A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)


The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five

Godzilla: King of the Monsters(5/30/2019)

Me and Godzilla go way back.  When I was a kid, I’m not sure what age range but probably before I was even ten, I would take every opportunity to watch the original Toho Godzilla movies when what was known at the time as The Sci-Fi Channel.  I didn’t even really watch the 1954 original that much, it was mainly the many sequels from the 60s and 70s that I was watching (what I would later learn was called the Shōwa Era of the series).  However, unlike other childhood obsessions like the Universal Monsters of the James Bond series I never really stuck to the Godzilla movies.  Part of that is that the world was not still supplying me with new ones (it wasn’t until much later that I learned that they were still pretty regularly making these things in Japan without exporting them) and partly because, well… those movies are kind of hard to defend objectively.  I watch old clips from some of them and I can pretty easily see why someone not nostalgically inclined towards them would just laugh at them, hell I do myself even if I still have some warmth for them.  On some level my blinders towards the flaws in these movies even extend towards the questionable American remakes.  As dumb as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is and as dull as elements of the 2014 reboot was it’s hard to complain about them with too much of a straight face once you’ve established affection for, say, a movie where Godzilla fights a robotic version of himself built by space gorillas alongside another monster brought to life by a lady singing a very long j-pop song.  And it was with all this baggage that I arrived at the opening day of the sequel to that 2014 American Godzilla film: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

This sequel is set at least five years after the evens of the 2014 Godzilla and eschews most of the cast from that movie.  Here we follow the Russells, a family that was in San Francisco when Godzilla fought the two MUTOs and lost a son during that attack.  Years later they’re split up.  Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is now focused on his career as an animal behavioral expert while his ex-wife Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has begun working for an organization called Monarch, which studies other giant creatures called titans which have been discovered in the time since the first movie.  As the film starts Russell is studying a giant larva which has just hatched and is using a device she has invented called the ORCA which is meant to communicate with these titans through subsonic frequencies.  Right as she’s taming mothra her operation is attacked by a group of Eco-terrorists led by a guy named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) who steal the ORCA and kidnap both Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).  With the device lose and potentially able to wake up the wrong titans, Mark is brought in to help track the terrorists down and avert disaster.

Let’s get this out right away: this movie has a terrible script.  More specifically it has terrible characters.  The guy Kyle Chandler plays is just the worst kind of Hollywood “hero.”  He has a murky background, his brashness is constantly rewarded by the script, and he seems to continually be allowed to be in the middle of things by authority figures despite not really having any qualifications besides the fact that he’s trying to save his daughter.  His wife isn’t much better.  There’s a shred of a good idea in making the villains environmentalist extremists who believe the titans should reign but the movie doesn’t develop the idea properly at all and their motivations ultimately just seem completely stupid.  The dialogue isn’t much better; it mostly consists of rote exposition and while there aren’t many attempts at humor the ones they do try either fall flat or maybe elicit a small chuckle at best.

So, terrible movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  If there’s anything redeeming about this script it’s that the things that are bad about it are bad in a way that’s kind of generic and unobtrusive.  You look at them, you know they’re bad, but they aren’t so groan-worthy that they completely distract from the rest of the action.   In a way they almost in keeping with the lackluster human stories that were always there in those early Toho films and they also don’t take up nearly as much screen time as the only moderately superior human stuff from the 2014 movie.  And that “rest of the action” in the movie was for the most part very strong.  The main thing being added to the movie are additional kaiju including three of the most famous monsters from the franchise: Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah and each time one of them comes into the movie it’s an event to behold.  Mothra is beautiful and has a pretty good theme behind it, while Rodan is ferocious and immediately leads the airforce on a thrilling chase sequence.  Then of course there’s Ghidorah, who is a major fan favorite.  Whenever this dude would show up in one of those old movies you knew you were in for a treat.  He didn’t have much of a personality, but he was a really good design, you always knew when he was on screen that there were three Japanese dudes just off frame holding fishing poles to control the three heads in unison.  Seeing that creature rendered on screen in 2019 with top of the line Hollywood effects is just kind of amazing and the movie makes the character properly intimidating.

