Thoughts on Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards

As we reach the end of the year and Oscar season looms, I thought it would be a good time to catch up on a few blogs that I, for whatever reason, have not yet written. This is the first.

The subject of revenge is a strange thing in American cinema. Rarely is it explored in any meaningful capacity. The morality on display is completely binary. A person (usually a man) suffers some injustice (often a dead wife or child, sometimes even a pet) and pursues the perpetrator of said injustice, most often with violent intent. The protagonist’s actions are looked upon with sympathy; the violence they enact is supported and likely glorified. Though I’ve watched and even enjoyed many revenge films, reflecting on them in a more abstract way has always left me feeling uneasy. Sure, the protagonist has killed the person who wronged him, but what about after? Do they feel vindicated? And if so, how long does that feeling last? How long until they just feel empty? Musings like these are why I’ve grown fond of Korean revenge pictures, particularly those of cinematic wizard Park Chan-wook and his contemporary Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil). In Korean cinema, revenge is almost universally presented as a soul-killing pursuit: it’s ugly, masochistic, selfish, and often, ultimately, meaningless. Park Chan-wook dedicated an entire trilogy of films to the exploration of the theme of vengeance in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. Spoilers: nothing goes well for anyone. Why? Because these films explore not only the pursuit of vengeance, but the wounds that it leaves, and the withering cost of carrying hatred and anger within you.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri exists in a similar thematic space. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much. It’s a film set in rural America about revenge, but in no way does it glorify the pursuit. The story begins with Sam Rockwell’s racist cop Dixon discovering a stretch of billboards on a seldom-used road. They accuse Ebbing’s sheriff, played by Woody Harrelson, of not doing enough to catch the men responsible for the murder of a young woman nearly a year before. The billboards are the work of Frances McDormand’s Mildred, the young woman’s mother. Ferociously devoted to her cause, Mildred will let nothing and no one stand in her way, setting her at odds with her own family, the police, and a small town populace that just wants to move on and act like nothing ever happened. Mildred’s dogged pursuit of her daughter’s killer(s) grows progressively out of hand, pushing her to question just how far she is willing to go to see justice done.

The strength of Three Billboards lies in its deft handling of its characters. Written and directed by British filmmaker Martin McDonagh—who explored the humanity of two hitmen in In Bruges nearly a decade ago—the film’s memorable cast of characters manage to surprise and subvert expectations at nearly every turn. This is not a film simply populated by archetypes and McDonagh uses your expectations as a viewer against you. No one in this story is blameless and nearly everyone is deeply wounded in some way.

Mildred, in her quest for vengeance, has neglected to take into account the toll it’s taking on her teenage son. Though her white hot rage is understandable, it is largely aimless and without direction; it does not justify the eventual extremity of her actions and people suffer because of that. Willoughby, the town’s sheriff, wrestles with feelings of ineffectiveness while also facing down his own personal battles at home. Dixon, of all people, has a meaningful arc. A racist cop prone to violence, he is nonetheless cognizant of his shortcomings, and frustrated by his own stupidity. He aspires for more, but does not know how to proceed. All of these people are damaged and wicked in their own ways. That they attempt to do good does not exonerate them from their badness. However, one comes to see them as multifaceted people, all striving for something more. Overall, because of this deeply character-centric approach, the film feels like a complete tableau, one in which the interior lives of unlikely people are examined in a raw and meaningful way.

The wonderful scripting and direction (not to mention picturesque cinematography by Ben Davis) is elevated by a universally excellent cast. Frances McDormand has never been better. She conveys so much in her performance as Mildred. She’s a powerful woman barely hanging on, pushed to the limits of her sanity by a hopeless situation. Despite all of her brutally funny verbal takedowns, her scenes of vulnerability and doubt are the ones that truly stick with you after the film ends. The always excellent Sam Rockwell gives the hapless cop Dixon a sense of humanity that is troubling at first. You may never like Dixon, but you come to understand why he is the way that he is and Rockwell’s masterful handling of his character allows for his unexpected journey to feel earned. Lastly, Woody Harrelson makes an impression as Ebbing’s beleaguered sheriff Willoughby. He’s an honest man put in a tough situation that’s exacerbated by Mildred’s continued actions. Though he hasn’t found the killer, you come respect his desire to do so, even if he may disagree with Mildred’s extralegal methods. That he’s also battling his own private struggle makes a potentially flat character one of the most interesting in the film.

All of these characters together make a truly engaging, darkly comic drama, one in which no one escapes unchanged. None of the choices these characters make exist in a vacuum and the film is better for it, allowing for character growth that’s often difficult to find in American films concerning revenge. In that case, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a standout: a real “dig two graves” experience that asks you to question the actions of everyone involved, to give yourself over to their perspective, and in the end, make your own judgments on what they eventually decide to do. An excellent film.

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Thoughts on Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

The latest installment of the Star Wars franchise has been released to a chorus of praise and scorn in almost equal measure. Having seen the film, this is not surprising. The Last Jedi is at once the most ambitious and thematically challenging Star Wars film to date, not to mention the strangest.

MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Last Jedi is unlike any Star Wars film you’ve ever seen. Chronologically, it begins mere hours after The Force Awakens’ ending, with the Resistance attempting to flee their current base of operations as the First Order closes in on their position, hungry to strike back at them for the destruction of Starkiller Base.

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Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Property of Disney.

After a dire space battle, General Leia (Carrie Fisher) leads what remains of the Resistance in a full scale retreat, pursued by an enormous First Order fleet. With fuel supplies dwindling, emotions run high, leading ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) into direct conflict with Leia and her immediate subordinate, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Amid the chaos, Finn (John Boyega) awakens from his coma and is immediately thrust back into the conflict against the First Order, now joined by Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran).

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Property of Disney.

Meanwhile, across the galaxy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the ways of the Jedi. Unfortunately for her, Luke has transitioned from bright-eyed optimist to cynical recluse since we last saw him in Return of the Jedi. He fears that Rey might take the same dark path as his former student, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Though he eventually agrees to teach Rey in a limited sense, his dismissive, stoic demeanor further alienates an already floundering Rey, who’s desperate for connection and acceptance. With the Force newly awakened inside of her, she finds herself able to communicate with Kylo, who is also in the midst of his own struggle, uncertain of who he is and if he’ll truly be able to satisfy the draconian desires of his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

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Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Property of Disney.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Last Jedi and yet it portrays perhaps the shortest span of time in the series to date. The entire story takes place over a few days and, unlike any Star Wars film before it, it begins immediately after the events of The Force Awakens. There’s no time jump, no catching up with characters that have matured or changed. These people are the same ones we just left. Han Solo has just died and the emotional wounds caused by his passing are still fresh, particularly for Rey and Kylo. Rey was robbed of the parental figure she’d always wanted. Kylo murdered the man he thought was holding him back, but he feels no better for it, no more validated in his path to the Dark side. Both of them are searching for meaning and purpose and it is in this space of shared uncertainty that they find common ground.

