prone to some gimmicky choices.  Most notably here he’s decided to film his film a the otherwise unheard of 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a framing that’s even more narrow than the already narrow by modern standards 1.37:1 ratio.  This isn’t the first time Dolan has messed around with aspect ratios (Laurence Anyways was in the Academy ratio and Tom at the Farm occasionally shifted to an extremely wide ratio during tense scenes) but it’s the most notable.  He does some kind of interesting things with this canvas but I’m not sure that the benefits to this outweigh the fact that this ratio is weird and ugly and a bit distracting.   Looking past the superficialities though Dolan does a pretty serviceable job of combining his usual idiosyncrasies with a sort of social realism that he isn’t otherwise known for.  The movie does run a bit longer than it probably needs to but he gets some good performances out of his actors and in general this just seems like the movie where all of the skills he’s been building just comes together.  Maybe not a masterpiece or anything but it’s a movie good enough to play with the big boys and it makes me pretty excited for where Dolan goes moving forward.

Everybody Wants Some!!(4/9/2016)

Generally speaking, directorial careers have ebbs and flows.  There were of course some masters who released big long streaks of amazing movies but more often than not directors can only have so much success before they put out a… shall we say “lesser effort.”  That’s certainly what you expect from a director like Richard Linklater, who rarely ever makes movies that are outright “bad” but who has clearly made a number of films that can be called “inessential.”  For every Before Sunrise or Slacker that that guy makes he makes two or three SubUrbias or Fast Food Nations.  Again, those aren’t bad movies per se, but they aren’t the kind of films that would lead you to believe that he’s one of the best directors working today.  That track record didn’t necessarily bode well for his latest movie given that he’s coming off of two career high triumphs in Before Midnight and Boyhood, so he definitely seemed to be due for a minor effort.  And yet, there was still reason to hope because his newest movie was said to be a “spiritual sequel” to one of his most popular films, Dazed and Confused, and Linklater is nothing if not capable of making sequels that don’t disappoint given how well his “Before” series is working out.

While Dazed and Confused was about the last day before summer vacation for high school students in 1976, this spiritual sequel is about the first days before college starts for a group of similar group of young people in 1980.  Being as Everybody Wants Some!! is a spiritual rather than literal sequel (and this having been made over twenty years after that movie) this is a completely different cast of characters.  Our main protagonist is a guy named Jake (Blake Jenner), who is the new pitcher for the baseball team at an unnamed Texas University and the film starts as he’s moving into the team’s off campus housing.  There he gets to know the rest of the team and spends the next three days before classes begin adjusting to the college life of partying and picking up women.

Everybody Wants Some!! has been called “Dazed and Confused but in the 80s,” which is technically true but it should be remembered that the film is set in the year 1980, which is only four years after Dazed and Confused and early enough in that next decade that it doesn’t really feel like the 80s yet.  Linklater maintains the obsessive historical accuracy that characterized that earlier film here and it really is kind of uncanny how successful he is at recreating the era he’s chosen down to the last poster and pinball machine.  A big part of his ability to do that both here and in Dazed has to do with the fact that their casts have primarily been composed of relative unknowns.  Most of the films’ young cast have backgrounds on teen televisions shows that I’m not familiar with and that definitely helped create the illusion that these were actually people living in the 1980 rather than millennial actors playing dress-up.  Don’t underestimate the cast for their lack of star power; under Linklater’s direction they have great chemistry and rapport.

Like Dazed and Confused this is very much a “hangout movie” where you watch the episodic escapades of the films’ characters as they go through a couple of days that don’t seem very eventful to them at the time but which you get the impression will stick with the characters for a while after the fact, in part because you get the distinct impression that Linklater (who did play baseball at Sam Houston State University) is drawing liberally from his own experiences as he frequently does in his best films.  There is however a key difference between the hanging out in Dazed and the hanging out here in that high school social interactions are way more high stakes than social interactions in college… or at least it seems that way to the people going through them.  In Dazed and Confused the younger characters are on edge because they’re worried about what their role will be in High School while the older characters are trying to navigate whether to move towards adulthood or continue indulging in the travails of youth.  It’s all right there in the title.  Here, not so much.  Jake is almost immediately accepted into his new group of friends and the movie gives very little indication that his college experience will be anything short of a totally awesome four year party.

