Category Archives: Film Criticism

On The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

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There is no single character motivation as clear or compelling as revenge. A character is wronged and seeks vengeance for what he perceives to be an injustice—an emotion that any audience member can recognize and understand. In his trilogy of films exploring the concept through three different, yet kindred premises with revenge at their core, director Chan-Wook Park weaves a compelling triptych that examines these themes of revenge, violence, and redemption—along with their consequences—in a profound, thought-provoking manner.

Starting with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, then the infamous Oldboy, and concluding with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, each film shares a single protagonist on a relentless quest for revenge. Each of their journeys also includes creative and shocking set pieces fueled by their specific versions of vengeance, as each character successfully accomplishes their pursuit. And yet, throughout each, a curious feeling looms over the climax—a feeling that the satisfaction of revenge promised by the premise has also clashed against a new feeling of uneasiness cemented by the consequences of the character’s fate. And, ultimately, Park uses this compelling vehicle of the revenge to demonstrate how such a strong motivator can often be the most futile and unsatisfactory path to moral fulfillment.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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The first film in the trilogy demonstrates this dichotomy of revenge through the two characters on either side of its agency—and the most blatant example of its futility for both parties. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance starts as the story of Ryu—a man both deaf and dumb—determined to save his sister’s life by buying a kidney from black market gangsters: a kidney that he hopes to purchase by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy executive from the company that laid him off. Ryu’s reasons for revenge occupy the first half of the story. Besides these disabilities, he is also laid off from his grueling factory job when he is most in need of money. But despite these obvious reasons for revenge (which would suffice most storytellers), Park painstakingly displays the various ways that both Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend—Yeong-Mi—hope to avoid the conventional label of kidnappers and the negative connotations that accompany their actions: they entertain the victim, try to avoid any violence, hope to only ask for the money (which they justify as the victim not even needing due to his extravagant wealth), manipulate the truth of the situation to appear worse than they are actually treating her, and attempt to rationalize every line of logic that would make their reasons for revenge justifiable.

And, of course, everything goes wrong.

Ryu’s sister discovers the kidnapping plan and—feeling herself to be the cause of this abhorrent act—commits suicide. While burying his sister, Ryu becomes so hypnotized in the promise of burying his sibling in the spot where she asked—not to mention the fact that he is deaf—that the kidnapped Yu-Sun accidentally drowns in the surrounding river. Her father, Dong-jin, now becomes fueled for his own quest for revenge against Ryu and those responsible for the death of his daughter—shifting the narrative at almost exactly the midway point to trek this new track of revenge. While Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend attempted to justify their reasons for revenge, the death of his daughter leaves Don-jin in a state of near-suicidal plan of action. The father sees no other outlet for satisfying his bloodlust other than the murder of those who murdered his daughter.

Park’s more playful and ironic reversals of the revenge tale that populate the first half are given drastic, darker contrast in the latter half. Whereas Ryu and his girlfriend upheld a falsified version of their savagery, Dong-jin wastes no time employing every barbaric method at his disposable to avenge his daughter’s death. Specifically, and most memorably, he devises a makeshift electrical device upon Yeong (Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend)—for which he brutally tortures her. Though she warns him of her importance as part of an anarchist group, Dong-jin shrugs away any threats of violence that may come to him—again—demonstrating a man prepared to fulfill his revenge or die trying to achieve it.

Sympathy for mr. Vengeance 4Finally, after electrocuting Yeong to death, and after Ryu’s discovery of her corpse, the two men began a tense standoff waiting to murder the other. Ultimately, Dong-jin proves the victor after rigging his home with an electrical trap that knocks Ryu unconscious. Now hauling Ryu back to the lake that proved to be the site of his daughter’s death, the father forces Ryu to undergo that same punishment that engendered his daughter’s death. Though Dong-jin acknowledges that Ryu may be a good man, the father also explains that he has been left with no recourse but to kill him due to balance out the tragedy of his daughter’s death. This leads to the brutal, stomach-turning climax, where Dong-jin hacks off both of Ryu’s Achilles Tendons to induce his drowning.

Not much later, Dong-jin reappears from the site of the fateful lake—dragging bloodied body bags behind him: body bags which clearly contain Ryu’s dismembered corpse. However, the anarchist group of Ryu’s girlfriend suddenly appears. The group savagely stabs and kills Dong-jin—leaving him as dead as the disembodied corpse of Ryu not but a few feet ahead of him.

The final shot of the film—with Ryu’s bloodied body bags overlooking the lake of Dong-jin’s daughter’s death, coupled with Ryu’s sister buried just beyond, and Dong-jin himself lying stabbed just behind him—serves as a clear testament to the thesis of Park’s wild story at the heart of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Despite the intentions of both parties, either to save his sister’s life, or to punish a criminal for the death of a young girl, both men and their loved ones lie dead as a result of their choice to pursue a path of revenge.

Oldboy

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Park’s follow up to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance remains his most famous, evocative, and haunting of the trilogy in the form of 2003’s Oldboy. Perhaps the most intriguing premise of the three, Oldboy follows the quest for vengeance led by Oh Dae-su—a man imprisoned for fifteen years and suddenly released with the single motive of revenge on his mind. Undeniably the most cinematic and stylish of the three, Oldboy features a number of scenes that have cemented the film’s instant, iconic status. These include a scene of Oh Dae-su consuming a live octopus upon his release, and an extraordinary, single-take hallway fight scene that pits the protagonist with a hammer against a narrow corridor filled with fighters ready to stop him. While the initial set-up of Oh Dae-su being imprisoned for so long, framed for his wife’s murder and separated from his daughter for fifteen years without cause seems like the obvious premise, the more interesting and underlying question of his release proves to be the catalytic event for the narrative’s true examination of revenge for both Oh Dae-Su and his captor.

