The Night He Came Home

If I made a mulligan on every review here that I think does not hold up, this blog would be going nowhere at all, even by the standards of how much my posting here has slowed to a crawl. Nevertheless, there’s been no movie previously reviewed that I found more deserving of a second go at than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic horror film Halloween – 8 years after having shared an insufficient split-post with fellow mulligan’d horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. This is partially because Halloween is one of the movies I think about most often, a point of intersection between my love for slasher cinema, for movies that make minimal resources feel properly big, and as an example of peak fundamental form.

And I guess the only better context to revisit this classic than Shout! Factory’s current 4K re-release of the original franchise is the imminent “finale” of at least the recent David Gordon Green trilogy, Halloween Ends, a title which makes promises certainly not going to be kept as long as it keeps money in Carpenter and Malek Akkad’s pockets. And it’s a context that compels me to review the full feature film franchise from 1978 all the way to 2022.

But let’s start from the beginning: obviously not the beginning of slasher cinema as we know it, given how Halloween is preceded by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas alone (and if you’re even snootier about the starting line, there’s Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace, and Bay of Blood but I don’t think those are correct), but the starting line of addressing what Halloween is outside of the legacy it made as the most profitable picture of its time, as a recognizable horror brand, and as a foundational blueprint for the slasher boom in the 1980s. Because you take away all that context – including the developments that the sequels provide to the characters, which we will complain about when we get to them – and what you have…

… is a simple straightforward yarn: One Halloween in the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, an indistinct shape of a man (Nick Castle) is following a young babysitter with stoic obsessive focus. That nutshell summary is basically all the essence needed for this movie, a stripped-down elemental tale scripted by Carpenter and his long-time producer Debra Hill of predator and prey and the dread that is pulled out of such a random and evil occurrence. Given that that man is the subject of his own frantic chase by his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), we have the context to know this man is Michael, who 15 years earlier as a child (Will Sandin) murdered the teenage Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) before being institutionalized and escaping the night of 30 October 1978. And that context is probably more information than we should want to maintain this story’s mystique except for two things in its favor…

To begin with, that murder is portrayed to us from the very first scene with a miraculous first-person Steadicam shot (made up of two, but there’s an extremely well-disguised cut) as we watch Judith make out with her boyfriend from outside through a window, enter the house after her boyfriend has been satisfied by like… 3 minutes of action it seems (teenagers…), follow the stairs up to her room, stab her to death (with an awkward stare at the stabbing hand at one point), and exit the home in time to have his mask removed in a chilling cut that reveals him staring off absently into the night. And the uninterrupted smoothness of that ambitious camera movement is more than just Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey showing off how much they can get done in a take: it’s a very cinematic way to portray the fixation of a patient assailant to just have the camera lock onto a character and never waver or cant. It’s a discomfort putting us in the headspace of that violent individual and feels no less alien seeing things through Michael’s eyes than watching in horror from the third-person. Compare that to the brilliant hypnotic low-level shots of fellow Steadicam exemplar The Shining and it’s fair to say horror cinema exhausted the capabilities of that game-changing tool.

But the other thing is that this cold turkey open into an act of random violence feels no more explicable than Michael’s sudden stalking of Laurie in the movie itself proper. There’s no explanation, no motivation, barely any discernable dialogue and only the smallest identifiers of the characters. It is fully impossible to comprehend the thoughts behind Sandin’s vacant stare as the camera hovers away and above the scene.

And that’s the launchpad for Michael Myers as character and performance, at least in terms of the 1978 film. He’s fully unknowable. Nick Castle’s performance of the character as adult is an understated masterstroke of minimizing any motion that could betray the possibility of relating to this giant figure, to the point that the famous moment where he stares at a body he just pinned to the wall and cants his head back and forth only furthers the distance between the viewer and this force of evil, daring us to figure out what thought process is communicated by that shift. Certainly it helps prevent reality from interfering with Loomis’s doom-laden monologues on how Michael was identified by him as “pure evil” since childhood and making him look like a terrible psychiatrist. You can’t dehumanize a figure that the movie treats as inhuman, even when Michael appears otherwise grounded. We can’t see him as flesh and blood for most of the film: just his characteristic all-white William Shatner mask and faded dark boiler suit. Hell, even his actions don’t seem corporeal as – outside of Judith’s killing with a large splotch of stageblood – none of the kills are particularly bloody. The production explanation is probably based on the limitations of this admirably low-budget picture, the contextual basis is probably in how most of the deaths are by Michael’s firm hand rather than a knife and the one on-screen knife kill is bathed in darkness. Whatever the case, the aftermath is nevertheless dissonant from the vicious brutality performed.

