Horrid Henry

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So, between Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, 2017 sure has me kind of turnt on narratives about sexual abuse to young girls that are written and directed by men absolutely unqualified to write about these topics. They’re not entirely clueless and there are elements of it that they illuminate, but in the overall narrative, they end with some extremely grievous final notes on the matter and that leaves a shockingly bad taste in my mouth watching these movies. However, while Split apparently houses some genre work that I spied well enough that I might be somewhat interested in re-watching and evaluating it someday, I have absolutely no desire to ever put myself through The Book of Henry again unless somebody is willing to sit down and roast the movie with me*. It’s a miserable experience alone.

And the fact that this movie has such a well-meaning but toxic male savior-esque attitude about rape is only the half of it. That’s not the main thing The Book of Henry is about nor is it the only thing wrong about the movie. It has been said by many people by now, but let me repeat, there is not one narrative element of The Book of Henry that doesn’t sit me down and wonder “who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?” The answer is clearly present in how much Trevorrow and company dedicate their efforts in the craft, right down to Michael Giacchino trying to give the sparkliest imitation of mid-90s Amblin’ family fare that only 90s kids like I would get, forever a sign of how cursed we are as a group. Trevorrow and his crew are dedicated to providing us to the most amiable Rockwellian blanket atmosphere making this feel like a warm family story, totally ignorant of the fact that the script Gregg Hurwitz is fucking psychotic.

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That script’s duotagonists are the titular precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his “struggling” single mother Susan (Naomi Watts who has made damn sure we will remember her 2017 as the year of Twin Peaks and not this shit). I put “struggling” in scare quotes because she insists on continuing to work hard as a waitress and driving a very distressed looking automobile, but Henry is gifted enough intellectually to turn her paychecks into hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to stock-brokering over a goddamn payphone at his school. He’s also apparently intelligent enough to crush a kid’s dreams of being an Olympic dodgeball champion in the classroom in a manner that apparently impresses his middle school teacher for appealing to her existential crisis, despite clearly deflating a child in her care.

Henry’s a fucking asshole. Like, flat out. And the movie thinks we’re going to be rooting for him when he begins elaborating on a plan to discreetly assassinate his next-door neighbor Police Commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris) that we know Henry can and will execute. Even with the knowledge of Glenn consistently abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), even with most of the movie told through the wide-eyed perspective of Henry’s younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) whom Henry protects from school bullies, all as emotional blackmail, Henry is so repulsive as a human being in his judgmental attitude towards his mother struggling to find a way to function as a mother figure despite Henry ripping all financial agency and maternal responsibility from her life, superiority complex towards his kids, and the clear psychopathy in his leap from “try to appeal to authorities or superiors who can help Christina and fail” to “I’m going to shoot this man to fucking death” in less than a week. Mind you, when you’re trying to appeal to your principal to help someone, you’re not going to get anybody on your side busting into the door with “Goddammit, Janice”.

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Even before we approach the middle development of the film where it takes a narrative turn that flips this at-first terribad Radio Flyer reboot (and mind you, Radio Flyer was already garbage) upside-down and incapable of figuring out what direction it can go with its story, Trevorrow is clearly interested in providing the most treacly nostalgic child’s wonder treatment of this material that is wildly inappropriate by any means, sun-dappled cinematography and directing the cast to be as casual about the shit that has to come out of their mouth as possible. Watts looks like she’s suffering the worst of it and wants to bail ASAP, while Sarah Silverman looks like there’s absolutely no bit of this she will take seriously, giving the sloppiest Amy Winehouse impression I could witness top to bottom. And when one looks at Hurwitz’ previous work*, which includes runs on the Batman comics and thriller novel series about genetically-modified hyper-intelligent assassins, I don’t know how anybody thought he was worth the benefit of the doubt on writing this movie, it reads on paper like just another one of his thrillers but if he sent it as a Peanuts story commission and wasn’t laughed out of the building.

It’s really hard not to turn this into just “this moment sucked and this moment sucked and so did this one” like I really really want to. Not only because of spoilers but there are so many miscalculations – from Silverman kissing Lieberher to a talent show montage crosscut with a climax that ends up wildly Brooksian in tonal whiplash all the way down to the final resolution the movie provides in the end – so all I can do is just give you my horrorstruck stare at what kind of movie everybody was ok with and how frustrating it is that people actually believed in this as wholesome and worth delivering to a family audience. Fucking miss me with this shit, don’t ever talk to me or my son ever again.