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Daisy Ridley as Rey. Property of Disney.

For me, the material between Rey and Kylo was the strongest part of the film and the first, most prominent part of the film’s almost systematic deconstruction of the established Star Wars mythos in terms of theme. This franchise has always been one of sharp delineations; morality was a binary choice: light and dark. Yet in The Last Jedi, the idea of the Force is given more thought, divorced from the ideology of the Jedi—an institution which Luke Skywalker at one point interestingly refers to as a “religion.” Rey’s understanding of the Force, and of the historical figure of Luke Skywalker, comes from the stories she’s heard. It’s an idealistic and simplistic view, unblemished by reality. The same can be said for her what she knows of Kylo’s betrayal of Luke and his turn to the Dark Side. The real story is much more nuanced and complex than she originally thought: a tragedy of emotions, caused by both Kylo’s predisposition toward instability and Luke’s storied impulsiveness.

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Property of Disney.

The latter in particular is exemplary of the overall storytelling choices Rian Johnson chose to take with The Last Jedi and, I believe, the reason why the film has been so divisive. It has a subversive edge; one that takes tropes and scenes from the original trilogy and reimagines them in a new, often unexpected way. Some think this is supremely disrespectful to the legacy of the original films and their characters. I understand that viewpoint and even I had to wrestle with my surprise with how Luke acted in certain scenes. However, never once did I think it was a different character. The changes in Luke felt earned as more of his story was revealed, making the reversal more poignant and meaningful.

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Property of Disney.

In the grandest irony, it is the same urge that drove Luke Skywalker to turn himself over to Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi that leads to Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren. In both instances, Luke followed his heart and did what he thought was right with little consideration for the consequences. It worked out for him in the original trilogy. In this one, his world was destroyed, twisting the triumphant Jedi master who we last saw smiling during the Ewoks’ singing of “Yub Nub” into a scowling hermit who’s convinced that the Jedi Order was doomed from the start and only succeeded in hurting the galaxy. It’s a risky take on one of the most beloved characters in pop culture. It is also a brave, thematically rich choice and one that I believe makes the film better. It challenges assumptions about the character and the broader universe of this franchise, asking us, as the audience, to reframe decades of how we perceived the Force and the Jedi. It’s a big, uncomfortable ask, but one that pays off (or at least did for me).

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Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Property of Disney.

The same can be said with another choice in the film, but that delves a bit too deeply into spoiler territory for me to comment on, however you will probably know it when you see it. I almost couldn’t believe they actually went there, but they did. Rian Johnson and company chose to make a film that stands apart from its predecessors, pushing the franchise into a decidedly modern direction that, like Blade Runner 2049, basically says you are not special. But that’s not a bad thing. No one is. What matters is what you choose to do. And in that respect, Rey and Kylo shine the brightest in The Last Jedi because they, more than any other characters before them in this franchise, have a true sense of agency. The universe and the factions that inhabit it react to their choices, for good or ill.

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Property of Disney.

These characters are also elevated by the actors who portray them. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are pitch perfect as Kylo and Rey. Ridley effortlessly conveys Rey’s confusion and quiet desperation, yet in every scene shows us Rey’s great inner strength. Driver, likewise, is incredible as Kylo. Powerful, unstable, and unpredictable, you get the sense that even Kylo doesn’t know what he’s going to do until he does it. Their chemistry together is palpable and the surprising arc of their story is easily the best part of the film.

The strength of the Rey/Kylo scenes counterbalanced some things that I don’t respond to personally as a viewer. I wouldn’t say I’m a dour person, but I do appreciate a good, dramatic film. Overall, The Last Jedi’s subject matter is fairly dire. However a warning to the more dramatically inclined, the film is filled with a silly, zany, prequel-esque sense of humor that may rub some people the wrong way. Perhaps this is why I responded so strongly to the more adult-oriented and serious Rogue One. If the drama to humor ratio of that film was 9:3, this one is definitely more like an 8:7. Which is not a bad thing. I understand that these films are made to please a broad demographic (PORGS!) but it did occasionally take me out of the experience.

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Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. Property of Disney.

That being said, the performances were great across the board from the big players. Mark Hamill has never been better as Luke Skywalker. He seems to relish the chance to finally dive into some more intense acting, putting a new spin on a well-established character that’s both unexpected and heartbreaking. The late Carrie Fisher, likewise, offers her best performance as Leia, giving us a fitting sendoff to our Princess-turned-General. She’s decisive and intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate; a leader who’s earned her place and the trust of the people that follow her. There are other people in the film, other storylines, but none that struck me as strongly as the ones involving these characters.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron has an important arc that sees his character grow in a very necessary way and though Laura Dern isn’t in the film very much, she manages to make quite an impression as Amilyn Holdo. By the end, you understand what she’s capable of. Perhaps less successful is Finn and Rose’s brief detour to a strangely Earth-like casino world. Thematically, it presents some interesting food for thought about the wider economic realities of the current Star Wars universe (don’t worry, no trade treaties in sight!), but it sometimes seems so removed from the rest of the film that I was glad once they rejoined the main cast.

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John Boyega as Finn. Property of Disney.

I must also give a special shout-out to Domhnall Gleeson who has created an indelible character in the First Order’s General Hux. Though sharply dressed and imperious, Hux is such a hapless buffoon that I found him endlessly entertaining. The rest of the film’s humor may have not always worked for me, but every scene involving his character was a slice of fried gold.

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Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke. Property of Disney.

On the technical side, the cinematography by longtime Rian Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin is wonderful. Though not as partial to Dutch angles as J.J. Abrams and Dan Mindel, he artfully frames the beautiful and inspired work of the art departments. Though the aforementioned casino sequence seemed oddly Earth-like, the rest of the film is stunning; ILM has truly outdone itself this time with some of their computer generated creations and certain sets like Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room looked like they were ripped straight out of a Ralph McQuarrie sketchbook. Likewise, the sound design is stellar. I’ve never been as thrilled to hear the hiss, whine, and crackle of lightsabers as they hit one another and slice through armor and flesh alike. Musically, the score is John Williams at his best and also most restrained. The themes he established in The Force Awakens reappear but, surprisingly, the film knows when to be silent as well, making for at least one awe-inspiring moment that made my theatre utter an audible, collective gasp.

