Isle of Dogs(3/28/2018)


Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children.  However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs!  In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs.  I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time.  I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning.  But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people.  The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them.  They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans.  All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.

Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception.  The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).  From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans.  The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.

Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment.  I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people.  Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it.  This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that.  The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.

The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor.  Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent.  A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered.  It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs.  The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.

I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything.  If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan.  A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place.  I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human.  Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.

Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message.  I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom.  These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want.  But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.

***1/2 out of Five

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I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.

It(9/9/2017)


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

It Comes at Night(6/18/2017)

The main media story surrounding the new movie It Comes At Night has not been related to its themes or technique so much as the divide it’s caused between critics and audiences, who are divided as to its worth. This divide has been quantified in two separate metrics: its 86% score on the review aggregator site RottenTomatoes and the score of “D” that it reportedly got from the audience poll called CinemaScore. For those who don’t know, CenemaScore is a poll conducted by a professional firm which asks audiences at certain demographically selected public screenings during the opening weekend for films in order to report audience reaction back to studios. Now, if you’re a moneyman I can see why such a poll would be useful, but anyone else should take these scores with a strong grain of salt as they by their nature accept the input of the uninformed amateur rather than the input of people with any actual expertise about what they’re talking about. RottenTomatoes has its own problems but it’s certainly a more valuable resource in much the way the opinion of an actual scientist would be more useful in forming climate change policy than the opinion of a Gallup poll of the general public. Another problem with CinemaScore is that it is heavily influenced by audience expectations and tends to especially punish movies that offer audiences movies that are perhaps a bit more challenging and unique than what their advertising initially leads them to expect. Personally, I’ve always been an advocate of seeing movies with as few expectations as possible and with It Comes At Night I lived up to that more than on most movies. I don’t remember ever seeing a trailer for it and outside of hearing some of the “critics vs. audiences” story in the ether didn’t really know much about it at all before giving it a look.

As it turns out, the film is set in some not too distant future after some apocalyptic virus has killed a large portion of the population. At the film’s center is a nuclear family that’s been living in a boarded up and fortified house consisting of a father named Paul (Joel Edgerton), a wife named Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and a son named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and until recently they’d also been living with Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton) but as the film begins he has somehow contracted the virus and is put out of his misery before he can spread the virus and take on whatever awful side effects it brings with it. Throughout its run time the film is always vague about exactly what the nature of the virus is and there’s also some suggestion that there’s some separate element to it, some supernatural force that exists outside of the house which has some relation to the virus that’s never really explained. The main action of the film begins when someone attempts to enter the family’s house one night and is quickly subdued and captured by the family. Upon interrogation its learned that this man is named Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he was only going through the house because he thought it was abandoned and he’s looking for clean water to bring to his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and meant no harm. Paul and Sarah are not sure whether to trust him but they see some opportunity in working with these other people so Paul embarks on a trip to investigate these other people.

It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie and does play with the tropes of that genre at time, but it is perhaps more accurate to view it as a sort of procedural about post-apocalyptic survival. There’s been a lot of pop culture recently about fathers going on road trips with their kids across the American landscape after similar cataclysms, which tends to allow the audience to both experience the drama of a survival scenario and also get a glimpse at what the ravaged landscape looks like with civilization collapsed. It Comes at Night shows a similar scenario except that the parents here have opted for more of a “hunker down” rather than “stay mobile” approach to survival. In those road trip movies the challenges usually come in the form of chance encounters at every given bend, and there’s a little bit of that here, but the bigger threats are more internal and rooted in the family’s own paranoia. In this sense the film is perhaps analogous to another recent indie-horror classic The Witch, which also focused on a family removed from society and seemingly being torn apart by an outside force sowing seeds of suspicion and doubt among everyone involved.

The film was directed by a guy named Trey Edward Shults, a young director who made his feature debut last year with a micro-budget independent film called Krisha about a family reunion that goes very poorly. I wasn’t that movie’s biggest fan but I could see that there was a pretty thoughtful and interesting director behind it and was interested to see what he’d be able to do with a slightly larger budget. With It Comes at Night Shults has realized a lot of that potential. The film does a great job of establishing some of the minutia of what life in this house compound and how the family has managed to make something of a workable life for themselves in all the chaos while also underscoring the dangers their constantly facing. The movie also makes a very good use of mystery and is very wise to never really come out and explain whether there’s an outside force at work here aside from the virus and the human scavengers who may be outside and its refusal to define this force helps to add a lot of tension to the film. As the movie goes on and becomes more and more a film about paranoia and the psychological tension between the characters Shults does a good job of utilizing the layout of this house and makes it feel less and less like a cozy bunker and more like a prison where violence is about to break out.

The film is not completely without its faults of course. I probably could have done without the games that Shults occasionally plays with the film’s aspect ratio and while I liked the film’s somewhat abrupt ending in principle I can see why some people wouldn’t like it and feel like there could have been ways to punch it up just a little. And that I suppose brings be back to those audience members whose input led the film to receive that “D” CinemaScore. In many ways I feel like that score has less to do with the actual movie and more to do with the audience members’ expectations and how they were set partly by the film’s marketing (which is maybe a little misleading but not egregiously so) but in a bigger way were set by the wider modern horror landscape and their inability to see beyond it. I went into the movie with expectations of my own, which were mostly formed by hearing these stories of a critical/audience divide and was in many ways expecting something even more avant-garde than what I got. The movie is in fact, a fairly straightforward exercise from my perspective and it’s only “weird” or “slow” insomuch as it does not play out exactly like a sequel to The Conjuring or Insidious. I can see why people who went to the movie expecting something that played out like a more formulaic Hollywood film might have been a little surprised by it, but I would argue that this is less the fault of the movie and more the fault of their own closedmindedness and we as a film culture should not allow such narrow definitions of what constitutes a horror movie or any other kind of movie to be the only thing audiences are willing to accept.