Man, J.J. Abrams is definitely not my ideal director of Star Wars: Episode IX, especially if The Last Jedi does a hell of a lot of work to move the new trilogy far beyond. But The Book of Henry is the most engaged time I’ve had watching any of Trevorrow’s three movies and at this point I’m glad to take anything out of the possibility of a Star Wars film by this guy.

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*Seriously, I gotta make a commentary for this movie. It’ll be to The Book of Henry the exact opposite of what Roger Ebert did to Citizen Kane.
**The way I got Hurwitz’ CV was from looking through his Wikipedia page, which reads heavily like a man trying to impress me, including non-sequiturs about going undercover in cults and swimming with sharks and sneaking into demolitions ranges with Navy SEALs. I would not be surprised if he wrote his own wikipedia page and if so, he sounds exactly the sort of dude who’d introduced himself by saying “I went to Harvard AND Oxford” and thus exactly the sort of dude who’d identify with Henry and want us to find him impressive.

Issa Ghost

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The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is the fact that, given the recent revelations of Casey Affleck’s behavior, I don’t have to look at his face for the majority of the movie given how novel (without being ridiculous) the concept is of him playing a ghost by wordlessly walking around in a bedsheet. It’s even nicer to discover that there’s the possibility that his double David Pink (who also was the art director for the film so figures he might have liked to spend time underneath that sheet during reshoots and pickups) potentially takes up more screentime as the titular ghost than Affleck does.

That is, in fact, not the nicest thing about A Ghost Story. It’s just a fun joke I wanted to open up on*. The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is how director David Lowery undertook it upon himself to make a very patiently meditative picture using as little words (and possibly sounds, the soundtrack is a very deliberate but sparse element mainly taken over by Daniel Hart’s warm intellectual blanket of tones that makes up the film’s score) to try to attempt Lowery’s personal version of The Tree of Life, a reflection on the status of our personal presence in the greater wheel of the universe and the interminability of how it keeps rolling despite our insignificance and how it’s still a pretty wonderful thing to be around.

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And the great thing about that being the nicest thing about A Ghost Story is that it’s highly reflective of the film as a whole. It’s a cohesive thing rather than just a whole lot of great stuff. Like, the depressed laconic performance of Rooney Mara’s central to the first quarter (maybe? I don’t think she remains in the film very long) as the widowed spouse of Affleck’s character is not just a great arc of the story in its own right but the very seed in which the plot builds out of the self-contained block of emotional grief – complete with the infamous long-take pie scene which would obviously be divisive but I found incredibly generous as a visual and temporal gag (the payoff made me nearly laugh except the friend I saw the movie with was unamused), a very telling character moment, a tonal reset for the picture to let us know how far our patience can go, and indisputable evidence that Mara has definitely never eaten a pie before in her life if she thinks it works like that.

Or how indisputably beautiful and sharp the darkness of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, providing both visual melancholy and a haunting atmosphere in such an essential manner to A Ghost Story getting away with its paced explorations of the Ghost’s lingering that I find it to be more irrevocably tied to the film being made than the cinematography of Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both also really lovely looking films. Those movies feel a little more divorced from the fact that they look good than A Ghost Story, where it matters in the details of the frame that we can witness what’s happening because there’s almost no other way we’re going to receive information.

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Hell, there’s even a more show-offy effects sequence involving a singular shot in which we watch the Ghost watching Mara exit the home in three different fashions with nary a cut in sight and the whole thing doesn’t feel like an effects showcase to me, but an efficient manner of having us and our guiding character feel the quickening perception of time slip right past us, only adding to the feeling of insignificance in a desperate manner. It’s all just more to wrap into the world’s self-reflective attitude.

Indeed, it’s funny that I feel the audacious attempts at cosmic commentary towards the Ghost’s sudden death and reflections of his life before and his widow’s life after are akin to Malick’s masterpiece, because it’s the closest I find in Lowery’s filmography to his independent personality coalescing into a film. It doesn’t function as a Malick homage this time, though the influence is there, it finally feels like a complete key into understanding what Lowery looks for in a film and his voice.