So, everything vague about Halloween as a situation is anchored to Michael himself and that’s something the movie wields gloriously. But that vagueness especially cuts deep when dropped into the specificity of a plausible real-world town targeting plausible human characters. Which is where the cast comes in: I’ve mentioned Pleasence’s heightened alarmist take on Dr. Loomis but he seems more like an urgent element than a source of naturalism in the cast (though his screen partner for the latter half, Charles Cyphers, reacts to him with due skepticism of an everyman). It is in Curtis’ exemplary example of a horror movie final girl in Laurie Strode – the babysitter Michael locks into his sightlines – with her down-to-earth personality and intelligence that provides that anchor to reality as she plays into a lengthy wariness at the figure she sees in the distance. And aiding that even with their stock type characterizations are PJ Soles, Nancy Kyes, and Brian Andrews portraying believably clumsy sex-obsessed teenagers. We’re not talking about 1:1 psychological realism here, merely characters we’d buy as a first impression walking by them on the sidewalk.

And the city they populate is just as well something we’d recognize as a small town, the arena in which Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey show their best hand. First, there’s the application of Panavision’s anamorphic width to stress the depth and distance of that shape staring at us from behind the hedge or beyond the window. In the lines of the hedge, windows, and streets through those “Michael watching” shots, we have perfect visual parallels to the frame’s length or height so that the interruption of that far-off figure stands out and captures our eye, aligning with Laurie’s suspicions so the viewer feels eerie too.

And then there’s the coloring, which is probably the most fun thing to talk about. The story of Carpenter and Cundey’s problem-solving is endearing to me: having to shoot summertime Pasadena for autumnal Illinois and inspired allegedly by one of the great cinematographic representations of midwestern Halloween Meet Me in St. Louis, they decided to color correct the shit out of the daytime scenes to orange and the nighttime scenes to the deepest blues which doesn’t make Haddonfield more recognizable but does make it moodier in a strong way reconciles the realism of the setting with the mythic element of Michael, especially during the night scenes that Carpenter openly confessed were inspired by Suspiria. Halloween‘s colors aren’t illogical the way Suspiria‘s are, but the blues are affective with a profound spookiness. And I guess the 44 years of home video releases since have given Cundey multiple chances to just continue playing around with the sharpness or color tones of those visuals (the variety has to be deliberate at this point, since there never seems to be an exact match to what played in 1978) and this excites me when a new release comes. In this recent 4K Shout! Factory release’s case, Cundey opted to wash out the daylight oranges with whites which is extraordinarily different from any other version and actually starts to resemble the pre-winter chilliness I feel when I walk my dog on the street as I close up my 2nd year living in Chicago.

When it’s shots that Michael and his prey get to share together, it’s even stronger in expressing the relationships between the teenagers and the unknown: a two-shot of a frightened Laurie in a darkened blue hallway with a doorframe filled with black before a key light illuminates Michael watching in the darkness, just enough to recognize him without separating him from that inky abyss. Another two-shot of Laurie completely shaken in the foreground as Michael sits upright after being prone in the background. A shot of a woman strangled through the haziness of a dark car windshield in a garage. A single bedsheet ghost standing upright in a doorway staring directly at us as we sit in the perspective of his next victim. All of which gets stronger in the context of indoor sequences that call attention to the walls and their angles against the frame trapping these characters with Myers in dreadful fatalism.

And of course – even at the risk of derailing my train of momentum – one can’t possibly close out an accolade of Halloween as a work without acknowledging Carpenter’s immediately iconic score and what it does for the movie’s suspicious tension, a result of how strange it is: minimalist in its reliance on a synthesizer’s high tones, abnormal with its odd 5/4 time signature, fast-tempo’d in a manner that influences the heartbeat of one who hears it, and particularly used in a sharp way to stress Michael’s appearance as an audible premonition of an evil deed to come. It’s a properly uncanny accompaniment to the Shape (as Castle is to be credited as in the cast) and the final layer to connecting the spare storytelling to the specifics of who and where that is to be forever marked by this grave presence.

So that’s the power of Halloween put together by the cast and crew behind it: a bedtime story monster brought into a setting that could reasonably be identified for the street right outside your door and attacking people that your could have bumped past a few days ago without realizing. An “it happened in your neighborhood” sort of fable of mysterious doom fixating on otherwise unexceptional people. All of these brought together by poetic technique applied to mundane real-world lives. None of this is particularly innovative in the wake of Hitchcock or Black Christmas or the endless gialli and Carpenter never pretended otherwise. But like Citizen Kane – a movie that wasn’t the first to do the things it did but instead found the most exhaustive ways to use the tools it was adopting – so too did Halloween basically give final form to what the quintessential slasher movie is by simply knowing the vocabulary of tension and violence and fear from those influences and getting the best mixture of those ingredients to never be surpassed again. And as Laurie and Loomis confirm when their paths finally converge in the final minutes of the film, the end creation is the boogeyman.

For All the Cows

Back when I had the delusion that I would have the time and energy for this (though I’ll never say never to the future), I had toyed with the idea of making a retrospective of reviews for Pride of Miami Cinema* Kelly Reichardt’s movies up to First Cow, which premiered Telluride in 2019 and was famously the last major US arthouse release this year before COVID popped its ugly head stateside and shut down theaters (a release I unfortunately did not catch). If I had been able to do so, First Cow may have very well turned out to be a much more appropriate stopping point than I expected.