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Supreme Leader Snoke’s Throne Room. Property of Disney.

I could go on, but I’ve rambled long enough. Put simply, I love Star Wars. I’ve spent untold hours of my life dedicated to its universe and characters. This film feels unlike anything that’s come before it. It is distinct and different. I think that is a good thing. Overall, The Last Jedi is a pointed refutation of expectations that’s thematically ambitious, challenging, and often bizarre; a strange, baffling, and exciting entry into the biggest film franchise of all time. It’s not the film that many people wanted, but in true Dark Knight fashion, I think it’s the one we needed. I look forward to seeing it again (and again, and again, and again…).

Thoughts on The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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From Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos comes an unsettling psychological thriller set in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy lives an idyllic life. He has a beautiful home, a loving, supportive wife named Anna, and two sweet children named Bob and Kim. Everything about his existence is so pristine and pleasant that the presence of an outlier is immediately apparent. That outlier is a young man named Martin. Odd and particular, at first it seems as if there’d be no good reason for Steven to spend time with Martin. He’s distracted, ornery, and seemingly unconcerned with violating personal boundaries. Yet Steven entertains him, gives him gifts, and even invites him into his home. Why?

Something happened to Martin’s father during his heart surgery the year before and unfortunately for Steven, the young man thinks his death is Steven’s fault. And so it comes to pass that Martin, unappeased by Steven’s meagre offerings, tells Steven that he must kill a member of his family or they will all succumb to paralysis, eventually refuse sustenance, begin bleeding from the eyes, and then finally perish. Steven—whose relationship with Martin has always been strained and almost perfunctory thanks to Steven’s deeply suppressed guilt—thinks Martin’s declaration is ridiculous. Yet one by one Steven’s family members begin to lose sensation in their limbs, eventually leaving him with the impossible choice: kill his wife, his daughter, or his son. Or perhaps kill Martin.

I was a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, which used dry humor and a biting sense of wit to explore the bizarre conventions of modern romance. The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a similar vein, though this time, Lanthimos seems almost completely transfixed by the idea of consequence, and specifically, male consequence. Steven has potentially committed an awful act and now he is suffering because of it. The entire film is thematically entrenched in the idea of paralysis—the paralysis of thought, of action, of the literal body—and Steven’s family suffers due to his indecision. His reticence at first to even consider meeting Martin’s demands is not because he believes he has been wrongly accused; rather it is a stubborn denial made to preserve his ego. Steven even admits his children to the hospital where he works and runs them through a gamut of tests in hopes of seeking a cure, though it becomes increasingly clear there is only one act that will set things right.

Loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia—in which a father must choose whether or not to kill his child to please a vengeful god—The Killing of a Sacred Deer plays out like a modern-day parable. There is no explanation as to how Martin has called down this cosmic punishment and the story is better for it. It is a slow-burn, bottle thriller, except here Steven is not confined by his environment, but by his horrific set of choices, which are exacerbated by his inability to take responsibility for literally anything. I wrote earlier that this film is an exploration of male consequence. I write this specifically because one gets the sense that if it were up to Anna, Steven’s wife, these circumstances would’ve never come up in the first place. In every part of the film, Anna practices her agency whereas Steven is reactionary. This distinction even reaches into their love life, where Steven’s biggest turn on is having Anna pretend that she’s been anaesthetized while they have sex. Unfortunately for their family, Martin’s curse can only be lifted by Steven, whose patriarchal hubris seems to make him incapable of action until the film’s shocking and upsetting denouement.

Once again, Lanthimos, along with frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, creates a world of surface interaction with stilted dialogue meant to convey the shallow nature of most of these characters. Kim and Bob only speak to their parents about their chores. Steven and Martin converse about what’s going to happen to Steven’s family over sandwiches. Steven speaks to the principal of his children’s school and tries to parse who is more academically gifted. The blithe, almost surgical nature of his questions is at once unsettling and oddly funny, something that can be said for this film as a whole. It’s so dark you can’t help but laugh. However, the film’s purposefully mannered dialogue exists with a healthy dose of subtext that renders even the most blasé interaction meaningful.

The subtext is only successful thanks to the incredible efforts of the actors present here. Colin Farrell (in his second collaboration with Lanthimos) once again inhabits the role of an emasculated dope with ease. Steven, beyond all his quiet pleasantness, simmers with barely contained frustration, angered by the seeming injustice of what is happening to him rather than the consequences to be inflicted upon his family. Nicole Kidman is, unsurprisingly, excellent as Anna, the woman hitched to this doomed enterprise. She’s a decisive and incredibly intelligent person. However, she is often ignored by her husband and, in one argument, he insults her as being “only an ophthalmologist.” In the end, no matter how poised and level-headed she is, her main obstacle is that she cannot make the decision for Steven and so the fate of their family falls to him. Though both wonderful, no one makes the same impression as Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin. Keoghan somehow manages to make a small, twitchy teen one of the most disturbing characters in recent memory. Wildly emotional and unpredictable, with a penchant for slurping spaghetti, Martin is an achievement in writing and performance: an impish force of godlike consequence that weaves through this film like the shark in Jaws, making hairs rise in every scene in which he appears and his presence felt in every scene in which he does not. These performances combined with the cold, sterile cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis and a selection of jarring classical music accompaniments make the sum total of The Killing of a Sacred Deer horrifically unforgettable.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a chilling and wonderfully bleak film that offers no easy answers. An artfully crafted exercise in tension and atmosphere that manages to make even the most mundane settings and people utterly unnerving. Another singular work from Yorgos Lanthimos. You owe it to yourself to see this film.

Thoughts on Lady Bird

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I remember reading an interview from the early 2000s with singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. Known for his dark, emotional, and often melancholic lyrics, the interviewer basically asked him if his life as a middle-class 20-something was really that bad. He replied with something to the effect of, “Of course not. But when you’re experiencing it, it’s real.” This half-remembered response (which I may have read elsewhere or simply made up, who knows) has always stuck with me, especially as I went through my own strange journey of adolescence. Being a teenager is tough, no matter one’s circumstances. Even people in generally comfortable situations still suffer in this emotionally turbulent time and Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Lady Bird, explores this period of uncertainty with charm, nuance, and a true sense of heart.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is struggling. It’s the early 2000s. America is flux. People feel aimless and scared, even in the idyllic suburbs of Sacramento. Worse, Christine is in the emotional purgatory of her senior year at an all girl’s Catholic school; that ugly, yet unique time where you begin to lose old friends, but investing in new ones seems like a risky emotional proposition thanks to your looming, inevitable graduation. Add to this mix the stresses of first love and an overbearing, nitpicking mother and you have all the requirements for an early-life existential crisis. And to top it all off, no one will call Christine by her new, self-given name, “Lady Bird.”