As Oh Dae-su seizes upon the few clues made available to him during his imprisonment to find those responsible, he also falls in love with the young woman Mi-do, who reciprocates his feelings of love and attraction. However, Oh Dae-su also begins to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment that imbues another layer of moral ambiguity. Oh Dae-su discovers that a man named Woo-jin is responsible for his fifteen-year-imprisonment. A man that once attended the same high school as Oh Dae-su, and a man to whom Oh Dae-su caught having an incestuous affair with his sister that he then retold to the entire school—causing feelings of shame for Woo-jin and his sister that ended up in the latter’s committing suicide. In the climactic confrontation between the two men, Woo-jin finally exposes the truth of his elaborate plan against Oh Dae-su. The recent attraction between him and Mi-do is revealed to be a calculated manipulation in order to bring the two together and fall in love—as Mi-do is actually Oh Dae-su’s daughter.

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For exposing his own incestuous affair, Woo-jin has dedicated his own plan of revenge toward replicating the experience upon Oh Dae-su—to catastrophic and horrifying results. Woo-jin offers Oh Dae-su the chance to kill him by offering the remote to a pacemaker in his heart. Nonetheless, when Oh Dae-su presses the button, Woo-jin offers a final mocking attack by revealing that the pacemaker remote is actually a remote to a speaker system—one that replays the audio of Oh Dae-su and Mi-do having sex. Having achieved his coup de grace, Woo-jin commits suicide with a bullet to the head. Cutting to some unknown time later, Oh Dae-su consults a hypnotist for help in ridding his memory of the entire affair. The final shot concludes on an ambiguous smile—one that allows the audience to arrive at their own meaning of whether or not the hypnotism was successful as Oh Dae-su walks away with Mi-do toward an unknown future.

The ambiguity of this ending, however, again underlines Park’s thesis that connects this trilogy from a thematic level. Both of these men have completed their revenge against the other, and one has killed himself, while the other walks away as a shell of a human being. Though Oh Dae-su’s journey—as a man who starts as a drunken imbecile missing his daughter’s birthday only to be transformed into a vehicle for revenge—serves as a compelling character for the audience to attach their sympathies, Park subverts expectations of the revenge-thriller by digging deep past those surface layer emotions evoked by revenge to demonstrate its uncertain purpose when brought to the extremes of its conclusion.

The many notable plot points responsible for these instantly-iconic scenes—from Oh Dae-su wish to eat something alive after his imprisonment, to his defeating a hallway of men with a knife stuck in his back, to cutting out his tongue and acting like a dog—are made so effective not for hollow shock value, but by virtue of the fact that they are indicative of the extremes of human nature when consumed by such a singular emotion as revenge. Park uses varied methods of the same motivation to again display the various ways that revenge may infest the mind and change a person’s psychology—whether through Woo-jin ridiculously complicated plan conceived over decades or through Oh Dae-su’s almost animalistic, instinctual drive toward revenge—that both men are only capable of satisfying this base emotion at the cost of sacrificing all those other emotions that compose their humanity. Ultimately, this helps give some context to the ambiguous ending of Oh Dae-su’s future, which proves that no matter what happens to this character moving forward, it is a fate that has come at the compromise of his former identity.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

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With a title clearly echoing Park’s first venture into the trilogy, and yet that also distinguishes how far the filmmaker has refined his focus since that initial output, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance tells another complicated story of revenge through the first true female protagonist of the series: Lee Geum-ja. Wrongfully accused for the murder of a child that she did not commit, Geum-ja spends her time befriending other inmates and exacting her plan for revenge against Mr. Baek—the man that blackmailed her into accepting the arrest in order to spare the life of her own child.

Lady Vengeance contains the most atypical structure of the three—to surprising and compelling results. Park crosscuts between Guem-ja’s time in prison, where she befriended inmates and cultivates a kindly appearance, while also tracking her story in the present timeline as she puts her prison experiences to use in cultivating a new identity. Park has always possessed a tremendous visual eye for character design—from Ryu’s green hair in Mr. Vengeance, to Oh Dae-su’s frazzled hair and bold black suit in Oldboy—but Guem-ja’s represents possibly the most striking and sensational of all three. With red-eye shadow upon a pale face, black pumps, and an almost ninja-like trenchcoat, Geum-ja transforms herself into a manifestation of revenge—yet one that distinctly maintains her femininity and flashes of her former identity. That former identity is also found through her daughter, Jenny, now estranged after being given over to foster parents in the wake of Geum-ja’s prison sentence.

Nonetheless, Geum-ja eventually manages to track down the odious Mr. Baek for whom she has targeted as the object of her vengeance. Yet, upon finding him, she also finds the tokens of other children—connecting the dots that Baek’s modus operandi involved stealing small objects that would belong to his victims—all of whom were children. Consequently, she reaches out to the former detective involved with the case, who then helps her confirm the fact that Mr. Baek was indeed responsible for a number of other child murders.

Most intriguingly, and in stark contrast to the former two films in the trilogy, this causes Geum-ja to choose not to be the sole executor of revenge for the crime. Instead, she reaches out to the other bereaved family members of the murdered children and asks them to collude in punishing Mr. Baek. By leaving photo evidence of acting as a unit so that they may not turn on one another, the various family members take turns individually torturing and punishing Mr. Baek—until a lonely grandmother delivers the fatal blow with the scissors that belonged to her granddaughter. Afterward, the group seals their fate together by eating a dessert and reflecting on their deed. But after the group has left, Geum-ja remains haunted by a ghost of the victim for which she was initially blamed. The film ends on a somewhat ambiguous final shot, where Geum-ja plunges her face in a pure white cake—sobbing uncontrollably—while her reunited daughter hugs her in comfort.