God forbid that Reichardt never makes another movie again (especially if First Cow ends up maintaining its awards and critics’ circles momentum that makes me quietly hopeful that Oscar attention is in its near-future, which I imagine will boost her profile in much deserved ways), but it is kind of the prime example of all the things she’s been trying to work with throughout her career. Which is funny because the very quiet and unrushed manner in which its presents its narrative to the point that the themes are less spoken by the film so much as left there for the viewer to recognize and put together is probably one of those things it shares with all of Reichardt’s previous movies. She doesn’t particularly work with urgency, even in cases within her films where peril or stress is an active presence.

And like all but two of her other movies, First Cow gets to share the world of Oregon. Oregon that was, particularly, given an initial scene that reminds me very much of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the way it temporally divorces us from the story and characters. An Oregon that Reichardt – adapting with Jonathan Raymond his novel The Half Life – presents at the very beginnings of its 19th century colonizing. Like the last time Reichardt indulged in a period piece on life in Oregon-before-Oregon Meek’s Cutoff, she and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the environment in Academy 1.33:1. But where that one captured the frustrating hostility of the frontier in harshly washed-out colors and cracks, this time they have allowed some measure of warmth and amiability to the environment of old… capturing all the earthy colors with enough realism to prevent undermining the memory as something inauthentic while the frame fits Reichardt’s awareness of the characters’ placement in the shot relative to their relationships like a glove.

Both that spatial placement of characters as well as the comfortable soil-based color work provide an excellent enough setting for a story of two men finding each other in the world and developing a deep platonic love for another. Those two being Maryland transplant Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Cantonese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who meet briefly at first when Cookie finds King naked and hiding in the bushes from some vengeful Russians and Cookie is able to give him shelter within the tent he has separate the trapper team whom he cooks for, a team we can easily tell does not like Cookie very much and would betray King if they were aware of his presence. King of course slips away before they are any the wiser, but the two reunite later on within what appears to be the major camp in the area. From there they are able to bond over a variety of things within King’s shack on the outskirts of that society and eventually one of the things King learns about Cookie is that he has enough of a skill as a baker to take to market in the camp. Of course, the creation of their fast-selling oily cakes requires the procurance of milk and with enough caution, they are able to regularly acquire that ingredient by milking the only cow in the region late at night. This cow happens to be under the ownership of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who takes an interest to these popular baked goods.

There’s basically a lot to say about these conditions in First Cow – the obnoxious prioritizing of masculinity as a trait (introduced by the trappers’ antagonism towards Cookie), colonialism giving the image of sophistication without actually embodying that with dignity (best portrayed by Jones’ oblivious performance), capitalism’s reliance on exploitation and privilege and so many more things that even while shaping this mythic image of the beginnings of American society are observations that still remain relevant to this day. Not all of them as cynical as the ones I point out – alongside Lee’s presence as a co-lead, there is a charmingly small moment of him trying to communicate with an indigenous man that ends with the two of them finding a common language of Yiddish – and practically none of these are particularly stressed by Reichardt’s direction nor the way her and Raymond steer the story (I don’t know if Raymond’s novel is more explicit on these matters since I haven’t read it). They are just offhand elements of a world where the main source of solace is Magaro and Lee’s lovely chemistry together as friends. Not necessarily a perfectly ideal friendship – there’s the slightest implication that King is taking as much advantage as he can of Cookie’s friendship in a one-sided way – but one that feels sincere and deeply caring all the same, so that even in the most doubtful moments, we have that one early shot that transports us to this time period to remind us of how strongly bonded these two men are.

So outside of the central relationship, where does Reichardt particularly focus her energies on? Her love for Oregon, whether by the manner of the soft dark cinematography I mentioned before or the serene sound design letting us be aware of the life within the wilderness. And given that this is a place that Reichardt has spent most of her life and career in, her directorial hand at letting us live in that environment and takes advantage of its barely-present Western trappings to remind us of how the genre is at its best when functioning as synecdoche for America’s history while letting the story just shuffles along to its stopping point (maybe the one element that distinguishes First Cow from Reichardt’s other movies is that this does has a firm ending, albeit with an unorthodox placement). Reichardt’s marshalling of these skills she’s showcased before – the pacing, the aesthetics, and the thematic interests – with a confident simplicity is exactly what makes this feel like the ne plus ultra of her style to this date and I truly wonder where there is to go from here. But whatever her next movie is, I’m sure it’ll be likewise phenomenal without even trying.

*That wisely never returned to Miami once she could bail.

Raiders of the Lost Oak

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I don’t know what it is about Oakland that makes first-time filmmakers so confident, daring, and willing to pull out any possible cinematic flourish to appeal in the audience in such stylized yet urgent way, but let me tell you we need more debut filmmakers attacking subject matter with the same kind of relentlessness. Hell, we need more filmmakers in general to swing material where it hits us, with little care as to whether everything lands or doesn’t.

