Film / TV Reviews

The Gospel According to St. Matthew: The Outside Looking In

I have yet to see a compelling film about the Christ story as told from a Christian filmmaker. They range from blasé attempts to present the Biblical narrative as “history” — and I mean this both as a criticism of rigid dogmatism and a criticism of the style they are often told in, one of boring high school history lessons lacking flavour and constructed like an overlong textbook devoid of pictures — to glorified torture porn disguised as piety that should shock and appal for all the wrong reasons.

I have, however, seen several accounts of the Bible told by secular filmmakers that are utterly fascinating, full of metaphor and imagery, that examine their source material — in particular, the Christ character — through a lens more appropriate to examining a historical figure who still has an impact on today’s world. The Last Temptation of Christ springs to mind, a film that dared to take Jesus seriously as a human being full of doubt and conflicting values, a man who felt both a higher calling and an inescapable feeling of inadequacy. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is another movie, this one made by an atheist, that examined Jesus from a Marxist context, that looked truly at the message of radical socialism and free love, and asked us what we can take from the story. While it is flavoured with mythological undertones, the movie never descends into the literal fundamentalism that modern Bible movies so often drown under.

Pasolini was primarily a poet, and, believing in the lyrical value of the Gospel of Matthew, he lifted all his dialogue directly from the source material. There is no embellishment to the fantastical elements of the story — the two biggest “magical” moments, namely Jesus’ miracles of the five loaves and two fish and his walking on water are not presented as swirling special effects sequences that are meant to make us think about how miraculous these unreal events are supposed to be, but rather are presented in a stark simplicity that simply highlight the allegorical nature of the scenes. Pasolini himself had expressed remorse at including these two scenes as he felt they were too obviously pious and not central to the socialist message of the film, and I agree to a certain extent: perhaps the loaves and fish sequence could have been removed without affecting anything, but the water walking scene is quite breathtaking and Jesus’ “why did you doubt?” line doubles down the effect of the rest of his message when coupled with Pasolini’s natural aesthetic. In fact, for a miraculous scene, there is nothing out of the ordinary about its presentation. There is Jesus, here are the disciples.

Terry Eagleton, also an atheist, described Jesus as a Marxist revolutionary in his book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.” For Eagleton, Jesus was a radical who placed the poor, the broken and the outcast at the centre of his revolution against the politics of the time. These outcasts, those abused by the system and (rightly) dissatisfied with it were to be the new rebels, so to speak, the driving force behind a new social system, and from there in the centre, he could spread his message outward and establish a new, socialist society that looked after all of its members with equal consideration. To Eagleton, Jesus became a political figure, one who threatened the power and as a result was politically executed, becoming a martyr and proving his own point that society was broken and in need of change.

For Pasolini, Jesus was also a Marxist revolutionary, one who viewed society as broken and in urgent need of remaking, and who sought to do so by blessing the poor, the outcast and the sinners, and condemning the rich, pious and hypocritical. A scene in which a rich man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to gain entrance to heaven stands out. Jesus replies, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:16-23, quote 19:21). Seen from a Marxist standpoint, this scene epitomizes the message of Jesus regarding political power and wealth and his rebellion against the social system of the day.

There is no need to recount the plot as Pasolini follows Matthew precisely, adamantly adhering to what he considered its artistic value. What stands out then is his neorealism and simplistic imagery. Casting non-actors in his roles, Pasolini’s Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) is a young man brimming with political rebellion but tethered by gentle compassion. Far from the overly-passionate portrayals found in nearly every other Jesus movie that attempts to make Jesus into the “best person ever” and ends up giving him either the emotional depth of a stone wall or the unstable passion of a teenage heartthrob, Pasolini’s Jesus is a calm figure, someone who has a point to make, someone with compassion but also someone capable of misguided anger, who gets a little too riled up at some points, but who always sees things from a curiously removed standpoint, more like a child than a commander. Irazoqui’s beatitudes are recited as ernest poetry, his Lord’s Prayer given as genuine instruction and his rebuke of the Pharisees given with venomous poignancy. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eyes as though he’s just given his followers a riddle to figure out and eagerly awaits their answer.

Pasolini’s striking black and white imagery and powerful use of closeups add a timeless element to his film. For example, the massacre of Israeli children by Herod after Christ’s birth is by far the most emotionally affecting sequence in any Nativity story I’ve seen, one that made me for almost the first time consider the fear of a woman for her child’s life. This sequence, presented only in long-shots and devoid of emotional punches, save for the beautiful and haunting soundtrack, is one example of the many extraordinary uses of Italian neorealism to enlighten and enrich the gospel account.

By the end of The Gospel According to St. Matthew I was moved and inspired by this Jesus, one who put his words into actions and ultimately suffered for his version of a better world. His message of radical forgiveness was not one of free-passes vs. judgement, but one of bettering humanity to be more fully equipped to deal with social and political issues that inevitably arise. This was a Jesus who meant what he said and did his best to put his words into actions, one who was able to inspire others not to take up dogmatic adherence to rules and standards of discrimination under the disguise of piety, but to live a simple life devoted to helping those who needed it.

Fascinating then, that an outsider to the faith would be able to construct a better, more hopeful and meaningful interpretation of the gospel than a pious believer. Were this the Jesus people believed in I should be less surprised were I to find precious few Christians in heaven and a far greater number of outcasts and non-religious peacekeepers in their place.

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Erotic Horror/Fantasy and the Coming of Age of Womanhood

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is perhaps the most enchantingly disturbing movie I have ever seen. It is certainly unlike anything I have ever seen and even now I am questioning the adjectives I have chosen to describe it. In the moments after viewing it I described it as disturbing because I felt used by a movie; now I chose disturbing because it is quite simply nothing else. The film disturbs the emotional state of the viewer and forces them to confront a new spectre of their emotional lexicon they previously didn’t know existed. I chose enchanting because no other film has made me quite so enamoured by my own mood being disrupted.

Anyone familiar with the movie will know there’s not much of a story to be spoken of. Adapted from the 1932 novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezva, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is a Czechoslovakian surrealistic masterpiece of fantasy and symbolism, one of the last Czechoslovakian new-wave films released during the era when narrative dissonance was still at its height. In the decade that followed, traditional narratives would return to the public spotlight, and eventually Czechoslovakia would dissolve. In its historical context, VALERIE may be seen as a time capsule of uncertainty and mystic rebellion as well as a coming-of-age metaphor, not just for the titular character herself, but for the soon to be born Czech Republic and Slovakia as well.

Contrary to its first impression, there is more than enough plot in this movie to sustain its short runtime, even if the film is more regarded for its imagery than its story. Unlike Shakespeare, for example, there is little else to be gained from a first time viewing than the striking visual landscape, but perhaps even exceeding the great bard is the depth the depth that reveals itself, layer by layer, upon deeper analysis and retrospection. VALERIE makes great use of metaphor, religious symbolism, erotica, culture, fantasy, horror, and impressionism to an extent that would undoubtably infuriate high school students just trying to stay awake during English classes even more than Hamlet does.

To recap the plot as it first appears: a strange man comes to down. Valerie learns that he is the lover of her grandmother who has come to reclaim the house she lives in. He is also a vampire and needs Valerie’s life-force to regain his vitality. Valerie has in her possession magical earrings that repel the advances of the evil forces that threaten her. She is also enamoured by a young man who she takes turns saving and being saved by when her world collapses in around her. Her grandmother dies. She saves her grandmother. A young woman is married to a vampire and bit. She saves the young woman. Her mother at last returns and introduces Valerie to her father, who is also her grandfather, who is also a vampire. Also it’s all a dream. Within a dream.

Or something like that. Christopher Nolan’s head would spin if he saw this movie.