Like many people her age (including myself at the time) Christine longs to feel purpose, to live in an age where important stuff is happening. I guess getting older is realizing that important stuff is happening all the time, however, like the Conor Oberst quote above, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision when the scope of your world is so small. Everything feels at once so momentous and so trivial, each pain raw and potentially world-ending. Yet no one suffers in a vacuum and that’s the beauty of Lady Bird. It never seeks to invalidate how Christine feels, or anyone for that matter. Though the scope of the story is small, the film’s world is populated by people in the midst of their own stories and struggles. Sure, we get to learn about Christine’s mother and the rest of her family, but we’re also given glimpses into the lives of everyone else.

The film is at its most powerful when Christine is privy to these private moments and she, for a second, is able to look beyond herself. She’s able to see that her overworked and underpaid mother, Marion (an infuriating and enthralling Laurie Metcalf) is worried about her future because of how much she had to do to get her to this point. Her father, Larry (a warm and hilarious Tracy Letts), is an aging IT technician who’s struggling with feelings of inadequacy as the tech world passes him by. Her dickish proto-hipster crush Kyle (played with an infuriating deadpan by Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet) may just be using his cool detachment as a coping mechanism for the bleak reality of his home life. Even Christine’s drama teacher gets a moment of real sincerity. It all feels so insanely tangible and lived-in; it is a testament to Greta Gerwig’s talent that she’s able to relate these moments of emotional rawness in a way that feels organic and meaningful, each part adding to the larger whole of the film, which is really a story about everyone just trying to figure out what they’re doing with life.

And all of this is led by a truly transcendent performance by Saoirse Ronan. She so perfectly captures the emotional whirlwind of that age; the seemingly endless ennui of your late teenage years where you begin to question what, if anything, matters; if you’ll ever be happy, or at least content; if you’ll ever be loved (in a romantic sense) or if each new, debilitating crush is just a waste of rampant emotion. The way Ronan shifts from hopeful to hopeless, from ecstatic to distraught is, once again, revealing of her incredible skill as an actress. She’s a subtle performer that lives through her characters and in this film in particular, she never seems to be playing an approximation of a middle-class American teen. She just is and she truly shines.

Beyond the potent writing and the assured direction of Gerwig, the cinematography by Sam Levy (who previously lensed Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America) also somehow manages to evoke the themes of the film. Sacramento is pictured like a hometown should be; always captured in glimpses of the familiar. It’s only when Christine takes a moment to stop and look around that she sees the true beauty of the place where she grew up and why it is actually special to her. This, like each part of the film, feeds back into the greater whole, creating an experience that is pretty much perfect.

Lady Bird is certainly worthy of the wild praise it has been receiving. A touching ode to teenage uncertainty, to angst and ennui and tenderness and love, for your family, for friends, for a place even. A truly wonderful experience.

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

What does it mean to be human? Can something sentient yet artificial achieve humanity? If so, what then is its value? These are the questions first presented in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner. Now, thirty-five years later, we return to the dystopian sprawl of Los Angeles to further explore these themes in Blade Runner 2049. This is a difficult film to write about, mostly because I feel that it is best experienced cold. Ideally, you should just stop reading this right now and go see it. However, if you’d rather have a hint of what to expect, read on. I shall try to be as vague as possible.

MILD SPOLERS FOLLOW

Blade Runner 2049 follows a Blade Runner named K. At the onset of the film, K is just a Blade Runner doing his job: hunting replicants. The catch: he himself is a replicant, albeit one of the newer models with an inhibitor installed that disallows him from violating orders. Lonely and isolated thanks to virulent speciesism—humans are even more despairing of replicants since a series of violent rebellions and a worldwide blackout in 2022—K spends most of his days in quiet contemplation, his only companionship found in Joi, an AI projection that exists solely in his apartment. She seems to love him and he’s clearly fond of her, but can anything between them be considered real? Worse, K seems cognizant of this question, and haunted by it.

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Ryan Gosling as K. Property of Warner Bros.

His troubled state of mind is further compounded by the discovery of an old replicant’s gravesite, one that contains a potentially society-shattering secret. His superior tasks him with tracking down every shred of evidence related to this discovery and destroying them. Through his investigation however, the parameters of K’s agency begin to be tested. His desire to fulfill his duty is slowly countermanded by his growing curiosity. He wonders what this secret means for the future and, more importantly, the nature of his existence. His digging however soon sees him pursued by a number of hostile forces, all intent on using the secret for their own purposes. Thrust into a conflict he does not fully understand, K races against time to find the answers he seeks. All his leads point to the one person that can explain everything, one person who disappeared long ago: Rick Deckard.

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Property of Warner Bros.

That’s all I will say about the plot. However, let it be known: you will not guess what happens in this film. It is a finely crafted noir mystery, filled with red herrings and false leads. However, none of them ever feel cheap or contrived. The reason that the mystery succeeds in being so enthralling is its subject matter: humanity. What is it? What does it mean? The layered nature in which the film investigates these questions is spectacularly subtle and yet deeply moving.

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Ana de Armas as Joi. Property of Warner Bros.

K is a replicant in an existential quandary. He’s a synthetic being questioning whether or not he is “real.” Meanwhile Joi, his AI companion, is merely a holographic projection wishing she inhabited a physical form so she could truly be with K. Their problems are two sides of the same coin, making their relationship both intriguing and incredibly sad; worse, it is something that would probably be dismissed by any human that encountered it. In contrast, the human characters that populate the rest of the story range from figures of authority to slaves. Yet no matter their status, when faced with K, their actions usually speak to the same mindset, “At least I’m human.”

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Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. Property of Warner Bros.

Deckard exists in an entirely different sphere altogether. He is a man that loved a replicant; a person who saw humanity in the supposedly inhuman. It only makes sense then that K’s journey of self-discovery is radically altered when he encounters Deckard, whose entrance not only marks the film’s shift from the second to the third act, but also a vital reframing of the film’s main narrative question; “Am I human?” becomes “Does it matter?” and the answer is something to behold.

