BRIGSBY BEAR and the nostalgia of one.

 

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Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)

 

Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.

The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.

I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.

The New Jodorowsky – A look at THE DANCE OF REALITY and POESÍA SIN FIN (ENDLESS POETRY)

 

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Poesia sin fin (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2017)

 

Some background:

[I first discovered Alejandro Jodorowsky while getting a bit deep into the dark parts of the film-web which discussed weird and disturbing movies, ranging from benign-strange like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to just completely batshit what-the-fuck-did-I-watch strange like E Elias Merhige’s Begotten. Jodorowsky falls somewhere smack in the middle of that, and completely by surprise to me, it was an artistic sweet-spot.

I came to admire his passionate wonder and other-worldly vision when I watched his greatest masterpiece The Holy Mountain. I was further sold after watching the good-but-overrated El Topo and the lyrical and most emotionally mature of his films, Santa Sangre. Even his lesser work, a mainstream Hollywood film starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, The Rainbow Thief, is a film I conclude is only not-great because Hollywood producers handcuffed Jodorowsky from expressing his true vision. None of these films are easy to digest at first glance. Jodorowsky is a filmmaker who’s films do absolutely everything in excess. Their philosophy is haywire, their violence is vulgar, their sexuality is uncomfortable, and their love is heart wrenching.

But there is a purpose behind everything. Much of what made Jodorowsky such a cult icon is that he created a cinematic universe all his own, guided by his own divisive ideas of life and art and shared it, bare naked, unfiltered, and uncensored for all to see.]

 

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The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

 

Now, with his latest two films, he bares for us all, his childhood, and his path to becoming the filmmaker he is today.

This “new” Alejandro Jodorowsky, the one risen from the ashes after his 23-year hiatus following the commercial and critical disaster that was The Rainbow Thief, is someone I still have to get readjusted to. From an ideological standpoint, not much has changed. Jodorowsky is who he is. But from an artistic standpoint, there is something plastic-like about both The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin (Endless Poetry), the first two films of his 5-film cycle recounting his childhood and adolescence. Jodorowsky’s aesthetic doesn’t really hold up in the 1080p high definition world. What was endearing about his early-to-mid films was that their ambiguous sense and time and place was augmented by the graininess of the celluloid. That authenticity is gone in this movie, which plays more like a glossy stage-show. Throughout these two films, there are embedded vignettes where the characters will expand on a theories or ideas, and asides where a present-day-Jodorowsky will break the fourth wall and prophesize to us and his past self simultaneously.

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Much of this sort of symbolism is a little too straightfoward. Jodorowsky’s imagination is not as bold as it once was, even though the violence and sex throughout the films are just as provocative and weird. Especially with The Dance of Reality, it was clear to me that there wasn’t much of an interesting story going on here. Sure, Chile’s tumultuous political backdrop amidst Pinoche’s rise is noteworthy as is Jodorowsky’s father’s abusive attitude and a not-quite-obvious-but-still-uncomfortable Oedipus Complex between the young Alejandro and his very large-bosomed mother, who sings all of her lines as parts of an aria. Though, in regards of his self-discovery, hardly anything illumniating comes about. The young Alejandro has vague conversations with a pan-religious monk, tatooed with all sorts of symbols, reminiscent of The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain. These conversations don’t seem to move the needle much with whatever Jodorowsky is trying to say and many of them are repetitive.

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In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view. Much of the film still struggles to bind interesting scenes together, and a good portion of the film is decked with filler material, this time explicitly sexual rather than philosophical, but there are clear ideas being sprouted unlike in Dance of Reality.

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Poesía sin fin comes into it’s own when it starts examining the two things which truly drive Jodorowsky’s art… poetry and the neglect and abuse of his father.

The best scene of a rather messy film is when Jodorowsky and his real-life poet-buddy Enrico Lihn discuss the idea of “poetry in action”, spontaneously compelling them to travel through the town in a literal straight line, with no deviation; if there is a car in the way they climb and walk over the car, if there is a house in the way, they knock on the door and ask permission to walk through the house, even climbing over the bed in the master bedroom. There is no actual need for this rigidity and it is rather inconvenient for the duo and moreso for everyone around them, but it encapsulates the eccentricity of Jodorowsky within a single sequence. It highlights his own view of art as an expression of unwavering, dedicated movement rather than mere theory and discourse. This idea is present in all of his previous films, as most of his characters go on rigorous and tortuous journeys of self-understanding and artistic enlightenment.