The plot isn’t really the point, the imagery is, but the imagery informs the plot. Consider the following: the movie begins with the onset of Valerie’s menstruation, her introduction to womanhood. Her story then, takes place in a world where she is old enough to be sexualized but young enough to escape into childhood fantasy. Indeed a recurring scene sees Valerie spying on young women bathing in a stream, nymph characters engaged in innocent sexuality — a striking contradiction if ever there was one, but one more reflective of teenage reality than any of the Hollywood coming-of-age movies ever released, particularly from the female perspective — to which Valerie covers her young breasts and looks away ashamed, yet intrigued. Consider also the sexual predator nature of the original vampire mythology. Here, bites are turned to kisses, in greeting, in comfort, and in consumption. Priests are predators, grandmothers are mothers, grandfathers are vampires, and a boyfriend is also a brother. Ambiguity plays a large role as Valerie navigates her dual nature: she is a child and a woman; her world is real and fantastic; her life is both magical and horrific.

All these metaphors play a key in interpreting the narrative. Valerie is thrust into a world where she doesn’t know the identity of anyone else, who may or may not be a vampire, may or may not be a victim, may or may not be a family member. Sexuality blossoms in a confusing way, consider Freud’s theory of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of family members affecting the sexual lives of adults. From this lens, the plot follows a young woman trying to navigate her newfound world and understand her conflicting feelings about those she loves. As far as traditional stories go, very little more explanation is needed. There have been movies made with less plot than this that are still considered complex.

Important too to understanding the story is the striking imagery: water flowing reminiscent of Tarkovsky, blood droplets on flowers paralleling the fruit Valerie eats, paralleling the bloodlust of the vampires, paralleling menses. Religious iconography contrasts with death, also a new introduction to Valerie. A priest hangs himself from a window in crucifix pose. Men flagellate themselves, women tear their clothes in torment, exposing their breasts while men look on as they cover the eyes of their children. Nuns bless themselves and pray while a prophet curses Valerie and threatens to burn her at the stake unless she confesses she is a witch. Of course a young women possessing the power to defeat evil (sexual dominance) is accused of being a witch. How is she supposed to answer this? If she confesses the will burn her for being a witch, if she does not, they will burn her for denying the “truth” anyway.

For her youth, Valerie is not innocent. A not-so-veiled lesbian tryst results in the salvation of a character whose life is compromised by her vampire husband. Valerie’s own nakedness is never seen as sexualized to the viewer, but is seen so to her patriarchal figures, but it is her own deliberate innocence — not the innocence thrust upon her by the pedophiliac nature of society around her, but that which she chooses to maintain as a weapon against evil — that is her secret power. A gift is given to her by her lover that repels a predator and then stolen by that same lover, a metaphor for virginity that turns on itself as Valerie learns she is in command of her powers herself.

It is virtually impossible to end up spoiling this movie by giving anything away. The narrative is fractured and repeats itself, folding in on dreams within dreams while leaping from scenario to scenario without any need to maintain an internal consistency, and that is the point. There is no need to make sense of what we are seeing, only to fall into it. The music is hallucinatory and spiritual, like a childhood nursery rhyme sung in a church choir. The images are frightening and fascinating, the world in which the story takes place strikingly simplistic and hellish at the same time. Comforting, yet disturbing. A contradiction of itself.

To return to my opening statement, this is indeed one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, yet now upon reflection I find myself wondering if I mean that in a negative way. Perhaps some movies ought to disturb us, some stories ought to make us question ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. I have to wonder what my impression of VALERIE might be if I were a woman as even from a male’s perspective I find myself identifying more with femininity through this film than I ever have watching a movie directed by a woman. Perhaps that is a strange detail to take note of but it is one I am painfully aware of nonetheless. There is a sense of longing conveyed in Jaromil Jireš’ erotic fantasy that eschews the patriarchal gaze and replaces it with the mystery of adolescence and womanhood. Or perhaps I’ve finally gone too far in trying to interpret a movie that evades analysis at every turn, kind of like the cusp of adolescence itself does.

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is available on Criterion blu-ray

 

Cries and Whispers

Ingmar Bergman fascinates me. He is not as much of an entertainer as he is an academic, and his movies are less works of art than they are strenuous, challenging studies of difficult topics. Of course he is an artist and his movies are entertaining but not in the familiar tradition of escapist fantasy or movies designed for you to take a date to. Do not take a date to a Bergman film, unless you want to spend the rest of the evening sitting in silent despair, wondering what the point of it all is.

Perhaps this is why it takes me so long to watch through Bergman’s collection of work. Nearly every movie of his that I’ve seen could stand as a testament, a landmark to a specific passage in my life. Like a great Russian novel, Bergman demands patience and effort, and the experience is exhausting long before it is over.

Great art challenges you and forces you to grow. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose movies would make for a monolithically challenging double feature with Bergman’s, said, “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” If this is the case, and I do believe it is, and if there were one movie that should be required viewing for anyone to confront their own mortality, then Cries and Whispers would be that movie.

The film is harrowing and tiresome, burdened with bleakness and pain, suffering from the weight of death at every turn, at times genuinely frightening, perhaps more so than a horror film because unlike horror films, which use scares as a means of confronting and revealing hidden griefs within us, Cries and Whispers only presents us with those very secrets, leaving us afraid of what we might find if we look inside. And yet, in all the turmoil, hope and innocence remains.

There are four women in the film, three of whom are sisters and the fourth who is a servant, but feels more at home with the other women than they do with each other. Agnes is dying and her sisters, Maria and Karin have come to stay with her, along with Anna, her housemaid, who looks after all three of the women. Anna’s daughter died many years ago and every morning Anna beseeches her god to look after her daughter. The other women know no such grief in the past and it is only now, watching their sister die that they are confronted with the scale of their loss, not because their sister is dying, but because they have had the misfortune to have to be within proximity of someone dying. Neither of them are capable of comforting Agnes, who repeatedly cries out for someone to hold her. Only Anna can calm Agnes’ screams.

The rest of the story is told in bold flashbacks and we see, ever so slowly, that the true loss the sisters have suffered is that of their own lives. Slowly, perhaps even beginning in childhood, each of them began to lose a little bit of themselves. Maria feels nothing for her husband even when he attempts suicide upon discovering her affair. Karin despises her own husband and self-harms not to punish herself or find relief in pain, but simply because she knows it will disgust the man she lives with. Agnes has always been jealous of Maria’s relationship with their mother.

After Agnes departs, Karin tells Maria she hates her. She rejects her tender advances and attempts at reconciliation, pushing her away and screaming “don’t touch me.” Eventually Maria stops trying. In another scene, the two of them hug and caress each other and we see that their relationship has been restored. In another scene, Maria denies that this happens and Karin recoils from her goodbye kiss. There is no sense that these sisters care for each other at all, and this is presented as perhaps the greatest death in the movie.

Anna has a dream in which Agnes returns from death, calling out once more for comfort, from each of her sisters. Karin is horrified and disgusted and leaves nearly as soon as she arrives. Maria tries hard to comfort Agnes but eventually is repulsed by her dead sister. Finally Anna herself strokes Agnes’ hair and whispers the distressed soul through her journey into the afterlife. What does this mean? Does the dream tell us of Anna’s pure heart or of her jealousy of the sisters? After all, Anna is perceived by the others as lesser than them, and given only a brief thought and an obligatory reward for her services. Only the priest who performs the funeral praises Anna’s faith as greater than his own, and indeed, Anna’s faith is unwavering in the face of death.

Cries and Whispers is a difficult film to watch and an even more difficult film to understand. It doesn’t have answers because it doesn’t seem to have questions to begin with. It is a confrontation with mortality, with the death of the body, the death of relationships, and the death of the soul. Yet it is ultimately a hopeful film. It is easy to see why the sisters seem to despise Anna. She is over-willing to serve, she seems to have little strength of character, and she has no one to care for her. As the priest remarks, however, Anna has faith, and maybe that’s the point. No matter how ugly things get, Anna gives us hope.