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Property of Warner Bros.

Beyond the already great storycraft on display thanks to writers Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, the direction of Blade Runner 2049 is stunning. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) proves once again to be a master of tension and tone. This film is a slow burn, but it is an artisan’s slow burn: delicately crafted and monitored; built slowly and purposefully so that when it explodes, it does so in spectacular fashion. Between the scenes of action, like Arrival before it, Villeneuve manages to ask lofty questions through character, using deft juxtaposition and symbolism in moments of silence to make the scenes of dialogue that much more impactful.

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Property of Warner Bros.

What I appreciate most about Villeneuve is his choice of projects. His narratives are always challenging, ones that rebel against common tropes and structures to deliver experiences that are altogether unique. Blade Runner 2049 is not an exception. It forges its own narrative path and, oddly, manages to be an incredibly focused film despite the impressive scope of the world it presents. Many have said Villeneuve is the modern Kubrick. I think he’s better.

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Property of Warner Bros.

Much of the film’s stunning visual flare can be attributed to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is nothing short of breathtaking. Each shot is a wonder, highlighting unmatched set and costume design in a grounded, yet stylish manner. His eye makes this nightmarish, dystopian version of Los Angeles feel not only real, but lived-in, tangible. Light and color in particular are used to great effect, paired with specific characters to give each scene a distinctive tonal flavor. If Deakins does not win every cinematography award this year, I will be very surprised (and displeased).

Blade Runner 2049

Property of Warner Bros.

The performances, like the direction and look of the film, are also wonderful. Ryan Gosling once again shows his incredible range, turning in an impressive performance for a character that could have easily fallen flat. Though subdued, K is not emotionless and Gosling manages to convey so much with just his eyes that you always know what K’s thinking despite his relative silence. Gosling’s inspired performance ultimately makes K’s arc that much more satisfying. Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) plays Joi, and is likewise excellent. Even more removed from humanity than K, Armas imbues within many aspects of Joi a very specific, precooked quality. However, as the film progresses and she becomes more independent, Armas is deftly able to convey Joi’s growing agency and commitment to K. The two performances join together to make their improbable love story both tragic and extremely affecting. Lastly, Harrison Ford returns to the role of Deckard. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. I can’t say much for fear of spoilers, but rest assured, Ford is given a lot of dramatic material and excels in every scene in which he’s featured.

Blade Runner 2049

Property of Warner Bros.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Filled with buzzing electronic noise and crackling synths, Blade Runner 2049’s score is perhaps the most atmospheric music I’ve ever heard in a film. It perfectly echoes the Vangelis score of the original while adding something new and distinctive to the mix. Though incredibly loud, it is never unbearable and, thankfully, the film knows when silence is best. Inspired work.

Put simply, Bladerunner 2049 is a masterpiece; a triumphant display of story and filmcraft that fulfills the incredible promise of the original and shows the true, towering potential of science fiction as a cinematic genre. This is the type of movie that makes people want to make movies. That is the highest praise I can possibly give. An achievement on all fronts and without a doubt one of the year’s finest films.

Thoughts on Stronger

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By the time you’re an adult, narrative is burned into your brain. Even if you only watch a few movies a year, eventually you become accustomed to the story beats that serve as the foundation for most popular media. The romantic comedy is perhaps the most well-known narrative structure for film. Two people get together, have a falling out, and then a dramatic, emotionally satisfying reunion. It’s a perfect mixture of conflict and saccharine fantasy. However what happens when a film commits to a representation of reality? Sometimes an audience rebels against such a presentation. Despite being critically lauded, upon walking out of last year’s Manchester by the Sea, I heard a lot of people from my audience scoffing at the abrupt nature of the ending; their chief complaint: the main character didn’t triumph over his grief. This is true. He didn’t. He came to accept it as a part of his life and had only just begun the healing process by the end of the film. Narratively, it may be unsatisfying in a certain respect, but it was the truest, most honest conclusion for that story. Stronger, the new film based upon the life of Jeff Bauman, a man whose legs were destroyed during the Boston Bombing, is a similar case. It is so real, so messily authentic in its depiction of struggle, that it may turn off some people, but for those looking for a moving story about overcoming tragedy, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better character piece this year.

Stronger

Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman. Property of Lionsgate.

Stronger wastes no time in establishing the character of Jeff Bauman. Though a personable everyman with a wide circle of family and friends, Jeff is not perfect. He’s unreliable and selfish. In the words of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin, he just doesn’t show up. Jeff decides he wants to make a change (at least in order to sway Erin to get back with him) and decides to show up for once. Unfortunately, he does so at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. In the ensuing terrorist attack, Jeff loses his legs and the remainder of the film deals with the rehabilitation of both his body and him as a person.

The physical hardship of losing both legs is devastating. Rehab is painful. Feeling like a burden to those around him is embarrassing. Simple processes like using the bathroom or getting out of bed are suddenly perilous tasks. Though Jeff faces many problems with wry witticisms, his humor is also a shield to mask his pain and his growing removal from those who care about him. This is further exacerbated by his instant fame, which his family, and particularly his overbearing mother, Patty, seem enamored with. He unwillingly becomes the symbol for the “Boston Strong” movement, lauded as a hero though he feels like anything but. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and happened to survive. There was nothing heroic about it. Jeff’s attempts to embrace this persona only succeed in making him feel more like a fraud, valued for the very thing that’s irrevocably altered his life, he feels, for the worse.

Erin, driven by both her love for Jeff and guilt for being the reason for his presence at the marathon, attempts to support him and his recovery. It is a difficult, moving journey and one that never ceases to feel real. Jeff fails more often than he succeeds; he gives into self-pity and anger; he pushes Erin away. But he comes back and slowly, grudgingly makes a change for the better. His ultimate success is incremental in the film. And that’s okay. This is not a narrative bound to fictional beats; it undulates wildly, as fickle as reality and real people tend to be. And that is why it is affecting, because it shows that Jeff’s journey, in a way, will never end, but neither will his development as a person. If he can struggle and strive and push to overcome his horrific circumstances, so can each and every person who sees the film. That is Stronger’s greatest accomplishment: it is staggeringly hopeful.

Stronger

Property of Lionsgate.

This film, however, would’ve failed without a powerful central performance, and thankfully Jake Gyllenhaal answered the call, cementing himself once again as one of our best modern actors. He inhabits Jeff’s Bostonian everyman with ease, never overdoing the accent, and nailing the subtle ticks and details that make him feel like a real person. His pain is our pain, and Gyllenhaal does so much with just his eyes to let us know Jeff’s emotional state from scene to scene: his fear, his anger, his joy. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that proves Gyllenhaal is an artist of the highest caliber.

