Mr. Robot’s “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov” (No, it’s Not a Movie)

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A Post about TV?
Well, this is awkward. Not only does this post concern television (and not a movie), it’s also about an episode that premiered well over a year ago. But it’s new to me. And since I haven’t managed to post anything new for over a week now, I figured that a review of bit of television is better than no reviews at all.

If it weren’t for a class I’m in (hence, this review), I may have never watched Mr. Robot at all. I’ve heard a lot good things about the show, but I find it much harder to spend time on TV than on movies. The list of shows I currently keep up with is quite limited, and it takes a good deal for me to devote time to starting a new one (especially now that I’m a floundering graduate student).

While I was intrigued by much of the pilot, I was a little underwhelmed as well (this, undoubtedly, has to do with some of the hype surrounding the show). In fact, there’s a good chance I won’t be watching another second of Mr. Robot. But maybe I will. To this end, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show (no spoilers please). Based on what I write below, do you think it’d be worth the time-commitment for me to keep watching?

Basically, I’m late to the Mr. Robot party, and I’m not quite sure if I should stay.

My Review
There is no fourth wall, technology is as much as weapon as a tool, and money is “the operating system of our world”—such are the premises on which writer and show-creator Sam Esmail builds Mr. Robot. With its resemblance to David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), this dark techno-drama and character-study may not be as original as USA wants viewers to think, but it still stands out (or, apart) from much of the current TV landscape. Thanks largely to its fascinating lead, its timely themes, and its complicated relationship with reality, Mr. Robot’s pilot shows a good deal of promise.

Mr. Robot begins by addressing viewers directly. As they gaze on nothing but blackness, a hesitant voice pierces the dark: “Hello, friend…. Hello, friend.” The voice continues, “You’re only in my head. We have to remember that.”

Before presenting any images or putting a face to any of its characters, Mr. Robot puts viewers in their place. A person watching Mr. Robot is not in control. Those who watch the show are subjugated by the narrator, just as everyone in the show is subjugated by the greedy, shallow society that that same narrator hates so much.

The disembodied voice that opens the episode belongs to cybersecurity engineer and “vigilante hacker” Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). Importantly, Elliot is more than a narrator; he is also the material through which nearly all of the show is filtered. Elliot regards viewers as an object of his own making, and he controls their experience of his reality.

Control is something that Elliot takes seriously, something he wants desperately. As his interactions with his therapist (Krista Gordon), and his friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) demonstrate, Elliot is completely comfortable lying. He hides, and he uses deception to carefully control how much of himself he reveals. He even exercises control when it comes to his drug habit (he uses morphine regularly but won’t allow himself to become a “junkie”).

Elliot’s primary means of exercising control—and of combating the terrible specters of helplessness and isolation that haunt his every move—is hacking. Elliot hacks everyone: criminals, those he likes, those he doesn’t like at all. He regularly violates the privacy of others, and he does so for numerous reasons. But whether he’s exposing a creep, just passing time, or trying to “protect” people he cares about, the underlying motive remains the same: hacking is the one thing that makes Elliot feel powerful.

By beginning Mr. Robot with the words, “Hello, friend,” Esmail immediately begins setting Elliot apart from ordinary people. With this twist on the famous computing phrase, “Hello, world,” Mr. Robot likens its narrator to a machine. Elliot understands computers better than he understands people. Through hacking, he uses computers—instead of interpersonal communication—to manipulate others and to get to know them. Instead of social skills, Elliot has a key board. Shrouded in a black hoody that might as well be a shield, Elliot walks the crowded streets of New York without ever truly connecting with a soul. Elliot is not normal, but he can still use a computer to lay bare a person’s darkest secrets.

In keeping with contemporary trends, Mr. Robot gives viewers a deeply flawed protagonist, who displays a number of idiosyncrasies associated with mental illness. Elliot has suffered, though that suffering is not examined in the pilot. He is anxious, overprotective, and has trouble socializing. He is prone to bouts of rage, and he doesn’t like physical contact either. There is also a chance that Elliot is delusional, and that possibility colors every scene in which he is present.

Through Elliot, Mr. Robot blurs the boundaries of reality; in doing so, the show immerses viewers while giving them good reason to pay attention to its every detail. For instance, whenever characters other than Elliot say “Evil Corp” (instead of “E Corp,” the entity’s proper name), it’s clear that Elliot’s mind is altering the reality of the show. Like Elliot himself, Mr. Robot’s audiences cannot trust the evidence of their own eyes, and such mystery contributes to its appeal.

In addition to introducing the show’s core cast of characters, “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov” also sets Elliot down a path that will alter the course of his life. Figures standing along this path include E Corp (think Apple meets Bank of America meets something even larger) and a disheveled hacktivist touting financial revolution (Christian Slater).

Mr. Robot’s inaugural episode is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who is also responsible for the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)—another dark drama centered on an antisocial hacker. Along with the spirit of David Fincher, this influence leaves its mark on a number of Mr. Robot’s images (shots showing Elliot walking at night are a prime example). At the same time, Mac Quayle’s dark and pulsing sonic landscape echoes the recent work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The show also bears the fingerprints of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement and the hacktivist network Anonymous.