Jurassic World & Morally Responsible Filmmaking

Jurassic World is not so much a bad movie as it is a lazy one. The performances are clocked it an just above barely competent, with Bryce Dallas Howard giving one of the most forced excuses for acting in the decade so far and Chris Pratt trying his best but being forced to prance around with a plastic pea-shooter of a prop gun for the majority of the running time. The direction is lazy and uninspired, essentially ripping off all of Spielberg’s best scenes from Jurassic Park except doing the exact opposite of what the box-office wonder did to make his magical dino-marvel movie work. The editing is choppy and doesn’t allow for us to process any of what we are seeing, which is mostly sub-par special effects anyways. Compare the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to those of Jurassic World – where the former were majestic (it probably helped the actors having something to react to other than a green screen), the latter are nothing impressive and lack any conviction in their movement. Sure, they look fine on the surface but there’s no inspiration behind them. Disney studies animals to an endless extent just to make their animation seem convincing, but none of that dedication is to be found in the lacklustre mechanical nature of Jurassic World’s “wonders.”

But none of the shoddy craftsmanship holds a candle to the pathetic waste of paper that is the script. From the complete lack of structure, to the making-it-up-as-we-go plot contrivances, to the complete black hole of character development, to the deus ex machina climax and forced resolution, Jurassic World is a world devoid of coherence, logic, and emotion. The characters are all stupid and the internal consistency of the story changes depending on whatever makes sense for the moment. This isn’t just a bad amateur in film school script that doesn’t know how to balance its big ideas with pragmatics, this is just a bad all around script that doesn’t know anything.

And yet, none of my complaints are as relevant as the moral bankruptcy on display by the filmmakers. Jurassic World is the embodiment of millennial entitlement. Just by virtue of having made a film, the filmmakers seem to feel, they deserve accolades and praise. Don’t get me wrong, the fact of existence of any film is a wonder and most audiences are oblivious (fairly so) to just how much work goes into making any dream a reality. Still, there’s been a certain trend in modern blockbusters that disturbs me more and more, especially among younger filmmakers (look at Mad Max: Fury Road for the opposite example, this is a movie made by a veteran filmmaker that has more to say as well as more energy and vital enthusiasm than any summer movie I’ve seen in years, but that’s another topic) where ethics and moral responsibility go out the window in favour of computer generated faux-effects. It’s time we start talking about this.

A quick caveat on the subpar expertise in Jurassic World. Is it really too much to expect movies to be good? I know, I know, it’s supposed to be enjoyable, but enjoyment is not synonymous with “anything goes.” I paid fifteen bucks for two hours of my life I’ll never get back. I would never dream of shelling out money for a bed that doesn’t support my weight, or a bookcase that crumbles at the weight of my ever-increasing book collection, but somehow it’s supposed to be completely justifiable to spend my hard-earned cash on something that amounts to nothing more than a waste of my precious time? That doesn’t sit well with me and I feel sorry for audiences who have been suckered into believing that this lack of a standard Hollywood has put forward is the best they can get and they better just accept it and be complacent to be gifted with the little entertainment value they can get. Let’s have at least a little pride. It wasn’t always like this, after all. Yes, there have always been subpar movies and many of them are not necessarily the fault of anyone in particular but are rather failed experiments, but at least they usually aspired to something. Especially for a franchise reboot, or continuation, or whatever Jurassic World is supposed to be exactly, some adherence to the expectations laid down by previous movies should be met.

Enough on that topic however, since it is a sad reality these days but a reality that may be simply unavoidable due to economic trends and factors beyond anyone’s control. What really disturbs me about Jurassic World is its complete lack of social conscientiousness. In a world systematically troubled by social issues, with progress slow and far in between in the realm of women’s rights, minority representation and animal treatment, Jurassic World does nothing but set us backward. Not only is Bryce Dallas Howard a glorified damsel in distress (she’s even worse than that as she spends a good portion of the third act… hiding in a truck) but her pathetic character is every rich white boy’s fantasy, as proved by the forced “romance” where Chris Pratt gets to save and kiss his white heroine without her even having so much as a single moment of characterization. Yeah, she fires a gun at one point, which, by the way, comes out of nowhere since we haven’t seen any suggestion that she’s even capable of holding a pen properly without having a full blown panic attack. Poor Bryce, even though her performance is absolutely appalling, I still feel bad for the demands placed on her to do nothing but scream and look desperate for the whole movie.

There’s even a scene where Jake Johnson does the noble thing and stays behind to manage the heroes and dinosaurs while everyone else evacuates the failed Jurassic World park, and he makes a move on his female colleague. She pulls back, saying she has a boyfriend. Fair enough, but why is this even in the movie? If the writers really thought this was an odd move for a man to make on his coworker who, by the way, has no real relationship with him beyond sitting beside him looking perky, then they wouldn’t have included this throwaway sexist gag at all. It’s not that it’s there that troubles me, it’s that we’re supposed to laugh at the awkwardness and feel sorry for him for not getting the kiss. It suggests a lack of social awareness on behalf of the writers, not that it’s really surprising at this point.

Finally, there’s the appalling treatment of the dinosaurs. While Jurassic Park was about men in power trying to hijack biology for their own power – definitely a legitimate plot angle given the real world concern about cloning and technological advances in the face of biological extinction – Jurassic World seems to care less about dinosaurs than oil companies do about climate change. Not only are the animals treated like commodities but this treatment is used for comedy again and again. I actually felt dirty watching the movie, like I wanted to tell my parents I loved them and maybe apologize to all the people I’d hurt just to try and reconcile myself with my moral standards. I can’t imagine how animal rights activists would feel watching this.

It’s unfortunate at the best that Jurassic World, this summer’s biggest tentpole release, is so completely mediocre and uncaring. In today’s media saturated world, a larger than ever responsibility falls to filmmakers, writers, journalists, and all other members of the media to uphold a standard of human decency, to be socially aware enough to make constructive comments on society, and to help us aspire to something greater than what we are currently. Movies have a magical hold over us, as all storytelling has throughout human history, to mould our consciousness, to shape our ethics, and to guide us into the future. It’s time filmmakers started recognizing that instead of churning out moment-by-moment gratuitous indulgences designed to elicit nothing more than a momentary visceral response. I hate to bring it up again in an unrelated essay, but Mad Max: Fury Road still inspires me a month after I saw it to be a better person and to treat others as my equals, to look up to my friends, to respect my elders, to prioritize the women in my life who have made me what I am today, and to ultimately fight for justice and what is right. Jurassic World taught me that women are weak, that animals are pathetic, and that children are stupid. Wow, what a game changer…

 

 

JOE & MARY’S KID – A CURIOUS, POIGNANT SHORT FILM

Children are our route to immortality. If we can’t live forever ourselves, then perhaps our genetic code can. The pursuit for immortality however, does not come without a cost. With creation there must also be destruction. A parent dies, a child lives.

This philosophical conundrum is explored adeptly in JOE & MARY’S KID, a charming and affecting short film written and directed by Dan Rosen. Joe and Mary cannot have children so Joe builds one, a mechanical one, to compensate. Consider the paradox at work here: Joe and Mary cannot create a child biologically but they can create a fake stand-in. Creation vs creation. Children are genetic remixes of our own organic matter, robots are mechanical remixes made up of other parts. This child, Izac, is for all purposes completely real to Joe, less real to Mary. Joe’s priorities centre around Izac while Mary’s are more concerned with maintaining her relationships with other people. She attempts to seduce Joe, he resists. From a purely biological perspective, the end goal of any romantic relationship should be the children, but this fails to account for the entire scope of the human experience.

