Posts Tagged drama

Elephant

Year of release: 2003              Directed by Gus Van Sant.     Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

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It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.

I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.

A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.

I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.

I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.

Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.

As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.

Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.

 

Personal recommendation: F

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Year of release: 2017     Directed by Sebastián Lelio.   Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, and Nicolás Saavedra.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of a transwoman who must confront her older partner’s grieving and increasingly hostile family after his sudden death due to a brain aneurism. The film functions as a chronicle of daily discrimination punctuated with magical realism as she sees her lover’s ghost wherever she goes, which functions as both an escape and a comfort to her.

Honestly, I must confess that I’m really not sure what to make of this film. On the one hand, Daniela Vega gives a fantastic performance (pun not intended), and she was a consultant for the experience of transwomen, so perhaps I should give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the film wants to be a call to treat everyone we meet with compassion, and it gives visibility to a part of the population which is often overlooked. On the other hand, there’s a sort of savage glee the film takes in depicting the abuse and degradation Marina (Vega) suffers over and over and over and… Yes, I’m sure many transpeople face that level of discrimination, but here it comes across as a manipulative stacking of the deck for two reasons.

First, similar to The Help’s ridiculous caricature of racists, which enables many white people to pat themselves on the back and think they’re not racist while refusing to challenge any ingrained cultural racism they harbor, the transphobic characters here are so extreme that they create a sort of security bubble for any nominally progressive person watching this. And if we’re honest, ninety-nine percent of the people who watch this will most likely be some degree of progressive. I’m sure there are many more people this degree of transphobic than The Help’s sort of racist, but the portrayal comes across as a cheap shot at moral superiority.

Further undermining the film’s depiction of transphobia is the scenario in which Marina encounters her lover’s family. She meets them after his death, and they want to prevent her from attending the wake and funeral, solely because she is transgendered. The idea that anyone might harbor resentment toward the person who broke up their family regardless of their gender identity is never seriously considered. Conflating the two motivations undermines both the bigotry of the former and the more reasonable, if selfish, anger of the latter.

Secondly, heaping on the discrimination and abuse so heavy-handedly means the only way we can identify with Marina is to pity her. She’s an object for our pity, which I don’t think is a positive portrayal of anyone. Thankfully, she’s not raped, but it would have been perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film if she had been. A few scenes break away from the misery of the rest of the film when Marina can be herself or dream about the world as she wishes it was, and they’re welcome reliefs both dramatically and thematically.

However, I have to give the film credit for Vega’s performance as she does a very good job at creating a nuanced character trapped in an utter hell. She is a hundred times better at portraying a transperson who is an actual human being than Eddie Redmayne was when he portrayed a preposterously concocted straight man who liked to play dress-up in The Danish Girl. While it’s possible the filmmakers are just depicting the hellish world Marina is forced to inhabit, I’m not convinced they aren’t perpetuating that hell with some of their stylistic choices – the filming of a physical examination due to a creepy and prurient social worker comes foremost to mind.

When Marina first meets her lover’s adult son, he inquires whether she’s had sexual reassignment surgery, because he cannot know how to act toward her unless he knows what kind of genitals she has. She tells him never to ask that, and the notion that we can treat people as human beings regardless of their gender is made strikingly apparent. However, after that scene, the film takes a coy, nearly voyeuristic interest regarding where Marina is in her transition, repeatedly teasing the audience and inviting them to speculate how much of a woman she is, while simultaneously saying how wrong it is to do so.

Postscript: when I Googled Daniela Vega to make sure I was spelling her name correctly for this review, the top search term was, “Daniela Vega before.” Based on the film’s treatment of her and its obsession with the state of her transition, that makes sense.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

Content advisory: A non-sexual but nasty assault, several scenes of nudity, some obscene language, non-graphic love-making.

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

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The Shape of Water

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Guillermo del Toro.   Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.

Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.

When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.

Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.

However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.

Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.

Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.

The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.

By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.

Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.

Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities.        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Martin McDonagh.         Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.

When I was in undergrad, (longer ago than I wish to acknowledge) I took a humanities course for which we read Antigone, and for a classroom of 21st century college students, it was very easy to interpret the play as the story of a noble heroine standing up for justice and truth against a tyrannical ruler. It was quite eye-opening when one of the extra reading assignments (I don’t remember who wrote it) about Sophocles’ tragedy emphasized that the name of the play is Antigone, and thus Sophocles is saying she is the tragic character with a fatal flaw. That same reading went on to say that the ancient Greeks would have viewed both Antigone and Creon (the tyrannical king) as equally wrong and equally right, because they both dealt in extreme absolutes, refusing to the see the truth to the other’s side.

Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand) is a similar protagonist to Antigone. Her daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months ago, the Ebbing, Missouri police department has come nowhere near catching the killer, and there are several prominent officers on the force with a notorious reputation for harassing and torturing black citizens. When she notices three unused billboards just outside of town, she rents them to advertise the incompetency and corruption of the police with the following statements: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Considering the recent news stories about police brutality and how often sexual predators get away with their crimes, it is all too easy to sympathize with Mildred. It is also easy to criticize Chief Willoughby (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) for being too lenient with the more violent and racist cops in his force, most notably Sam Rockwell’s explosive Officer Dixon, because as Mildred says, “the buck has to stop somewhere.”

However, as true as Mildred’s statement is, Harrelson’s performance clearly reveals there is more to Willoughby than a lazy, overly lenient cop. He followed every lead he got in the murder case, and every single one turned up a dead end. He’s dying of cancer, which preoccupies enough of his time that he makes the mistake of allowing the worse officers to continue working for him.

In the first instance of the film turning the tables on the audience’s expectations, when Willoughby mentions his cancer to Mildred, she bluntly responds, “I know; the whole town knows.” Shocked that she would still put up the billboards, Mildred indifferently responds, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak,” a morbid joke Willoughby appreciates, indicating the two of them are not that different, which is reinforced when he later returns the joke with an even harsher one.

That sort of dark humor, a trademark of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, is scattered throughout the entire film. However, unlike his last two dark comedies with tragic subject matter, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is tragedy punctuated with jokes.

As a tragedy, the tragic flaw of all the characters is anger, and McDonagh indicts the audience for our own anger as well, at times stacking the deck to make that anger seem all the more justified. As I said, it is easy and natural to sympathize with Mildred, and Sam Rockwell’s nakedly racist and brutal Officer Dixon provides an easy villain to hate. However, as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her, “All this anger only begets greater anger.”

That line is a succinct summary of what McDonagh is doing with Three Billboards, showing how the anger of Mildred toward the cops, the town towards her, school kids towards her son (Lucas Hedges), Dixon towards blacks, is all connected in a giant cycle making none of them that different. Even though some of that anger is justifiably motivated, when it escalates into rage, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish from the racist anger motivating Dixon.

Shortly after Mildred first puts the billboards up, the local priest callously attempts to counsel her to take them down. She retorts with a vicious insult about the sex abuse scandal. As others have noted, it is the sort of line that often receives cheers, and it comes early enough in the film, while we’re still meant to sympathize completely with Mildred, that it is certainly possible McDonagh intended it that way. However, while the rage-fueled response may feel good to Mildred and to some viewers at the time it is delivered, the remainder of the film shows that what begins as righteous anger very rarely stays that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Frequent obscene and profane language, harsh violence with considerable gore, occasional racist and homophobic epithets, frank discussion of rape                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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