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.

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.

Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)

American Honey

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American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

The after-effects of watching Andrea Arnold’s latest film American Honey made me feel it etched a defining signature for this generation and era of youth the way Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show did for the beginning of the 70’s. It’s a real and raw take of the “seize the moment” youth culture that has seeped into the central theme of several coming-of-age films, most of them tawdry offerings like Paper Towns. What sets American Honey apart however is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will. Star, an 18-year old dreadlocked girl, jumps ship from her borderline abusive boyfriend and two kids who aren’t even her own to join Jake, a young salesman she catches a glance of through a dingy van window. That split-second eye contact was enough for Star to seize an opportunity to join a ragtag group of magazine sellers looking for a quick buck.

Star’s journey ends up being a crossroads of American culture. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Every passionate kiss between Star and Jake goes in and out of focus as the camera tumbles along with them on the grass.  Its akin to many of the things that connect directly with a millennial culture that embraces imperfection, and a spontaneous jubilance for discovery.

Then there is of course, the money aspect. Star’s new job and love are hampered by the presence of Krystal, the leader of the magazine business, and much to Star’s devastation, the one who Jake answers to beck and call. In a pivotal sequence in the film, we see Star on the verge of losing her job and forced to watch Jake apply lotion to Krystal’s bare thighs. As their conversation goes on the sound of skin slapping and lubricant sliding grows ever louder and Star’s body begins to shake with ruin. It becomes clear that the newfound freedom still has its strings. At the heart of the film, thumping on the blood pumped through a carefully meditated playlist of songs including Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, Mazzy Starr’s “Fade Into You” and Raury’s “God Whisper”, the film depicts a camaraderie of a generation, all searching for an individual goal but finding solace in a companionship between equally lost and wandering souls. Despite the fact that their “job” is a sham, that Krystal’s grip of money and power may dampen what should be free enterprise, and Star’s own rollercoaster of falling in and out of love with Jake several times, the characters who populate Arnold’s remarkable story hang their hopes on a feeling, one they get from each other and through the film’s music.

Call it a musical, a coming-of-age drama or even a road movie, but American Honey is a generational film, one which drips with the feeling of growing up in this era, seizing a moment, a glance through a dingy window, riding in a packed van with misfits, never knowing where you’ll end up next, but knowing that they are there, and just as lost as you.  

Why So Pretentious?

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Sátántangó (Bela Tarr, 1994) – another classic punching-bag of a “pretentious film”

What is the point of a movie that is 3 or 4 or more hours long and is really slowly, methodically paced? Don’t these people know we have lives? Don’t they know that the point of a movie is to keep people’s attention? Where do they get this self-indulgent mentality to act like they deserve our viewership for that long? Every time a movie is made up of slow meandering camera movements, features minimal dialogue, completely immerses itself in its own unhurried aesthetic, or concentrates on an object, landscape, or character which seemingly has nothing surface-level going for it, I can hear the thousands of people who go to the movies for their supposed money’s-worth entertainment say to themselves “what pretentious garbage”.

But what does pretentious even mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around at the drop of a hat lately. The direct easy-access, low-hanging fruit of a pickup for the lay film-goer to act like his/her inferiority complex is completely justified because the cinema they don’t have the patience to give a chance is there for no other purpose than as a high-brow exercise in showing off artistic ambiguity. Films beyond easily digestible fast-food drive-thru offerings of Michael Bay and Colin Trevverow exist solely to make us feel inferior, right? Like if we don’t “get” them, then automatically we’re deemed as lesser people. That’s clearly got to be the filmmaker’s motive right?

You don’t understand the point of Terrence Malick forgoing much of the blood and carnage and “war is hell” obviousness of Oliver Stone’s Platoon and instead trying to toggle with less obvious themes regarding soldiers in war, not as a collective, but as individuals with their own personal thoughts  in The Thin Red Line. It’s pretentious, you say, because it doesn’t play to the tunes of what we know or expect, it doesn’t give it to us straight. Instead of displaying soldiers as a singular entity or “one hero” each character has a wildly different view of their place in war. Nothing in Malick’s film is offered as an answer. If you notice, the voice-overs of the soldiers in the film are not statements, but questions.