While some aspects of Mr. Robot are derivative, Malek’s performance compels viewers to keep watching. His large, piercing eyes look like they’ve seen too much—even as they seek out additional information. Elliot’s fear, discomfort, and desperation are all written plainly on Malek’s face. Elliot isn’t exactly talkative, but even when he’s silent, Malek’s lean visage tells viewers plenty.

Until Next Time
Since my last post, I’ve watched a number of films. Of those, those I hadn’t seen before are American Honey and Rope. Both films are worth seeing. Rope is a technical marvel, and has a black sense of humor that’s a good deal of fun. More importantly, American Honey shook me to my core. I watched it at the right (or terribly wrong) place and a very specific moment. Specific details of my own life probably served to increase the film’s power over me, but I’m confident that it’s a good film regardless. It’s imperfect, but so is the life that its about. Go see it if you have the chance.

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A Review of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven: Nothing New Under the Western Sun

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Film: The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto
Primary Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Haley Bennett, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer
US Release Date: 23 September 2016

Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is not a very good movie. It could be much, much worse, but that doesn’t mean millions of people should pay to go see it. They will, but that’s another matter.

Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and his villainous mustache only care about two things: money and power. On his quest for them, he seizes control of the small town of Rose Creek so he can mine the area for gold. Bogue rules through fear and intimidation, and after a local meeting erupts into violence, his reign seems all but secure.

Enter Emma Cullen (Bennett). Desperate, devastated, and angry, Cullen turns to bounty hunter Sam Chislom (Washington) to save Rose Creek. She offers him all the money she has, and he agrees to take the job. To this end, Chislom recruits six other men—all of them violent, most of them criminals. Chislom’s motley crew of gunslingers includes alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooting ex-Confederate soldier Robicheaux (Hawke), knife-wielding Asian Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier), and racist tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio).

Together, these seven men infiltrate Rose Creek, where they then take up the seemingly impossible task of preparing its residents for battle with Bogue.

Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the film’s antecedents—John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)—will leave Fuqua’s film with the sense that they’ve seen it all before. With the exception of a diverse cast, this The Magnificent Seven brings very little to the table. Thanks largely to its actors, the film remains mildly entertaining, but even its more enjoyable moments begin to crumble under close scrutiny. The Magnificent Seven is just fun enough for a late-summer blockbuster. It’s also empty, poorly executed, and lamentably average.

The Magnificent Seven opens with a shootout, but not with any dramatic weight. The film’s first moments are supposed to be dark. Their tragedy is meant to lend heft to the narrative and to give a sense of importance to all that follows. That isn’t what happens. Instead, The Magnificent Seven takes its first steps on what is clearly shaky ground. Thanks to a combination of poor writing, caricature-like characters, and a clumsy presentation of violence, the beginning of Fuqua’s film tilts in the direction of parody. Where they should feel emotionally invested and utterly captivated, many viewers will feel the urge to laugh. For some, that feeling will last for the entire film.

The biggest problem with The Magnificent Seven is its writing. Fans of True Detective will be disappointed to learn that Nic Pizzolatto’s contributions to the film—whatever they actually are—do nothing to elevate it beyond the ordinary. They may even be part of the problem.

Instead of coming across as either an homage to the western or as a statement about what the western can be, The Magnificent Seven is more of a soulless ensemble action movie than anything else. Or a vanilla-as-hell superhero one. Ideas, focus, purpose, and character are often nowhere to be found. Instead, so much of the film feels derivative, that it’s actually distracting. Somehow, Legolas, Boromir, and Eowyn all make appearances in the film, and not with any subtlety. For a moment, the ghost of Daniel Plainview seems to take over (which is less interesting than it sounds). Despite Fuqua’s more serious aims, Blazing Saddles creeps in. There is even a scene which is so similar to one in Django Unchained, some viewers may wish they were watching Tarantino’s film instead.

The Magnificent Seven is also filled with thin, underwritten characters. Denzel Washington is clearly a talented actor, but writers Wenk and Pizzolatto do little to take advantage of this fact. The same is true for Sarsgaard, who is so underutilized by this film its almost criminal. In fact, the entire group at the center of the film never becomes more than a set of figures on horseback. For the most part, The Magnificent Seven shows little interest in making its heroes three-dimensional. When it does show such interest, it is too quickly distracted by something else—bullets, usually involved. Luckily for Fuqua, the film is buoyed by a solid cast. They are capable of much more than this film allows them to do.

When the film hints at something like character exploration and development, it seldom delivers. For instance, Hawke and Lee play a pair of characters who, if treated appropriately, could form the center of a compelling film all on their own. Their relationship is complex and unorthodox, and one gets a sense that each has darkness in his past. Unfortunately, The Magnificent Seven fails (or forgets) to do much with them. With Hawke’s Robicheaux in particular, the film hints at emotional depth while inching toward an acknowledgement of the sharpshooter’s interiority. But Fuqua doesn’t deliver on such promises, and none of his characters are really given the time and attention needed for meaningful development.

Viewers of The Magnificent Seven don’t get know any of the figures on screen, which robs the film of anything like emotional weight. For all the struggle and strife, the film has little impact. Even when portraying death, Fuqua fails to stir any feelings of loss.

Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore chose to shoot the film on 35 mm, in part as a way of honoring the tradition of westerns. There are some good-looking shots in the film, but overall, its visuals also fall short. The images in The Magnificent Seven do little to evoke any western history or magic. An over-use of quick cutting and a lack of shots that truly take advantage of the scenery are both partially to blame.

After opening in less-than-stellar fashion, The Magnificent Seven ends on a cringe-worthy note. Again, a moment that is meant to be taken seriously simply fails to land. The last few seconds are almost laughable, and they send a shock wave back through the film that threatens to retroactively weaken even its strongest moments.

The Magnificent Seven has charisma and charm. It’s also disappointing. There are some good ideas sprinkled throughout, but they get lost in the generic. Star presence and big-budget production value aside, Fuqua’s latest is all surface. Grit and grandeur are nowhere to be found.

If Hollywood produces another star-studded western any time soon, let’s hope it better than The Magnificent Seven. This often old-fashioned genre needn’t fade away, but it might if isn’t given new life. An original script, a clear purpose (other than money), and fully-formed characters would all be a good place to start.

Until Next Time
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Rear Window: Cinema, Voyeurism, Violence, and Desire

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Film: Rear Window
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes (screenplay), Cornell Woolrich (short story)
Primary Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
US Release Date: 1 September 1954

Cinema and Voyeurism
Rear Window is a film with an overt interest in cinema and the act of looking, and such interests are inextricably linked with Hitchcock’s careful, calculated use of montage.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut asks Hitchcock about what attracted him to the Woolrich story that Rear Window is an adaptation of. Hitchcock’s response: “It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea” (Truffaut).

Hitchcock then goes on to briefly discuss how Rear Window continually uses and relies on the Kuleshov effect. In his review of Rear Window, Roger Ebert also observes that “‘Rear Window’ (1954) is like a feature-length demonstration of [the Kuleshov effect], in which the shots assembled in Jeff’s mind add up to murder.

Throughout Rear Window, Hitchcock carefully considers the relationship between successive shots and deliberately relies on montage to make meaning. He was known for drawing out shots in advance and for planning out the composition of each image ahead of time. The order in which images in his films appear and what those images contain is no accident; Hitchcock’s viewers see what they see when they do for a reason.

In mentioning the Kuleshov effect, Hitchcock also highlights the importance of what is being looked at in Rear Window. Describing the way that voyeurism works in the film, he says: “…Let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!” (Truffaut)

For Hitchcock, the way viewers understand an act of voyeurism depends heavily on its object. Consequently, it is primarily through montage, that viewers come to know L.B. Jeffries (as well as the murder and violence that he imagines).

With its pervasive interest in cinema and the act of looking, Rear Window is an incredibly self-reflexive film. The film is deeply interested in voyeurism, objectification, and castration, all of which connect back to an over-arching concern with film-viewing. As Ebert notes, “Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw—all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.”

Hitchcock doesn’t hide his methods in Rear Window. He places audience voyeurism at the film’s forefront. He wants viewers to know that the movie is about them.

It’s also worth noting that Hitchcock regards viewers as voyeurs by nature. In an interview with Truffaut he says, “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.’ They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out” (Truffaut).

Jeff is a Peeping Tom. But Rear Window presents viewers with the unsettling idea that they shouldn’t be too quick to judge him for that. Those who watch movies are voyeurs also. Audiences seek out and are entertained by opportunities to look. If Jeff is in the wrong, anyone watching the film might be also. As Laura Mulvey argues in her often-read “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” movies fulfill the audience’s voyeuristic desires, and “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure.

Voyeurism and Violence
One of the primary functions of Rear Window’s narrative is to link pleasurable looking with murder and violence. The more Jeff looks out the window, the more he wants to continue doing so. The more Jeff looks out the window, the more violence he enacts and imagines.

When Jeff’s nurse Stella refers to his camera as a “portable keyhole,” she calls attention the fact that cameras and looking are both tools for violation and for violating privacy. According to Rear Window, the film camera and the eye seek out opportunities to enter spaces and to take in objects that don’t belong to them. In presenting a movie, the camera grants viewers access to the sort of “hermetically sealed” “private world” mentioned in Mulvey, allowing them to trespass into the lives of the characters. Even if people are naturally voyeuristic (as Hitchcock thinks they are), the acts of looking that film audiences engage in are not neutral or inert. They are transgressive. They are violent.

“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” notes the connection between voyeurism and sadism, which goes hand-in-hand with Jeff’s desire for murder. In her essay, Mulvey writes that where “fetishistic scopophilia, builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself,” “voyeurism…has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt…asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness.” In Rear Window, Jeff’s looking leads him to imagine murder, and he is overcome with desire to be proven right and to see Thorwald punished.

In effect, sadistic voyeurism is precisely what drives Rear Window. Lisa’s presence gives Jeff the option to turn his gaze to her. He could look at her, objectify her sexually, and take pleasure in the act. He would face no danger in doing so. But he would rather look out the window and imagine a murder instead.