That Linklater depicts the transition into college life as being easier than the transition into high school, at least for characters like these, he isn’t being simplistic so much as he’s being observational.  College is kind of awesome and college students are generally a lot better adjusted than high school students.  However, I do think Linklater might have let his nostalgia get the best of him a little this time out.  Dazed and Confused ends with Pink saying “if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life – remind me to kill myself” but I get the impression from Everybody Wants Some!! that Linklater doesn’t see a similar tragedy in college being the peak of one’s life experiences even though it isn’t that much later or that much more meaningful.  Also, while it’s easy to admit that college life is more easygoing than high school life… it usually isn’t this much better.  Not everyone who goes to college is able to immediately fit into a new group of friends, become the life of every party you go to, and meet the girl of your dreams within hours of arriving on campus and get into her good graces a couple days later over the course of an idyllic evening.  Maybe the first few days of college really were this awesome for Linklater but I think he does have his rose colored glasses on here and that the film could have benefited more if it had at least hinted at some of the downsides of the college experience or perhaps done a little more to signal that these characters are eventually going to find themselves ejected from this little oasis in four years and will have to face greater challenges.

That little observation should not be viewed as some kind of damning indictment of the film however, because overall I really enjoyed it.  Hangout scene for hangout scene this may actually be a more consistently amusing and watchable film than Dazed and Confused was.  It still has a great soundtrack, great attention to detail, and all sorts of fun conversations and character interactions.  As a simple, albeit slightly unconventional, entertainment the film is highly recommended and in its own odd little way it may just be one of the greatest college-set comedies ever made.  However, its episodic “hangout” nature is a little bit of a weakness for me. That same “hangout” nature was also kind of a weakness for Dazed and Confused , and for all the praise I’ve given that film while comparing it to this one, I would say that was also a movie that ultimately lands in the “very good but not great camp” for me and the fact that this movie has even fewer emotional stakes for its characters does kind of exacerbate my reluctance about this format.  Still, like the college experience that it’s painting, this is a really fun little ride while it lasts.

Midnight Special(4/3/2016)

We as critics have something of a laundry-list of demands we have for our summer blockbusters/genre entertainments.  You know what I’m talking about: “don’t overuse CGI,” “don’t use shaky camera work as a crutch,” “have an original idea rather than basing your movie off of an existing brand,” “cast a seasoned actor/actress instead of a flavor of the week pretty face,” “don’t waste too much time on needless exposition,” “focus on character instead of mindless violence,” etc.  It’s to the point where a lot of critics are sick of making the same points over and over again and especially frustrating since audiences stubbornly refuse to turn the movies that make these mistakes into box office flops, thus perpetuating the trends.  Believe me, I complain about this stuff as much as anyone but the sheer predictability of these complaints is downright comical at times.  It’s to the point where I bet a lot of filmmakers have gotten it into their heads that as long as they avoid all those pitfalls they should be able to make the perfect movie, but all too often it just isn’t that simple.  Case-in-point: look at the new Jeff Nichols movie Midnight Special, which seems to be defiantly avoiding every one of the most despised trends of modern entertainment filmmaking and still doesn’t quite emerge as a solid victory unto itself.

Midnight Special opens in medias res with a man named Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run along with a friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).  We see that there’s an amber alert out on the kid and that Roy’s face has been circulating on television as the suspect in the boy’s kidnapping, but we get the distinct impression as an audience that the TV isn’t telling the whole story.  We soon learn that Alton has some sort of psychic powers that frequently make his eyes glow, allows him to pick up on radio signals, and occasionally causes him to make a psychic connection with people, among other undefined abilities.  This has made Alton the subject of great interest among a cult-like church that has mistaken the child for a prophet but he’s also being pursued by Homeland Security for all the usual reason that G-Men hunt down powerful entities in movies like this.  Roy, by contrast, just wants to bring Alton to this unspoken destination that he believed he’s destined to arrive at.