Mary of course tries to accept Izac into her life but the child’s mechanical voice and automatic responses fail to trigger any sympathy in her. Her warmest moments with the robot are watching him from afar, distancing herself from any real connection. Replace Izac with any human child and little has changed: at a distance, we’re all just robots to each other, it is only when we are willing to get up close and personal that we recognize our humanity. When Izac falls apart, it is Joe who attends to him, while Mary is more concerned with the dog. Here is another contrast between life and non-life, mother and father, woman and man.

The short film’s most profound moment is its dealing with destruction. Mary’s weapon of sabotage is milk, the giver of nutrition and well-being and a symbol of femininity, while Joe’s is pure, unbridled violence. Once again the relationship between opposites is clearly demonstrated.

It is only by destroying the mechanical with the essence of life that Mary can restore her marriage and bring Joe back from his brink of despair. In the beginning, Joe brought life into the world, but all was not good. In the end, Mary destroys the non-living “life” that Joe created and all is well again. The symbolism recalls Biblical metaphors and fits well with any paradox of equation. Yin and yang, male and female, good and evil, whatever you may have here.

The path to immortality then, lies not in creation but in life itself. Izak ultimately serves as a reminder to both Joe and Mary of their relationship, of all the good things worth having and remembering. Their happiest moments were holding each other dearly and living their lives without fear of what may happen when the lights go down. Funny how it sometimes takes a materialistic thing to make the nonmaterialistic matter.

JOE & MARY’S KID is a poignant short film, confidently shot, employing symbolism to achieve meaning many directors struggle to spell out explicitly. All I usually ask for in a fifteen minute video is something to, well, entertain me enough to make me forget that I spent a whole quarter-hour watching it. This short film gives far more than that. It is interesting enough as a curious story of mechanical wonders, but it has something to say and to contribute to the canon of human pondering that drives all storytelling.

 

Watch JOE & MARY’S KID below:

 

Or click this link to go to vimeo.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON — Just As Empty As Ultron Himself

There may be no strings on Ultron, because AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON needs them all to support its limp, spineless body. This is a movie whose greatest strengths are its very downfall, which is unfortunate because it is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be.

Joss Whedon has become unhinged. He used to be a legend, a champion of the nerds, now reduced to a punch line for a joke that you walked in on halfway through. The entire running time of AGE OF ULTRON I kept waiting for the movie to stop trying to sell itself and get to its point, but that never comes. It’s like a really, really, really, really long trailer — there are a lot of trailer moments, big action set pieces, witty one-liners, flashy splash panel frames, but nothing really there at the end of it but a giant caption reading “Written and Directed by Joss Whedon” which might as well say “Coming soon to theatres near you at some point in the vague and distant future, maybe, if we ever get around to it, but it’ll be awesome we hope.”

Let’s talk about the basic plot. Tony Stark makes a giant artificial intelligence called Ultron that’s supposed to do The Avengers job of avenging for The Avengers so they don’t have to. It’s the ultimate weapon to achieve world peace, until it develops its own ideas about what peace means. Of course, since world peace can only be achieved through a weapon, and of course since weapons only lead to war. Everyone knows this including some of The Avengers themselves, but Tony Stark is Tony Stark and so… well, that’s the plot. It’s simple, it doesn’t require a bunch of exposition, and it’s effective.

Then there’s a romance subplot, a what’s-really-going-on subplot, some behind the scenes subplots, some good old fashioned buddy-buddy conflict, and your usual run of the mill in-jokes designed so that all the nerds in the theatre get just a little bit more enjoyment out of the movie than anyone else. There’s enough material in this film for MARVEL to start a TV series about the every day lives of each of its characters and still have time left over to continue its global domination in the superhero blockbuster market. DC still can’t manage to lock down a director for Wonder Woman, or write a decent script.

But AGE OF ULTRON is just so… empty. While the first AVENGERS had one of the worst first acts ever, at least Whedon knew when to play his cards so that by the time the movie gets going it’s also one of the best times I’ve ever had in a theatre. AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t suffer from the first act problems its predecessor did. Instead it just suffers for the entire run time, building up to a crescendo that never arrives.

Here’s an example, the aforementioned splash panel sequences. Whedon makes a true comic book movie and he does so with a little too much glee. No action movie has ever been framed like this before. Almost every other scene is taken right out of a comic book, designed to maximize visual stimulation in a way that is incomprehensibly overwhelming, and it’s a delight to see, for a while. However, like I said, no action movie has ever been framed like this before… for a reason, because it means nothing. Nothing motivates the camera or the framing or the things filling the frame because none of it matters. All that matters is getting the eye candy. This could be a really good porno movie. Or a really bad porno movie.

MARVEL has done something right lately. IRON MAN 3, CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY were all some of the best work the company has produced. They took superheroes to a new high, giving them not just incredible action and great characterization but gravitas and relevant meaning. AGE OF ULTRON is supposed to be about teamwork, I think, but it doesn’t touch on anything GUARDIANS didn’t. “We’ll do it together,” somebody says several times, in case we missed that point. Thanks for spelling it out for us, Joss.

Whedon is about as subtle as a drunk with a banjo at his best but he goes about it so earnestly that he succeeds. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was always at its best when it wore its heart on its sleeve because that’s when it was able to really matter. This time, he abandons the heartfelt meaning for references to things nobody else understands. I’m not even sure if reference is the right word. The movie could be a series of vignettes that are all meta references to each other in a weird meta spiderweb way while the whole thing adds up to a meta reference to something else. Dan Harmon would be proud but at least Harmon would make the meta the point. Whedon just feels like he thinks he’s being cool.

But let’s not get all down on the movie. It is glorious at times. Sure, there’s no HULK SMASH, and although James Spader is no Tom Hiddleston, he’s pretty impressive as Ultron, really turning the CGI character into a personified being. It’s remarkable that the most interesting character is actually just a giant conglomerate of special effects.

All the pieces are there for AGE OF ULTRON to be the pinnacle of superhero movies except for its whole. I left the first AVENGERS giddy with the highlights flashing through my mind. I left the second one just trying to remember how it had started. I hate the idea of turning off your brain to watch a movie, but if you don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted two and a half hours doing nothing but flooding your visual cortex with over saturated colours and hyperkinetic stroke-inducing dizziness — not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s all you’re looking for then this is the perfect movie — then you’re going to need to turn your brain off for this one.

 

 

Purple Squirrels — Interview With The Creator

 

I recently watched the pilot for a bold, new Canadian television series, Purple Squirrels. Go here to read my review. The series is a lot of fun, shows great potential and is a refreshing take on Canadian life, combing elements of big city sitcoms like HBO’s Girls with the workplace satire of NBC’s The Office.

I’ve been in contact with the series creator and director Mike Lippert to do a brief interview about the creation and production of the Purple Squirrels pilot:

 

SR: Mike, what was your inspiration for the idea of Purple Squirrels?

ML: The primary inspiration was to write a funny, half-hour character drama. That’s what I started with. When it came time to decide the setting, Recruitment made sense. I’d worked as an agent in that industry for close to four years, so I knew it was something I could write to from an insider’s perspective. I wanted the show to be funny, but also wanted it to have that feeling of authenticity, like viewers were getting a backstage glimpse into this world they had no idea existed. The possibilities for comedy in that world are endless and something the rest of the series really builds upon. The title comes from a recruitment industry term to describe a candidate with a skill set that doesn’t exist. Like a Help Desk person with a PhD. In Astrology. It’s something that all recruiters spend a great deal of time searching for. Hence the tagline “Everybody’s searching for something.”

SR: What’s your favourite shot in the pilot? 

ML: It’s hard to pick one. There’s a lot of great stuff in there. I love the opening streetcar montage with the footage of Toronto and every time Alex makes that career defining trek from the washroom back to the office in the third act, I’m with him every step.