Despite the masterful storytelling exhibited in the former two films, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance contains possibly the most compelling issues of moral ambiguity so far addressed in this specific examination of revenge. While the prior stories focused on their protagonist’s own personal vendettas, Lady Vengeance expands and filters her revenge through the prism of others. There is a scene in the last half of the film, where Geum-ja and the bereaved family members debate the ethics of their actions—weighing the pros and cons of how the legal court system would deal with this matter while also hoping to justifying their own personal blood thirsts—that plays out like the most perverted form of courtroom drama to ever grace the screen. And indeed, as shocking as the final twenty minutes of Oldboy stand for the utter depravity and brutality on screen, there is something as equally compelling and unbelievable as the final half of Lady Vengeance. Watching these seemingly normal members of society decide to execute various forms of punishment with a variety of weapons upon this guilty killer, plays out as a fascinating study of vengeance in group from—one that can be extrapolated as a moral study held by larger legal bodies like the courts, government, etc—and how revenge can come to be justified not only by those with personal vendettas but by a collective association of that same feeling when looking for an outlet for catharsis.

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By the conclusion, Park leaves his character with another ambiguous, possibly worse fate than that seen before the start of their quest for vengeance. Now responsible for helping serve the fates of a group, as well as her own personal bloodlust, Geum-ja still looks for absolution in the form of the boy for whom she was originally accused. She receives a strange vision, wherein the boy (now at the age that he would have grown to) gags her. Afterward, apparently reunited with her daughter, Geum-ja plunges her face in a pure white cake—the stark blackness of her character clashing against the pure white snow of her surroundings.

Despite helping those still grieving the loss of their child achieve some form of collective catharsis, Geum-ja is also faced with the fact that her child still survives. Unlike the others at the dinner table, now able to move forward with their lives without their child, Geum-ja remains faced with the fact that her entire life had been motivated by this single desire. And now, with blood on her hands but with her daughter by her side, and still unable to be granted that true resolution from the victim of her past, Geum-ja can do nothing but weep—and again destroy that symbol of purity with her tears of shame.

Like with the prior two films, his conclusion to the trilogy ends on a note of contending emotions. Park uses themes of revenge as an exploration into deeper, darker aspects of humanity that expose this extreme emotion for all its triumph and ultimate futility. In resorting this animalistic, vengeful aspect of their persona, each character ends up dead or left to a fate arguably worse than death—one in which all their identity has vanished or at the cost of corrupting every corner of their soul. Though each character begins with the best of intentions to justify their unlawful acts as something for the greater good, they are ultimately exposed to be attempting to fulfill nothing more than their own personal satisfaction.

Moreover, Park proves himself an innovator in the genre. One that impressively subverts typical expectations and tropes of the revenge film, and one that demands for audiences to question their own motives in so readily attaching themselves to these characters that are often as guilty as they are empathetic. While often proving this thesis through some of the most extreme, intense, and brutal scenes to be portrayed on the silver screen, Park demonstrates the ultimate conclusion for this extreme form of behavior—for all the triumphs and futilities offered through the choice of revenge.

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Review: Montage of Heck

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 “Kurt’s brain was just constantly going, he was always thinking about something, I mean, there was always something goin’ on, you could just see it…it was awe-inspiring…but then as I grew up, I’m like…I’m so glad that I never got that genius brain” – Kim Cobain

The above quote from Kurt Cobain’s sister—played over a clip of Kurt about to perform for thousands of fans while also goofing around in a wheelchair and quoting Wayne’s World—could not serve as a better opening encapsulation of the film’s exploration of its subject in a microcosm: a study of a man caught between being a legend at the forefront of American music, a man in his twenties caught in the crosswind of the nineties, and being a man so undeniably different from everyone around him. Still, this talking-head opening is actually quite deceptive in introducing the form, style, and approach of the documentary. For rather than being an exhaustive historical study, or some cold and detached autopsy of his life, Montage of Heck instead opts for a much more cinematic and often painfully personal approach—one that offers a more emotional, insightful, and creative look into the life of such an incredibly complex icon.

Opening with poignant home-videos from Kurt’s childhood—Christmases, birthdays, and family get-togethers—these flashes into his early, happy beginnings are essential in painting a complete portrait of Kurt’s life, while also working to immediately situate the viewer into Cobain’s psychology to powerful, intimate effect. These formative years with his family as a cohesive unit, with Kurt at the center, lay the foundation for the turbulent relationship with his family in subsequent years engendered by his parent’s divorce. A divorce that led to feelings of misplacement, shame, and abnormality that would color his mood and personalities for the rest of his years and be filtered through the prism of his creative output.

Director Brett Morgen expresses all this, however, not through repetitive talking-heads or news footage, but predominantly through Kurt’s own modes of expression: his childhood drawings, his audio recordings, his journals, his writings—while familiar Nirvana songs (or covers) are played beneath these haunting pieces of youth that recreate the feeling of reliving a distant memory or dream.

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In the transition to Kurt’s teenage and young adults years, however, Morgen adopts another—and even more effective—method of imbuing Kurt’s interior life through scenes of animation. These are, undoubtedly, the most creative pieces within the doc. Again, rather than the standard fare of attempting to illuminate a subject’s history through some dry distilling of information, these scenes force the viewer to feel what life may have been like under Kurt’s skin. The first of two particular highlights depicts his first suicide attempt, and brutally translates this emotional episode to devastating and memorable effect.

The next animated sequence depicts his time before making it big: living off his girlfriend’s wages while perfecting his artistic craft. This scene manages to make a compelling sequence out of the most mundane times of an artist’s life: Kurt learns to practice his guitar and vocal skills, write songs, figure out the band’s next step—as he spends his days and nights on the living room couch. But rather than casting a light on these days as a genius in the making, they instead depict the “10,000” hours of his genius in terms of mood—Kurt perpetually alone throughout the day, experimenting and failing, drinking, and following his muses wherever they may lead him.