Even if looking brings audiences pleasure (and both Hitchcock and Mulvey would say that it does), it remains harmful and violent all the same. In Rear Window, gazing violates its object, but the one who does the looking also takes a risk. Jeff’s desire for murder puts both him and Lisa in harm’s way. Though he is warned by Stella not look, he does so anyway. The potential consequences are real, but they are not enough to deter him. And so, Hitchcock punishes viewers for looking.

As many have noted, Jeff can easily be read as a stand-in for the film’s viewers. Thus, any suffering that Jeff experience as a result of looking can be seen as Hitchcock’s way of punishing and reprimanding his audiences. By the end of the film, the director turns viewer identification with Jeff against them. In doing so, he uses the narcissistic side of their gaze (see Mulvey) to achieve his own ends.

Importantly, Jeff desires murder regardless of what it means for Mrs. Thorwald. All he wants is to be right about Thorwald. If Mrs. Thorwald were to turn up alive and unharmed, he wouldn’t be relieved, he’d be disappointed. She doesn’t matter to him; but his voyeurism, violence, and being correct do.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut says to Hitchcock, “At the end of Rear Window, when the killer comes into Stewart’s room, he says to him, ‘What do you want of me?’ And Stewart doesn’t answer because, in fact, his actions are unjustified; they’re motivated by sheer curiosity.” To this, Hitchcock replies, “That’s right, and he deserves what’s happening to him!” All Jeff does in the film is sit and look, but that’s more than enough to warrant his suffering.

Voyeurism, Violence, and Desire
Rear Window repeatedly indicates that viewers prefer a voyeuristic gaze. For instance, Jeff would rather watch a woman he doesn’t know (Miss Torso) prepare dinner from afar than pay attention to the beautiful Lisa doing virtually the same thing right there in his own apartment. The excitement and satisfaction he takes from voyeurism is more appealing than the stunning woman right in front of him.

And, as Mulvey notes, Lisa becomes more desirable to Jeff after she is an object of his voyeurism. Jeff pays more attention to Lisa and focuses on her much more intently during her run-in with Thorwald than he does at any other time in the film. Whenever she, Stella, or Doyle are actually in the apartment, Jeff’s attention is divided. Even as they talk to him, he remains preoccupied with the enticing possibilities through the window.

The relationship between voyeurism, violence, and desire becomes clearer when one considers some of what is not seen in the film.

Just like the images framed by the camera, the windows that Jeff looks through inevitably render something unseeable. Something always falls beyond the edges of the frame, limiting his view. At the same time, Jeff is even more excited by what he doesn’t seen than by what he does he. When the shades are drawn he (the voyeur) imagines one of two things: murder or sex. Jeff doesn’t see Mrs. Thorwald killed, but he doesn’t see her leave either. Still, his conclusion is that she has been murdered. Similarly, when the newlyweds cover their window, Jeff and the film’s audiences automatically assume they are having sex, though they never see that happen.

Murder and sex are two things that one doesn’t do in front of an open window. They are also two things both film viewers and voyeurs often think about and love to see.

Additionally, by depriving viewers of certain images, Hitchcock simultaneously exposes the desires of his viewers. In a number of the director’s films (including Blackmail, Sabotage, and Frenzy), he deliberately denies viewers images of murders they know are being committed. At the last second, he’ll cut away, or he’ll place the act of violence just beyond the limits of the frame. In doing so, he preys on the voyeuristic audience’s desires to see such acts. If a person feels let down when they aren’t shown a murder, what does that say about them and what they enjoy?

Hitchcock also heightens the intensity of such violent acts by forcing viewers to construct them in their own minds. And as the entire plot of Rear Window attests, what they imagine is bound to be just as—if not more—horrible than the truth.
Watch Rear Window on Amazon

Psycho and Rear Window
With Rear Window, Hitchcock establishes strong connections between voyeurism, violence, and desire. In Psycho, he takes those connections a steps further. When the voyeur (an amalgam of Norman Bates and the film’s viewers) violently kills the objectified Marion Crane, Hitchcock urges viewers to consider how such a horrible thing could ever happen. The answer: by indulging the desire to look.

Psycho’s opening shot reinforces its ties to Rear Window. In Psycho’s first shot, the camera flies down from the sky and into the partially open window of a hotel room—a hotel room where Marion crane is in her underwear and has likely just had sex with a man she isn’t married to. This shot—which establishes Psycho’s viewers as objectifying Peeping Toms from the onset—harkens back to the one that begins Rear Window. The opening credits go by in front of a window. As they do, the shades behind them rise gradually. When the credits are over, the camera moves toward the window, positioning viewers so that they can look out into the courtyard beyond.

To watch Rear Window is to become a voyeur. To become a voyeur is to experience pleasure and to suffer the consequences.

Until Next Time
For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m currently a graduate student (which is a whole thing). As such, I was recently charged with giving a presentation on Rear Window in the context of a film theory course. The post above is essentially a reworked, condensed version of that.

As always, questions and comments are welcome.

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Works Cited
Ebert, Roger. “Great Movie: Rear Window.” Rev. of Rear Window. Roger Ebert. Feb 2000. Web. 12 Sept. 2016
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Film Theory Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York: Routledge, 2010. 200-208. Print.
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Revised Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Print.