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Likewise, the most emotionally charged sequences in the film occur near the beginning where the still young Alejandro is forced by his father to savagely beat a poor couple and strip them naked in front of a crowd as a sign of power, and near the end, when he finally confronts his father’s savagery with some of his own, taking joy in the fact that his parents’ house has burned down rendering them homeless and poor. It is a bit uncompromising, perhaps an immoral mark of Jodorowsky’s character, but it’s the first time in this 5-film cycle we’re seeing Jodorowsky express deep feeling and understanding of who he is in relation to his disturbed past.

It’s quite clear Jodorowsky’s obsession with himself and his continued deeper discovery of cinema is still just as rich as it was at the beginning of his career, and if not necessarily works of great storytelling, The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin are still pure Jodorowsky and for his fans that should be more than enough.

 

 

DUNKIRK – Racing Against the Clock

 

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Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.

Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).

Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.

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Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.

Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.

 

A Ghost Story

 

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

 

When considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, there’s a good chance someone brought up mainly on mainstream Hollywood cinema will not have the patience for it and will desperately start staring at the theater exit and checking the time on their cellphones within the first half-hour thinking “fuck… I should’ve just watched War for the Planet of the Apes again.”

The reason I say this is because that was precisely my reaction during the first half hour of this movie. Yes, me. The person who considers both Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, two of cinema’s directors notorious for the length and ‘slowness’ of their cinema, to be among the best storytellers film history has to offer. I sat through Tarr’s 6-hour long Satantango, a film which is comprised of merely 100 or so shots each with minimal dialogue and completely in black and white, as well as Diaz’s 7.5 hour long From What is Before, similar in style and composition to Tarr’s film and neither of them seemed even close to as long or frustrating as the first half of A Ghost Story.

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So what exactly happened here?

The film revolves around the death of a significant other. Two people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are in a loving but emotionally rocky relationship in a house which C is very attached to. After C dies in a tragic car crash he becomes a ghost and starts to wander around the house, mute and unable to physically interact with the mortal world, while M greives in increasingly depressing silence. Lowery films all of this with comatose static shots which linger for lengthy intervals with minimal dialogue and sound. Some of them are effective, such as the sequences of M packing up her life and finally moving out of the house that C loved so much, while others are unintentionally funny in their preposterousness.

One of the most silliest moments in the film is a sequence in which M sees a pie that her neighbor left her as a “sorry for you loss” condelence and then out of a fit of silent rage, begins to consume the entire pie. This event occurs in the frame of a single static shot with M crouched on the kitchen floor stabbing at the pie repeatedly with her fork, stuffing large chunks into her mouth and chewing with a lot of jaw-aching effort. It goes on for so long and with such a mechanical monotony that I could feel everyone else in the theater telecommunicating with me, the same exact message: “Are we really going to be sitting here watching this girl binge eat an entire fucking pie?!?”(She ends up stopping four bites shy and vomits it all out in the toilet across the hall)

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What augments the utter banality of the film’s first half is that Lowery’s deliberately slow style here is completely let down by the setting he’s working with. Unlike similarly quiet and paced films such as Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, Lowery is restricted to the interiors of a rather unremarkable house and its even less remarkable surroundings. The communal farm in Satantango had such a heavy air of depravity that every scene, even if it lasted for long durations and shot in black and white, was rife with detail and texture and a sense of doom. Foxcatcher had the benefit of the DuPont estate being remarkably picturesque as well as haunting in its stillness, beautifully complimenting the deliberate pace of Miller’s style. A Ghost Story takes place in the suburban neighborhood in a house that has almost nothing going for it in its current state post-C’s death.

Luckily, the house doesn’t stay this way, as M eventually moves. Before she does however, she sticks an anonymous note in the cracks of the wall of the house. Lowery plants this seed to keep tying us, and C’s Ghost, back to the relationship he was tragically ripped from. It is gimmicky, but it’s the first hint of intrigue in a rather painfully bad start.

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The second half thankfully moves a lot faster, but it doesn’t get that much more interesting.

As we enter the post-M era of C’s Ghost’s time floating around the house, the film departs from physical reactions of loss and death, into a much more philosophical territory… for better and worse. The changes in tenants, buildings, and landscape of the property elicits a rapid passage of time that leaves C’s Ghost further battered and lost in the memory of the house he has now become a part of. The several instances where C’s Ghost scratches the wall to retrieve the anonymous note remains really the only thing that keeps us caring for his character. There is some serious emotional heft in these scenes and the best parts of the film are those which ties us back to C and M’s relationships, the good and the dysfunctional. Everything else, remains childish.

