What I’ve Been Watching: The Girl on the Train and The Accountant

I watched two disappointing movies, so you don’t have to. Feel free to thank me later.

Since I can’t write up full reviews on both of these at the moment, here’s a few thoughts on why each of them isn’t worth your time.

Film: The Girl on the Train
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Paula Hawkins (novel)
Primary Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennet, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Lisa Kudrow
US Release Date: 7 October 2016

I haven’t read the Paula Hawkins novel on which Taylor’s film is based, but I was still incredibly let down by The Girl on the Train. I knew virtually nothing about the movie’s source material when I first saw its trailer, but I was excited by the prospect of a dark and sexy psychological thriller starring Emily Blunt. What I hoped for from The Girl on the Train was something powerful, artful, heavy, and even subversive. Ignorant as I was of Tate Taylor’s filmography, I even dared to dream of something Fincher-esque.

How foolish of me.

Put simply, The Girl on the Train is little more (and nothing less) than a big-budget Lifetime movie. It’s all pulp and no substance. All spectacle and no elegance. It’s a reminder of just how much restraint and control goes into making a film like Gone Girl, which walks the line between trash and art with much more success than this one.

The film starts well enough as it relies on Blunt’s voice-over narration to draw viewers in; but once it starts introducing other characters and unravelling the spool of mystery, it all falls apart rather quickly. Taylor’s previous films include The Help and Get on Up, neither of which ever piqued my interest. I can only guess why Taylor choose to stretch himself by tackling a psychological thriller like The Girl on the Train, but in doing so he has revealed some considerable weaknesses on his behalf.

And he isn’t helped at all by the fact that Wilson’s script is garbage.

The screening at which I saw The Girl on the Train was filled with laughter, virtually none of which was intended by the film or its writer. This film wants to be psychologically complex and thematically mature. It wants to be a heavy and decidedly adult thriller that rivets audiences. Instead, The Girl on the Train devolves into simplistic and poorly executed exploitation, is over-the-top and under-developed in the wrong places, and features a number of clumsy lines that throw its tone off-balance. The film is far more ridiculous than it is harrowing, and it’s hard to take any of it seriously as a result.

Though it’s basic premise invites daring ideas, Taylor’s film is lamentably lacking in depth. This tale of violence, substance abuse, psychological trauma, and obsession is terribly one-dimensional. This is partly because none of the characters other than Rachel (Blunt) are developed in a compelling and coherent fashion (and even then, she remains misused). That said, it’s also because the script is simply not smart enough to say anything interesting. The Girl on the Train repeatedly prioritizes spectacle over characters and message, and the result is a work that would make more sense as a made-for-TV movie.

For all my complaints, I’m compelled to acknowledge that Emily Blunt is not the problem with this film. Her attachment to the project may have helped the shitshow get produced, but she pulls her weight regardless of the movie’s flaws. Unfortunately, The Girl on the Train’s script and its particular approach to the subject matter are both beneath her. She brings Rachel’s shredded nerves and damaged state to life vividly and viscerally, but that’s not enough to save the hot mess that is Taylor’s film.

After watching The Girl on the Train, I am reminded that forgetting to factor in the director of a film when forming initial expectations for it is a mistake. I’m also left wondering whether Luke Evans will ever be in a movie worth-watching.

Save your money. Don’t pay for a ticket to The Girl on the Train. Just rewatch Gone Girl instead. In the meantime, I’ll quietly mourn for the dark and subversive feminist revenge thriller that could have been. (Maybe Nocturnal Animals will fuck me up enough that I’ll forget all about Tate Taylor’s mess. Please don’t let me down, Tom Ford.)

Film: The Accountant
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Primary Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Robert C. Treveiler
US Release Date: 14 October 2016

The Accountant is not good, but it is marginally better—and considerably more enjoyable if you just turn your brain off—than The Girl on the Train.

The main issue with The Accountant is that it lacks identity. O’Connor’s (Warrior) latest tries to be multiple movies at once, but it doesn’t execute any of them particularly well. Clearer purpose and a heavily revised script could have improved The Accountant a great deal; as it stands, the film is too scattered, and its attention is spread too thin to give rise to anything that might justify the price of a movie ticket. Thanks largely to Ben Affleck’s presence and to good number of fight scenes, The Accountant has the potential to be a middling crowd-pleaser, but it remains forgettable, ineffective, and half-baked.