A Review of Chris Kelly’s Other People: Well-Balanced Comedic Drama

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Film: Other People
Director: Chris Kelly
Writer: Chris Kelly
Primary Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, June Squibb, Paul Dooley, J.J. Totah, John Early
US Release Date: 9 September 2016

Other People opens with tragedy. In its first scene, David (Plemons), his father (Whitford), and his two sisters (Apatow and Beaty) are all gathered around their mother, Joanne (Shannon). She’s just died of cancer in the family home. They sob on the bed next to her corpse. Heavy stuff.

The film then takes viewers back in time about a year or so, to a family holiday party that takes place just after Joanne gets sick. Her son David is a comedy writer who lives in New York, but he moves back to Sacramento to be with her after she’s diagnosed. He hates Sacramento, in part, because it reminds him of his adolescence—of a time when his sexuality was closeted and when he lacked anything that might resemble self-confidence.

Though he doesn’t tell his family, David has just broken up with his long-time boyfriend (Woods). In light of his mother’s illness, something like a breakup seems incredibly small, but it affects David all the same (as these things always do). Over the course of the film, David also struggles with repeated career-related rejections (such is the life of a writer). All the while, each passing month is a reminder to viewers that Joanne’s death is coming, whether they like it or not.

Did I mention that the film is a comedy?

Written and directed by comedy writer Chris Kelly (SNL, Broad City), Other People is an emotional rollercoaster. More importantly, it’s genuinely funny. The film represents a promising if imperfect debut for Kelly, who clearly has both an ear for dialogue and an impressive ability to balance humor and drama. A solid, nuanced performance from Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo Season 2) anchors Other People, and Kelly himself has enough good sense to never let things get out of hand. Despite its missteps, Other People remains one of the most touching, sincere, and funny comedies to debut in recent months.

The writing and directing of Other People was a deeply personal project for Kelly, and it shows. The semi-autobiographical film deals with cancer, death, homosexuality, romance, and family drama. More importantly, the film also manages to handle such emotionally charged and potentially cliché subjects without becoming overly melodramatic and without forfeiting all claims to freshness. Other People knows that the various and intersecting challenges that David faces are not unique, and such awareness helps to keep the film grounded.

In presenting a fictionalized version of what was surely a very chaotic, tragic, and difficult time in his own life, Kelly doesn’t lose perspective or allow any desire for sheer spectacle to get the better of him. Throughout the film, the writer/director balances the impulse to make his character’s struggles feel important with a drive to keep the film from becoming so emotionally unwieldly that it loses its viewers. For the most part, Kelly manages to present even the most devastating moments in his script with enough restraint that Other People remains engaging to the very end.

Still, while Kelly’s film does exhibit enough nuance and emotional intelligence to keep its more dramatic elements from overtaking its comedy, some moments do work better than others. There are several lines in the film that don’t land as well as Kelly intends. Most of these occur at in the film’s more somber moments; and while they do throw the overall tone of the work off-kilter a bit; they don’t occur frequently enough to do much damage.

Other People relies on its characters and key performances quite heavily, and more often than not, they manage to support Kelly’s vision. This is especially true for Plemons, who brings David to life as a complex person—and not some mere flattened or oversimplified version of the director’s ego. As in other roles, Plemons demonstrates remarkable versatility in this film, and his understanding of emotional subtlety can be quite compelling. Plemons has been on the rise for a few years now, and it’s nice to see him at the center of a film. What the actor lacks in sharp angles, he more than makes up for with his ability to delve into a character’s darkness without wholly forsaking likability or authenticity along the way.

In addition to comedy and conversation that generally feel natural, the film also succeeds benefits from its pacing and narrative structure. Though it covers a lot of ground—temporally, personally, tonally, and emotionally—Other People moves fairly quickly. The film is also told as a series of vignettes, the focused, concentrated structure of which allows Kelly to make an impression even with those characters who have very little screen time.

Other People is a comedy about sad, well-off white people that doesn’t completely suck. Above all, the film is fun to watch, and it contains enough solid jokes to makes viewers laugh regularly. At the same time, Kelly also gives enough depth to his main characters and enough force to his drama to produce a multi-faceted, memorable, and affective viewing experience. Hopefully, any future films from Kelly will be a little more daring and polished; that said, as long as they are as funny and as touching as Other People, they’ll be just fine.   

Oh, and for the record, I hate Train. (Watch the film. You’ll understand.)

Until Next Time
I really need to get out of the habit of waiting so long after seeing a film to actually put together a coherent review. . . Of course, we all have our shortcomings.

As always, thank you so much for reading! I’ve been missing a lot of new releases lately (because grad school), so feel free to make recommendations to me! (I probably won’t get to them while they are in theaters, but I can at least add them to my watchlist for later).

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A Review of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy: Dark Humor, Entitlement, and Celebrity

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Film: The King of Comedy
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
Primary Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott, Shelley Hack
US Release Date: 18 February 1983

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is nobody, but he wants to be a comic. Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is a late-night talk show host, whom Rupert idolizes. At thirty-four, Rupert still lives with his mother, and the only person who might consider him a friend is a woman named Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who is so obsessed with Jerry that she has a shrine to him in her home.