Midnight Special is set in modern America but you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance.  Everything about the film’s mise en scène seems to point to the 1970s and 1980s.  Most of the televisions you see on screen are SD tube televisions, the cars in the film look kind of old, most of the hair styles seem a bit out of date, and none of the main characters seem to own cell phones.  It’s almost to the point where it’s jarring when an HD tv shows up about mid-way through the movie.  All this may simply reflect the fact that these characters are driving through Texan backwaters but I think it has more to do with the era of cinema that Jeff Nichols is trying to evoke with the movie.  The film clearly draws from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its “race to the aliens” plotline and the way the government is trying to investigate common people’s interactions with science fiction entities while not exactly being villainous or heroic.  The film also seems to pull from John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman in the way it’s about a small group that’s going on a road trip while being pursued, and I suppose that the fact that a kid is in the middle of all this evokes E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and the somewhat forgotten 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L..

There isn’t really much to complain about from a filmmaking perspective with this movie.  Jeff Nichols proved a long time ago that he has a strong grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and his goal here is clearly to move into a more commercial space while maintaining his indie cred.  At this he does a pretty admirable job. The film reminded me a little bit of last year’s Ex Machina in that it doesn’t have a ton of special effects but when it does have them they look really good and the film also isn’t filled with a lot of obligatory action scenes for the purposes of selling it to a wider audience.  It’s clear that Nichols wanted this to be a science fiction movie that was rooted in ideas rather than spectacle… but that’s kind of the movie’s Achilles heel because I can’t say that I found the science fiction ideas on display in the film to be all that deep or original.  The basic setup, father-figure and child with special powers on the run from government MIBs, is hardly an original idea.  I mentioned D.A.R.Y.L. and Starman earlier but one could also liken this setup to the Stephen King novel “Firestarter” and its 1984 film adaptation and perhaps even to the recent video game “Beyond: Two Souls.”  I’m not sure that this movie really did a whole lot to add to the formula and given the movie’s retro style it can’t even necessarily say that its modernizing the concept for a new audience; it’s just derivative.

So this brings me back to the initial question I started with: “how does a movie that does this much right still fall short.”  The movie walks, talks, and acts like a movie I should like but at its core the thing seems empty to me.  Whatever is actually interesting about the science fiction here is pretty obscured by mystery and we aren’t really given enough to chew on and I also can’t say that I found any of the characters to be wildly fascinating or the story to be uniquely compelling.  It’s a movie that desperately wants to look like it’s substance over style but it isn’t, it’s style over substance, albeit with a different and more adult friendly kind of style.  That said, at the end of the day it isn’t a movie I want to come down too hard on.  The throwback style will give some nostalgic enjoyment to certain film buffs and it does at least hold together and flow pretty effectively scene to scene.  I just wish there was an actual memorable story to go along with the dignified style

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Embrace of the Serpent(4/2/2016)

One of the (mostly) undisputed entrants into the cannon of English literature is Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.”  To call this book heavy would be an understatement given that it takes a deep dive into both the psychology of its protagonist and by extension that of the western world given its unflinching look at the legacy of Western exploitation in Africa.  For a while I viewed it as one of the most powerful critiques of colonialism ever written despite its flawed depictions of actual Africans until I studied it in college and realized that it wasn’t a critique of colonialism so much as conquest and that it mostly stood to legitimate the more “benevolent” form of colonialism perpetrated by Conrad’s native Britain.  Either way, “Heart of Darkness” casts a long shadow and pretty much any book or movie that depicts a river journey into a jungle while dealing with the downsides of Western colonialism is probably going to have some relation to that book.  Enter Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is certainly not an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” but is almost certainly in dialogue with it and takes a decidedly more 21st century look at its themes and brings a couple other ideas of its own to the table.