Stronger

Tatiana Maslany as Erin. Property of Lionsgate.

The same can be said of Tatiana Maslany, who plays Erin. No matter what’s demanded of her, Maslany delivers. Her performance runs the emotional gamut, ranging from frustration to desperation. You feel every moment of her journey beside Jeff and become invested in how much she’s sacrificed in order to see him get better. Now that her star-making show Orphan Black is over, I can’t wait to see what Maslany does next. She is a truly brilliant actor.

Finally, I’d be remiss to not comment upon Miranda Richardson’s performance as Patty, Jeff’s mom. A trash-talking alcoholic, Patty nonetheless loves her boy, though she often has a self-serving way of doing so. Her conflict with Erin over Jeff’s rehabilitation is one of the most interesting running storylines of the film as Jeff is caught between these two powerful personalities. Richardson puts in sterling work, making a potentially unlikeable character not only believable, but sympathetic.

Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, Shame) also do great work here. As written in John Pollono’s brilliant script, the film’s focus is not on the bombing, but Jeff, and the filmmakers are stalwart in sticking with his journey rather than the event that began it. The way he’s framed and the shot selection reflect this choice. Even the depiction of Jeff’s injuries is done in an artful way, focusing instead on Jeff’s face and emotions, instead of the violence perpetrated upon him. It is a well-shot, well-paced film with humor and heart to spare. The emotional gut punches come hard, and when they do, they’re the perfect mixture of film craft and performance.

Stronger is not only a wonderful performance piece, but one of the best, most hopeful films of the year. See it and be inspired. If Jeff Bauman could come back from what he did, what can you do?

Thoughts on mother!

Darren Aronofsky returns to us with mother! a visceral, haunting film presented in the director’s trademark, singular vision. This film is going to be divisive and was meant to be so. It is disorienting, bizarre, and thoroughly upsetting. However, it is also a work of staggering complexity, nuanced and layered. The qualifier however is if you understand the subtext and commentary that is taking place. In no way am I trying to judge you or your intelligence if you do not pick up on the inspiration for the story that Aronofsky is attempting to tell here; that being said, I believe the film is a much richer experience if you do. So for the less discerning audience members, seeking out even the barest hint of the subtext might be beneficial to your understanding of the finished product, which I wholeheartedly adored.

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Jennifer Lawrence as mother. Property of Paramount Pictures.

The overlying premise of mother! is this: the young second wife of a famous poet works to complete their paradisiacal country home while her husband struggles to write a follow-up to his world renowned debut. In the beginning, their relationship and their house are as one: pristine, unblemished, perfect. It is as if they live in a space outside of time, made only for them.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then an unwelcome stranger shows up: a man lost in the wilderness. Soon, his wife follows and despite the young woman’s protests, her husband allows them to stay in their house. Slowly, the cracks in their relationship begin to reveal themselves, highlighting the skewed power dynamic between them. Though the husband is clearly fond of her, he is often dismissive and selfish, thinking only of his unfinished work rather than considering his wife’s happiness. This is exacerbated by the revelation that the strange couple are actually ardent fans of the husband’s writing and he, despite all his talk about loving his wife, yearns for adoration above all else. The young woman and the guests begin to war for the husband’s attention, even as strange events start occurring in the house, including bleeding floorboards, the discovery of a secret doorway, and the destruction of an indefinable object.

mother!

Javier Bardem as Him. Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then more people come. The young woman is staggered by their careless disrespect of her home and, more importantly, each other. Their humanity starts to give way to blind fanaticism and the young woman’s life devolves into a funhouse of horrors as she must weather this escalating home invasion while attempting to hold onto her husband, whose need for adoration ends with awful, deadly consequences.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

mother! is a journey of a film, a primal, thought-provoking experience that most certainly benefits from going in as cold as possible (unless you’re worried about missing the subtext as mentioned before). It’s a struggle even writing about it in such oblique terms because I have so much to say about it and so much I want to discuss with people who’ve seen it. The characters, for example, are nameless, granted broad titles that speak to their underlying narrative purpose. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the young wife is simply called “mother.” Javier Bardem, who plays her husband, is “Him.” That’s it. And though those titles may seem pretentious, they’re not. Nothing in the film is present without purpose. There are no needless artistic flourishes. This is a deftly crafted narrative machine designed by Aronofsky with the intent to cause disruption, then conversation.

The performances are the beating heart of this film and both leads (and the extended cast) kill it. Lawrence is wonderful here, crafting a character that is at once resilient, yet frustratingly passive (at least at the onset). She is confused and often hurt by her husband’s actions, but she seeks to continue on, to persevere in hopes of there being something better in the future. Lawrence gives her most calculated performance since The Silver Linings Playbook, effortlessly conveying a broad range of quickly cycling emotions, from confusion, to outrage, to horror. She is our window into the film and succeeds in serving as a vessel for the audience, taking us on this journey into madness, making us feel the paranoia, claustrophobia, and loneliness of her character in every moment, no matter how quiet or how loud.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Bardem, on the other hand, is a pleasing, purposeful cipher. He is at once loving and distant; amenable, but also capable of wrath. He clearly loves his wife, but he loves the feeling of being loved more. One gets the sense that everything that occurs, in his mind, must come back to him and how he feels. When remarking upon an awful incident that happens early in the film, he can only speak to how he was involved. When talking to the strange couple about whether or not he and his wife want children, he speaks for both of them. It’s a demanding role and Bardem, as he is wont to do, delivers, crafting a character whose arc is meaningful and unsurprising in the context of the commentary that Aronofsky is seeking to provide.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

From a stylistic standpoint, mother! is the latest in a slew of movies that love handheld close-ups. Like Black Swan before it, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique spend the majority of the film with the camera less than two feet from Lawrence, swimming around her as she navigates her labyrinthine house. The technique makes each shot feel visceral and dynamic, lending added weight to her increasingly distressed emotional state as her world continues to shrink. This, paired with the increasingly nightmarish imagery and lack of a traditional score, make mother! an unforgettable sensory experience.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

A final word on mother! This film is meant to upset you; it’s also meant to make you think and generate discussion. Though still a meaningful experience without the subtext, I feel like it is necessary to fully appreciate the amount of care and detail that went into crafting this experience. Aronofsky, as he always does, has something to say and does so with style and purpose. This is more than just a drama. It is an absurdist parable with a clear, necessary message. When placed beside the rest of his filmography, I would say this is more a companion to Noah and The Fountain than anything else. It plays with narrative structures and expectations, while offering layered, challenging commentary on a well-trodden subject. If you get the subtext, the moment that everything clicks for you is, in a word, divine.