Questions? Why are we asking questions about war, when we should be giving people answers. Because Oliver Stone’s cute little tagline on the DVD cover of Platoon, “The first casualty of war… is innocence” looks so good on a poster. It looks so good as a singular black-white umbrella term for his anti-war cinematic movement (furthered by Born on the 4th of July) that can be shared across social media by millions without anyone really thinking about it. It’s a one track mind, which is perfect because it means we have now formed an identity against war, from this one simple banner phrase. But this is true pretentiousness is it not? Applying grave importance and merit to a single sentence, an overarching term which really doesn’t mean anything but sounds like a totally solid slogan: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” Put that on a baseball cap or T-shirt and parade it around, man. You’re gonna look so insightful and provocative!

But really… The Thin Red Line is the classic example of  what the internet would deem “pretentious cinema” though, because it lasts 3 hours long and is comprised of extended sequences of soldiers questioning their own participation in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Blood is at a minimum, we don’t have scenes of a soldier screaming for his mother trying to stuff his intestines back in his lower abdomen like in Saving Private Ryan. Malick isn’t milking anything here, because he doesn’t have to. Doesn’t the opposite of pretentious mean that the filmmaker has enough trust invested in his audience that he knows, and he can be sure that we’re smart enough to get that war sucks? Do we really need to be told that through exploding organs, blood-drenched battle-fields and cutely worded taglines that people in war… y’know… die… and… uh… experience grief and loss? Are we going to call Malick’s film pretentious because presents the idea that soldiers may actually doubt themselves once in a while? That they’re not all like-minded courageous heroes who overcome all odds? They have their own personal views of war and not everyone is on the same page as each other? That when they’re actually in battle, there may be an inkling of them that isn’t sure whether what they’re doing? Is The Thin Red Line pretentious because it takes too long to watch, and doesn’t fill every sequence with some snappy, easily digestible dialogue that makes us feel like we totally have a grip on this whole “war” thing, or a rocking battle-sequence where we root for a side and hope they “win”? Are we going to point and yell “pretentious” at a movie that doesn’t treat us like children waiting to be lectured on war, but instead treats us like individuals who have our own questions to ask?

Pretentious is being used by people the same way the word “theory” was hijacked to mean “guess”. Pretentious no longer applies to just things which attach more importance to themselves than they are worth… Pretentious is now the spitball we throw at anything that may take more time to understand than we are willing to give it.

Ironically, the so-called mainstream Hollywood movies that have been coming out seem to embody every level of pretense. I just watched Captain America : Civil War and asked myself, what the hell about this movie even justifies the title Civil War? The film lasts about 2.5 hours, and maybe an hour of it is back-and-forth conversations between the Avengers making the most hollow, tumblr-post level arguments about whether their power needs to be kept in check because everywhere they went they saved people, but also inadvertently murdered a bunch as well (ATTENTION: war is hell guys… war is hell. In case you couldn’t figure that out for yourself). Not to mention that this giant epic battle of choosing sides between TeamCap and TeamIron takes place on… and airport. No, seriously, the whole thing happens on a deserted airport terminal, and lasts roughly 5 to 10 minutes . It is only in maybe the last 7 minutes of the movie where Captain America and Iron Man show any level of real, tangible animosity towards each other, where for a split second, Captain America raises his shield to slam it on Iron Man’s face, then catches himself. In 2.5 hours, this 6 second moment is the only time where I felt Tony Stark’s fear and grief over the killing of his parents, and Captain’s very-American level of nationalistic arrogance shielded as “a fight for justice”. Of course, this is erased right after when the movie cuts to the “future” and Captain America sends Iron Man a voice-mail saying “sorry”, and we’re all just supposed to act like he didn’t almost just bash the man’s face in with a metal shield… okay.