Bill Dubuque (The Judge) wrote The Accountant, and the film’s script seems to be the source of nearly all of its problems. First, the film has too many supporting characters. Those played by Simmons and Addai-Robinson both add nothing worthwhile to the film; in fact, their storyline distracts from main plot and prevents O’Connor from developing Chris (Affleck) as much as he should have. Simmons and Addai-Robinson could have been cut from the film entirely; they are kept in, because The Accountant can’t decide if it wants to be a character-study, an action film, a family drama, a love story, or a crime procedural.

Those scenes dedicated to its (largely) flat and ineffective supporting characters also weaken the film, because viewers are given very little to care about or to hang onto whenever Affleck isn’t around. Chris is by far the most interesting part of the The Accountant, and yet it repeatedly abandons him for dull plot points and clichéd, underwritten shadows.

With the exception of one scene near the end, The Accountant also fails to portray any strong connection between any of its characters. Dana (Kendrick) appears in the film as a companion who can bring out a softer side in Chris, but she is so underdeveloped that any emotion he seems to feel for her comes off as hollow and forced. The film also effectively abandons her for such a long stretch that viewers may forget she exists at all.

Murky plot points, a number of cringe-inducing lines, and some horribly misguided use of flashback don’t help The Accountant much either.

I won’t say much about The Accountant’s portrayal of autism, simply because I am not educated enough on the matter to discuss in any detail whether or not it’s responsible in that regard; however, I will say that my instincts tell me it isn’t. Shortly after watching the film, I half-jokingly tweeted that its message seems to be that “even if you’re autistic, you can still be as cool as Ben Affleck as long as your father is abusive.” The more I think about the film, the more I feel uneasy about its use of autism. Dubuque and O’Connor’s intentions were probably good (or at least, not malicious), but the result misses the mark.

There are bits of good stuff in The Accountant, but none of them are properly developed. O’Connor’s film constantly redefines itself without ever really becoming anything in the first place. Affleck’s screen presence and his character’s idiosyncrasies could form the foundation of a compelling film, but neither is properly utilized. The film’s attempts to blend occasional humor with dark character study and violent action could have resulted in decent film. The Accountant desperately needs someone to take control of its story; to distill it down to only its best ideas and to then build it back up again. Unfortunately, it’s far too late for that now.

At least Ben Affleck remains as sexy as ever…

Until Next Time
Other films I’ve recently watched for the first time include I Confess, The Wrong Man, and Robot Stories. To keep up with me when I’m not posting, head on over to my twitter or letterboxd.

Thanks so much for reading. If you think I’m wrong about either of these films, feel free to let me know with a comment (comments are moderated by the way). There are brief flashes of potential in each film, and I have a feeling that a lot of viewers will more or less enjoy The Accountant at least. However, both movies take far too many missteps to overlook, and neither ends up where it wants to go.

Also, for those interested, here are some of the articles/book chapters I’ve read in the last few days (because grad school):
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race”
Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”
Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”
Vivian Sobchack’s “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film” (and a few other short chapters from the anthology Alien Zone, because I’m currently figuring out how I want to combine film theory with Ex Machina)

A Review of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation: Unremarkable and Lacking Teeth


Film: The Birth of a Nation
Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker (story and screenplay) and Jean McGianni (story)
Primary Cast: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Esther Scott, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Tony Espinosa, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Chiké Okonkwo, Mark Boone Junior, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Kai Norris, Jason Stuart
US Release Date: 7 October 2016

With its title alone, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation declares that it aims to reclaim that which has been stolen. With just its name, the film calls out the racism of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, declaring that there is another version of history that deserves the attention of viewers. In positioning itself in opposition to Griffith, The Birth of a Nation also calls attention to the racist past not only of America, but of Hollywood filmmaking. By choosing such a loaded title, Parker promises a new and radical film.

Too bad that’s not what he actually made.  

The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Parker), who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia in 1831. When the film opens, Nat is but a boy (Espinosa), but he is no ordinary child. Nat is marked physically, and when his mother (Ellis) takes him to a group of black elders, they declare that he is destined for something great.