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Navigating out the days of burgeoning fame, the doc swiftly transitions into the heyday of Nirvana. Clearly, the film has made itself abundantly clear that it is not interested in devoting valuable screentime toward information that can be readily gleaned elsewhere. Instead, these major transitional moments—the band’s signing to Sub-Pop, their finding Dave Grohl—are understood through the context of Kurt’s trajectory. As a result, despite the variegated narrative paths that the doc follows through his art, journals, and the like, the storytelling always feels focused—as it is remains centered on making sure the audience experiences these periods through the prism of its subject own mindset. The pinnacle of this entire experience perhaps found in the latter third of the piece: when Kurt meets Courtney. Using home videos between the two during Love’s pregnancy and then the birth of their daughter, these sequences negotiate between both voyeurism and unbelievingly compelling glimpses into the couple’s point-of-view.

More than anything else, as well, they help elevate the documentary into achieving a truly cinematic feel—one that gives the impression that this character study into the life of Kurt Cobain is nearing its climax, as he journeys deeper down those darker aspects of his personality that have strained his psyche since youth. Now amplified by the pressures of both fame and family, these obstacles present challenges that are made even more sympathetic by viewing Kurt separated from decades of news report and articles that cemented his legacy as a rock icon. Instead, these home videos delineate a portrait of a flawed man grappling with those very issues of his nature that the audience has come to relate and identify with over the preceding two-hours—with the knowledge of the tragic destiny that awaits him making these videos all the more excruciating to watch.

While some may be disappointed that the film doesn’t revel in the aftermath of his suicide and the reactions of those closest to him, Montage of Heck finishes on exactly the right note. For the end of Kurt’s story is the end of Montage of Heck’s story. Just as it has so perfectly offered the viewer an opportunity into the interior psychology of its subject, so it ends at the tragic conclusion of Kurt’s life in abrupt, devastating fashion. Still, the success of the documentary lies in its ability to so beautifully saturate the audience in his life—leaving the viewer feeling like they learned more about the experience of the Nirvana frontman rather than just the facts of his biography. Accordingly, Montage of Heck shines as a truly unique piece of documentary filmmaking: one as complicated, creative and different as the man at its center. One that allows a profoundly powerful—and personal—look into the life and mind of Kurt Cobain.

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DVD Review: Phantom Museums–The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

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Few filmmakers are capable of creating works as innovative, brave, provocative, and haunting as those produced by identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay. Working primarily in the medium of stop-motion animation, the Quay Brothers create immersive and singular worlds populated by puppets navigating realms removed from traditional expectations of narrative storytelling. These settings are often constructed with an aesthetic that evokes extremely surreal, dream-like feelings far removed from those fashioned within even the most popular works of animation or those seen in the broader spectrum of experimental or avant-garde filmmaking.

Influenced by a wide-range of artists across multiple mediums—from the animation of Jan Svankmajer, to the music of Czeck composers (who also score much of their work), to traditional ballet, to the writings of Kafka and Bruno Schulz—the brothers filter these influences through the prism of their singular imagination to beautiful and astounding results. The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and Street of Crocodiles serving as perhaps the best example of this marriage between like-minded thinkers and the Quays own distinctive creative output.

Though Street of Crocodiles remains their most famous and perhaps best work, the disc also includes a treasure trove of lesser-known or hard to find pieces, particularly my own favorite: In Absentia. This twenty-minute-film depicts the crumbling psychology of a woman trapped in a mental institution writing letters to her husband. Though this is the surface level description of what is happening, the Quay’s depiction of this tragic psychological condition creates a deeply unsettling yet hypnotizing glimpse into the mindscape of this woman as has never been so uniquely produced on film. The Brothers incorporate innovative uses of light, animation, live-action, and sound to offer a harrowing impression into the mind of the mentally ill.

The Stille Nacht collection—four short films of the brothers’ collaborations with companies, musicians, and bands—offer further demonstration in the Quay’s pushing their techniques to make memorable animation with what is given to them in the form of broadcast interstitials or music videos.

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The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, This Unnameable Little Broom (or The Epic of Gilgamesh), and The Comb are three longer, similarly amazing pieces that demonstrate the Brothers’ incorporation of music and extraordinary animation techniques to create a nonverbal film experience that captivates the viewer into the drama through music and distinct visuals that calls to mind something closer to opera or ballet. Moreover, their most famous and ambitious piece—an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles—serves as the best representation of this aesthetic to stunning effect. The only real parallel that comes to mind in regards to this unique marriage of sound and visual to create a nonverbal narrative experience outside traditional narrative cinema can be found in what Kubrick achieved in his sci-fi masterpiece 2001.

Nonetheless, The Brothers Quay occupy a singular space in the pantheon of animation and cinema that this DVD collection exhibits to very demonstrable results. These pieces are imbued with themes, ideas, and aesthetics that leave a haunting and unforgettable experience upon the viewer and often demand repeated viewings to fully embrace the spectacular array of visual design and profound thematic ideals at play. Between their recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and this DVD Collection, it would appear the Quay Brothers are finally garnering their much-deserved recognition as two of the most remarkable luminaries in the field of animation and filmmaking at large.

Full list of those pieces included in the DVD

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
*This Unnameable Little Broom (Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
*Street of Crocodiles (1986), plus original treatment
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
*Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
*Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
*Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
*In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)

Those with asterisks include an accompanying commentary by the Quay Brothers.

Review: WE ARE THE BEST!

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Like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, or David Chase’s criminally underrated Not Fade Away, the 2013 Swedish’s film We are the Best! occupies the small subgenre of coming-of-age films filtered through the joy of music. And while the former two are American classics in their own right—exploring the importance and influence of music to a specific generation of teenagers in the midst of small-town suburbia, Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! portrays an even further removed class of characters navigating their confused adolescence through their love of music during a country’s time of transition: those adolescents being an ostracized trio of thirteen-year-old girls, the country in transition being 1982 Stockholm, and the music genre in question being bombastic punk rock.