Embrace of the Serpent is set in the Columbian Amazon and intercuts between two separate but connected stories set in 1909 and 1940 respectively.  The first deals with a German ethnologist named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) who is traveling with a local named Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) whose tribe has been slowly taking on western ways.  The two encounter an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), among the last of his tribe, who reluctantly agrees to lead them to a rare plant called the yakuna that has strange hallucinogenic properties but could also cure Theo of an illness that he’s contracted.  Thirty years later this same shaman (now played by Antonio Bolívar) also agrees to lead an American botanist named Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) to this same flower, retracing the steps of that previous journey and seeing the further degradation that colonialism has wrought on the native communities.

Both Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes are real historical figures, but to the best of my knowledge Karamakate is a fictional character and this film is by and large a fictional story, albeit one that’s rooted in the actual realities of what was going on in this area at the time.  It quickly becomes clear that the rubber-barons have done a number on the local population and that other more seemingly well intentioned white people like missionaries seem to do just as much harm without realizing what they’re doing.  Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that this film is just a parade of imperialist horrors because there’s a lot more going on as well.  For one thing, it’s an interesting look at these two white guys who were by all accounts a couple of the “good guys” to come out of interactions between natives and Europeans but nonetheless have plenty to learn and who occasionally aren’t sure what the best way to help the Amazonians without being patronizing and aren’t quite sure how much to embrace their teachings.  The real protagonist of the movie though is Karamakate, who is the common bond between the two storylines and who is fascinatingly different in both time periods and who struggles with how to react to all the awful changes around him.

Director Ciro Guerra has opted to film Embrace of the Serpent in black and white which proved to be a canny choice for a number of reasons.  Partly I think this was a smart way to impart the period the film is set in, something that would have been slightly obscured otherwise given the absence of cars and western hairstyles and other usual signifiers of setting.  More importantly I think Guerra was trying to suck out some of the beauty from the rainforest scenery, which is necessary because this isn’t supposed to be some kind of exotic travelogue for the audience to vicariously enjoy.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t some really breathtaking bits of landscape here because they’re totally are, but the way they’re photographed makes the area seem less like they belong in a colander and more like they belong in a history book.  In addition to filming in monochrome Guerra makes a number of other canny choices like choosing the perfect visual language to transition between the two timelines and his excellent attention to period detail in the scenes that do have manmade structures.

The two elements that really sets the movie aside from the likes of The Mission and even Aguirre, the Wrath of God are its spiritual and psychedelic elements, which are probably the two things that I probably found the hardest to get a grasp of on an initial viewing.  Central to the film is a hallucinogenic drug which would seem to be the Amazonian equivalent of peyote.  Karamakate and his people believe the visions imparted by this substance to be visions sent by the gods or something and the movie kind of goes along with this.  It’s always a challenge for secular-minded liberals like myself us to question the validity of indigenous religions in much the way we’d question major western religions given how often these people were persecuted for these beliefs and this has led to a lot of New Age hooey over the years, but this movie does a pretty good job of staying just on the right side of all of that and does a good job of addressing the honest minded skepticism of the two westerners.  Honestly though I’m still probably going to struggle a bit with that element of the film and if someone asked me to explain the film’s ending and a few other sections I’m not necessarily going to be able to give a satisfying answer, but to some extent I think that’s intentional: there are some things that most modern westerners just aren’t going to be able to understand and that’s okay.

Some of the film’s dialogue could maybe be punched up just a little and while all the performances are serviceable I can’t say they were standouts.  Despite that the film more than makes up for that both in ambition and sheer originality.  Embrace of the Serpent is exactly the kind of movie we’re all looking for out of modern cinema: something with just the right mix of technical ambition, insights into the human condition, and political ideas that are intelligent without being didactic.  It isn’t every day that a film comes along that feels this dissimilar from all the other ongoing trends in cinema while being this confident and assured in what it’s doing.  It hits that perfect sweet spot where a movie is artistic and unique while still giving its audience plenty to grasp onto and allowing for a certain degree of entertainment value along the way.