So what we have with this movie is some of what I would consider very good action filmmaking that’s propping up a lousy script.  I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing; cinema isn’t literature, movies don’t entirely live and die by their writing.  Of course that’s true about a lot of bad action movies, so why am I using these old “leave your brain at the door”/“They made it for the fans!” type of excuses for this one?  Well, the joke response is that those other movies don’t have Ghidorah in them, but in some ways that is how I feel.  I don’t think this is pure fanboyism either, I think the majesty of these kaiju and this history behind them does transcend some of the film’s more pedestrian shortcomings.  Beyond that though I’d say part of it is an expectation game brought on by the early reviews.  I get why those other critics were not impressed: the larger ambitions of the 2014 film combined with those trailers set to “Clair de Lune” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” promised something a lot more sophisticated than this and if I hadn’t been primed for lowered expectations by the film’s 39% Rotten Tomatoes score I would probably have been less inclined to focus on the positives as well.  Also, I think critics today really demand silly movies like this kind of signal their intentions by telling a lot of jokes and sort of winking at the audience in ways that this movie doesn’t.  I, however, am not always on board with that approach (see also my against the grain enjoyment of Man of Steel) and at this point generally find it refreshing when stupid movies take themselves very seriously.  So really I get why this thing isn’t getting the strongest of reviews, it kind of deserves it, but if you’re the right kind of person there is plenty of fun to be had with it.

*** out of Five

Green Book(11/18/2018)

If there’s one movie that was done no favor by winning an Academy Award it was Crash, and if there was another movie that was done no favor by winning that award it was probably Driving Miss Daisy.  Where Crash was criticized for what it was Driving Miss Daisy was criticized for what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was Do the Right Thing.  In a vacuum Driving Miss Daisy is fairly inoffensive; it’s the story of a decades long friendship between two older people from very different backgrounds who overcome their prejudices and come to respect each other over time.  A generous reading is that it’s telling white people that we’re not so different, a less generous reading is that it’s telling black people to stop making so much trouble and maybe white people will treat them better.  Any other year the Academy might not have gotten any shit for rewarding a movie like that but they decided to give it Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee released his widely beloved masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a film with a much more challenging and provocative take on race.  That movie failed to even garner a Best Picture nomination and the symbolism of ignoring Lee’s film in favor of a movie about a “nice” black guy was not lost on observers and a controversy was born that culminated in Kim Basinger calling the Academy out on their own show.  We’ve spent the last thirty years scoffing at that choice and yet these “friendly” movies about race relations remain an easy sell around the world whether it’s in the form of something like The Intouchables or Victoria & Abdul and now there seems to be massive Oscar buzz around another movie about a black person and a white person coming to learn that they’re not that bad while on the road, could history be repeating itself?

Set in 1962, Green Book follows a guy named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson), a streetwise New York Italian who works as a bouncer the legendarily mobbed up nightclub The Copacabana.  After an incident Lip finds himself out of work for two months while the Copacabana is closed for renovations.  Fortunately for him he receives a tip that there may be a job opening as a driver for a pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).  Shirley is a classically trained pianist, but also an African American living a profoundly racist society and out of a sort of need to face the wider world he’s booked a tour of the Deep South, where he plans to play a variety of concert halls and private shows at the estates of wealthy socialites.  Of course a black man touring the south at this time faced a great deal of danger, so he was in part looking for a driver and in part looking for someone who could defuse situations and if need be act as a straight-up bodyguard.  Tony Lip seems to be what he’s looking for and hires him, but as the road trip begins it was clear that the two would have personality clashes.  Shirley is a wealthy and sophisticated man of refinement while Lip is a crude and uneducated guy from the block, and the two frequently bicker over these differences, but as the film moves on the two start to realize they can trust each other.

Green Book was directed by, of all people, Peter Farrelly.  Farrelly has until now been part of a duo with his brother Bobby Farrelly and the two have become synonymous with broad lowbrow mainstream comedy.  This was the duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me Myself & Irene and they generally didn’t stray too far from the tone that made them famous even though they had not seen much real success at all since the turn of the millennium.  Now he seems to have separated from his sibling and is trying to “go legit” so to speak and show he can make something a bit more serious.  And to his credit I don’t think his direction here is much of a problem at all.  He’s clearly a seasoned professional and shoots the film with traditional Hollywood efficiency.  His sense of humor also isn’t completely put to waste here either.  I would never call the movie a comedy exactly but given that it is essentially a buddy road movie there is some of that usual dynamic where the two sort of drive each other crazy before coming to like each other and this definitely leads to some comic relief that serves the movie they’re making well enough.  He also gets some pretty good performances out of his leads: Tony Lip is a bit of a walking goomba stereotype but Mortenson makes it work and keeps him believable while Mahershala Ali manages to make his character seem endearingly snobby rather than the one dimensional guy he could have been.