Most of Blindspotting lands, let me tell you. Most of it lands as hard as a movie about the tension in police brutality, racial identity, and cyclical violence should land in order for you to get the message and walk away shook. And some moments the reason you had to catch your breath was because you heart was tightening in anticipation of horribly unfair things to happen to Collin (Daveed Diggs) while some moments, it’s because you could not stop laughing in relief of the aftermath.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t just talking about Carlos López Estrada’s directing and how he’s well-acquainted with establishing moods via editing rhythms with the help of Gabriel Fleming and realism via nighttime cinematography of the traffic lights and streetlamps illuminated city streets with the help of Robbie Baumgartner. I’m also talking about how well he’s effortlessly he’s able to handle the multitudes of tone that the screenplay by Diggs and Rafael Casal. I haven’t been able to find proof that Estrada himself is from the Bay Area, but Diggs and Casal are natives and confidently provide a map of moods and attitudes that Estrada and his crew bring to the screen that give the streets a two-sided personality based on what Oakland was and what Oakland is turning into. And it is a disarmingly funny screenplay full of lively energy despite dealing with subjects that are no laughing manner, but that Diggs and Casal know all too well to sugarcoat: sometimes casual life in Oakland is going to be violently interrupted by some brutal truths.

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One of those brutal truths introduced early on in the split-screen opening credits: the before and after of Oakland’s gentrification, turning from a diverse melting pot community that is overpoliced into a mecca for performative hipsters. The very next brutal truth is the impersonal “rehabilitation” system as a judge sleepily states to Collin the terms of his parole for a crime we are not privy to yet. The next one takes a smash cut worth 27 days from his zoned out face in a courthouse to his zoned out face in a neon-decked Uber with his best friend Miles (Casal) to reach, during which time we learn that Miles is the more intense stereotype between the two of them of “gangster” behavior. For one thing, the very first thing we watch him do is offhandedly buy himself a gun from the Uber driver and most of the things he does since is the sort of thing that would get him in trouble with the law if he were the very same color as Collin, often with grill-grinning antagonism. There are many exchanges between Collin and his ex-girlfriend/co-worker Val (Janina Gavankar) that serve to implicitly and later explicitly state just how easy it is for Collin to get in trouble for nothing while Miles is able to walk away after inciting that trouble.

But the very bond between Collin and Miles is a genuine one, chemistry that comes effortlessly from Diggs and Casal being childhood friends without feeling like cheats because both actors are able to craft distinct flesh-and-blood identities with their own personal lives and conflicts, so it’s painfully easy why it appears Collin is strong on refusing to cut Miles loose even if it appears as though he must. Plus, if getting to write their own dialogue feels like stacking the deck in their favor, their delivery of impromptu raps to describe their current situations and states, swapping verses and even words back and forth like they’re passing a blunt, a wonderful connective version of dialogue between the two characters (and something that comes natural to both actors – Diggs won a Tony for his charming performances in Hamilton and Casal’s main career is poetry as a regular of Def Poetry).

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This relationship is the core of Blindspotting‘s deft handle on tone: if the audience is having a good time, it’s because Collin and Miles are having a good time, usually in the presence of Miles’ relaxed but no-nonsense homelife with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). If the movie is tense and upsetting it’s because tension is brewing between their relationship or because some other urgency regarding Collin’s closing parole status is causing added stress for him that nobody around him recognizes.

Or he could be reliving the incident of that very same night we catch up with him three days before his parole’s end, where he watched a police officer (Ethan Embry) gun down a black civilian Randall Marshall (Travis Parker) on his way to make curfew. It is a moment that haunts Collin directly and indirectly all throughout Blindspotting, a reminder that all the negative perceptions of black people and the pressures keeping them from responding to a changing world have a dead end at the wrong turn. If there is anything like an inciting incident to this shaggy hang out plot, it is this wake up moment.

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And yet it can not be overstated how absolutely funny it is in between those angry and occasionally violent releases. Blindspotting does not play around with serious revelations such as that nor abandon them, but it’s impressive how well the movie is able to unwind at most of the harshness with a good reminder that Collin and Miles have each other and especially using every turn life gives them to show the difference between the two characters and how they can roll with Oakland’s development whether it’s a health drink or a developer’s party. It’s not a message movie despite its lack of subtlety in its stances, it’s an observational one and one without any distance towards the characters. Blindspotting is the sort of movie that thinks everybody deserves to make it out ok in the end, especially Miles despite him having the most apparent flaws (and there is at least one scene where Miles looks REALLY ugly to the audience, but the film knows how to confront that directly).

Honestly, the only real flaw (other than some clunky transitions) I can consider a possibility against the film (read: seen it brought up by filmgoers I respect) is its late attempts at an unconventional structure with two climaxes close by, but I can’t say I’m way too bothered by it. For one thing, the second climax feels less like a restart and more like Estrada ratcheting the tension to its highest point. For another, the script is structured that way because Blindspotting is the story of two men, not one, and their personal conflicts are not the same. I mean, in the end, that’s just the whole thesis of Blindspotting, beyond giving us the best and most gorgeous portrait (I hesitate to say eulogy even if the movie is aware of what’s to come) of Oakland’s urban side: Collin and Miles may come from the same place, but they don’t come from the same place and they’re not going to reach the same ends. But it’s great to watch them take the journey together and hope they can stay together for as long as they can.