That greatness begins with Nat’s ability to read, which is briefly nourished by the lady of the plantation (Miller), although it doesn’t keep Nat from picking cotton in the fields. Throughout his life, Nat spends a great deal of time reading and preaching the word of God. He also has strange visions, which seem to be leading him to some important future.

When Nat’s alcoholic master (Hammer) learns that he can make money by having Nat preach the gospel of subservience to slaves all over the county, he does just that. As Nat travels to other plantations, he is forced to witness just how terrible slave-owners can be. And by the time tragedy strikes closer to home, Nat is finally ready to turn on Ramses and lead his people out of Egypt  white people and liberate his brothers.

There’s no question that Turner is meant to resemble figures from the Bible. Death by hanging aside, The Birth of a Nation’s narrative structure is eerily similar to The Prince of Egypt (yes, the animated musical). Like Moses, young Nat spends time living among the oppressors. When Turner turns on his master Samuel, he’s also turning on someone he played with as a child (though The Birth of a Nation lacks the emotional skill to capitalize on this point). Parker also makes sure to include a whipping scene so obvious in its aims that anyone who fails to see the crucifixion must be blind. The same goes for another scene in which Turner  walks through a crowd of frenzied whites on his way to the gallows. When it comes to painting Turner as black Moses and Christ all at once, The Birth of a Nation is far from subtle. Comparing Turner to the heroes of the same scripture that slave-owners use to justify their monstrous behavior has the potential to be wonderfully subversive. But the execution here is too heavy-handed, and the fact that it’s surrounded by clumsy, ineffective, and rather ordinary storytelling certainly doesn’t help.

Parker’s passion project took years to get made, and the writer/director/actor’s dedication to Turner’s story is never in question. What is however, is his ability to tell that story in an effective manner. Too many of Parker’s best ideas don’t have enough of an impact on the film’s narrative. The film starts slow, and it stays slow until about three quarters of the way in, and it never burns hot enough to live up to the promise of its name. Parker also fails to properly develop any of his characters, and Turner is the only figure in the film who’s given anything that might resemble depth. As a result, what should have been a transformative, crushing, and soul-stirring film somehow manages to feel flat for the majority of its running time. Thus, The Birth of a Nation falls into a common biopic trap in that tries to cover too much temporal ground without presenting enough compelling characters and well-presented ideas.

For a film that clearly wants to be innovative, The Birth of a Nation also spends a good deal of time rehashing old ground and making decisions that don’t support its larger aims. Why include the sympathetic white characters? Why not allow Turner’s wife to be a more dynamic figure? Why include a whipping scene so late, it feels ham-fisted into the narrative? Why dedicate so little energy to fleshing out the film’s hero? There are some truly striking scenes in the film—including much of Turner’s rebellion—but they are weighed down its more uninspired moments.

The acting in the film is a bit hit-and-miss. The only performers asked to do much are Parker and King (who plays Turner’s wife); they each do just fine, but neither would seem to warrant the $17.5 million that Fox Searchlight spent on the film.

It isn’t all bad though. The Birth of a Nation clearly wants to start a conversation, and even if it doesn’t make its own case as clearly or as strongly as it should, that conversation is still worth having. Despite any missteps, Parker’s film remains an effective reminder that history and cinema alike are all too often written by the victors and that, in this country at least, racism underpins both. Though it’s not executed especially well, the tale at the heart of the film is dark, morally complex, and incredibly relevant, and it will affect people regardless any cinematic weaknesses.

On a related note, The Birth of the Nation is often at its best when it’s at its most brutal. The violence in the film (and there is violence) is well-executed. It isn’t gratuitous or cartoonish, and it makes viewing the film a much more visceral experience than it would be otherwise.

The film’s realistic sets are also impressive, especially given its modest budget. The Birth of a Nation was shot entirely in Savannah; and with the exception of some cheap-looking vision scenes, most of the film looks quite good.

By now, just about anyone who pays attention to film has heard about the enthusiastic standing ovation that The Birth of a Nation received at Sundance. Many—myself included—initially assumed that such passionate praise might indicate some truly groundbreaking work on behalf of the filmmakers. How foolish we were. I have my own assumptions as to why the Sundance audience reacted as positively as they did to what is, unfortunately, an unspectacular movie, but I’ll keep them to myself. For now, I’ll simply say this: The Birth of a Nation has some laudable aims, but the film itself doesn’t accomplish much in the end.