But really, my favourite, and the most impressive shot in the pilot is the closing credits. There’s a full crew of around 48 people in those credits and it blows me away every time I see it. This pilot was made with no budget, by people with no formal filmmaking experience or connections in the film industry. I went to the industry and said “Here’s a script, there’s no money but we’re going to make it. Would you be willing to help out?”

Every person on that credit roll said yes, just based on their belief in the script. I’m grateful to each and every one of them and can’t wait to work with a lot of them again.

SR: What was the most difficult part of making the pilot? Was it in production, writing or was there a specific technical day that really challenged you?

ML: The hardest part about making a television pilot for no money is making a television pilot for no money.

But seriously, the biggest challenge was probably writing the pilot. The pilot took around 12 months, on and off, to write. You have to establish a setting, introduce an environment, introduce a handful of characters, tell a self-contained story and leave the audience with enough to want to tune in next time, all within 25-30 pages. Not easy.

I’d say, given the circumstances, the production was very smooth. We had 48 hours to get everything we needed, in an office that wasn’t ours. People were on the clock for no money and we had a full cast and crew to manage. Looking back now, it seems daunting, but I think the key was that everyone saw that we were there to work and make something that would get recognized. No one wanted to be that person that dragged the whole team down. It’s a really rewarding feeling to see so many people get on the same page and strive for the same ends. You put so much time and effort into creating a show and you have no idea how anyone will react to it, but it all came together. Although everyone worked their asses off, I can tell you that I have never seen so many happy people on one set before. It was a very inspiring moment for me.

SR: Why should Canadians watch Purple Squirrels?

ML: It’s funny, it’s relatable and it’s very Canadian while also pushing the standards of what people have come to expect from Canadian television. The only place for this series to go is up. Remember, this is a completely independent production so I hope people will discover the pilot, see the potential for these characters and this setting and spread the word. Canadians have been waiting for a show like this. I think it’s time someone gave it to them.

 

Special thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer some questions and discuss his new show!

Watch the trailer for Purple Squirrels below:

 

I really recommend checking this series out. As I’ve mentioned in my review, I think it’s funny and smart and very exciting to see. Canadians will take a special interest in the show as it portrays a different side of Canadian life than most of the shows we see do, but it’s not a culturally exclusive show. It has a wide appeal, and I think anyone should be able to enjoy it.

The pilot is available to watch on the Purple Squirrels website.

Where Are the Men in HBO’s “Girls?”

by Jose Manuel Flores

“I think I may be the voice of my generation.” Hannah Horvath said in the very first episode of her hit HBO series, Girls, and little did we know, she was right. Girls is a very well-written comedy show about four female friends living in New York while complaining about the white girl problems of their generation. Hannah Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessa Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro (holy shit, they’re all alliterations) deal with shitty relationships, career paths, abandonment, sexuality and all the troubles that privilege entails. Oh, and privilege is horrible, by the way. A lot of people give the show a lot of flak for how selfish the titular girls are, but they do their best given the circumstances. However, I am not here to talk about the girls.

When Hannah said she was the voice of her generation I think she was absolutely right, so I started thinking that “Girls” wasn’t the best title, not that I could come up with a better one. The show stopped being about the girls a long time ago and it became about today’s culture overall, and the boys are an important part of the show too. But maybe, in a sick way, “Girls” is the perfect title for a show that encapsulates our generation, because all the boys of Girls are neutered.

There are a lot of shows out there about emasculation, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to name a few, but I propose that Girls is actually a show about castration. Most, if not all of the male characters in Girls are impotent when we meet them or become so over the course of the series. From Elijah’s sugar-daddy, to Jessa’s friend from rehab, to Hannah’s dad (who is totally gay), Girls is a show about men who willingly surrender their literal and metaphorical manhood to the girls.

Take Charlie, for example, whose sensitive and caring nature towards his girlfriend, Marnie is a point of mockery and annoyance during the first half of Season 1. Hannah and Marnie complain about how nice and unthreatening he is and Hannah even writes in her dairy about how Marnie must feel awful to “date a man with a vagina.” Even after publicly dumping her in a rare moment of awesomeness Charlie still doesn’t get the satisfaction of ending the relationship. Marnie goes to his apartment for the first time in the several years they’ve been dating and begs Charlie to take her back, only to immediately break up with him while having sex. Marnie dumped Charlie while his penis was still inside her. And Charlie is not a bad guy, he’s just so bland and vanilla. He is not a man in the eyes of Marnie or the audience. What Marnie really wants is a guy with balls, like Booth Jonathan, who bluntly tells her that he’s gonna fuck her so hard it will scare her, because he is a man, and he knows what he is doing. If only Girls hadn’t neutered Booth Jonathan too.

If Marnie seems like a bitch because of her treatment of poor, ball-less Charlie, take a look at Jessa. Maybe because of her abandonment issues, Jessa seems to be a magnet for guys begging her to take their manhood away. She acts like a tease to her boss in Season 1 and to her hipster ex-boyfriend (you know, the one with a girlfriend named Gillian), and especially to her husband Thomas-John. I hated TJ. He was the definition of white privilege and what it entails. He was also seemingly 12 years old and had a twisted idea of how women work. In his introduction episode he screams that Marnie and Jessa owe him a threesome because he works hard and they’ve never had to work for a living. They were blue-balling him by shutting him out of his own fantasies and he deserved it. Thomas John tries to reassure himself that he is still a man by controlling women (which by the way, is never okay). Jessa terminates the marriage early and in defiance, smashes his most prized, phallic award.

Let’s look at “Old Man Ray”, a 30-something year old guy making ends meet as a glorified barista. He is one of the characters on the show who started out already neutered. When Shoshanna ultimately broke up him after their sweet affair, she was quick to point out how he had no interests, no goals, no career plans, nothing to live for. Unfortunately for him, she has a point. The show has never pretended that Ray is anything more than the pathetic loser we see. Even when Marnie starts revenge fucking him she acts like it’s the most disgusting thing she has ever done right to his goddamned face, and he doesn’t even mind.

Not all the recurring male characters were always a flaccid mess. Take Adam, whose dominating and borderline abusive personality actually felt like a sharp criticism of a culture permeated by the celebration of hyper-masculinity. Adam is by far the most traditionally masculine of the main cast: he is a tall brute in a moustache, he works with wood (both literally and figuratively) and he is very sexually dominating. For the majority of the show’s run I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hate him for being such a toxic influence in Hannah’s life or like him for being the only one who wasn’t a whiny bitch. But when Adam and Hannah broke up at the end of Season 1, his character took a turn for the nasty. As the intense guy that he is, he gradually fell madly in love with Hannah, admitted she was his new purpose in life and was immediately rendered useless by a passing bus that put him in a bed for months, requiring Hannah to look after him by day while she porked Donald Glover’s character by night. Unable to use his penis on his own, Adam even needed Hannah’s assistance to pee. By Season 3 I stopped recognizing Adam as who he was at the beginning. He didn’t engage in the sick (and frankly very entertaining) sexual practices that made him unique in Season 1. He compromised his artistic vision more than once for a job, something that Hannah had suggested earlier on. He became a better man for sure, but I never felt like he was a happier man. Hannah basically took his manhood away and eradicated what he felt had made him a man, effectively castrating one of the most dynamic characters of the show.

I’m not saying it’s fair to propose that the girls are the ones responsible for all the neutering going on. As I mentioned before, they are doing their best in their own shitty situations and they all lack the emotional maturity they need to have any functional relationship. All of the characters in Girls, male or female, surrender their individuality or their sexuality to someone else in order to function in their culture. For example, Hannah lets her meek, Santa-looking boss grope her just so she can keep her job, yet Hannah and the women at her office still have all the power over him. So is it any wonder that a show called Girls, and which claims to be the voice of our generation, features no traditional “real men”? More and more shows are redefining the notions of masculinity and patriarchy, and young men are still trying to figure out what it means to be a man in today’s society. Just like Hannah, we are all trying to figure out who we are.