The word pretentious is closer associated to the title of this movie, Civil War (more like Civil Argument) than anything that goes on in Yorgos Lanthimos’s also recently released dystopian love story, The Lobster*… a movie that no doubt people will call pretentious because it completely subverts our idea of love and marriage into a bizarre ritual of “find a soul-mate or effectively die” that the movie gives no background for. The characters speak and behave in awkward pauses and robotic monotone dialogues on purpose, and its so hard for us to understand this level of non-conformity in our love stories that we automatically slap the PRETENTIOUS tag on it because its beyond our trying to figure out. Never-mind that the entire agenda of Lanthimos is to evade any sense of importance to his story, other than have it exist and just say “here… you deal with it”. Meanwhile a middle school locker-room argument between Iron Man and Captain America is a CIVIL WAR. Yeesh.

The Duke of Burgundy

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The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2015)

It isn’t a coincidence that many movies that deal with very troubling psychological themes have characters who collect and/or study moths. There is the surface-level creepiness of moths, the fear that they instill in us with their unpredictable flight patterns and ugly thick hairy abdomens and menacing wing decorations. They are in all accounts the sociopathic, obsessive, and much maligned cousin to the majestic, dreamlike butterfly. They help make accessible the darkness in mood and theme of pictures dealing with mental tugs-of-war. But the most obvious connections the moth motif delivers is the obsession with light. While butterflies are associated with their pollination and dispersal of seeds of flowers, a wholly serviceable and normal natural function of their species, the moth is obsessive, entranced and hypnotized by light. This obsession provides no ecosystem service in this regard, and even further, it can kill the moth, but that trans exists and it is inescapable. It’s beyond the moth’s psyche and physical control.

Similarly, here the characters in Peter Strickland’s wildly inspired and thoroughly surprising film The Duke of Burgundy are encompassed in a sexual and passion-filled existence that borders on the brim of tumultuous self-destruction. Cynthia and Evelyn are in their own world, entranced by all the facets of erotica that exist in the bubbling relationship of two lesbian lovers. To dub The Duke of Burgundy an “erotic film” would be to do a disservice to its cinematic complexity and vision as well as the viewers expectations. The movie has all the essences of erotic cinema but it only leaves them at their base individual elements; sly looks, eyelashes, curves, submissiveness, dominance, body fluids, underwear, skin, locks, chains, ropes, leather, velvet, candles, lips, and heels. The movie is a red velvet cake deconstructed into its raw ingredients with Strickland’s camera and the sexuality comes in notions and gestures, relationship politics and human emotion rather than pure sexual acts to elicit heat in the viewer. Don’t expect Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty here.

Strickland is an interesting filmmaker and this movie by him is by all means the most incredible surprise of a film that I came across all year. It is so inspired, so filled with little moments of pure cinema, the kind you know came from years of Strickland’s self-reflection of his own tastes and his own strengths. You see the extensive play with editing of Stan Brakhage, the sensual surrealism of David Lynch, and lighting and cinematography usually associated with Jane Campion’s movies. It’s a unique blend and Strickland manages it beautifully and his characters, two lesbian lovers role-playing, experimenting, and feeling each other’s vibe to ignite a new fire in their waning and wanting sexual relationship, are manifestations of our own desire to rip away from routine and boring rituals and search feverishly for a new enchantment, a new adventure, a light at the end of the tunnel… a light we flutter towards even if it hurts us. In the end The Duke of Burgundy stirs emotions and mixes inspirations into a captivating blend of surreal erotic ingredients within an emotional romantic thriller.

Oh, and please, add Peter Strickland to the company of Ben Wheatley, a guy I’ve called one of the most rocking filmmakers of this generation (and director of the best horror film of the 21st century so far), and you’ve got British indie-cinema with a bright, bright future.