It is with great dismay that while it’s possibly the David Lowery movie I love most, I’m not convinced it’s not also Lowery’s worst (it’s not even my favorite Tree of Life copy with Twin Peaks‘ Part 8 being the best thing of 2017 period) and it’s kind of because by the second act – the one where its ambition is bigger than its stomach – it loses track of itself except in repeating its beats in a Macro scale. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when a movie whizzes right on by as quickly as A Ghost Story does and the visuals don’t stop having a tangible distinction between the settings (kind of, there’s never any doubt that we’re in the exact same spot the whole movie) and time periods, but it stops being revelatory at that point.

No, the real shitty point and potentially the reason I’m least responsive to the moments after it is during a central party scene in which reliable ol’ Will Oldham turns up and delivers the clumsiest clunky moment in the whole movie, giving an eye-rolling monologue on-the-nose about what the movie is trying to say and it’s upsetting because of how elegant Lowery’s storytelling has been up until that point. Like, my dawg, believe in your movie.

Let’s not dwell too long on such a blemish, because A Ghost Story remains one of the more fascinating movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching during such a somewhat underwhelming summer, with much to think about and the certainty that I’ll be rewatching it many times over and over. Potentially with skipping that monologue.

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*another great joke I like to make: how the ghost goes MAGA at one point in the film that you’ll know when you watch it. Can’t trust them white ghosts.

Girlfriend in a Coma

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There are elements of The Big Sick that it’s going to be impossible for me to be objective about. Thankfully, those elements are such a small mix of the collision of plot threads that make up its story, an autobiographical account of how screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars in the film as himself) and Emily V. Gordon met and went through a trial of life and ended up marrying each other. It’s after leaving the theater that I realized that such a seemingly straightforward premise actually had a lot cooking inside of it and it even backloaded most of the best things about it to the second half. So when I say that I can’t help the fact that I’m also a Muslim-raised atheist mostly Americanized who at one point drove Ubers (the very earliest indication that this will mostly be fictionalized, the fact that Nanjiani drives Ubers is an anchor to the rom com element despite the real-life couple being together in the early 2000s) whose still Muslim family insists on arranging a marriage that wants to be involved in some manner in the entertainment industry that has mostly dated white girls*, it’s like… maybe the fourth most important tangent within this movie. Maybe the fifth, I can’t keep track of it all.

But for the first hour at least, it feels front and center to have Nanjiani introduced as two things from the start, a Pakistani American comedian living in Chicago. Early on this look into a comedian’s life segues into a romance Nanjiani has with a heckler named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) and the two of them are clearly bad at pretending they’re not a couple because before we know it they give up their mutual “we’re not gonna speak to each other anymore” thing and end up spending time together at each other’s apartments before a pretty unsavory part of Nanjiani’s Muslim parents trying to throw him into an arranged marriage upsets Emily enough for the two of them to break up (the biggest diversion from Nanjiani and Gordon’s true-life story and something I can understand interjecting drama into the film but also ends up making Nanjiani look a lot more unsavory than I think the film wants him to be later on).

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Shortly after Gardner ends up hospitalized for a lung infection nobody saw coming or knows what’s up and Nanjiani is forced to sign a medically-induced coma order (despite the fact that she’s literally sitting in the next room talking to somebody) before calling over Emily’s parents from North Carolina, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter).

Now, The Big Sick is clearly about a lot of things, which is the beauty of it. Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter have been able to tell Nanjiani’s story by letting all these very distinct strands of his life – his struggles as a comedian, his romance with Emily, his Pakistani-Muslim background – with the same sort of “this is my life” weight and generous charm that makes it hard not to be endeared to every single person that appears in the film and I’m most impressed with the way the three of them let all these strands bleed into each other, especially in the second half where Nanjiani’s attempts to separate all these parts of his life start collapsing and demanding more dramatic momentum. Still, as sure as those three storylines are present in The Big Sick, they don’t captivate me nearly as much as Kumail’s attempts to connect with Emily’s parents does. That Kumail’s first meeting with them has to be during such a trying time (and starting on the wrong foot as they know of Kumail’s ex-boyfriend status) is the most extraordinary circumstance in a film full of extraordinary circumstances and Terry and Beth end up anchoring a lot of the rest of the film from their very first appearance halfway through until pretty close to the end as Kumail has to figure out how to help them find their way through both their fear for their daughter’s life and Chicago itself.