A staggering film. It is easily one of my favorites this year so far. See it.

Thoughts on Good Time

2017 has been a wonderful year for movies. Though blockbusters have stumbled at the box office, a slew of smaller films have succeeded in delivering a range of excellence, from nuanced character studies and touching comedies to tense thrillers. The level of quality dished out in a few short months—especially in the whizz-bang realm of the summer—has been staggering. Despite its relatively early release (as far as awards contenders go) I really do hope Good Time gets the recognition it deserves. Not only is it a gritty, tense urban thriller, it also features the second award worthy performance of the year from Robert Pattinson, who last wowed me in The Lost City of Z. Here he manages to surpass even that impressive performance in what is surely the best work of his career.

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Property of A24.

Good Time is a classic day-in-the-life crime nail biter. It begins innocuously enough, with a mentally impaired young man named Nick attending a meeting with his counselor. The emotional headway he’s making is interrupted by the whirlwind of chaos given human form that is his brother, Connie (Pattinson). Connie pulls Nick out of his appointment only to immediately make him an accomplice to a bank robbery. Events, as they are wont to do in Good Time, quickly go horrifically wrong. Nick is arrested and sent to Riker’s Island and Connie, struck through with guilt because of his brother’s incarceration, decides he will do whatever it takes to get him out. A bail bonds attorney tells Connie that he can get his brother set free if he comes up with ten thousand dollars and so Connie’s ill-fated mission begins.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

The remainder of Good Time is a mixture of character study and crime thriller as Connie haplessly tries to navigate an increasingly fraught situation which he complicates and worsens at every turn. Connie, as embodied by Pattinson, is not a smart man. However he is possessed of a sort of idiot cunning that somehow sees him through each and every challenge, with literally everyone else around him suffering because of his actions. Pattinson imbues the character with such fast-talking, kinetic charm that it’s impossible not to be strung along like the many people that Connie manages to screw over in the film’s relatively brisk runtime. The hypnotic nature of Connie’s presence is further highlighted by the visceral style of the film.

Good Time

Bennie Safdie as Nick. Property of A24.

Directed by the Safdie brothers Josh and Bennie—the latter, who plays Nick, delivers a brilliantly subdued performance in his limited screen time—Good Time is infused with a style all its own. Its New York City is a hellish, bad acid trip reflection of NYC; a claustrophobic, threatening place painted in varying shades of red, blue, and pink. Paired with a buzzing, synth-laden score by musician Oneohtrix Point Never, this is NYC as you’ve never experienced it before. The grit is artfully framed by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who also manages to accentuate Connie’s continually shrinking, stressful world through the generous use of handheld cameras. The majority of the film is spent in punishing close-ups, hovering only a few feet away from Pattinson’s face as he breathes life into Connie’s detestable yet mesmerizing character.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

If anything that’s the greatest accomplishment of the film: the ineffably enchanting nature of Connie. There’s no reason to like him. Every bad thing that happens in the film is directly tied to his relative shittiness and yet you can’t help but be fascinated by him, wholly invested in his misguided, ill-conceived quest and the ruin of wrecked lives left strewn in his path. Robert Pattinson elevates already sterling writing with a career best performance that deserves to be on every awards short list there is. Simply brilliant work.

What more can be said? Good Time is one of the best films of 2017: tense, thrilling, and surprisingly funny (trust me). It tracks the exploits of one of the best characters in recent memory, given life by one of our most talented modern actors. If you have the opportunity, see this film as soon as you can. You’ll be sure to have… a lot of fun watching it.

Thoughts on IT

Something’s wrong in the town of Derry. Tragedies occur with startling regularity. Violence is many times the national average. And children just disappear. Is it merely some freakish grouping of statistics? Of course not. The mind of Stephen King could not deliver something so bland. Instead the force that haunts Derry is worse than anyone could imagine: it’s whatever you’re most afraid of.

It

The Losers. Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

IT, the newest adaption of Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic, follows a group of children who must band together to face the ancient evil that lurks beneath their town. Unfortunately, that evil is a shapeshifter of incredible power, one that’s capable of sensing their greatest fears and inhabiting them. If children are the main food source of It, fear is Its seasoning. The film’s exploration of children’s fears is its main conceptual appeal. Fear requires imagination and who imagines better than children? Whose fears are more varied or powerful?

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

The main group of kids that we come to know as The Losers Club range from an asthmatic hypochondriac to a fast-talking nerd with coke bottle glasses, the chubby bookworm to the stuttering hero. They are each unique people with their own histories and the film does a great job (like the book) of couching fear in character; the manner in which Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or It) appears to them is appropriate and terrifying. Some fears are more serious. Bill, ostensibly the main character, fears his insurmountable guilt over the death of his younger brother Georgie, who’s killed (in horrific fashion) in the opening scene. For Beverly, who’s suffered the gross attention of older men (and her father) for far too long, her fear is of maturing, of becoming a woman in a predacious world. For Mike, whose parents perished in a fire, his fear is of being burned alive. Other characters’ fears are more irrational or abstract. For Stan, who’s much more sheltered and childish, his fear is merely the weird woman in the painting of his father’s office; Eddie on the other hand fears the idea of sickness, rampant and unchecked.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Each of the actors who play the Losers is pitch perfect. This is perhaps the most impressive young cast ever assembled for a movie, with each actor fully inhabiting their roles, making these characters not only feel like real kids, but also real friends. You feel for their struggle, you root for them to succeed, and you’re terrified alongside them as they face the primordial terror of It. Also, props to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for making IT a hard R film; thanks to that allowance, the kids talk and swear like real people, which was incredibly refreshing compared to the sanitized product we could’ve received.