So before I get mean about this, let it be known that I think this is a perfectly competent movie, one that people will enjoy watching if they catch it on HBO on some random evening and which has a message that in and of itself is largely inoffensive.  Here’s the thing though, this is late 2018 and pretty much every movie that comes out around this time inevitably gets looked at in terms of Award season and by extension in terms of legacy and in terms of the constant tug of war over the soul of cinema, and in those terms I have some major problems with this movie being celebrated.  For one thing, the movie is kind of predictable.  If you’ve seen enough movies you have a pretty good idea of what these characters’ arcs are going to be and it also hits certain moments in a rather false way.  When the film introduces subplots like Shirley helping Lip write letters home you can pretty easily guess how it’s going to pay off and the film’s sense of irony about Lip being the less refined of the pair are handled in increasingly obvious ways.  Kris Bowers’ score is also part of the problem as it’s a very standard issue work that constantly intrudes and tries to really turn the emotion up to eleven in some really phony ways.

So the movie is kind of corny in and of itself, but then we have to deal with the way the movie addresses race, which in many ways seems rather basic.  It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made for people who went to really conservative schools that never bothered to give even the most cursory of black history lessons.  Hell, even the characters at the center of the film seem oddly naïve about the world they live in.  The Shirley character was intentionally going on this tour in an attempt to face down Southern racism and Lip is a guy who may well have known the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas and yet the movie constantly has both of them suddenly turning into Pollyannas whenever they encounter a tailor that won’t let Shirley try on a suit or a sheriff that tries to enforce a sundown law.  These scenes don’t strike me as an honest portrayal of how these guys probably acted so much as they’re trying to shock modern audiences who somehow never watched many of the hundreds of other movies about the Jim Crow South that have been made in the past.  And that’s the problem with movies like these, they primarily only seek to show the wrongs of the silliest forms of discrimination of the past and frankly those are the easiest possible targets.

So what is the ultimate message of this supposed to be?  That people overcome their differences by getting to know each other better?  That is indeed the same damn message that Driving Miss Daisy was peddling back in 1989 and if it seemed kind of weak back then it’s certainly weak now.  These movies always operate under this simplistic assumption that racism was a problem in the South caused by dumb deplorables and that Lyndon Johnson fixed the problem and we know better now because individuals learned better and stopped being mean to each other.  Here and there this movie does at least suggest it knows better than that in little asides like when Shirley suggests to Lip after escaping a redneck bar that he probably wouldn’t have been treated much better at a bar back in Lip’s own neighborhood, but by the end when they’re actually being helped by a sheriff rather than hurt by one simply because they’ve gone far enough North really plays back into that old framework.  What’s more the movie ignores the larger systemic causes of oppression, the kinds of thing that no amount of Tony Lip learning to be nice to highly talented black men he finds himself befriending is going to fix.

Compare it to something like If Beale Street Could Talk, which is set a decade later and in the same city that is supposedly such a safe space for Shirley and you immediately realize how bullshit this framing is.  That is a movie about black families more or less being fed to the grinder by an uncaring criminal justice system, and while it’s certainly set in the past it’s still significantly more relevant to civil rights struggles that we’re still fighting today.  And there’s been no shortage of other movies about race relations made this year by black filmmakers like Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, Monsters and Men, Black Panther, and of course a brand new movie by Spike Lee called Blackkklansman.  Those movies all have their pros and cons and none of them are on the level of Do The Right Thing but they all feel far more in touch with the politics of 2018 and most of them tell their stories in more creative and exciting ways as well.  And that’s why this movie kind of pisses me off.  I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it and I could see it having some value for elementary school kids or, like, grannies who are never going to understand something a little more confrontational than The Blind Side.  However, if you’re an adult (or an Academy member) the time has come to reach for something more than this kind comfort food.  Like Shirley says to Lip at one point: you can do better.

**1/2 out of Five

Halloween(10/31/2018)

I’ve long been called something of a film snob, a title I somewhat resent given that I consider myself to be about as well versed in low brow genre cinema as highbrow art films.  Take the slasher movie for example, the disreputable horror sub-genre that Roger Ebert once dismissively called the “dead teenager movie.”  It’s not exactly my favorite type of cinema either but I’ve seen a whole lot of it, and of my own free will to boot.  Most notably I’ve seen every damn movie in the big three slasher franchises.  That’s all nine Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all twelve Friday the 13th movies, and most pertinently all ten Halloween movies.  Did I love all thirty of those movies?  Not at all, in fact I’d say well over half of them are outright bad movies but it was interesting watching the trajectory the three long standing series went in.  For example, the The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were pretty consistently decent but pretty much never great and the Friday the 13th movies were pretty consistently crappy though occasionally fun.  The Halloween franchise, by contrast, is all over the place in terms of quality.  The original Halloween is a stone cold classic, a way better movie than any of those other movies and almost entirely because of John Carpenter’s sheer skill behind the camera.  But the franchise also has some real oddities like Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which ignores the series continuity entirely to tell a weird story about evil masks, as well as some real stinkers like Halloween: Resurrection in which Busta Rhymes repeatedly calls Michael Myers “Mikey.”  The franchise was last seen being rebooted in the late 2000s by Rob Zombie with generally poor results, but they are now taking another stab (no pun intended) at bringing “The Shape” back to the screen with another sequel/reboot simply titled Halloween.