Just about anyone who pays attention to cinema has also heard about the swirling shit-storm of controversy surrounding Nate Parker and his alleged rape of a Penn State student in 1999. The details of that case are all over the internet, so I won’t list them here. That said, I will admit that the possibility that Parker committed a sexual assault was enough for me to cross The Birth of a Nation off my watchlist weeks ago. I also know that there are those who do not understand why Parker’s past should influence how one regards the film—especially since it was made by a lot of people, nearly all of whom are not Nate Parker.

I had no plans to spend money on a ticket to Parker’s film, and I certainly don’t fault anyone who refuses to watch it on ethical grounds. But I also recently found myself in a situation where attending a (free) preview screening of the film was part of my job. So I ended up seeing The Birth of Nation after all. Now that I have, I can confidently say that anyone thinking about skipping the film, won’t be missing much if they do.

If The Birth of a Nation gets overlooked come Oscar season, it’s inevitable that some will point to Parker’s sexual assault allegations and claim that the Academy got cold feet. Regardless of whether such people would be correct, the truth is that this film wouldn’t deserve such accolades even if Parker were a saint. It’s simply not that good.

Until Next Time
From the looks of things, October is going to be a complete disaster of a month for me, so forgive me if posts are a little sparse. And wish me luck! Grad school is a strange, temperamental beast if I ever saw one.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been missing a lot of new movies since I moved to LA. This will probably continue as long as I am in school. For the time being, what I watch is determined almost exclusively by class syllabi and the occasional on-campus screening. It is what it is. That said, I should be watching both The Girl on the Train and The Accountant later this week, whatever that’s worth.

Also, I’ve received several positive comments on my last post (in which I described some of the books I’ve been reading in school). As a result, I’ll definitely try to do another post like that at the end of the semester, and I’ll try to keep doing them until I get my degree (don’t ask me what happens after that. I have no idea).


What I’ve Been Reading: Life as a Cinema and Media Studies Grad Student

I’m nearly half way through my first semester as a Cinema and Media Studies graduate student at USC. So far, the experience hasn’t necessarily been what I expected—to be fair, I’m not really sure what that was in the first place.

Though I have watched a fair number of movies since moving to LA, I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I would like actually close-reading and digging into films. Instead, my first 6-7 weeks of school have largely been filled with readings on film theory (which isn’t really my thing) and on ‘professionalization’ (which has nothing to do with film).

All that aside, here’s some of what I’ve been reading and studying up to this point:

The Film Theory Reader: Debates and Arguments – Marc Furstenau (2010)
I’ve been reading selections from this anthology as part of my film theory seminar. So far, the class has covered pieces by Rodowick, Turvey, Bazin, Morgan, Mulvey, and hooks from Furstenau’s text. Other authors featured in the book include Metz, Deleuze, Kaplan, Carroll, and Balázs, among others.

The book “brings together a range of key theoretical texts, organized thematically to emphasize the development of specific critical concepts and theoretical models in the field of film theory,” and I certainly appreciate the way its texts are grouped so as to remind readers of the larger conversations surrounding each piece. However, I do wish that Furstenau provided more context or some sort of introduction for each of the essays.

Inevitably, some works in The Film Theory Reader are more accessible than others. As someone with virtually no background in theory—and as someone who loathes the elitism of jargon-laden writing, convoluted prose, and any general lack of clarity—I tend to favor those works that are the most straightforward. Consequently, I remain frustrated with D.N. Rodowick “An Elegy for Theory”; conversely, I appreciate the comparative precision and focus of writers like Morgan and hooks.

For what it’s worth, I also reference Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in my posts on Rear Window and Psycho.
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Television: Technology and Cultural Form – Raymond Williams (1974)
Raymond Williams’s seminal text represents my first experience reading (or even thinking about) television in an academic context. I read the book, because it is on my program’s Master’s exam list, and because I will be taking at least a few courses on the theory and history of television before I graduate.