it

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

However, the stakes for the children would be meaningless if Pennywise wasn’t an absolute terror, and thanks to the supreme efforts of Bill Skarsgard, he most certainly is. Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove) gives an iconic performance as the film’s titular antagonist. Through merely his voice and mannerisms (accented by inspired costume and makeup work), Skarsgard is simultaneously able to make Pennywise feel incredibly ancient and inhuman. In every action, one gets the sense that this is a creature parodying human life, his skinsuit always on the verge of giving way to his utterly alien nature. Even more disturbing, one gathers that Pennywise has assumed the avatar of a clown merely because he enjoys the sadistic irony of it. The gleeful, almost childish joy he takes in tormenting these children never ceases to be chilling. The filmmakers add to Skarsgard’s incredible performance by using a number of inspired camera techniques that only serve to accentuate It’s otherness. This, in addition to shooting Skarsgard from almost exclusively low angles to highlight his size (he’s 6’4”; towering in comparison to the young cast), make you believe in horrifying threat that he represents to these children. Overall, this is a definitive take on a classic character, imbued with new life by a wildly talented performer and a director with a clear vision.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Andres Muschietti (Mama) has done a wonderful job of adapting King’s novel. Along with writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti has been able to capture the unique tonal shifts of a Stephen King story, creating a film that’s more akin to Korean cinema than a standard American horror. I laughed more in this film than any other film this year, and that’s saying a lot for a movie that also heavily features the murder of children. Appropriately, Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (frequent collaborator with master director Chan-wook Park) fills It with lavish imagery and just the right amount of spooky Dutch angles. All of this is accented by a nicely varied score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which manages to be discomfiting or hopeful when necessary.

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Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

On a final note, perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is its depiction of the helplessness that one sometimes feels as a child. The kids are the ones experiencing the horror. Though one gets the sense their parents, and the adult populace of Derry, know something is and has always been amiss, they turn a blind eye. The people that are supposed to make children feel safe are reneging upon their responsibilities, and often, particularly in the case of Beverly, assume the role of the predator instead, a chilling and all too real reality. This is a common theme in many of King’s works, from Misery and Salem’s Lot, to The Shining and Carrie: the ugliness and perversion that lurks just beneath the idyllic sheen of small town American normality. It’s horrifying as a timeless cosmic entity; it’s almost worse when you realize that evil is often just people.

IT is not merely a staggering accomplishment for horror, it is an excellent film. Filled with heart, humor, and hope, it shows that friendship and love are and always will be the surest weapon against absolute evil. A terrifying, wonderful film that I can’t wait to see again.

Thoughts on A Ghost Story

Life. Death. Love. Time. Permanence. A Ghost Story, the new film by writer/director David Lowery tackles these subjects in a way that is both unexpected and challenging. The result is a mesmerizing meditation on meaning in the vastness of the universe.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as C and M, respectively, a couple living in an old house. We’re only afforded a few scenes of them together before C is killed in a car accident and M is left to her grief. Unbeknownst to her, C returns to the house as a ghost, imagined here by Lowery in familiar imagery: a white sheet with two eye holes. What follows is C’s experience of the afterlife, tied to the house in which he’d lived.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film is how it relates C’s experience of time. As a ghost, he is not necessarily present in the same way as a living person. He has autonomy, but only to a certain extent; and he’s able to manipulate his environment if angered or frustrated. However, he’s more of an emotional shadow than a thinking person, an echo of the man he used to be trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. This interpretation of ghosts is especially effective as it allows Lowery to jump through time, showcasing the drifting nature of C’s attention span. Using clever edits and a freeform style of pacing, Lowery invites the audience into C’s altered headspace, showing a world that’s passing him by.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Early in the film, he watches M eat an entire pie to deal with her grief, then he looks away and a season has passed and M’s in the other room, getting ready for work; another turn and it’s been a year; M is returning from a date with another man and the house has been scoured of C’s belongings. It’s a somber take on the afterlife, one which is impressively powerful given just how little we know of the central characters. However, the slices of life that we are offered are intimate, relatable, and incredibly moving. M changes the comforter to her bed shortly after C’s death, then stops to inhales his familiar scent; she listens to a song C made, remembering the first time she heard it. C seeing her experience these moments compounds the film’s somber quality, imbuing it with unexpected weight.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

This is also due to Rooney Mara’s wonderful performance. She is largely silent throughout the film, but she is able to imbue her character with such emotion that you see each stage of her grief, no matter the time period. C’s loss of life is also her loss and Mara, once again, proves the depth of her talent, effortlessly conveying a challenging mixture of emotions in another subdued, yet powerful performance.

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Property of A24.

However, this film would not succeed as wildly as it does without a compelling ghost. C’s frustration, sense of loss, and feeling of aimlessness are palpable thanks to a deft performance by Casey Affleck, who certainly made use of his mask work classes here. Also largely silent throughout the film, Affleck nevertheless manages to make C a sympathetic character through a mixture of stillness and measured movements: a head tilt, a slouch, a yearning glance. Thanks to him, C’s ghostly, silent presence is never dull, but rather filled with tangible moments of emotion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

As M gets further away from him, eventually leaving the house entirely, C becomes increasingly unmoored, cast adrift in time. The pacing of the film from here on is unique, as stated before, in that C skips through time, observing small moments between the ever-shifting inhabitants of the house, then become laser-focused on a single thing that interests him. Through these moments of intense concentration, the underlying message of the film is laid bare. I won’t go into it specifically for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I appreciate the complexity of the two-fold worldview posited. Overall, it is a commentary on life, death, time, and the meaning of art; the importance of permanence in a world that is itself impermanent. The true takeaway depends upon your point of view, but I admire that the film was able to discuss such a weighty subject in an abstract, nuanced, and meaningful way.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Much of the film’s success must be attributed to David Lowery, who used his proceeds from his previous directorial outing, Pete’s Dragon, to fund this film. His writing is spare, yet effective and he, along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next) are able to capture the everyday beauty of spaces, specifically within a house. They imbue these spaces with meaning, then break your heart as they show the passage of time; how others move through the very same places, oblivious to the significant moments that took place there. The ghost’s iconic design is also a stylistic boon for the film. It may seem humorous at first, but the white sheet soon takes on a wholly different quality as the story progresses. Its color fades; its edges becoming dirty, frayed. Everything about its design speaks to the character of C, his growing detachment and the endless, aimless nature of his existence. The way the filmmakers shoot Affleck beneath the sheet is immediately compelling and picturesque no matter the setting. The visceral, atmospheric beauty of the film is heightened by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, which fills C’s world with repeated motifs of grief and hope using a mixture of strings and subdued percussion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Overall, A Ghost Story is a strange, powerful, and deeply moving film. It is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to give themselves over to an experience and take the plunge, I do not think you’ll be disappointed. It offers a unique outlook on universal human experiences while also showcasing a worldview that might just be the most hopeful, uplifting thing I’ve seen in a long time. I adored this film and hope you do too.