The Mirror Image of Nightcrawler

Why am I watching this?

The concept of art as a form of morality is a vastly misunderstood concept in the age of reality-TV and instant-sharing. The line between art and entertainment acts more as a standard of nigh impossibility than a divider between two opposites, but that line exists and its presence in the sand is clearly drawn. The problem isn’t that this line is not black and white issue, the problem is that so few dare to tread it that we can hardly identify the shades of grey by name. Art has fallen from our dialogue and been replaced with political correctness and indulgence.

This is not all bad. So what if entertainment is fluff? So what if all we want is to sit and gather gratuitous stimuli until we bleed from our overwhelming boredom? I’m being unfairly harsh. Maybe if I phrased it differently it would be more comfortable: sometimes a film is just a film. But sometimes not.

NIGHTCRAWLER follows in the shoes of films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or FIGHT CLUB as being misunderstood as a movie that indulges that which it criticizes. Thanks partially to home camcorders and modernly cell phone cameras, the tendency to believe whatever we see in video as some form of true reflection of real events is stronger than ever. (The irony is that the biggest lies often contain the biggest truths. Think about the way stories, especially mythology or folklore, teach us about true things in life even though we know they are fabrications. If you can pick up on this irony yourself, you probably don’t need to read this review.) If somebody shot it, it probably happened. We are all aware, at least in the back of our minds, that this may not be the case exactly, maybe the images we see aren’t quite as real as we think they are, but we still get the impression that they are pretty real. This is our first mistake. The second, especially in the case of fictional filmmaking, is to assume that the creators of the video are endorsing whatever they are filming, or approving of it. The third mistake is to watch it ourselves.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a psychopath. From a psychological perspective, he fits the description, but from a narrative standpoint, this is the most important aspect of his character. He is completely cold, uncaring, divorced from human feelings, manipulative, exploitative, delusional, madly driven, obsessed with details, careless for his own well-being and that of others, isolated, sinister, rude yet charming whenever he needs to be and he thinks the opposite of each of these descriptions is true about him. Writer/Director Dan Gilroy never gives Lou even one moment of grace, one brief glimpse into some redeeming factor that would make Lou into a tragic hero. If he had, the movie would have failed so absolutely it would not only be an artistic disaster, but it would have raised some very suspicious questions about the moral compass Gilroy possesses. Whoever it was who first gave the green light on this script is far smarter than they got credit for.

If Lou Bloom was identifiable, if he had any quality of goodness about him, or even if he was just a very driven and damaged man but not a psychopath, then NIGHTCRAWLER would be an indulgence of every murderous, cold-blooded impulse humankind has ever known. This would be a movie to be condemned for its graphic depiction and more importantly its celebration of crime. Instead, NIGHTCRAWLER is a piercing satire that sets as its target the very people watching it, the audience.

Why am I watching this?

NIGHTCRAWLER is one of the more disturbing movies I’ve seen, and trust me when I say I’ve seen some pretty disturbing movies. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt quite as dirty or inhuman as I did while watching it, or if I’ve been so riveted to my seat while feeling a strong urge to save my dignity and turn the movie off at the same time, and then feeling guilty for feeling so riveted. At the same time, I knew that if I turned it off I would be contributing to the very problem the movie is trying to address, so that also compelled me to keep watching. On top of that, I knew how the movie was going to end, not because I saw the plot coming, but because I knew how the movie had to end. At a certain point (Guessing the ending of a movie is not an act of dark magic. If you know what to look for, anyone can figure out how a movie ends by watching the first ten minutes. I’m talking about being in tune with a movie’s intent. That takes remarkable skill on the part of the filmmaker to pull off), I realized what this movie was going to say and that there had only been one possible ending all along. I knew that if the movie ended any other way, it would make all the time I had been watching nothing more than a tease and I would be guilty of aiding and abetting, so to speak, and yet, I also knew that I had to watch to the end even though I knew what was coming because if I stopped, then I would be part of the problem.

Talk about an intense emotional/cognitive experience. It is an enormous accomplishment for a movie to make it past the second act without losing half of the audience along the way, let alone provide such a mosaic of conflicting feelings within the audience as well as on the screen. Shout outs must be given to the filmmakers for pulling this off. Consider this: the film isn’t particularly directed it the sense that there’s nothing fancy or attention-grabbing about Gilroy’s directing, contrasted with, for example, someone with a distinctive style like the Coen brothers or Scorsese, but that shows remarkable restraint. Gilroy keeps the story and his character front and center. He shoots mostly straight on and tight, like an amateur video nut would… see what he did there?

 

*For the rest of this review, major, major spoilers will follow. Yes, it’s been out on home video for a while, but there’s always someone… so, FINAL WARNING, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM, MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*

 

An Overview of the Plot of NIGHTCRAWLER

Lou begins the story as a loner looking for work. When we meet him he steals metal to sell to scrapyards. In the first scene, we witness him kill to protect himself. At least that’s what we tell ourselves, since Lou was just being friendly and trying to cooperate and that annoying security guard just wanted to lord his authority over everyone else, right? This is Gilroy’s first hook, managing to create some sort of Stockholm-Syndrome sense of likability for Lou. We’re stuck with him for two hours so we begin to see him as a victim. False. Lou is a deranged maniac. Don’t forget that as I work through the plot.

Lou then witnesses a car crash and meets a nightcrawler – a videographer who sells footage of gory accidents and crimes to news channels who pay for witnesses, essentially. Lou decides this is the occupation for him.
Lou hires Rick and starts training him. For the duration of the film, Rick provides the moral compass of the story. When Lou goes further and further down the dark rabbit hole of his obsession, Rick holds back, questioning, cautious.
Lou begins a forceful, abusive relationship with Nina, the news producer he sells exclusively to. Lou blackmails her and coerces her into acts she would not otherwise be willing to commit, but Nina is no innocent either and her bloodlust for bloody footage cannot be understated.
Eventually Lou makes his biggest break. He arrives at a shooting before the police do. He witnesses the murderers get away before filming some very disturbing footage of the crime scene.
In a key moment, Lou withholds his evidence of the suspects. By now you should know what’s coming next. Lou stages the arrest of the suspects so he can film that as well.
Rick backs Lou into a corner and demands a raise. Lou warns him but acquiesces to his request. They follow the suspects, film the shootout which involves the murder of innocent civilians and film the resulting car chase and crash.
Lou tells Rick that the suspect is dead, and to come get the angle. The suspect is not dead, and kills Rick. This is Lou’s revenge. He films it all.
Lou gets away with it and moves his company forward.

 

Lou Bloom, Psychopath

You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that Hannibal Lector is the hero of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or that Anton Chigurh’s philosophy lights the morality of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but neither are the main characters of their respective movies, although they are significant if not the main sources of conflict. Audiences need to identify with the protagonist in order to be swept up in a narrative, but not so with Lou Bloom. He is a fully functioning, pathological psychopath. And yet somehow, NIGHTCRAWLER forces us to see things through his perspective. Not only that, but it makes his perspective compelling. I’ll get to why in the next section, but for now let’s look over his profile.

I’ll never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

— Lou Bloom

By the time Lou delivers this line to his new employees, it means almost nothing. Lou will do anything to further his success, and we have seen that. He will kill, mercilessly. He will exploit and manipulate. He will lie, cheat and steal.

But this line also reveals what makes him so sinister. It is believable and it is comforting. Lou really means it. There’s nothing left for his employees to do that Lou hasn’t already done, but he is sincere. And, he sells it with confidence and calm. Lou sees himself as a mentor, as a friend even, to his employees. Someone to be trusted. No matter what orders he gives, and he warns that sometimes his employees may question or hesitate to obey what he says, he stakes his personal reputation behind what he wants.