It can’t hurt that Hunter and Romano are clearly the best performances in the whole cast. Romano is nobody’s idea of a great actor, but being the concerned father who might be a pushover is hardly a tough role for him to inhabit and he’s very lived-in with his relationship to Hunter’s on-edge, semi-confrontational mother (a role she can do with her eyes closed). They easily steal the show without showboating away from the conflict of Kumail’s own family concerned for his absence, played by Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, and Shenaz Treasury, nor relegating either side to being just stereotyped caricatures.

If Emily’s lack of presence in this romantic comedy’s second half does bother me (something the movie keeping leaning towards acknowledging and then forgives outright by the end), if the clear anonymity in its aesthetic does as well (especially the editing, where the decisions made seem to be exactly the wrong ones in my eyes… namely shots and angles used where the most obvious ones are staring right in our face), if parts of the story don’t interest me as much as other parts (I haven’t talked about the comedian’s life side because – much as it is well-written – I could have lived without it), I can’t lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t still love The Big Sick in all of its heartfelt messiness. It’s a movie that asks for sympathy from all possible ends, doesn’t fault anyone, has characters that I don’t mind living around for two hours, and it speaks to a side of my life I don’t think is much represented. This is the sort of cool hang-out friend version of a movie where you know everything will be ok in the end and if some people think that doesn’t seem challenging, I can’t disagree but it’s their loss.

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*My mother has not had any negative reaction to my last girlfriend, my dad didn’t even know about her because he wasn’t in town. So no, my life is not nearly as dramatic as Nanjiani’s.

Isn’t Life Disappointing?

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You know, I have no clue how to address what I feel is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I really don’t. I’m not skilled enough with my English vocabulary to feel I can actively address the beauty that comes through in Ozu Yasujiro’s work, much less the movie I feel is his masterpiece.

It’s the same I would feel about any movie I feel is competently made in any way, whether I liked it or disliked it. Ozu has taken the same amount of care with Tokyo Story as he has with every single one of his films, to a point where you know the distinct signature of every element that can differentiate a work like Late Spring to Ugetsu and help you tell the difference from Ozu and all the other great filmmakers, Japanese or otherwise. When you watch enough Ozu, you know he’s the guy with the level shots from the seated level, the camera joining the family on the tatami floor like its a member too. Paced cuts from close-up to close-up only taken as necessity for knowing how each character feels about the moment at hand. Some of these close-ups featuring very tired smiles while the words from the crescent lips betray the attempts at pleasantry. All of these composed in industry grade 1.37:1, like a little picture box. And he wasn’t as varied with his cast as most directors try to be.

But familiarities are not as damning when done right by a filmmaker and Ozu was damn well the best filmmaker to make something to an audience seem more like a home than a bore. He didn’t base himselves on adventures like Kurosawa Akira or the uncanny like Mizoguchi Kenji. He was based in very personal tales. Very well cushioned in Japanese custom and tradition. On families and friends and localized societies rather than the great big world that Kurosawa hoped for or the beyond that Mizoguchi gave us a look into.

This contentment is what makes Ozu the hardest to approach objectively for me as a reviewer, but Tokyo Story‘s 51st anniversary was a few days ago and as such, as a complete fan of Ozu, I feel compelled to comment on something. So I will comment on the subjective experience of how Tokyo Story makes me feel as a viewer and hope it comes off as best as possible.

The story in the title is quite frankly a simple plot frame in which the complexities come from the characters within themselves. The two people we follow – Elderly couple Hirayama Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) and Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) are about to take a trip they finally have a chance to make: to visit their many successful children in Kyoto and Tokyo. They bid the one daughter to stay with them in their little town, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), farewell and head to meet with Koichi (Yamamura So), Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and even their daughter-in-law Noriko (legendary Ozu collaborator Hara Setsuko), wife to their late son Shoji. Ironically, the first son they meet on the way to Tokyo, Keizo (Osaka Shiro), who is stationed in Kyoto, is the last person we meet on their way back.