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We Are Two People in One Body. Nanas of the Old and the Force of the New.

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Being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was theatrically distributed in the United States – a release as regrettably recent as 1991 – should be the kind of milestone that ensures a director’s subsequent commercial success and a mainstay in cinema history and yet here we are and I didn’t even know the name of UCLA graduate Julie Dash until literally a year ago, despite a familiarity with the L.A. Rebellion cinema movement for several years and having actually seen and vividly remembered one of her movies from a high school viewing – the underrated television movie The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett. And while there are plenty of great filmmakers I’m unfamiliar with and personal anecdotes is no real method to measure the popularity of an artist, the fact that Dash has been almost entirely relegated to television work since Daughters of the Dust‘s premiered at Sundance 17 years ago and won a very much deserved Best Cinematography award at that same festival for Arthur Jafa is frustrating.

Maybe Dash likes working in TV, maybe she can’t find the actual funding for the cinematic projects she wants to do. It’s a goddamn shame either way that she doesn’t return very much to the big screen or that her works are generally hard to find, because Daughters of the Dust is one of the most arresting cinematic experiences in all my life of movie-watching. Every syllable of its language – in terms of mood, in dialogue, in terms of structure – there’s very little I’ve seen like it. The movie’s closest sibling to me is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé in how they both seem to exude these intoxicating atmospheres from lush settings to a manner where it makes the film feel so organic and yet they’re both still worlds AND cultures apart.

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The culture at the center of Daughters of the Dust is the Lowcountry-based Gullah community, isolated descendants of African slaves developing their own creole language and dialect while mixing in Western dress and housing with the traditions and religion of their West African backgrounds, deep in the forests of lonely islands. I don’t know how much of the mainland formal dress of the characters in Daughters of the Dust is specific only to our subjects, the Peazant family off the coast of Georgia in Ibo Landing, but it is undeniably part of what gives the film such a heightened fantastical atmosphere that we have such a small functioning community cut off from the rest of the world in its rusticity and how fluidly it could mix in with the Caribbean spiritualism that is highly in practice from the primary matriarch of the film Nana (Cora Lee Day).

You see why the dresses and suits and the technological modern elements brought by photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) would possibly be seeping into the lifestyle of the Peazants and the rest of the Gullah people in this film is because of how most of them intend to leave Ibo and move into mainland America and adopt modern lifestyles, leaving behind the Gullah way. There are those, such as the traditional Nana or the young smitten Iona (Bahni Turpin), who object to the concept of leaving behind the site or ways. And in many a manner, alongside the florid elegant costumes – given wonderful aged tactility by Arline Burks Gant – and Mr. Snead’s enthusiastic explanation of the science behind his work, there are signs that Western culture has already intruded into Ibo Landing’s Gullah community, such as the return of the Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the liberal Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), both of them having already made a life outside of Ibo Landing within the cities and both of them clearly at odds with each other. Mary herself brings along her outsider lover Trula (Trula Hoosier), disrupting the isolationism status of the island. And there is also the recent rape of Eula (Alva Rogers) by a white man, which evidently resulted in a pregnancy that distresses her marriage to Eli (Adisa Anderson). There’s already been intrusions in this community that urges their leaving behind their cultural identity for a world that doesn’t care about them or to remember them, responded to by an all-too-impeccable cast. There’s already a fear that their history with slavery has injected homogeneity and disenfranchisement, even when they’re far away from the white man’s clutches.

In fact, Dash and editors Amy Carey & Joseph Burton do something really radical with the structure of all this sprawling internal family drama, which is to first establish these tales told in patches with no specific point of view from which we observe this family’s final gathering before the migration up north splits them apart except Eula’s future daughter (Kay-Lynn Warren), playing a much more direct reflection of these events than something like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and at some points having her present in these settings impossibly. The effect is simple yet powerful: we’re essentially resurrecting a memory, maybe an oral history being passed down by the daughter to generations. It feels present, it feels absolutely vivid thanks to Jafa’s beautiful awareness of how to dry the tones in the slowly dying community yet ramp up the inky blues and reds and oranges of the coastline as in to look forward to what’s beyond the horizon rather than the cracked graveyards and humble abodes of the characters (there is also some brilliant character-based color design in some of the rooms, painterly and revealing).

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It’s a story being told in a manner that is aware of the future for its characters to the point that it’s already sort of living in that future. And it doubles up on that temporal bending with Dash inputting the actual history of the Gullah people’s development and escape from slavery, especially the historical mass suicide of 1803 and what kind of sacrifices were made for the land that the Peazants are decidedly leaving behind. This contextualization, despite the history of Ibo Landing, isn’t entirely melancholic. It’s resigned but it’s also relaxed, essentially a movie you don’t really watch for the plot but sink into this world knowing that it’s going to leave soon and wanting to savor every last image and moment you can remain inside of it. Dash clearly has an overwhelming amount of love for the Gullah culture, it being a part of her father’s background and thus informing her existence and it shows in the detail with which she evokes so many different histories into this free-wheeling experiment attempting to translate the oral storytelling language of Gullah into cinema.