This is Lou’s most terrifying personality trait. He is so cool and collected that he can fool anyone. Almost anyone, at least. The FBI agent who suspects Lou of murder doesn’t buy it, but that doesn’t matter. Everyone else does. However, they don’t believe him because he is ernest, they believe him because he reflects back their darkest secrets. Lou is a mirror unto each person he meets, showing them their dark side, and taking on their sins as his own. He is almost a Christ figure, willing to go to hell himself so that others can get what they want, which really means Lou can get what he wants. Almost, anyway. Lou will never sacrifice himself for someone else. Ever. I guess there’s one thing Lou won’t ask his employees to do.

Why am I watching this?

Gilroy never ever breaks this pattern. Lou is 100% all-in. And that is essential…

 

Why Lou Bloom Must Get Away

…Because Lou MUST get away with his crimes.

When THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was released, the movie was met with controversy over the portrayal of Jordan Belfort as some sort of inspirational figure. Jordan also gets away with his crimes, but this seemed to go over many people’s heads. Jordan Belfort, unlike Lou Bloom, is a real person who really did get off the hook.

Jordan Belfort, the real Jordan Belfort, is the author of a best selling memoir, an inspirational speaker and an iconic hero to many, many young men who attend his seminars.

What happened there?

As society, we let him off the hook. So why are we surprised when the movie does the exact same thing? The controversy over WOLF left me and many others scratching our heads. Yes, we got the sexism thing, yes we understood the portrayal of crime was gratuitous even if it was in pursuit of some grander purpose. But why the big fuss over the ending? Didn’t people get it?

Apparently not. And that’s okay. Not everyone should spend their time perusing pop-culture infused movies looking for deeper meanings. Could you imagine how dysfunctional society would be if we were all this nerdy?

Nonetheless, WOLF was a masterpiece of satire, one that never let the audience off the hook for letting the villain off the hook. One that held us to a standard, that showed us an unflattering picture of ourselves in order to make us realize that we are really just as guilty as the people we claim to condemn but secretly celebrate.

NIGHTCRAWLER has the benefit of being fictional and it has the benefit of having an non-relateable main character. Leonardo DiCaprio is just a lot more likeable than Jake Gyllenhaal and his portrayal was warmer and therefore harder to accept as satire. Gyllenhaal and Gilroy make it very clear that Lou is a character we should condemn.

So he must get away with it. Not only because narratively the film would be lying if it crafted a different ending, but because the film has something at its heart that demands this ending.

We are Lou Bloom.

 

Film As A Message

Why am I watching this?

I asked myself this several times over the duration of NIGHTCRAWLER. For a few hours after, I kept asking myself this. I mentioned earlier that it is one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen and I hold steady in asserting that. I am still shaken.

NIGHTCRAWLER is a mirror. Most of the time, movies are just that, movies, entertainment. Little more. Sure, there’s usually a moral within them like, be nice to people, or love wins in the end, you know what I’m talking about. DUMB AND DUMBER is about accepting your differences, I think, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. CASABLANCA is about the greater good. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is about doing what is necessary for good to win over evil. It’s also about friendship. The best movies usually combine thrilling entertainment with a good message. Think of PIXAR.

But some movies are not just entertainment. Some movies are philosophies unto themselves. Usually these are called art movies by film fans. More often they’re called pretentious. That’s unfortunate because it’s a very cultural response, but it’s true. Again, it’s not such a bad thing. Entertainment is fine.

But some movies, very few movies, don’t so much have a message at their centre as they are the message. Think of a movie as a thesis statement. Say you want to tell people that “Love conquers all.” You begin writing your film from that perspective. Every character, every plot point, every detail you can think of is in service of this thesis. You structure the story around it, you develop your characters’ backstories to focus on this single element, you even plant subtle cues into the environment of the film that points to what you want to say.

You end up with the full depth of what filmmaking as a medium is capable of. It’s astounding stuff, the work of genius. Few can pull it off. Fewer try to.

So what does NIGHTCRAWLER have to say?

Why are we watching this?

Whether it is a movie, HBO, reality TV, YouTube or even just the news, most of the time we never stop to question why we are watching what we are watching. I mean really question it. Some of the content out there is really messed up. Doesn’t it say something that we are drawn to it? Isn’t that a comment on ourselves somehow?

Do we enjoy watching gory violence because it’s entertaining or because it indulges our fantasies? What about porn? Does a movie like TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION count as a kind of porn?

Is James Bond a self-indulgent fantasy we can pretend to live through so we can paint ourselves up as murderous heroes and sex gods instead of dealing with the problems of masculinity we have in our culture?

If we are willing to live our lives through our favourite YouTubers… does that say more about ourselves than it does the people willing to live through a camera?

For that matter, what about the news we watch? We are so irresistibly drawn to violent images. Real violence at that.

On TV it looks so real.

— Lou Bloom

Lou says this in regards to a backdrop of LA. Curious then, that he never really looks at the subjects he films, he only ever looks through the LCD screen on his camera. This is not a coincidence.

Gilroy’s movie is meant to comment upon the very nature of indulgence and the way that video enables us in our gluttonous pursuit of gratuity. Nina’s thirst for viewer-grabbing footage pushes her into ethical messes she will never get out of, but she doesn’t give this a second thought. She will do whatever it takes to get her hands on food for the masses no matter what moral ground she jumps over.

Nobody ever stops to ask, why are they watching?

So neither do we. I finished the movie. I had to.

 

Looking Through The Eyes of Delusion

We see the entire movie through Lou’s eyes, an act that forces us to see things from his perspective. This has a very weird effect. I actually had to ask myself if I was some sort of sociopathic freak after watching this because I was so caught up in seeing things through a distorted viewpoint. Maybe that’s just me letting my empathy get carried away, but surely others felt this way too.

Lou’s eyes are not the only ones we wear. We also see through Nina’s mind. We understand he aspirations and her drive to get her hands on whatever footage will further her career. And we see things from Rick’s point of view, wondering if what we’re doing is in any way morally acceptable. Rick gets his comfort in money, and we get ours in narrative payback. Everything will work out in the end. Rick will receive compensation for his compromise and we will get our sense of justice back.

Except that’s not what happens. Rick’s willingness to let go of his standards leads to his death, and likewise, the movie does not give us what we wanted either. We want to see Lou punished but instead he gets a pat on the back. Once again, I hate to beat this drum, but it is important: this is the only way the movie can end. Gilroy cannot let us off the hook or his entire point would be lost. He would lose all the credibility he had established and be left as nothing more than a jester dodging the boos we hurl at him.

By forcing our perspective, Gilroy is able to have the ending he needs. Imagine if this movie had an outsider’s point of view. We would be at a safe distance, able to criticize Lou and then reward ourselves for condemning such obviously reprehensible actions. Instead, we feel uneasy. We cannot confront Lou because we are Lou. Our criticisms are aimed at ourselves, and instead of an obvious choice, we must chose between commenting upon Lou’s decisions and condemning ourselves in the process or revealing ourselves to be hypocrites who like to play judge.

NIGHTCRAWLER is a very uncomfortable film because of this, and that’s the way it should be. Not all movies are meant to inspire us to write poetry. Some are meant to shake us to our very core and hold us to our own standard. We say we condemn violence but we celebrate it in the news by watching every night. We say we don’t approve of fraud but we make thieves into celebrities. We say we hate terrorism but we go to war without just cause. Pick any example of our narcissistically driven judgements and NIGHTCRAWLER asks us to turn the finger of blame back on ourselves.

By forcing our perspective into one of complete delusion, Gilroy penetrates the lies we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night and wakes us up to reality. Lou’s delusion becomes our clarity.