Similar to how Almost Famous imbues its sensibilities with that of a teenage-fever-dream, evoking those same emotions found in the best of the era’s seventies rock bands, and Not Fade Away replicates those same feeling of angsty, raw, and manic rock-and-roll found in the best of The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, We are the Best! injects its own sensibilities with all the primal and explosive power found in the best of the era’s punk rock.

The three girls composing this anomalous punk band are Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig. The former two complete tomboys and androgynous in appearance, growing up in homes distinctly different yet similarly dysfunctional, and complete outcasts at school for their stubbornly nonconformist attitudes. These thirteen-year-old girls have no one but each other: misfits within their family, amongst their classmates, and amongst larger Swedish society surrounding them—except through their one outlet of punk.

In an spur of the moment decision to start a band to spite a rival band of bullies, these two teenage girls demonstrate their level of actual musical prowess in a memorable debut performance—that is to say: they are terrible.

They bang on the drums and strum on the guitar like children let loose with toys, belting out non-sensical lyrics with little goal toward tune or harmony. Yet, that same childish glee radiates off the screen to powerful emotional effect upon the viewer. And as the two find an undeniable bliss through punk—a channel to funnel their angst, anger, and alienation—the two make a pact to try and make this music thing work, despite their obvious limitations in talent.

In spite of this description, the most important quality bestowed upon the film is a sense of authenticity and earnestness that could not be farther away from the phony qualities shared by so many genre features bearing similar aesthetics. These kids are true-blue goofy, often mumbling dialogue under their breath or struggling to look adults in the eye, yet are never written with a forced sense of affectation. In credit to the young actors (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), the girls are never portrayed as characters in a movie seeking the audience’s approval but as free-spirited youngsters who happened to be caught by the camera. Aided by a documentarian lens to the cinematography, the filmmakers portray the girls’ life in appropriate cinema verite fashion—as the three scream, shout, and argue with local authority figures as can only be found in the blissful ignorance and carefree attitudes of kids left to their own devices.

Moreover, the movie manages to perfectly capture the array of ambiguous feelings associated with these formative teenage years, especially for those on the fringes of their adolescent peers. Perhaps only as equally well captured as seen in television’s Freaks and Geeks over a decade ago, We are the Best! delineates a distinct portrait of these outsiders struggling to come to terms with their identity. Desperate to be liked and yet resentful of everyone around them, the two teeter between a confused adolescence of wanting relationships and friends and wanting to uphold their idiosyncratic identities as the school misfits and proud punks. Later, as the two charge ahead in forming their punk rock band, they quickly recruit a third player into their party: Hedvig.

Hedvig is a misfit of a different sort—one having grown up in a strict religious household and raised to perform classical music. This final band member finds friendship with the two in the fact that she literally has no other friends—she is known as the girl that eats alone at lunch. Quickly, she realizes that as strange as these two punks might be—it’s better than sitting alone. Joined by Hedvig, the trio finally formalizes their band’s identity and solidifies their friendship for its future.

Again, as corny and phony as that sounds in description, the actual scenes are anything but. Despite having one (terrible) song with hilariously bad lyrics as only two teenage girls could cook up (“Hate the Sport/Hate the Sport/Hate Hate Hate The Sport)”, the two begin to fall for all the classic trappings of a great rock band: clashing over egos, boyfriends, and the breakings of their initial bonds of friendship. The film wisely uses the catalyst of their forming a band to explore these perennial issues plaguing any adolescent and fully engages in their triumphs and consequences to sequences of raw, emotional devastation or heart-thumping cheers.

In short, this is a movie with a pulse. That makes palpable those poignant moments of childhood—friendship, heartbreak, creativity, competition, social anxiety, familial misunderstanding, and rebellion—and services these wide-ranging emotions in a swift two hours: all through the deceivingly simple premise of three talentless, teenage girls forming a punk band in early eighties Sweden.

Review: Mary and Max

 

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Separated by continents, by decades of age, by gender, by ethnic background, by religious upbringing, the eponymous characters of Mary and Max—an eight-year-old Australian girl and a forty-four-year-old morbidly obese atheist in New York—should have as likely a chance of forming a life-long friendship as a clay-animation movie depicting this friendship should have a chance at being such an amazing piece of work. And yet, this anomalous movie forms a powerful, lasting impression: a poignant, and emotionally resonant exploration of human connection that flies in the face of standard storytelling conventions and works in superb fashion on every emotional level.

The story focuses on the unusual friendship formed by two misfits trapped in hellish domains that are as distant geographically, as they are psychologically similar. A narrator first introduces Mary: an eight-year-old Australian girl living an isolated existence amongst an alcoholic mother, depressed father, and unable to make friends after being relentlessly mocked for a brown birthmark across her forehead. Peppered with an assortment of distinct, creative character traits that help compose a portrait of Mary’s upbringing in compelling and memorable fashion (her love of concentrated milk, Australian chocolates, a pet rooster, her unmistakable birthmark), Adam Elliot’s writing immediately hypnotizes the viewer through a confident and peculiar tone that instantly announces that the following feature will be a ride through tour-de-force storytelling.

This precedent becomes further solidified in the next sequence, when the narrator introduces the second of the two titles characters: Max. After Mary has the bizarre idea to write to a random American she finds in the phonebook, she lands upon Max’s information and writes to the misanthrope in the hopes of finding answers to her everyday question about American habits. (In one of the few, and ultimately minor, weak moments of writing; however, this incredibly random way of initially connecting the two never sits quite right compared to the other surreal moments that flow much more organically). Max write back, although (even compared to Mary), he recounts an upbringing of heartbreaking consequence. Born to Jewish parents and raised in destructive circumstances (a father that left him, a mother that abused him, relentlessly bullied for his Jewish upbringing), Max has aged into a man sharing a parallel existence of isolation as Mary. He is depressed, agoraphobic, anxiety-ridden, extremely overweight, and on the verge of mental collapse.