One night, after taping his show, Jerry is caught in a swarm of fans desperate for a taste of his fame. Amid the frenzy, Rupert finds his way into the comedian’s car. For Rupert, the meeting represents his chance to make it in show business, and he spends the rest of the film making sure that is the case.

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is steeped in cynicism and disillusionment. Bleak and unsettling, the film has no desire to reassure audiences. Instead, this cringe-comedy focuses its attention on presenting a set of unhinged characters in a disturbing and unflattering light. Far more interested in producing feelings of frustration than it is in provoking laughter, The King of Comedy is an exercise in deprivation. More interested in producing feelings of frustration than it is in provoking laughter, The King of Comedy is often an exercise in deprivation. As such, it continually preys upon its viewers, and the results are difficult to shake. 

Throughout The King of Comedy, Scorsese repeatedly withholds satisfaction. When Rupert takes a bartender named Rita (Diahnne Abbott) on a date, he shows her numerous celebrity signatures in the restaurant’s registry, but viewers aren’t allowed to see a single one. In a scene where Rupert waits to meet with Jerry, he looks up at the ceiling and asks the receptionist what it’s made of. Instead of cutting to a shot showing what Rupert sees above him, the camera stays fixed at his level, thereby thwarting viewer curiosity. Though Masha is always trying to get a note to Jerry, Scorsese never shares a word of what it contains. While she can often be heard shouting from off-screen, Rupert’s mother remains completely hidden.

The most important deprivation in the film concern’s Rupert’s act. Rupert’s sole focus for most of The King of Comedy is to perform his stand-up routine on Jerry’s show. To this end, he practices at home, and he makes a tape of his jokes to take to Jerry’s office. And yet, viewers are not allowed to hear any of his material until the last possible moment. In this way, The King of Comedy is like a string of jokes without a punchline; the film reels audiences in with set-up after set-up, and then it slaps them in the face with their entitlement.

For frustration to arise, there must first be expectation. Again and again, The King of Comedy conditions audiences to expect satisfaction (in the form of jokes and information) only to pull the carrot away at the last minute. And if viewers find themselves disappointed when they don’t receive the payoff they desire, how can they fault Rupert for his unflinching determination to get what he wants?

The King of Comedy also takes advantage of audiences through scenes in which it presents Rupert’s various fantasies. Though such scenes take place in Rupert’s head, they are not initially introduced as imagined. At first, these moments are disorienting, as they momentarily blur the boundaries of what is real. However, by presenting a number of such scenes, Scorsese gradually conditions viewers to expect delusion whenever the film takes a certain turn. Then, he uses such a turn to trick them into regarding as fantasy something that is actually happening in Rupert’s life; this destabilizing moment reminds anyone watching The King of Comedy that they are not in control and that the film was not made with their comfort in mind.  

Written by Paul D. Zimmerman, The King of Comedy’s script is filled with isolated, lonely individuals. Even the ostensibly successful Jerry is never shown interacting with family or friends. While Rupert and Masha do have a tenuous connection, their exchanges are limited to the only thing they have in common: obsession with a man they do not know. The picture of humanity painted by such a script is decidedly bleak, but it also works to make the film’s largely unlikable characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Even at their most detestable, the figures in The King of Comedy do not exist in a vacuum—they are part of a larger society. Something made them the way they are, and that is an upsetting thought.

Rupert Pupkin is no ordinary protagonist. He is always performing, and viewers are afforded little access to his interiority. A possible psychopath, Rupert exists behind a wall, and those traits that do surface, don’t always go hand-in-hand. He is childish and threatening, pathetic and unpredictable. On the outside, Rupert is typically upbeat and positive, but there is a darkness in De Niro’s eyes that exposes bitterness and rage. As complex as the character is, De Niro doesn’t miss a beat. He establishes Rupert as an overwhelming and exhausting presence through a number of physical cues (talking quickly, smiling constantly, moving his hands, and leaning in). De Niro also exhibits a remarkable ability to thrive in the space between humor and terror, which is just where The King of Comedy wants to be.  

There is a lot of very nasty stuff at the heart of this film. At times, Scorsese may seem to be it holding back; in reality, he is exercising control. Like De Niro in so many of his roles, The King of Comedy is wound so tightly that it could snap into violent chaos at any moment. And like Rupert, the movie gives the impression that it’s capable of terrible things, whether it’s smiling or not.

Even when it’s unpleasant to watch, The King of Comedy has something to say. It throws a shadow over all it touches—including show business, personal isolation, television, celebrity, and fame—and if viewers find themselves unable to enjoy the song “Come Rain or Come Shine” afterward, then they have Scorsese to thank.

In an early scene, Rupert says to Rita, “A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price. What’s so funny about that?” The film’s answer: nothing at all.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! If you are a Scorsese fan who hasn’t seen The King of Comedy, I’d encourage you to give it a look. It’s offbeat and strange, but its also an instance of intelligent, calculated filmmaking that’s more than worth the $3 it cost to rent it online.