 

Cynicism, and Why It Matters

Sometimes I just want to give up. I get called weird names, not nasty names, but still weird names for writing about movies like this. My friends don’t take me seriously when I start on about what a movie really means or why we should watch some French existential black and white movie about death instead of ordering pizza and watching MARLEY AND ME. And I don’t blame them. I actually think it’s kind of funny.

But then, sometimes, the opposite happens, and we have a deep conversation and connect over worries that we thought we were alone in having. Things like that, and I remember, that it is worth it.

Cynicism is hard to avoid. I have spoken out against growing callous and cold before because I think there’s too much wonder and love in the world for us to be this harsh, but I can’t help but end up feeling very much like throwing hammers at people and railing against everything sometimes.

I think cynicism is necessary. It prevents us from becoming too ignorant. Cynicism holds us to a standard, it allows us to take some distance from our own heads and consider things from someone else’s point of view. It allows us, above all else, to escape our own narcissism.

In many ways, NIGHTCRAWLER is not a very hopeful film. It’s story is one of bad-guy-gets-away, good-guy-dies. It’s main character is beyond saving. It’s secondary character is also beyond saving, and the only character who might have a chance ends up eating pavement. How can this movie have anything good to say about reality?

Because it is cynical about reality. Because it takes a shot at us and tries to tell us that we don’t have to be this way. We are Lou Bloom… but we don’t have to be. We can be different, we can be better.

I love satire. But sometimes it ends up its own ass. The best satire tends to get overlooked by about half the audience, but that’s not hopeless, it’s hopeful. That leaves the other half with the task of talking about it. It leaves room for interpretation, and it leaves room for growth. Maybe the first half actually has a good point. Maybe the second half is on to something. The point is, it’s up to us now.

Cynicism hurts because it shuts down our emotions. In other words, it hurts by a numbing process, and you don’t realize how much you’ve been growing callous until it’s too late. But it’s not too late, for cynicism is also self-correcting, and able to counter itself. It is a wake up call, not a sedative.

So I’m glad NIGHTCRAWLER is as brutal and unrelenting as it is. I’m glad it’s an obvious dark satire. I’m glad its message isn’t obscured by a good-looking lead actor (not to say Gyllenhaal isn’t good looking but he did lose a lot of weight for this role and Lou Bloom is not very attractive) or overblown nudity. I’m glad it isn’t directed into oblivion with pandering artsy camera angles and attractive lens filters.

Cynicism has its times, and this is one of them.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

So here we are, at the end of the journey for Lou Bloom, but at the start for us. We have the opportunity that Lou doesn’t, which is, to watch and discuss NIGHTCRAWLER. I wonder what Lou would say about this movie, or is that way too meta?

Gilroy got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but he never stood a chance at winning, and that’s fine. Sometimes the Oscars get it right in nominating films that deserve attention. Believe me when I say that filmmakers have standards of filmmaking. We know what we’re talking about. As I mentioned earlier, whoever gave this script a go knew far more than most of us ever will about the art and purpose of film. Really, think about it, how did this movie get made? It shouldn’t be a hit at all.

Which says a lot, I think, for us as a species. That so many people are interested in deeply profound movies that really, really challenge us. (The movie grossed almost five times its budget of 8M.) It’s encouraging to see so many people taking part of a discussion about a movie like this. That we’re willing to stop for a second and ask ourselves why exactly we are still watching.

 

I think that says we’re doing something right.

 

 

 

Great Movie Villain – Terence Fletcher WHIPLASH

WHIPLASH is a phenomenal film, a masterpiece of acting, writing, directing and editing all working together in synthesis like the operatic work of a jazz genius. It must be, since the film is about jazz music, but director Damien Chazelle and editor Tom Cross, working with J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-winning role and Miles Teller in a brilliantly underplayed performance transcend the boundaries of typical music-inspired films. This is classical filmmaking at its finest.

I would do the film a disservice by not talking about the editing, some of the finest I’ve ever seen, which combines all the talents into an orchestrated manic work of inspired cuts, creating some of the most intense sequences I have ever seen. I’ve never felt such an adrenaline shot to the heart as I have watching WHIPLASH.

 

*I highly recommend seeing this movie knowing as little about it as possible. As such, spoilers follow*

 

The heart of the film however, at least the heart of the story, begins and ends with Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Great movies are known for their great villains and Fletcher is a true monster. He stands beside Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers although he certainly doesn’t kill anyone. Not directly, at least, although the film hints that he may have had a hand in one character’s death, and certainly has directly contributed toward the mental and psychological anguish of others.

What really puts him in the rank of these classic movie monsters is that he keeps coming back. Again and again, just when it seems like he has finally perished, been put down by our heroes, he rises again. The film throws curveballs at you like a deranged baseball pitcher, devising left-hooks and double-crosses of our expectations over and over. Fletcher just won’t stay dead, in a manner of speaking.

How did Chazelle manage to capture such subdued yet dramatic and abrupt changes in the tone of his film? The final sequence can stand alone as one of the most shocking and aching 180° reversals any film in the last year has featured. In it, Fletcher appears docile, finally broken in by our hero Andrew Neiman (Teller), defeated in service of the main character’s arc, only to, in one astonishingly subtly delivered line, reveal the depths of his sinister mentality. A testament to Simmons here, this reveal comes as a slap to the face to both our protagonist and us ourselves.

By the finale we should have known better. We first meet Fletcher as a hard-ass music instructor who walks in on Neiman practicing, chastises him, conducts him briefly and disappears as quickly as he came. Our second impression is the opposite. We hear rumours of his prowess, but when he formally meets Neiman he is kind, interested, caring. Surely he isn’t the monster we’ve heard him to be. A few moments later and he throws a chair at Neiman’s head with no clear indication that he meant to miss.

Not quite my tempo.

Thus begins the battle between Neiman and Fletcher, two men, one striving to be great, one who possibly knows he never will be. Fletcher acts as though he sees potential in Neiman, but instead it seems as though his motive is to gruesomely grind any and all passion out of him, leaving only a shell of a wanna-be drummer remaining. Neiman will not be discouraged and his absolute commitment to being a great musician leads him to break up with his girlfriend, alienate his family and piss off his bandmates more than once. A competition develops between Neiman and the other alternate drummers, all vying for the core position, willing to bleed for it.

Fletcher will only accept the man who sheds the most blood, and this is his vengeance. For what, we’re not quite sure.

I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?

— Terence Fletcher

Is Fletcher’s true motive to create another Bird or simply to exorcise his demons into the body of the next willing participant? Fletcher’s blood sacrifices are of whichever kid with dreams of being a star happens to be sitting behind the drum kit. He will push them until they bleed and beyond. All that matters is that they keep tempo.

Throughout the course of the film, Fletcher faces many defeats at the hand of Neiman. He loses his job, he loses his orchestra, his masterpiece, his chance at redemption or at least his chance at surrogate recognition. He becomes little more than a passive piano player, plucking out lazy jazz in front of a disinterested audience in an underground bar. When Neiman reconnects with him, he lets his guard down and speaks about his own hopes. Then he offers Neiman a second chance.

Since we’ve been invested in Neiman’s dreams, which have been destroyed in their own way, we see the change in Fletcher. This man, who once drove Neiman to near death because of his obsession, has seen the error in his ways and come to the light.

And then in one moment, everything changes. Up until now, we have underestimated the violence in Fletcher, if that was even possible. A slight reveal, a change in the music, and Fletcher destroys Neiman completely. He has risen once again to the kill.

Like Voorhees, Myers and Krueger, Fletcher cannot be killed, not fully. His spirit haunts every frame, a sinister presence lurking in the shadows. Fletcher’s weapon is his mind and his unrelenting tempo, that measurement of speed and agility he forces onto his students until they collapse. A knife can kill the body, but Fletcher intends to annihilate the soul.

This makes him a great movie villain, one that will stand the test of time. A great movie succeeds on the strength of its villain. WHIPLASH is a great movie.