When Tomi and Shikuchi make it to Tokyo, it’s at first somewhat warm and accommodating. The accommodation doesn’t deliberately falter, but the warmness weakens gently but still noticeably. Koichi and Shige have clearly made their own lives in the new city and have found it a lot more of a burden to make time for their visiting relatives. Noriko is the one person who takes it in stride to simply spend time with Tomi and Shikuchi. As a result of this, the relations turn embarrassing and sometimes extremely hard to handle. It never gets unpleasant  (Not to say the movie is undramatic, but its more meditative than most pictures that come around), but it gets to be more and more of a challenge for the younger generation to entertain their elderly guests and the parents get more and more aware of this.

It’s a story inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, regrettably one of my larger classic film gaps that I look to fix as soon as possible (my familiarity with McCarey is instead in his Marx brother vehicle Duck Soup, which always cracks me up). However, from what I understand Ozu hadn’t seen the original when he made Tokyo Story either (and given his death a little over a decade after this film was made, I have no clue whether or not he eventually did)… the co-screenwriter Nada Kogo had made himself familiar with the film and, we are to understan, included the emotive elements of the similarly elderly-focused tale into this Japanese reciprocal of the experience.

But you don’t need to know about the source to feel how much of a dissection of family and how it separates and grows in different contortions Tokyo Story becomes, just as much as it is a tale made to get your sympathy for the two sides of the story. And it is indeed a tale without any complete blame – at least that is how I read it constantly. There’s a reason why, even despite the brilliantly nuanced performances of Ryu and Chieko, the majority of the strife seems to be expressed on the part of dynamic turns by Yamamura and Sugimura. Yes, it sucks that the children do not have as much time and energy to take care of the older Hirayamas’ whim, but that’s exactly it. They DON’T have time. And the film makes certain to showcase that their neglect is a matter of force rather than simple wishes to laze about.

Both Koichi and Shige are married, as the film takes the time to point out, and we especially get an introduction to Koichi’s family with two children that would maybe come off as obnoxious to anybody extremely impatient with sudden or stubborn behavior, very broad expressions, but they are children. They are in need of care and nuture and Koichi’s job as a doctor is just as demanding. Shige as well gets the rotten end of the stick having a particular scene where she receives her father drunk after a night on the town and, after a brief moment of monologuing her frustrations to the unaware Shukichi, takes her time to provide what she can to allow her father a comfortable sleep without disturbing him.

But in the end, this is the first time the elder Hirayamas get to see how their children and grand-children have done for themselves and they barely get to spend anytime at all. In fact, they are practically disposed of, sent to Noriko (who makes the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist from the younger generation, with Hara and Chieko having an especially telling scene late in the film) or a resort with great haste at points.

All generations get the short end of the stick, lives are derailed by the responsibilities that suddenly occur with the Hirayamas’ arrival. It is with this sensitivity that Ozu is known for that Tokyo Story becomes more of a heart-touching movie, there is little solution to the matter at hand when so many interests conflict but we just want everyone to be happy or satisfied by the end of the film. No fistfights, no giant explosions, no lawsuits, no angry arguments even, just a need for simple sophisticated interaction with the people we love most and how sometimes even that can just about leave some bruises in a family. And despite the blatantly Japanese stylization that stamps the nationality and basis of the film more than anything, we recognize this as a universal situation. It’s not that the concept of families being inconvenienced by being a family is just a Japanese thing, but simply that, to carry the theme, it had to be given a spot to call home first.

Which anyway, Japan’s architecture in Tokyo Story is most accommodating for the settling of a ne’er-do-well environment of happy little homes and trees, a nice gracious community of harmony, industrialized to make itself look like a more Westernized spot that even a small Americana from the 60s could become, that allows the subtle dissonance in the family to just bleed into the storytelling without being balls-out jarring like David Lynch. No, this is a far damn sight from David Lynch. It’s when things go too right.

It’s not a particularly judgmental film or even largely resentful, thankfully, but it is a great big sigh of a picture. Ozu’s awareness to present the touching story without bias but also without hiding any of the truths of the scenario from the audience. It is a film that wears its heart on its sleeves and doesn’t entirely have any answers, but never acted like it did and that’s quite a feat for Ozu to do without coming off as an incomplete storyteller. No, Ozu was a master because he saw all of humanity and life’s struggles through to the bitter end and Tokyo Story is the magnum opus, the most able and potent of all of Ozu’s tales to talk about the true human condition.

There have been filmmakers since who have been close to as humanist as Ozu is, but none can match him. Ever. He’s just as replaceable as a parent to any of us, however faulty all will be.