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A Review of Andrew Neel’s Goat: Masculinity Wreaks Havoc in this Uneven Drama

Goat (2)
Film: Goat
Director: Andrew Neel
Writers: David Gordon Green, Brad Land (memoir), Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts
Primary Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Jake Picking, James Franco
US Release Date: 23 September 2016

During his last summer before college, Brad Land (Schnetzer) is the victim of a brutal assault that leaves him physically, mentally, and emotionally battered. The traumatizing event shakes Brad to his core. It emasculates him, and it fills him with fear.

Before he can process that fear however, he is swept off to college, where he is expected to rush the same fraternity that his older brother, Brett (Jonas) is already a member of. During his interactions with various frat brothers, Brad often appears uncomfortable, and it is clear that his status as a victim has changed the way that they think of him. Still, he goes to every party, and—driven by twin desires to prove his manhood and to please his older brother, he pledges himself to the fraternity.

And then the hazing begins.

Directed by Andrew Neel (Darkon, King Kelly), and written in part by David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express), Goat uses the dark realties of fraternity hazing to tell a tale of toxic masculinity and brotherhood. Adapted from Brad Land’s 2004 memoir, Goat is part horror film, part character study, and part college coming-of-age drama. Often brutal and occasionally inspired, Neel’s film is supported by solid lead performances and by the markedly disturbing nature of its subject matter. Unfortunately, Goat also exhibits a frustrating lack of focus and is repeatedly derailed by inconsistency.

From its opening shot, Goat makes it clear that it is a film about masculinity and its dangers. And toxic masculinity—and some of the ways in which it can damage souls, destroy relationships, and even end lives—remains at its forefront for most of its running time. However, the film’s stance on that masculinity is not always as clear as Neel would probably like to think it is. While there are scenes in the film that clearly mean to indict the hazing and other overtly (and overly) masculine behaviors exhibited in the film, there are numerous others in which its purpose becomes somewhat muddled. While the film obviously wants to paint an unsettling portrait of masculinity and the effects it can have on men, it doesn’t fully commit to pushing that message as far as it should have. Similarly, while the film often seems to want to tell men that it’s ok for them to cry, to admit weakness, and to process their emotions, its underdeveloped approach would also indicate that such only applies if they’ve (literally) had the piss beaten out of them.

Additionally, the film’s quiet (and rather weak ending) pulls viewers away from the drama’s primary thematic concerns while obscuring the film’s attitude toward its own protagonist. In Goat’s final moments, it’s unclear whether Brad has triumphed over any of his demons or whether he’s suffered yet another defeat. If Brad’s learned anything valuable about processing his horrifying experiences, about eschewing the entrapments of masculinity, or about choosing better friends, such lessons are lost in an unsatisfying set of final scenes that are more concerned with bringing the narrative full circle than they are with clarifying the film’s mission or with sharpening the outlines of its characters. The unimpressive ending also reduces Goat’s ability to leave a lasting mark on audiences.

This is especially frustrating, because Goat works best when its doing its worst. Neel clearly knows how to affect and disturb, but his film also gets distracted too frequently to be truly successful. The frame narrative pertaining to Brad’s assault is not deployed all that effectively, and subplots concerning Brad’s crush on a girl or his relationship with his roommate are underdeveloped and accomplish little. And yet, when it allows itself to immerse viewers in horror, Goat remains believable and, in retaining a strong aura of realism, it significantly heightens its impact. The most difficult moments to watch in Goat are also its most impressive, largely because they carry the greatest potential for conceptual complexity. But whenever Neel allows his characters to come up for air, he often loses his way, and it is frequently in such moments that Goat becomes quite ordinary.

Regardless of any flaws, Goat does feature solid, emotionally engaging work from Schnetzer. Jonas is also better than some might expect, and James Franco’s cameo—while undoubtedly strange—is oddly entertaining. Still, the real stand-out among the cast is Gus Halper, who plays one of the top dogs at the frat. The wolfish Halper has a remarkable ability to come off as sincere and incredibly threatening all at once, at it will be interesting to see what becomes of his career.

Though it’s hardly surprising given its subject matter, Goat is all white men. There are a few women in the film, but the only one who is allowed to exist as more than a pair of tits is abandoned entirely quite early in the narrative. If the film did anything to condemn—or even to intelligently acknowledge—this fact, it’d be easier to swallow. As it stands, Neel doesn’t want viewers to notice or think about any women at all. Making a movie about masculinity is one thing. Portraying women as nothing but fuckable ghosts in another.

In making Goat, Neel was inspired by Lord of the Flies, and when that inspiration is the most evident, the film is its most effective. There are some truly gripping moments in Goat as well as more than a few important ideas. But the film falls short. It never quite lives up to the potential of its slow-motion opening sequence. It wanders and often lacks clear purpose. If Neel had fully committed to making a horror film, he may have had something truly noteworthy and original on his hands; for a darker, a more daring, and a more focused approach to the themes worth mining in Brad Land’s story would have yielded a more powerful and satisfying piece of cinema.

Until Next Time
For what’s it worth Goat isn’t even the best film of 2016 with a poster depicting a goat. That honor goes to The Witch. Personally, I’d like to see a version of the film directed by David Gordon Green.