It’s not a perfect film, wearing both the modest budget and dating of the production in the 90s on its sleeve involuntarily. Jafa in particular, for all his experimenting with the imagery gives it so much character (and it’s never not a gorgeous movie), also has some false notes with slow-motion and deliberately fuzzy distortion. But these are minor quibbles compared to the way that Daughters of the Dust challenges the viewer with storytelling that Dash’s future career ensures we’re probably never going to witness again and rewards that viewer with the dreamiest island environments and humanly messy conflicts one could be privy to before bidding the Peazants farewell from their home and us from the film’s living and breathing remembrances.

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Lucky as a Rabbit’s Foot

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What do I get to say about Logan Lucky that wasn’t already said in one phrase before the movie was even over: “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”, a very knowing grace note of a background line by returning-after-a-4-year-hiatus director Steven Soderbergh (who had helmed the recent Ocean’s trilogy) and mysterious writer Rebecca Blunt (speculated by some to be a pseudonym for someone else, namely either Soderbergh or his wife Jules Asner).

It is impossible to conceive of a more accurate representation of what that movie is and presents about its characters and their lives, that it’s a heist movie from the exact opposite end of the economic background spectrum (Logan Lucky discusses this last element as a central motivation for the heist and certain actions after the heist, though Logan Lucky is not nearly as tenacious a commentary on finances the way Magic Mike is but it is a big one on class. More on that later.)Those characters being the Logan siblings – limping laid-off divorcée Jimmy (Channing Tatum), amputee veteran bartender Clyde (Adam Driver) who has a prosthetic left arm, and dry hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough) who is apparently on the most stable footing out of the three of them.

They are frequently down-on-their-luck, due to a curse according to Clyde, Southern folk who are clever enough to attempt to turn that into the makings of a damned big heist of Charlotte Motor Speedway, THE Nascar home track, a heist that through that same hard luck ends up forced to occur on one of the busiest days of the speedway’s year – The Coca-Cola 600 Race.

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Most of this sounds a lot more glamorous and epic than it actually is, especially naming Tatum and Keough among the cast, which I want to make clear isn’t the case. Soderbergh’s given us an very muted heist film, trying to feel casual and at-home within the humble settings between Virginia and North Carolina and pleasant about all of the culture of country life in all of its fairs and impromptu hang-outs in bars or mobile health clinics. Most of all there is nothing glamorous in how Jimmy, a recently laid-off divorceé, is faced with the possibility of not getting to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) as his re-married ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) has to move from North Carolina to Virginia, one of the things that spurs this heist’s necessity to him.

I don’t want to call it a shaggy film because the thoroughline with which it explores this community swiftly (not in-depth, but enough that we’re not wondering where we are) and the rush by which it gallops through the heist are all too tight to become anything we could call “shaggy”, but it’s a more relaxed movie than any heist movie has any right to be. We may as well speculate that Soderbergh is happy to be back in the south (having been born in Georgia) after spending time in the glitzy glamour of Hollywood and the world and that probably the chance to make Logan Lucky within his familiar home region might have coaxed him out of his retirement to make the film just as well as his proclaimed newfangled concept of film production and distribution. And that home feeling just radiates out of the film without any self-consciousness about it being rural and grainy south, especially when the movie uses John Denver as a wonderful emotional anchor (out of the multitudes of films released in the US in 2017 that famously utilized Denver’s music in its soundtrack, Logan Lucky has my favorite one by a landslide).

Tatum himself is also Southern (Alabama-born) and its no surprise he’s able to slip into the handy and gentlemanly but rugged state of mind and guide us through it like a second language to him, but it’s a surprise when most of the cast are able to follow up on him. And as this movie is not necessarily the Tatum show, it leaves Daniel Craig’s blonde manic Joe Bang and Keough’s Mellie with more than enough room to upstage the star in his own territory. Still all are pleasant and welcoming and interesting as the last, except for the deliberate point of Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious British caricature who is meant to stick out like a sore thumb and be generally odious. For the first 2/3 of Logan Lucky, while it’s lightly aimed at the unfairness of the established economy on the little guy, MacFarlane and Dwight Yoakam’s bit turn as Warden Flop Sweat are the closest we have to present antagonists and Yoakam is too hilarious to be at all unlikable.

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At the last third of the film is when Soderbergh and Blunt seem to lose track of what kind of movie they were making and suddenly shifting to an incongruent FBI detective film starring Hilary Swank in a performance where we can understand what she’s going for even while she falls flat on her face as Sarah Grayson, the investigator in the aftermath of the heist. And frankly, it outstays its welcome given how little we want to see the Logans get a comeuppance, the amount of nothing to come out of Grayson’s entry into the story (including a very misfire of an attempt to recreate the final note of the first Ocean’s Eleven), and the frank fact that the movie just stops being a hell of a lot of fun and clunks and drags on its way to the finish line.