This new Halloween film is not a remake is instead a new sequel, one that ignores every other film in the franchise except for that 1978 original.  It is set in the present day and alleges that shortly after the events of that first movie Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) was captured and placed into a mental asylum where he has been for the last forty years.  Myers’ surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now pushing sixty and her experiences escaping from Myers have driven her to become something of a reclusive survivalist, a fact that has estranged her from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) but she does have more of a working relationship with her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  As the film begins the story of Michael Myer’s rampage is getting brought back up again by a pair of true crime reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who try rather unsuccessfully to interview Myers, who has remained mute and unresponsive after all these years.  Their visit does reveal one thing though; the state is planning to transport Myers to a different prison by bus on October 30th… that couldn’t possibly go wrong could it?

To longtime fans of the Halloween series this “ignore all the sequels besides the original and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis” approach will be a familiar one.  The same basic thing was done in 1998 for the series’ 20th anniversary sequel Halloween H20, which had Laurie as a college professor in hiding after faking her death forced to contend once again with Myers.  That movie was better than most of the Halloween sequels but it was made in the wake of Scream and while it wasn’t overly meta or snarky like that movie was it did follow the conventions of that late 90s slasher movie wave otherwise, and those conventions have not aged well.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake came around about ten years later and it two is something of a product of its era.  It was clearly greenlit after the success of 70s horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes and it had a certain “torture porn” edge to it.  I remember having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to that movie and wrote a really nasty review of it but I must say looking back on it I think I might have over-reacted a little.  That movie had problems but there were certainly elements of it that I liked and they stand out a bit more in my memory, but I digress.

The 2018 Halloween is interesting in that unlike the last two iterations of the series (and their respective lame-ass sequels) this is not really coming out amidst a wave of other slasher movies.  The horror movies that are most in vogue right now are bad haunted house movies where ghosts jump out at the screen and go “boo!” after a few minutes of buildup, and that’s pretty far removed from the slasher genre that Michael Myers would become associated with.  As such this movie seems to have doubled down on ties to the original movie.  John Carpenter actually has some credits on it (though I’m not exactly sure how hands on he was) and they even brought back original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle back to reprise his role in a couple of scenes despite him being a 70 year old who was never a real actor to begin with.  And yet, the film oddly doesn’t really play out like the original film when it comes to the actual horror scenes.  In that first movie Michael Myers was a rather spectral presence; he would slowly stalk his victims and Carpenter would try to build maximum suspense before each kill.  Here Michael Myers is more of a blunt instrument.  He basically just walks up to random people and kills them in brutal fashion.  The film is significantly more gory the first movie and actually reminded me a lot of Rob Zombie’s take on the series.

The movie certainly has elements that work.  Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis go full Sarah Connor is interesting and Curtis certainly seems to have taken the part on with gusto.  As a whole though I wasn’t very impressed by this reboot/sequel.  Maybe I was expecting too much from it.  Between its clear interest in righting the wrongs of past sequels and it’s immense popularity I guess I was expecting something really creative and special out of the movie and instead what I got just kind of felt like another slasher movie sequel in the series which made a lot of the same mistakes as the other ones.  There may in fact prove to be no way to successfully follow up the 1978 film, which achieved a certain perfection through its simplicity and that any attempt to revisit the Michael Myers character is just going to diminish his mystique.  Still if you’re going to try to do that I feel like you’re going to need to do a little more than this movie does to recreate that magic.