Since, Goat. I’ve also watched King of Comedy, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Battleship Potemkin, and Other People. Such is the life of a film studies graduate student. With the exception of Battleship Potemkin, the other films were all new to me, so I may mention some of them in future posts. That said, while I am watching more movies than ever lately, time and studenting will prevent me from writing about a number of them. Luckily, you can easily keep up with my movie-watching activities on twitter and letterboxd.

A Review of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings: A Timeless Tale Told in Wondrous Stop-Motion

kubo
Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay and story), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story)
Primary Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro
US Release Date: 19 August 2016

Young Kubo (Parkinson) lives alone with his mother in a cave on the edge of the sea. Every morning, he gets his mother out of bed and makes her breakfast before travelling to a nearby village where he spends the day telling stories. Aided by a magical instrument and plenty of origami paper, Kubo captivates the crowd completely from morning to sunset.

At his mother’s behest, Kubo never stays out after dark—until he does. At which point, he is caught up in an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery, tragedy, and love. Along the way, Kubo is guided by a protective monkey (Theron) and a man cursed to have the form of a beetle (McConaughey). With Monkey and Beetle’s help, Kubo discovers abilities he never knew he had while also learning the truth about his family’s history.

The tale told by Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo) is one that’s been told a thousand times, but its immersive visuals paired with a deft-hand for storytelling both set the film apart.

Kubo is that rare family film that doesn’t have a whiff of laziness about it. In Knight and Laika’s hands, even talking animals—a tired imperative of animation—manage to feel fresh. The film is brimming with substance and style alike, and it’s clear that genuine care, thought, and heart were all involved in its creation. Though it possesses emotional weight, Kubo isn’t heavy, and it certainly isn’t flat. Instead, the film passes through the dark of the theater like an enchanted breeze. And even if the script isn’t perfect, the film remains so lovely and mesmerizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Visually speaking, Kubo is one of best animated films I’ve seen. It may even become a personal favorite. Since I won’t know what it’s like to grow up with Kubo the way that I did with so many Disney films, it may never affect me as deeply some of them did, but I still appreciate the great deal of work, animation, heart, and artistry that it took to make it.

There is something pleasantly strange about stop-motion, and Kubo embraces this wholeheartedly. Used as it is in the film, stop-motion evokes the uncanny while imbuing the movie with a fantastical, dreamlike quality. Visually, the world of Kubo is the world of imagination—it may take its root in reality, but it is another place entirely, and for all its otherworldliness, it attracts far more than it repels. The animation in the film is incredibly textured. It has depth. In effect, the art is as much a character as Kubo or anyone else. The smooth, flawless surfaces that dominate the industry are not to be found here. Instead, Laika presents expertly executed imperfection for audiences to get lost in, and the film is overflowing with life as a result.

Kubo also exhibits its daring and its singular identity in its narrative, albeit with less intensity and abandon. The film’s tale is timeless; it is at once pleasantly unique and totally familiar. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, and, as such, it operates within an established set of parameters. And yet, it never lets such limits stifle its creativity or sense of wonder. Importantly, Kubo also possesses enough courage not to over-explain its narrative for effect. More than other family films, it allows its characters, their journey, and its images to speak for themselves, and it doesn’t dumb itself down more than necessary. In short, Kubo balances its creative daring with enough restraint that adult audiences should have no problem falling under its spell.

For the most part, the film’s voice cast works to support Knight’s overall vision. Art Parkinson’s voice is appropriately small and earnest. Rooney Mara is also quite memorable as two of the film’s villains (known collectively as, “The Sisters”), and her cold, measured tones make for some of the most frightening moments. Ralph Fiennes is also good (and appropriately intimidating) as the Moon King, although his performance won’t surprise anyone whose heard any of his other voice work.

Though the film’s cast is strong overall, McConaughey does throw Kubo’s tone off balance from time to time. His character, Beetle, is often used for comic relief, but the jokes and McConaughey’s particular sound don’t always mesh with the rest of the film. There is something unrefined about his presence; and had his character been reworked, the film may have been much better for it.

In other ways, the film would have also been improved by a voice cast in which Asian actors weren’t relegated to only the smallest roles. But then, how would they have used McConaughey’s name to get people in the door?

Though I watched plenty of animation as a child, nearly all of it came from Nickelodeon and Disney (the most notable exception being Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons). As an adult, I only see an animated film in theaters once or twice a year, and those films also originate from a limited number of places. I didn’t see my fist Aardman movie until Shaun the Sheep, and the most recent Dreamworks film that I remember watching is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which came out in 2002, for any who’s counting). My knowledge of animation-like most things—is a bit more limited than I would like. As of today, Kubo and the Two Strings is the only Laika film that I’ve seen, but it certainly won’t be my last. I was more than impressed by the film, and I’m incredibly eager to see what this inventive, Oregon-based studio does next.

Until Next Time
I actually saw Kubo the weekend that it came out, but life delayed my review a bit. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, the film has the distinction of being the first—and currently, the only—movie I’ve paid to see here in LA (which is just as meaningless as it sounds, but there you have it).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you’ve seen the film, feel free to share your thoughts on it by posting a comment below (comments are moderated, so don’t fret if you what you post doesn’t appear immediately).

If you’d like to keep up with me in between posts, you can easily follow me on twitter and letterboxd.