It’s not enough to stop me from falling in love with Logan Lucky as a return for Soderbergh, probably because ironically the damage of the third act makes me appreciate what preceded it even more. You see, Logan Lucky is frankly safe as a movie for Soderbergh. It maps neatly onto most of the work he’s already done and it’s shot and set in an area of the world that he has a strong affinity for. It’s not necessarily a challenge for him nor does it provide something new for the viewer if they’re already fond of Soderbergh. But it’s fun and it has energy and it’s breezy and it’s hard to see myself not having a good time with it. So sometimes, taking the country roads home rather than speeding around in circles is the best sort of drive to take, especially if it’s your first time back on the wheel in a while.

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I Believe the Children Are Our Future, Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way

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I live in a very weird bizarre limbo attitude with Sean Baker’s latest film The Florida Project. Like real Mr.-Krabs-meme type of deal. On the one side of it, the majority of Florida-based critics I had been hearing from leading until its availability to me on the tip of that terrible state, Miami, have been… alarmingly hostile*. Including many friends whose opinions I not only trust, but who had a lot more enthusiasm and praise for Baker’s previous film Tangerine. I did not share that same love for Tangerine (partly because it toes the line between laughing at its characters and laughing with its characters salvaged by two phenomenal leads, partly because it’s ugly as hell), so it only aided my hesitancy to see The Florida Project.

Meanwhile, those critics’ antagonism towards the movie is drowned out by the mountains of praise the film has ben receiving since its premiere at the 2017 Festival du Cannes and its continued run in North America, essentially securing at the very least a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe and there’s still enough time in the year for A24 to ride that good will to get either The Florida Project or Lady Bird even more nominations (anything but The Disaster Artist, please). And far be it from me to always ride with the majority opinion, but I like to think there’s actually a reason when people seem to really like a movie.

That movie being a slice-of-life-in-poverty through the perspective of wild and mischievous six-year-olds, not unlike the Our Gang series of short films from the early 1930s that get a special thanks credit. This particular gang of little rascals isn’t a large one, beginning with just Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) who live one floor away from each other in the Magic Castle hotel in Kissimme, Florida, and early on rounding itself up to include Jancey (Valeria Cotto) from the Futureland hotel across the street after one of spitting on and then cleaning her mother’s car. Apparently Mooney’s license to explore with her friends is enabled by her financially unstable and immature young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker and Chris Bergoch’s script spends most of its 115 minutes observing the hotel residents and the events alongside the kids, but only slowly developing a narrative involving Halley’s volatile lifestyle intruding on Mooney’s wide-eyed wonder.

So, where do I stand?

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I dunno. I think it’s mostly ok. There are two things about The Florida Project I feel strongly about and they’re both on the opposite sides of my reaction spectrum: I love Dafoe’s performance’s as the hotel’s manager Bobby, a character’s that’s just an occasional satellite to the story full of humane frustration of the gang’s hijinks but also obligatory paternal warmth in understanding their youth and vulnerability. His Oscar chances look promising and I can’t say it’s undeserved, making the most out of every small moment he appears in such as dealing with a predatory old man or amicably moving a group of Sandhill cranes off the property or failing to talk with his son.

Meanwhile, there’s the thing I really hate about The Florida Project, which happens to be the ending so I can’t be as descriptive about it except in saying it felt like an extremely dishonest moment and looks no less ugly than any shot in Tangerine, though there’s also the logistical answer of why The Florida Project chose its look. A scene isn’t made or broken by one scene ideally, but you do pick your ending note for a reason and Baker’s choice of note for The Florida Project feels disastrous and kind of confirms the naysayers’ accusations of exploitation.

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It is very tough for me to hold exploitative nature of the film preceding that ending against it, for very shallow reasons of mine. The Florida Project IS poverty porn but in a visually pleasant way. Florida is the fucking worst, I feel qualified to say after living most of my life at this point in the state, and the Orlando area is just grossly tacky and overcrowded with tourists. Magic Castle and Futureworld are the most normal buildings we see all through the film and they’re both sickly purple concrete constructs in a sweat, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe doesn’t see that. He sees a big vibrant block color interrupting serene glade horizons capturing the light so softly, you’d think it’s fragile and defining the blues and greens and violets. He sees an assuring geometry and symmetry to the floors and doors from the exact right angle, like relaxed clockwork.

And because Zabe sees it, it’s so clearly translated into how the kids themselves see Kissimmee and in turn how the audience is stuck visualizing it. This sort of transformation of a soft serve shaped ice cream booth into the most miraculous sanctuary from the truth of Mooney’s living situation is exactly where The Florida Project hits the target on its ideal. It’s unfortunate that at times the movie sometimes makes decisions that pull away from her perspective in an untethered manner. The most obvious bit is a moment between Bobby and his son (Caleb Landry Jones), but the moments that really grate on me are the ones focused on Halley, who turns out to be so much more shrill than any of the kids possibly could be. Especially when the film takes a character turn with Halley that makes it impossible to sympathize with her in the final act of the film, even while it’s desperately asking for us to feel so. Which only butters me up into being frustrated and annoyed by the ending to the point of asking “What the fuck was that?” as the credits rolled.