Immediately, as the premise suggests, the idea of life being rekindled by their friendship has the potential to be an opportunity for cloying, indulgent sequences that resolve these existential problems through predictable, indulgent, or manipulative storytelling methods typically applied in the world of commercial animation…But that is not Mary and Max.

Instead, filmmaker Adam Elliot eschews such expectations by taking the story into difficult, ambiguous, and often very dark places. Moreover, this friendship goes through ups-and-downs, over long periods of time, that chart the successes and descents of both characters’ emotional lifetimes to imbue a feeling of raw authenticity. Max is eventually revealed to be suffering from an acute form of Asperger’s syndrome and his struggle to relate to the larger world around him descends into touching and moving realms that never treat his illness as a sideshow attraction (e.g. Rain Man) but as a means of imbuing insight and point-of-view to the audience into how this man has succumbed to such a devastating, hermetic lifestyle.

Additionally, the use of voice-over vis-à-vis the narrator, then the letters between the characters, may appear gimmicky on the surface, but the technique is used to exemplary effect as a means of further immersing the audience into the characters’ heads. With Barry Humphries as the narrator, Toni Collette as older Mary, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, the trio form a unified sense of tone that successfully transports the viewer into specific moods and habits of the characters in question.

Although some stretches certainly resonate stronger than others, the movie remains compelling in its entirety. The epistolary format feels closer to chapters of a novel than a typical film plot, and certain digressions into various aspects of the characters’ psyche help further demonstrate how character-driven this story remains above all else. Though numerous plot set-ups are paid off to powerful effect by the conclusion, the two title characters remain at the film’s center in a commendable application of the medium’s capabilities. The film confronts a number of formidable topics—abuse, mental illness, loneliness, suicide, depression, anxiety—without ever being shackled by the intensity of these themes and never flinches from the severity of their consequences within its Claymation setting. By its finale, Mary and Max concludes in similar, applause-worthy fashion. An ending both ambiguous and honest without any hint of dishonesty or undeserving of its ability to evoke such charged, wide-ranging emotions. Though operating with very different intentions and styles, the films of the Quay Brothers, Ralph Bakshi, or Miyazaki may bring to mind similar filmmakers hoping to expand the horizons of animated potential. Still, Mary and Max remains in a class as unique as the characters of its premise. A movie that sidesteps obstacles of conventionality and succeeds for finding that human connection between different worlds to ignite a genuine bond between both the characters and the audience.

Review: Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

While the subjects of adoption, foster homes, child abuse, and troubled teenagers have been almost exhaustibly explored in film, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 occupies the very unique space of a group foster home to examine the lives of those troubled teenage residents and their equally troubled supervisors that reside within this limbo space between the streets and a future home. The movie mainly follows two teenagers—Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver)—while also focusing on the relationship between their two supervisors: Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) Though a unique ensemble of equally interesting characters populate the cast, these four anchor the narrative—providing a clear focus into the major issues that plague the principals at play and illuming the dense problems that lie beyond the ignored doors of the group foster home that is Short Term 12.

Brie Larson’s Grace centers this confusing and chaotic world shared amongst her and these problematic kids that she tries to protect—made equally difficult by the ambiguous definition of her role. She is not their parent. Not to their psychologist. Not their friend. Not their guardian. And yet she and the other supervisors are forced to simultaneously play all these parts—made doubly worse by the fact that these kids are aware of the supervisors’ limited power in the form of any legal title—and often turn their ersatz guardians into the targets of their roiling emotions.

Grace and her fellow supervisor Mason are in the midst of a secret relationship that has reached a moment of crisis in the wake of Grace’s sudden pregnancy. The two are similar broken souls, coming from distinct but troubled backgrounds of their own, and determined to see that those kids under their care do not suffer from the same difficult upbringing that perhaps irreparably marks their own lives. Moreover, Grace’s difficult youth has led her down an often self-destructive path toward those intimate relationships in her life—namely those with Mason, her father, and what she worries will come to a breaking point upon the arrival her own upcoming child.

Still, while navigating this new world of being both expecting parents at home and substitute parents at work, the two employ every strategy in their arsenal to comfort one of the group home’s longest residents: Marcus, a troubled black youth on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, meaning that he will soon have to leave the safety of the foster home and return to his abusive mother, in the midst of his increasingly erratic behavior. As amazing as Larson’s performance stands as the true lead of the ensemble, Stanfield’s performance remains the most resonant and heartbreaking. While many others in the cast are given the explosive and “loud” moments that many confuse with great acting, Marcus’ character is clearly one of inner-turmoil made manifest within Stanfield’s big brown eyes that pour out emotion with a single, unforgettable look. His mumbled voice, slouched posture, and outbursts of rabid rage all combining to compose a compelling character often difficult to convey in the visual medium of film but managed to be stirringly embodied through powerful performance. In a movie filled with scenes of such raw emotion, those belonging to Marcus are perhaps the most unsettling and tragic through the remainder of the piece.

The second youth of the supervisors’ principal focus is Jayden, a young girl in the midst of her teenage years with an abusive father and similarly resentful of her surrounding world. Although she starts her storyline as the expected teenage girl filled with comebacks and snark at every turn—and due to the same nuanced writing that Cretton filters into the rest of his storytelling—Jayden matures into a distinct personality that offers a much more subtle version of this typically cliché ridden character and allows for a more memorable one as a result. Sometimes her story veers into obvious territory for the sake of mirroring much of Grace’s own childhood, and though this is still handled with deft in a way that never damages the emotional center, this should be attributed to Kaitlyn Denvers’ searing and devastating performance. Unlike Marcus, Jayden is prone to explosive fits of rage—anger that has been visibly bubbling beneath the surface and erupts with volcanic fury—at one point almost on par with Linda Blair and The Exorcist for the sheer, unearthly quality to her shrieks of hate and confusion.

