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The Life of P

Month: November 2018

QuickViews 2018 (part 5)

The penultimate installment for the year takes us to the moon and back (is that a spoiler for First Man?).

57. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) – 6/10

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has an exceptional ear for conversational dialogue, the way it actually occurs rather than witty repartee stylised for the screen. The fractious relationships of the Meyerowitz family are evident in the way they talk at cross-purposes — sometimes engaged in entirely different conversations — or respond to what they want to hear rather than what was actually said. As fascinating as this is, the characters lack real depth despite the high-profile cast, and the film drifts weightlessly through its disjointed scenes with little to say.

58. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – 6/10

Lonely Island’s take on the music mockumentary is really just a thin plot to string together the band’s signature style of lyrically ridiculous pop, and the songs are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. The scenes in between rely largely on the big names who agreed to provide cameos or talking heads, but the wow factor declines as the movie drags on. Spinal Tap remains the pinnacle of this style of filmmaking because what happens off-stage is so well-observed. Here, the by-the-numbers rise and fall, with band members falling out and reconciling, cannot quite sustain an entire movie. As with most pop stars: the key to enjoyment is just listening to the music and ignoring the rest of their antics.

59. To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018)7/10

A derivative but quietly charming high school drama, its unlikely initial premise swiftly falls into a familiar “fake relationship” plot but — despite the lack of surprises — the charismatic leads evoke a genuine desire for them to acknowledge their feelings. The melodrama of high school students may not have changed much in the past few decades, but this is still a fresh update for the modern generation.

60. Newness (2017) – 6/10

After a cynical opening look at the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the film follows a new couple who want a more meaningful connection despite meeting after they change their statuses in exasperation to “DTF”. Concerned about boredom in the absence of new experiences, the couple start to experiment, flirting with others and then taking it further. The setup is ripe for an intriguing exploration of polyamory in the modern world and the film’s middle act seems to be leaning in that direction. Sadly, the desire for a more conventional conclusion requires it to abandon this more interesting avenue. Ironically, then, there little new here. The most compelling ideas come from the older man Gabi meets, whose transactional view of relationships is unromantic and yet more realistic than anything else on display.

61. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 7/10

Infuriating punctuation aside, this romantic comedy strives for greater quality and depth than its peers, even as it relies on familiar tropes. It is largely successful through acting talent and valuing thoughtful drama over laughs. Steve Carrell is allowed to make the newly single Cal sympathetic rather than a sad sack caricature. Where the comedy surfaces, it is typically wry rather than laugh-out-loud, with the best lines tending to have darker overtones. It is noteworthy that the central couple are a middle aged husband and wife who share remarkably little screen time. As is often the case with even the smarter rom coms, the movie struggles to find a conclusion and falls back on awkwardly saccharine displays, despite undermining the “grand gesture”.

62. Compliance (2012) – 8/10

After referencing the Milgram experiment (albeit without the more nuanced modern conclusion), we spend almost the entire film within the confines of a fast food restaurant on the day a caller claims to be police officer and convinces the staff to detain, strip-search and mistreat one of the employees. The facts are unbelievable yet this is both a true story and not an isolated incident. Writer/director Zobel shoots in a clinical style that minimises titillation, being more interested in the human interactions and how individuals could be led to act this way. It is Ann Dowd’s performance as the overstretched manager that sells this, as we can see her critical thinking and resolve gradually evaporate. Ultimately the film is an indictment of humans’ desire to cede responsibility to others.

63. First Snow (2006) – 6/10

A slow burn noir thriller as a confident salesman’s life is thrown into disarray after a fortune teller claims to have foreseen his imminent death. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation, accompanied by rising paranoia, with Guy Pearce delivering a performance reminiscent of Memento early in his career. Whilst the film serves as an interesting musing on destiny and control, it meanders more than it speaks.

64. Bad Moms (2016) – 7/10

I had expected Bad Moms to follow the Bridesmaids blueprint of a female-fronted movie setting out to prove the women can be as gross as the men. In fact, it is an escapist romp with more in common with This is 40. A stressed, underappreciated working mother ditches her conventional responsibilities and discovers a more relaxed approach, whilst set for a collision with the controlling president of the PTA. The comedy is fine; the drama is underwhelming. Surprisingly, however, hidden within are some genuine messages about parenting. It does not aid the storytelling that fathers barely feature at all and the PTA meetings are a sea of female faces. Although it is a shame not to see that particular trend bucked, it would be disingenuous to complain when this was only ever intended to be a rarer film about motherhood.

65. First Man (2018)7/10

First Man should not be mistaken for a film about the Apollo programme; as its name suggests the biopic is focused solely on the contribution of Neil Armstrong, sidelining everyone else. The claustrophobic nature of spaceflight is realistically presented through tight shots that leave us gazing into Ryan Gosling’s eyes with a regularity that eventually becomes tedious (although some viewers may disagree with this assessment). This is combined with an interesting decision to shoot the moon landing with IMAX cameras. If seen in that format the larger screen is entirely unused outside of that 15 minute sequence. Although impressive, IMAX viewing for this alone is far from essential. Gosling’s portrayal is deliberately understated whilst Claire Foy delivers the film’s strongest emotional performance as Armstrong’s wife. The most surprising aspect is an effective exploration of traditional masculinity and the burden placed on men who are left unable to share their emotional pain, with resulting impact on their families. Ultimately First Man is overlong but satisfying.

66. Tau (2018)5/10

Despite pretensions toward cererbral sci-fi in the vein of Ex Machina, this is really a derivative trapped woman thriller that is elevated only by some impressive production design. The conceit is that Julie’s captor is using an AI-controlled house to imprison her, allowing her to develop a relationship with the AI rather than directly with her captor. Although Tau raises a few interesting ideas about controlling AI and limiting its access to information, it fails to capitalise on these. That the science fiction is more about aesthetic than intellect is clearest from the way deletion of memories is used as a method of “punishing” the AI but inexplicably manifests as inflicting pain.

67. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)6/10

Peter Jackson’s respectful World War I documentary is clearly a labour of love, dedicated to his own grandfather. For the audience, however, the reason to see this is the painstakingly recoloured footage which brings the front to life in a slightly ghostly fashion. It is a marvellous achievement in restoration of archival footage and to be applauded. However, this technical achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the verisimilitude with which filmmakers (and even game makers) have recreated the trenches in recent years, meaning that these are images we have seen before in sharper focus. Jackson eschews narration in favour of the amalgamated stories of over a hundred veterans sharing their memories in an anonymous fashion. Again these are familiar stories: boys lying about their age, excited to enlist; the bleakness of trench life; the horror shells and gas and barbed wire. Of greater note is the fondness for the German soldiers that readily comes through. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fine documentary then, but presents us with nothing new beyond a fresh coat of paint on contemporaneous footage.

68. Almost Famous (2000)8/10

Set in the early 1970s, toward the end of classic rock and roll’s heyday, this is less a story about music than William, a naive likeable youngster finding himself whilst touring with his favourite band, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and trying to resist the allure of the trappings of fame. It touches on industry issues like rivalry between band members and the encroaching capitalist record companies, but ultimately Cameron Crowe’s script brisk and witty script is more interested in the individuals, both within the band and outside. Crossing the divide for William is the magnetic Penny Lane (apparently based on a real individual) who is romantically involved with one of the musicians, but takes William under her wing. Her espoused wisdom is catchy and yet ultimately impossible: “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun.”

Staying in Touch

Untitled sketch by Tim Burton, 1990
Pen and ink, and pencil on paper

Two of my favourite films, released almost three decades apart, are linked by an interesting thread: touch. Edward Scissorhands’ design was rooted in this concept. Tim Burton was looking for a physical manifestation of his isolation — bladed hands that prevent him from touching others without hurting them (“Hold me.” / “I can’t.”), or even himself as the scars peppering his face attest. In Blade Runner 2049, lack of touch is defining feature of both K and Joi for different reasons. K is a replicant (a synthentic human) who hunts down rogue replicants for the police department, simultaneously rejected by human officers as a “skinjob” and shunned by his fellow replicants as a traitor. His only real companion is the Artificial Intelligence Joi, whose holographic projection lacks physical substance. She yearns to be able to touch K, to break through his isolation, to comfort him. In one of the film’s most mesmerising scenes, Joi hires a replicant sex worker as a stand in, overlaying her projected image, in an effort to be closer to K. With nothing more than implied nudity, the scene evokes more vivid intimacy than I have seen captured on film in recent memory.

Simon Van Booy said that “For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched”, an idea that always resonated with me. It is telling that when Joi is able to leave the confines of K’s apartment with an “emanator” upgrade, the first place she wishes to go is the roof, out in the rain. As she remains a hologram we see the water first fall through her image until she responds to it by adjusting her visual representation to make it appear that the water is splashing on her skin and settling — a facsimile of the touch she craves. This is, incidentally, why I think the lonely and depressed have a propensity to take long showers. Although in popular culture showers act as a cleansing metaphor, washing away guilt or shame, the sensation of warm water running across skin is also another chance to be touched.

Although I only came to appreciate it a few years ago, touch took on a particular significance to me as a child because of my grandmother. She lived with us and from my earliest memories she was virtually blind and had started to lose her hearing. We would spend time together sitting on the sofa and talking, with clasped hands replacing eye contact. She would recite Tamil nursery rhymes with accompanying actions — I could not understand the language, only her touch. Another game involved writing words on one another’s hands, trying to guess the letters from touch alone. Ours was a slow form of non-verbal communication, and perhaps this allowed me to be more patient with her when repeating explanations long after others had given up in exasperation. And I suspect it was touch that kept her grounded, even as her other senses failed.

The isolating nature of the absence of touch is not adequately recognised. Although we often denounce children’s communication through electronic media rather than in person, many of our real-world interactions remain staid, as if merely sharing the same general space is sufficient. What we consider to be “traditional masculinity” typically limits straight men’s access to touch to a firm handshake or a brief hug goodbye. A more intimate, lingering touch in a social context is considered inappropriate. I was fascinated by a series of vintage photographs that circulated in 2012 showing that in the late 1800s platonic intimacy was commonplace. In fact it seems to have been the sexual conservatism of the mid-1900s which drove the idea that physical intimacy between men was a sign of homosexuality and therefore to be avoided. So this is  not even traditional masculinity; it is a byproduct of a more recent conservative mentality that we have already rejected.

A friendly touch lowers stress-related cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Although its strong release from cuddling has led to it being colloquially dubbed the “love hormone”, oxytocin relates any kind of pair bonding. Without touch and oxytocin, we are less trusting of others, and we feel less connected. Isolation and distrust are notably attributes we tend to associate with toxic forms of masculinity. This may also be a route to understanding the difficulty in adjustment experienced by those who leave a tactile brotherhood like the military.

So the importance of staying in touch with friends should be taken as literal rather than merely figurative. We need to break the social perception that conflates touch and sexuality. It is fitting that this piece was finished today, on International Men’s Day, but it is just as relevant for friendships in mixed groups, where judgments are frequently made about those who are more tactile with one another or about individuals who are more comfortable with such interaction in public. By stifling this, we are placing artificial barriers in the way of our ability to forge deeper bonds. By drawing together through touch we may find ourselves still adrift but at least less isolated.

For now, though, it looks like rain.

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2018 Priyan Meewella

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