At just over 150 pages, the book represents a manageable introduction to the study of television. Some aspects of the text are outdated (technology and TV have both changed a great deal since the 70s), but it’s also remarkable just how much of it remains relevant. TV isn’t my forte, and there are sections in the book that aren’t nearly as interesting as others, but it makes for a decent reading experience all the same. I now feel slightly more prepared to think critically about television than I did before. Hooray for small victories.
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The Golden Age of Cinema 1929-1945 – Richard Jewell (2007)
Jewell’s survey of American Hollywood film from 1929 to 1945 is a relatively easy and an often engaging read. As someone whose knowledge of history is rather lacking, I enjoyed reading about cinema of the period in both its historical and its cultural context. Given the nature of the text, Jewell has little choice but to speak in generalities and to focus on larger tendencies in the industry, but the book is a suitable introduction to its topic all the same.
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Postwar Hollywood 1946-1962 – Drew Casper (2007)
Casper’s book takes a similar approach to Jewell’s but applies it to the years immediately following WWII. Some of the text is overlong, but it remains a decent introduction of American cinema of the period. Like The Golden Age of Cinema, Postwar Hollywood presents an overview of the history, societal issues, film industry practices, technological developments, censorship, and the popular genres of the time. Though it’s not the most exciting read, it remains a helpful overview for the right readers. I haven’t taken a class on American history since high school, and my knowledge of American film prior to 1970 is largely limited to Hitchcock, so I can’t claim that I didn’t learn anything by reading Casper’s text.
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Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability – Patricia White (1999)
I’m actually still reading this one, but since I only have about 40 pages left, I’m going to include it here anyway.

Like the previous three books I’ve described, this one is also listed on my Master’s exam list. After a few weeks reading about television, history, and American Hollywood cinema in a general sense, I decided to turn my attention to an author who’s more invested in close-reading. Though I haven’t seen most of the movies that White uses to investigate the “representability” of lesbians on film, I do appreciate her analysis of them. Moreover, even though I lack the theoretical knowledge to fully grasp all of the threads of White’s arguments, I have still found Uninvited to be a (mostly) worthwhile read. Anyone interested in queer or feminist film—or even in the ways that certain topics found their way to the big screen despite the PCA—should give this one a look.
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Hitchcock/Truffaut – François Truffaut (1985)
Though I’ve read this book before, I’m currently reading it again since I’m working for a course on Hitchcock. Truffaut’s conversations with Hitchcock aren’t always riveting, but they make for a pretty fun read. At turns biographical, informational, humorous, and fascinating, Hitchcock/Truffaut spans the entirety of Hitchcock’s long career. As far as I’m concerned, the book should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to direct films. Every time I open it, I am reminded of the great deal of thought and craft that can go into the making of a film, and I even remember some of the reasons why I tend to favor directors who privilege the visual over words.

For those who don’t know, Truffaut’s book is also at the heart of a 2015 documentary of the same name.
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Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood – Mark Harris (2008)
Pictures at a Revolution uses Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Doolittle to paint a picture of a pivotal moment in American film history. Harris’s book is not an academic text, and it reads more like a story than anything else. Though it is engaging, the book is longer than it needs to be, and I may or may not have found myself skipping most of the sections on Doctor Doolittle. Occasionally informative and illuminating, Pictures at a Revolution is an ideal light read for anyone interested in film and film history.

I’ll soon be tackling Casper’s Hollywood Film 1963-1976, and I’ll probably be more receptive to the material it contains now that I have some knowledge of the many changes that were occurring in the industry during that time.
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Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills – Zachary Shore (2016)
While Shore’s text is short, clear, and easy to read, its usefulness is a bit limited. I feel that if I had read sections of the book when I was beginning undergrad, that they would have been much more help to me then than they will be at this point. Alternatively, some passages in the text are clearly oriented toward those seeking a PhD; since I am not such a student, I found myself skimming a lot of the text.

There’s good advice about reading, writing, researching, and presenting sprinkled throughout Shore, but it doesn’t apply to all programs, student, schools, or disciplines. As a result, much of the book feels oversimplified.
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Until Next Time
Of course, I’ve haven’t just been reading the books above. A  fair number of articles have demanded my attention since school started in August, but I won’t be listing them here at the moment (I really should be studying after all!)

So far, I haven’t been particularly ‘intellectually inspired’ while here, and I haven’t had a noticeably powerful film-viewing experience either. Not yet anyway. Stay tuned.

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

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.


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

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

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.


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

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).