Nonetheless, Cretton always ensures that Grace, her fellow supervisors, and the limbo of this foster home location remain the narrative focus. These digressions into certain subplots are mostly interesting for helping to complement the characters’ emotional trajectories, but Cretton wisely never forgets that the most distinguishing fact of this feature remains in the consistent chaos of the foster home. Though the role of Rami Malek’s Nate—a newbie supervisor whose role as the audience’s surrogate into this surreal setting is abandoned fairly quickly (and thankfully) after his initial function of orienting the audience into the day-to-day of the foster home—the narrative helps demonstrate in nuanced fashion how the emotional extremes of this world must be constantly monitored by the quiet strength of these social workers.

Though moments of the third-act steer the plot into what feels like a different movie, the eventual conclusions found for Grace, Mason, Marcus, and Jayden are all served to very powerful final effect. As someone who actually worked in such a group home for at-risk teens following his graduation, Cretton imbues an authentic impression into this world pushed both to society’s wayside and the fictional world of film, as well. Consequentially, Cretton paints a haunting portrait of a group home populated with humanity and horror for both those short term residents and long time supervisors found within the eponymous Short Term 12—and one unlikely to be forgotten for an audience allowed a glimpse past its doors that have been ignored for far too long.

Review: The Bad News Bears (1976)

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Not half an hour into the 1976 classic The Bad News Bears, one of the little league players describes his teammates as: “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron”. As if the opening shot of their new coach sneaking whiskey into his beer before introducing himself to the kids wasn’t loud enough—the audience has now been warned to strap themselves in for an unforgettable comedy quite unlike any other they may be accustomed to. The new coach in question is Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau): a former minor league player turned alcoholic, professional pool cleaner. To scrounge up some extra cash, Buttermaker agrees to coach a newly formed little league composed of the most unathletic kids to be found in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, some of which include: two Mexicans brothers unable to speak English, a constantly cursing shortstop, a smart-mouthed catcher, a near-sighted pitcher, and a very shy boy named Lupus picked on by his teammates.

Modern audiences (parents in particular) may find themselves shocked by the amount of vulgarity and utter disregard for political correctness on display. Besides the surfeit of racial epithets that fly out of the kids’ mouth, almost every scene with Buttermaker has him drinking (in one scene, drinking and driving with a broken windshield and the car filled with kids). Nonetheless, this is part of the film’s undeniable charm—a sheer refusal on the part of screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Mike Ritchie to portray adolescence with any hint of phoniness, as though challenged by the audience. The movie revels in this tone: a dogged determination to eschew what is perhaps the most predictable genre outside the rom-com—the sports genre—by depicting both kids and adults as rounded human beings with flaws and attributes that make their final game a triumph of teamwork, despite whatever the final score may read.

Buttermaker’s story begins about as pathetic as possible—a washed-up ball player who shows up to collect his checks and exert as minimal coaching effort as possible. Beer cans are glued to his palms, and he passes out in a drunken stupor over the pitcher’s mound in the midst of an afternoon practice. After the kids demand a team uniform, and the other teams are shown to be wearing the logos of local, reputable business, the Bears are hilarious revealed to be wearing an advertisement for “Chico’s Bail Bonds” across their backs. As the series begins, and the team is continually humiliated in their outstanding losses, Buttermaker finally takes a stand—determined for this team to reach the championship. He recruits an all-star pitcher in the form of a young girl named Amanda (Tatum O’Neil), daughter to one of his former girlfriends, along with local bad boy Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley) to help bolster the team’s comically weak roster. The addition of these unlikely—yet significantly more talented—misfits to this team of oddballs allows their steady rise through the league, as well as a change to the team’s dynamics for the worse.

Buttermaker transforms into a demanding coach that no longer interacts with the kids as a friend or father figure but a power hungry and uncompromising dictator. During the final game, however, Buttermaker realizes in stark horror how badly his recent behavior has changed both his identity and feelings for the team. The alcoholic coach returns to his position a humbled man, who despite the parents’ protests, insists on making sure every single player—from the pansy, to the “booger-eating moron”, to the near-sighted pitcher, to the all-too-shy Lupus—finally get their chance to play ball.

By the final whistle, the boys reject whatever outcome appears on the scoreboard in favor of their victory as a team—splashing one another with Buttermaker’s beers, telling the rival team to shove the trophy up their ass and wait for next year, as they celebrate the joy of winning even in losing. Moreover, the movie delivers this unquestionable victory without any schmaltz or dishonest tone—the irreverence as unwavering and confident as from its opening frames with Buttermaker pouring whiskey into his Budweiser before meeting these equally irreverent kids.

Matthau’s performance as Buttermaker is of noteworthy delight—perpetually slouched, drunk, and puffing his cigar—but refusing to quit. His character arc is not one contrived to dishonestly pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but a broken man hoping to help these kids have some fun and learn something along the way. In a genre often guilty for gearing its narrative to the most obvious results—coaches pushing their players to an inevitable victory if they can overcome their differences—The Bad News Bears is as an anomalous winner as much as the goofy team that gives the film its title. As brash as it is brave, this is a movie whose story stands the test of time—its humor and heart as funny and moving as when it was released. And like this team by the final score, the movie understands that its victory with the audience is through the camaraderie of a genuinely shared experience. An experience that, despite any faults in craft, cannot be criticized for refusing to compromise and delivering all the best it has to offer.

Review of Saturday Night: The James Franco SNL Documentary

 

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“So I’ve got this idea…” interjects a writer in the Monday morning pitch session to Lorne Michaels from a scene in Saturday Night, the James Franco directed-documentary that details the anxious, frenetic, and arduous process of the week leading up to the final live airing of an episode of Saturday Night Live. While the nearly two-hour long documentary indulges in all the behind-the-scenes pleasures sure to satisfy die-hard SNL fans hoping for a glimpse into exactly how the iconic show operates on a day-to-day basis, the dynamics between the cast, and the integration of the host into the show, Saturday Night also examines a creative process between the cast and crew that has allowed the show to evolve into perhaps the premiere comedy institution throughout the decades.