But up until that point, The Florida Project proves itself to be quite a success at the things Sean Baker wanted to capture. It’s not the cleanest tone and it’s not a game-changer (the return of child-centered realism isn’t brand new. Beasts of the Southern Wild was less than 5 years ago), but something that might have earned my respect and admiration to the level of Tangerine. It’s not much, but it’s something and as The Florida Project has proven both in content and in reception, not much can be the world to the right eyes.

*To be quite honest, the majority (but NOT entirety) of those people are from South Florida and we are decidedly not some unimpeachable authority on Central Florida, no matter how many times we went to Walt Disney World.

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The Emoji Movie

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The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).

Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.

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There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.

Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.

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In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).

3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.

In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.

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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.

It Comes and Goes at It Pleases

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There’s a letterboxd post by Julian Towers that essentially sums up Trey Edward Shultz’s sophomore feature It Comes at Night as a feature-length episode of The Walking Dead and I honestly cannot imagine a more apt way of describing the movie (well, maybe a more competently-made version too with less budget). It is similar in aesthetics right down to the worn grey and charcoal color palette that establishes our horror film as grounded post-apocalyptic atmospheres, it is similar in character relations and tensions being the true “incidents” that pace to efficiently use the runtimes, and they’re both thematically shallow enough to only sum up themselves as “people don’t trust each other in times of strife and that leads to everybody dying.” This was not revelatory well before The Walking Dead’s premiere in 2010, let alone 7 years later, and none of the characters or plot developments provide anything new or of interested beyond that very simply concept.

This is a shame because Shultz is no slouch as a craftsman and I can’t imagine anybody walking out of It Comes at Night thinking it was a remotely lazy film. Far from it, a movie this efficient in trying to make its post-apocalyptic world, on the tail of an epidemic, is clearly not going to get away with laziness and yet despite largely remaining on the perspective of the young Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) – there are very notable exceptions to this but nothing that I want to say hurts the film – there’s a sense of the world beyond our periphery being ravaged and torn without any doubt about it. The movie smartly begins this by showing upfront the effects of this contagion and how very easy it is to suffer from it, as Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) is infected within the walls of the family’s secluded wood-surrounded sanctuary and quickly dispatched with by Travis’ father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo).

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Hence the ability to set up tension easily with anybody who approaches the family’s home since we’re seen how severe it is and the explanation on why Paul is immediately hostile towards an intruder one night named Will (Christopher Abbott) arrives desperately trying to find supplies and shelter for his own family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) – again wasting no time in establishing how shaky the co-living arrangements of the two families will be in such a desperate time and the certainly that Paul will possibly kill Will and his family if the slightest thing goes wrong.

Obviously, this is the sort of movie that goes wrong. It doesn’t waste any time with things going wrong, even before the families move in, there is ever the slightest belief that Will is hiding something or that something unusual happening is his fault. And Schults plays up that ambiguity as much as he can, leading to a portion of the film leading into the finale act that uses Travis’ nightmares (most of the film is stuck in Travis’ perspective and there are places where it helps and places where the movie knows it shot itself in the foot) and the ever-constant vigilance of their dog Stanley to play with the paranoia and the uncertainty of a sequence of events that leads to the untangling of their tense peace.

And that’s frankly all Schults can play with in this story. Which is sadly why I’m not impressed with It Comes at Night. It’s incredibly shot with the darkness of the film whole enough to direct our eye to one of the few things to be lit, complemented by a weathered and battered physical home design to keep us aware of the walls surrounding the characters, the bright red door that spells flat-out danger beyond, and even in the light through windows of day, the winding claustrophobia of all the hallways around. It Comes at Night is a very visually dark film, dark enough to earn some amount of horror that the otherwise misapplied marketing promised*. Its cast are all dedicated to selling the paranoia and confusion of the film and making their lives as destitute as possible.

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But it doesn’t… have anything to say. It’s such an empty movie. That may be deliberate for the nihilistic intent of the film, but it doesn’t feel rewarding in that nihilism nor even profound. It’s a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes that amounts to as much thematical material as… well, as an episode of The Walking Dead, like I said. “Bad things happen when you mistrust people” and that’s it. It seems to be wanting to at least make up for that emptiness in psychological exploration, but that doesn’t really work out when the movie moves back and forth between Travis’ perspective and Paul’s – both distinct enough as moods, without much distance between how their mindset is at the beginning of the movie and how it is at the end of the movie (I am somewhat interested in Schults’ debut Krisha which is a psychological thriller, but the staticness of Travis and Paul as characters makes me uncertain now).

I don’t know, all I could think after watching the film (other than the fact that it felt like a shallow re-do of The Witch) is how I could easily have had a short story version of this film and not lost one single element. It Comes at Night clearly wants to be more than it actually is, but it doesn’t itself enough rope to be much more than a disposable genre film.

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*and boy did that end up shooting it in the foot. For It Comes at Night is NOT a horror film and pitchforks were raised over its marketing, ruining its financial performance.

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.