I, Daniel Blake(6/11/2017)

If you’re a regular observer of the Cannes Film Festival you’ll usually notice that there are certain pet filmmakers that seem to be able to get their films into the main competition pretty much every time they make one and regardless of whether it’s actually a particularly strong effort on their part.  I’m thinking specifically of filmmakers like Nanni Moretti who Cannes seems to stand by even after they’re relevance has pretty clearly waned.  The king of this phenomenon has of course been none other than Britain’s most revered social realist Ken Loach, who seemed to get into the main competition for every movie he’s made since the turn of the century even when they are quickly dismissed trifles like Looking for Eric and Route Irish.  None of these were necessarily viewed as bad movies, but without the “Ken Loach” name attached to them I doubt that Cannes would have given them the time of day (though admittedly I’m going off of reputation).  There was of course his great 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which actually did win the Palme d’Or but that movie (a period piece focused on the early days of the IRA) was different from his usual output and felt like a bit of an exception and while that was a deserving film its prize did feel like something of a lifetime achievement.  When his new film I, Daniel Blake showed up in the latest Cannes competition lineup it very much did not look like an exception, it looked like another The Angels Share which would get indifferent notices and come and go, but that didn’t happen.  Instead this new film beat out some stiff competition to win the Palme d’Or in an upset.  Things like that tend to make you sit up and take notice.

The Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) of the title is a carpenter in his late 50s living in contemporary Newcastle who has recently had a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctors not to return to work until he’s had a chance to recover.  Unfortunately when Blake goes to the government office to apply for disability benefits they do not simply accept this doctor recommendation and instead have him take a standardized test with questions like “can you lift your hand above your head” which determines (in the government’s eyes) that he is in fact fit to work.  He’s told he can appeal this decision but that could take a while.  Meanwhile with no ability to work and no disability benefits he’s left to simply apply for unemployment benefits despite no actual intention of accepting a new job if one were offered to him, and even this process is accompanied by its own bureaucratic nightmares.  While waiting in one of many lines he overhears a fellow benefits seeker, a single mother of two named Katie (Hayley Squires), going through a similar hassle and can’t help but speak up on her behalf.  This results in a strange sort of friendship between the two of them as Blake attempts to help Katie and her kids with some of his handyman skills but as his own situation becomes more and more desperate he becomes almost ashamed to let them see his own destitution.

I, Daniel Blake is clearly an indictment on the apparently Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is the process of getting disability benefits in the United Kingdom, and I doubt that this kind of experience is anywhere close to limited to that country.  Shortly after seeing the film I opted to check in with some relatives I know who’ve had experiences trying to work with comparable agencies in the United States and they seemed to suggest that it’s not much different here.  It was suggested that Daniel might have had a slightly easier time here as the local politicians tend to view the disabled as more “worthy” than other people in need of help (his friend Katie, the single mother, would have likely been even worse off here) but he also likely would have had to deal with major medical bills on top of his other problems given our awful healthcare system.  Really though the film is in many ways less concerned with the services that are and aren’t being offered by the government and more concerned with the barriers and the red tape that make it hard for people to get whatever services they actually are entitled to.

At one point a character advances the suggestion that these bits of government inefficiency aren’t an accident but rather an intentional tactic used by the powers that be in order to discourage people from seeking the resources their entitled to, a viewpoint that .  That is perhaps a bit simplistic and conspiratorial, some of these rules actually do have legitimate purposes, but the darker answer is that a lot of them simply exist because the voters demand them.  People harp and harp on the prospect of the “undeserving” getting government benefits and governments respond by building bureaucratic hurdle after bureaucratic hurdle.  It’s easy to complain about “government handouts” when you’re an outside observer, but the second you actually need one they suddenly don’t seem so easy to get.  I feel like Loach would have done well to drive this point home a bit more.  Because the film is so ground level it can be easy to feel like all the problems that Blake runs into are just the result of uncaring cruelty rather than shortsighted public policy.

Daniel Blake himself is played by a guy named Dave Johns who isn’t a complete non-actor as he apparently has a background in stand-up comedy, but he’s never been in a feature length film before and has that raw non-professional edge that Loach often looks for while still having the charisma to anchor a movie like this.  Blake is depicted as a stubborn and occasionally prickly guy but one who is ultimately big hearted and kind.  He also seems to get along well with all sorts of common people whether they’re down on their luck single mothers or his black neighbors who are running a hustle involving imported sneakers.  In some ways I found Loach’s decision to make Blake into such a likable protagonist to be somewhat simplistic as one of the great tensions in the world today is that these white working-class figures are all too often intolerant trump voters and immigrant bashing brexiters of the kind people just don’t care too much to help.  I certainly understand the impulse to make Blake a paragon of the proletariat in order to build empathy but I feel like a more challenging film could have been made by trying to build empathy for someone who was a bit more flawed.

When Ken Loach made the film Jimmy’s Hall in 2015 a lot of people interpreted it as a swan song from the octogenarian filmmaker and as an attempt to go out on a slightly more upbeat note after having made so many movies about people who were rather miserable.  Rumors of his retirement proved to be unfounded though and he’s followed that movie with another film that could be a worthy final movie and one that is perhaps a bit more in keeping with the tone and style that Loach built his career on.  The basic filmmaking style here is serviceable and Loach is not necessarily presenting the kind of bold vision that one would usually associate with a Palm d’Or winner, but its look at society and at the life of its protagonist does prove to be affecting and will definitely leave you with some food for thought.

4

Jackie(12/23/2016)

12-23-2016Jackie

A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

4.5