With John Malkovich hosting the episode in question, the documentary opens behind the host’s back and follows his entrance to the main stage. For any dedicated viewer, it’s an disorienting but compelling experience that simulates the host’s point-of-view, especially as the exclamatory “Live form New York, it’s Saturday Night!” is heard as a distant echo through the walls. The structure then jumps back to the previous Monday and follows the agonizing, adrenaline-fueled writing days shared between the cast and writers as they prepare for the Wednesday table read. Some of the writers appear almost overwhelmed by panic, others energized by it, some of the veterans almost annoyed by it, but it becomes quickly clear that the camaraderie of the experience is as fundamental to the cast’s chemistry as the material over which they are funneling their energies within this difficult timeframe.

Immediately, an evident sense of fraternity becomes apparent amongst the writers. At somewhere between three and four in the morning, Mulaney, Hader, and Jorma Taccone are still stationed before their laptops with a beautiful New York skyline limned by a descending moon in the office window behind them. And yet, the three are exchanging ideas, laughs, and impressions as rapid-fire and enthusiastic as a bunch of twelve-year-olds cracking up in a tree house. Other writers almost seem ready to collapse with exhaustion; others (in a scene with Kristen Wiig) are vigorously attempting to calculate whether the farting sound produced by an electronic keyboard “outstays its welcome”.

Next, after intermittent naps between dawn and lunch, the writers send in their preliminary sketch scripts to the producers, who then sort through nearly fifty sketch ideas for the Wednesday table read. Here, the writers present the material to the host and producers for initial review. The performers sit around a large conference table and act out the sketches—some on the last legs of their caffeinated fumes from the night before.

And yet, as soon as they begin reading the scripts, the cast comes to life as effortless as ever. Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Sudekeis, and the like imbuing their idiosyncratic characters with such an astounding level of natural perfection that they risk intimidating those who have recently joined the ranks or need more time to fully prepare. After one sketch between Samberg and Malkovich absolutely electrifies the room, poor Casey Wilson’s not completely yet realized impression of a Liza Minnelli sketch leaves the room bored or cringing. It’s a brutal scene, but yet another fascinating glimpse into how mercifully the cast of this show must be constantly ready to produce the best they have to offer without any chance for artificial acting. More than anything else, a spirit of inevitable competition also becomes discernible amongst those involved. Will Arnett analogizes something similar to cheerleading try-outs, and the metaphor doesn’t seem far off.

After the Wednesday table read, a printed sheet informs the cast whose sketches have been made the cut, in what again feels very analogous to high school students hoping to be selected for the lead role of the school play. And yet, there is no time for heartbreak or regret, as the cast is already quickly on their way to blocking out scenes or rapidly editing each sketch to milk out every single second for the maximum amount of laughter.

In between this round-the-clock rehearsal and preparations for the show, James Franco—serving as director—interrupts with interviews from producers and certain cast members. The most interesting are undoubtedly from producer Steve Higgins and creator/exec producer Lorne Michaels, who shed light on their realizations about the demands of the job from a creative standpoint, as well as how they’re able to cope when the show fails worse than they had expected, to which both more or less reply that next week show’s is already just a few days away.

By actual Saturday, there’s a palpable sense of tension to ensure that there are no small mistakes that may lead to catastrophe. Costumes, set-dressing, final sketch cuts, and constant fine combing over certain dialogue soon consumes every minute of the cast and crew’s lives. In one of Bill Hader’s funniest sketches, he and Fred Armisen are figuring out the best version of screaming out their incoherent Italian dialogue down to the last minute, determining when exactly would be the funniest time to be interrupting one another’s nonsensical Italian language. It’s an incredibly impressive demonstration of how meticulous these performers, even the most naturally gifted, remain under joyful duress to ensure that their output exemplifies the absolute best of their capabilities, for as Lorne Michaels reiterates to Franco: “You’re only as good as your last show”.

And by the actual live airing, we’ve returned to Malkovich’s disorienting entrance to the main stage. At this point, the charge of the audience and knowledge of the live broadcast seems to have revitalized the cast and crew back to their manic Monday enthusiasm. The show carries on successfully, and seemingly without a hitch (despite Hader’s complaint backstage that he and Armisen missed a cue [which no one else, including a head writer, seems to have noticed]). More interestingly, there are other interesting behind-the-scene glimpses like a woman specifically designated to make sure that the host’s path is cleared in between set-ups, as they are frantically whisked from sketch to sketch.

After the show, the doc cuts to black before a final return to the next Monday morning, where Lorne Michaels introduces the next host, before another writer pipes in with the familiar “So I’ve go this idea” line. The cycle continues, and another week of sleepless nights, fruitless perfectionism, and the childlike joy of performing for the laughter of millions begins anew. While Saturday Night is certainly worth seeking out for even the most casual SNL fan as an intimate backstage glance into the machinations that allow for a new show every week, the doc also offers a thought-provoking introspection into how the creative process of these performers has distilled itself into a very unique style of performance art through the decades.

The cast and crew must negotiate between impossible deadlines, a constant demand for innovative, yet broad comedy, and still deliver a quality show that demonstrates professional production values and the natural ease of its gifted performers. By the arrival of the next Monday morning, the doc illustrates how fluid the creative process must remain, and that no matter how successful or abysmal the previous production may have ultimately proved, that the show must go on, and that they truly are only as good as their last show. Nonetheless, if the long and popular history of SNL has proven anything, it’s that their last show—no matter whether it was filled with constant laughter or an assortment of misfires—is populated by skilled creators who are determined to perform with everything they have to offer…live on television…every Saturday night.