**1/2 out of Five        

Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

Hereditary(6/9/2018)

When did audiences and critics suddenly become so divided in their taste for horror movies?  It probably isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it seems like there’s been a certain role reversal.  It used to be that critics looked down on horror movies in general and wrote snobby reviews of the likes of The Thing and it would be left up to audiences to recognize the skill on display and build its legacy.  Obviously there would be certain movies like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs that would be so good they would win over critics as well as audiences, but for the most part mainstream movie critics were far less forgiving of the genre than the public.  That’s still the case to some extent given that there are plenty of horror movies of the Ouija variety that the public laps up despite critical apathy, but there’s been an odd trend recently of “arty” horror movies that critics have loved but which audiences have angrily rejected.  The most prominent example of this was probably Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which was only kind of a horror movie but audiences were certainly expecting it to be one and they were not too happy with what they got.  Something similar played out with last year’s It Comes at Night and with less widely seen films like The Witch and The Babadook.  It’s a pretty disturbing trend, in part because it suggest that audience have really closed their minds to what a horror movie can and should be, but it is good to see smart movies like this getting recognition and the latest movie that seems to have fit this trend is the new film Hereditary, which received incredibly strong reviews on the festival circuit but seems to be confounding mainstream audiences.

The film opens with the text of an obituary of an old woman named Ellen and transitions to her funeral where her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is conflicted about how to feel.  Her mother had been mentally ill throughout her life and the two fought often and went through periods of estrangement.  Annie’s kids aren’t quite sure what to think about the death of their grandmother either.  The older son Peter (Alex Wolff) had not spent much time with Ellen as Annie was estranged from her when he was young but her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) did spend time with her but generally has a rather cold demeanor and doesn’t reveal much in the way of her emotions.  In the days after Ellen’s death Annie finds herself seeing some odd things that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) dismisses as her mind playing tricks on her but Annie still finds herself secretly going to support groups for grief where she meets a woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) who tries to support her and begins introducing her to alternative coping mechanisms.  However, as Charlie begins acting increasingly strangely and other odd things keep happening and it becomes clear that something far more sinister than mere grief is going on here.

Hereditary could be said to be a rather extreme example of the many ways not to handle grief and family strife.  Much of what makes the film special is the way that the family at its center starts to break down and turn against one another as things grow increasingly painful for everyone involved and we see different coping mechanisms out of each of the main family members.  The mother desperately searches for answers and becomes prone to anger, the son more or less cocoons himself away and falls into a sort of depressive stupor, and the father tries to just move on and ends up having to act as a sort of mediator between all parties involved.  I wouldn’t exactly say that this rings “true” exactly given all the horror trappings that adds a new dimension to everything, but it does sort of feel like an extreme version of dynamics that would exist in a similar if less fantastical scenario.  As such this requires more out of its actors than the typical horror movie and much of the cast delivers.  Gabriel Byrne does a good job of conveying the desperation of a guy who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a truly messed up dynamic and Alex Wolff does a pretty good job of making his character’s utter confusion palpable.  But the true standout here is almost certainly Toni Collette who brings to life a character who is in an almost constant state of mental breakdown because of an accumulation of years of confusion and repressed memories and also the desperation of her current situation.  Were this a more standard family drama in the Ordinary People vein she would be a shoe in for an academy award for this performance.

This focus on mental breakdown in a familial situation draws some comparison to another recent “arty” horror movie, The Babadook.  I would say that in general Hereditary is a scarier and more hard hitting horror movie than The Babadook but it lacks the ambiguity of that movie and other clear inspirations like Rosemary’s Baby.  I think the movie wants you to sort of be unclear, at least for a little while, as to whether or not there’s truly something supernatural going on or whether Toni Collette’s character is letting her paranoia and insecurities get the best of her, or at least that’s a card I wish it had wanted to play but it shows you things early on that are plainly supernatural and in doing so it sort of discards that possibility early on.  In general if I have a problem with the movie it’s that it is perhaps trying to be a few too many different kind of horror movies at once.  At times it feels a bit like a ghost story of the Paranormal Activity variety and it isn’t above going for a jump scare here and there, at times it feels like an occult/witchcraft movie along the lines of The Exorcist or The Witch, and at times it wants to be more of a psychological thriller along the lines of The Babadook and the weight of trying to be so many things at once sort of prevents it from being everything it could potentially be.  I think dropping some of the elements that fake towards it being a haunting movie and letting it be more of a slow burn at the beginning would have been to its benefit and I also don’t exactly know that it lays out the rules of its horror universe as clearly as I would have like (I was never exactly clear how the rules of possession are supposed to work in it), though of course there is probably a decent argument to be made that a more mysterious approach would was the right one.  Whatever it’s imperfections that may or may not preclude it from the pantheon of horror masterpieces, this is plainly a cut above most of the horror movies that are likely to be in theaters at a given moment and is well worth seeing if you’ve got the stomach for a lot onscreen trauma.

**** out of Five