Another giggle-worthy event is when C’s Ghost peeks at another ghost in a neighboring house and having a vague conversation about “waiting for something”. Is… comic relief? Is Lowery doing this to poke fun, give us a breather from the ghosts and loss, and love? Or is this guy being straight-faced and actually believes this to be good philosophical storytelling?

Perhaps the best description of A Ghost Story’s attempt at profundity is the scene when a group of 20-somethings occupy the house and throw a party. In the kitchen, four of them have gathered around, a bit buzzed, talking lightly about the meaning of “life”. One of them, a bearded hipster one would wager, goes on an incredibly verbose pseudo-intellectual rant which aims to make so many badly concieved points, that it makes none. The critic blurb I see most often connected to this movie describes it as “cosmic”, but its journey to discern our ideas of memory, death, and time sputter out before getting off the ground.

THE BEGUILED – Civil War, without the War.

 

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The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola, 2017)

 

What I felt most surprised by in The Beguiled was the simplicity of its story arc and setting. The atmospherics Sophia Copolla creates seep out of the screen so well, with its quiet malevolence, moody lighting, and the on-edge performances of its characters, that by the movie’s end, that same technical brilliance completely outweighed any attempt at a rapturous story.

Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled has been done before, by Don Seigel in a Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page starring film in 1971, but to very different ends. Seigel, an action director, was very much in favor of creating a film that amped up the drama and twists of the storyline, giving Eastwood a meaty role and playing the sexual and violent nature of the characters, to the backdrop of the Civil War that much more in-your-face. In other words, Seigel and Eastwood envisioned a clear political and social motive to the film, and that was not to be mistaken or forgotten.

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Copolla’s rendition is closer to a beautifully decorated stage play. The backdrop of the Civil War, which features prominently in the Cullinan novel, remains a far distant event here, sputtering in and out of our ears with soft booms. The fact that McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a Union soldier and the Girls Home is clearly South-aligned is merely an inconvenience between the sexual tension that is unmistakable from the get-go. The politics of the war, the people who’s livelihoods it is centered around (black slaves), and the idea of war, the death and destruction and loss and hate that surrounds it, are all either thrown into the back as minor topics or erased from the film’s world altogether.

Instead, the biggest nod to any politics in the film lies in the gender-relations at play between different girls reactions and perceptions of the Corporal, which can be thought of in stages of how we experience and react to love growing up. The youngest girl looks up to Corporal McBurney as a father figure, the second-youngest has a kiddie crush, the middle girl is skeptical and antagonistic towards him, the teenager (Elle Fanning) is experiencing sexual attraction lit by a sense of rebellion for the first time, the second-oldest (Kirsten Dunst, easily the films best performance) really falls in love and imagines a future with him, and the oldest (Nicole Kidmann) treats him as a stranger only later warming up to his presence.

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Not much is made of these, however, as the film follows a familiar path of a man caught between the love of multiple women. Instead, Coppola’s visual canvas remains the central artistic pillar of her film. The movie grows darker, literally in its lighting and art direction, as the passions of the girls start to swell up into maddening jealousy and a singular decision by the Corporal flares up into an impending doom for everyone. The sunlit gardens and bright pink and white dresses waving through the Virginia greenery give way now to faded dull pastels and a monotone cloudy sky. Normally I’m incredibly favorable to films which centralize their visuals, but those still need to be at the service of the story. If the look of the film and the building of its world are its greatest strengths, they need to be complimented with themes and ideas of equal vibrancy.

This is not to say that The Beguiled isn’t good, but considering the densely political layering of Cullinan’s novel, and the brooding intensity of the Seigel adaptation, Coppola’s decision to go minimalist in terms of story here seems less a brave decision and more a head-scratching one. There’s no Tarkovskian metaphysics at play, so what we end up with is a decent story of jealousy and fear played with a straight face and beautiful scenery, but lacking in the density needed to make a lasting impression.

Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.

Wakefield – A story of a patriarch

 

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Wakefield (Robin Swicord, 2017)

It’s unclear what the motive behind the movie Wakefield is. Not just the characters or the world they exist within, or the film’s “message”, but the reason for its existence. Why did director Robin Swicord, who gained fame for her literary adaptations such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha, feel the need to write and make this movie? I have a few thoughts, but I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m asking for the purpose behind a film’s creation. Frankly, it’s a question we should ask Hollywood films more often, and more often than not the reason is money. But that’s clearly not the case here because, besides me, I don’t know another human being who has seen this Bryan Cranston starrer which released three weeks ago. Yeah, did you know Bryan Cranston acted in a movie that released three weeks ago? Money could not have been part of the equation. The real reason behind my curiosity is the actual plot and story of the film….

Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorrow which in itself is a reimagining of the same story originally written by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Wakefield is about a family man with a city job who comes home late one night after being stuck on a malfunctioning train and follows a racoon loitering through his garbage into what seems like a storage area above his garage… and (take a breath)…. decides to just live there and spy on his family for a whole year.

“What the fuck?” – you right now, probably

Bryan Cranston plays the titular character, Howard Wakefield, a man disillusioned from his monotonous day to life-cycle of wife, kids, and job. He lives in a very upper-class WASP neighborhood, decked with picket fenced McMansions, luxury cars (Wakefield owns a Mercedes), fine china, private-school going children, and Joseph Aboud tailored suits. The need to cutting lose from a daily lifestyle is something a lot of people experience, particularly at Wakefield’s mid-life crisis age. However, instead of the expected trope of blowing off money on expensive things, Wakefield’s crisis takes him into a faux-“survivalist” lifestyle. I say faux- because he technically has food and shelter at his disposal at all times. He’s not ever in any real danger through this whole ordeal.

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But the way he enters into this commitment away from his family seems preposterous. Coming home late one night, he notices a raccoon scavenging in the bins on his driveway. In an attempt to shoo the rascal away, he instead sends it up the stairwell in his garage into a storage floor. There, Wakefield notices his wife and kids finishing up dinner without him and… decides to just spend the night. Over the course of a week, he argues with himself over what time would be appropriate to re-introduce himself into his family without it being a gigantic ordeal. Clearly, he supposes, his wife will assume he has been cheating. It’s such a strangely evolved concept that it not only challenges us into identifying with a clearly unlikeable person but also in the idea of what the hell the story is getting at.

Going through E.L. Doctorrow’s short story, written first-person, a marked distinction from Hawthorne’s original which is told as a third-person account, much of the actions Wakefield executes are hardly explained beyond a mere “unknown circumstances” or “can’t imagine why”-s. It’s almost as if this man doesn’t have any control over his mind or body, that he believes fully that his several months in that attic were a literal out of body experience as much as an out of lifestyle experience.

Is Wakefield clinically insane? He talks about the events towards the beginning of the story as having a Doppler effect, or a string of occurrences which seem to prophesize on the collapse of human civilization. He mentions his actions had a snowball effect of irrationality from the first night he spent in the storage area to the following several months. But his constant acknowledgment of his irrational behavior rules that out.

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The most logical interpretation of the film’s underlying social themes, in my eyes, is that Wakefield is engaging in a despicable patriarchal power move. One with an heir of complete self-importance in regards to his family. By removing himself from the family, and watching their struggles he finds a sort of sick joy in knowing they can’t handle life without him. He is not so much insane as he is sociopathic. The evidence of this is obvious in several instances where his wife is getting help from a friend on finances, and Wakefield chuckles knowing there’s no way she can afford her lifestyle without his paycheck let alone manage all the monetary budgeting that he and he alone does for the household. Given Swicord’s talent in translating fiction into a visual portrait of multi-dimensional individuals for the screen (her best work, in my opinion, Matilda, takes many moments of a whimsical child’s life and breaths soul-crushing emotional heft into them, quite daring for a children’s movie), her taking a short story to feature length with such a difficult to handle premise was not something I was particularly worried about… but the end result showed that stretching Wakefield as a character leads to many wrong turns and confusingly contradictory portraits of who he is, and why we should accept him as believable.

Much of the second half of the film, a swift turn from the first half, Swicord concentrates on humanizing Wakefield into a compassionate, humble character who ultimately has a self-realizing epiphany. It’s the classic case of a film which steers away from difficult, murky territory of seeing a truly depraved person eaten by his own mind and into a story of glorious self-fulfillment, that too, at the detriment of everyone around him. It’s strange coming from Swicord, who’s writing sensibilities clearly lean towards a feminist reading of the material. Why would she have us believe in this man’s motives as being anything less than a narcissistic act of neglecting three women in his life on a whim? That he is actually capable of learning a lesson and that is what catalyzes his return to society, and not that he is so egotistical, so emotionally distanced from his family as humans with wants and needs, he feels he can waltz back in just like that.

The film would have us believe that by removing himself from everything Wakefield has gained an appreciation for it all… one of the most tired and uninspiring Hollywood lessons. It’s like an American Dad episode written and directed with a straight face.