Ex Machina

Ex-Machina-Pick-of-the-Week
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

I couldn’t help but feel throughout Ex Machina a sense of unqualified teasing and taunting. It is what science fiction cinema, especially indie sci-fi has to have under its sleeve in order for people to respect it. There needs to be a ace of spades tucked under the lining, a coin behind the ear, something that hits you in the film that makes you go “that was smart”. Alex Garland had all the pieces set in place for this. He chose a remote location, away from everything, behind closed doors, with an owner named Nathan (a brilliant as always Oscar Isaac) who’s disarming frat-boy personality from the get go seems extremely suspicious given that he’s a genius computer scientist. He chose a timid, but crackling smart computer wiz with a troubled past as the test subject for an experiment to help a robot named Eva pass the Turing Test. This is a typical set-up for a mouse in a labyrinth story line, a game of wits in between claustrophobic walls, and cold emotionless landscape. Think Polanski’s Cul-de-sac in a sci-fi future. There are many directions that this tantalizing narrative could turn.

If teasing and taunting us is the game Alex Garland wanted to play, then he should have had a bigger trick up his sleeve than he did. Its not a mistake to think Ex Machina is a film which considers itself smarter and cooler than it actually is. In that sense, ironically, Garland is an embodiment of his senior character Nathan… eager to point out the twists and smoke and mirrors hidden inside his own creation but not realizing he let his secrets slip sooner than he really wanted to. This is the part where I get into some spoilers. I’m not bragging about this, but merely pointing out the reveal in tone and character that I noticed when first introduced to Kyoko… I knew she was a robot too the moment she came in to deliver Caleb his breakfast. Her mechanical movements, expressionless actions, the moment she starts dancing at soon as the lights dim, that she can’t speak English, I wouldn’t call these dead giveaways, but there are too many aspects of her interaction with both Nathan and Caleb that are too mechanized for even an ethnic Japanese servant.

What Garland does extremely well in this film however, is pinning sexuality and deception in an Artificially Intelligent “life-form” as human traits. While Spielberg & Kubrick’s A.I. talked to us about love and loyalty, Ex Machina is turns towards the darker and dubious side of human personality. Make no mistake, the dialogues that occur between Eva and Caleb, the “do you want to be with me”, “lets go on a date” and others merely serviced a continuation of the Turing test, and it was Eva’s body, her smooth mechanical sexuality, the way she rolled her stockings up her legs, and connected synthetic human skin onto her abdomen, these were the signals of attraction that drew Caleb, and us as the audience, in. By the end of the film, Eva was a beautiful woman, and in her nudity, standing in front of the mirror with flowing hair, there is a glimpse of carnal instinct that elicits all of us.

The twists that Garland employs at the end serve no greater purpose than surface level joy, that we get to finally learn the truth about all the confusion and secrecy that’s going on. Don’t trust Nathan, the security lockdowns, why Nathan chose Caleb as his apprentice for the experiment, all of these questions were asked throughout the film just so that Garland could misdirect us several ways. It’s not a narrative flaw, its just narrative laziness. It reveals nothing about the characters, and it reveals nothing about artificial intelligence, which really is and should be the center point of the story. This is why Ex Machina only seems smarter than it actually is, like a magic trick, its smoke and its mirrors reveal themselves to be just simple birthday party magician tricks. No real magic, no real questions or revelations. What doubles up against this film is also that it can’t position itself on the same pedestal as a Nolan film, which has the luxury of big budget coupled with of course, Nolan’s talent in writing thrilling stories. For indie sci-fi like Ex Machina, the ideas have to be there ahead of anything else.

What should have been the talking point of the film is Eva’s ability to dupe Caleb into pretending she likes him in order to escape becomes the scariest of all propositions in regards to artificial intelligence; that robots will be able to consciously trick us for their own gain. What could be more human than that? It’s a brilliant look into the fear and paranoia of our world; who’s lying to us? What’s the truth? Who can we trust? That Nathan owns and operates a giant search engine company (an obvious reference to Google) should be a talking point about whether we can ever trust them. What happens when Google and Apple A.I. are able to think and operate for themselves, or converse through a human consciousness? Will they lie to us too? It may seem like a lot to discuss, but if Shane Carruth can warp our minds with ideas of relativity in Primer, and Duncan Jones can teach us the depth of human fear of isolation in Moon, one would expect Garland to be able to talk about the implications of his artificial intelligence instead of just using it as a vehicle for misdirection.