Angsty Male Indie, Business as Usual

[Note: This review may contain spoilers.]


In the opening scene of Lee Toland Krieger’s “The Vicious Kind,” a greasy-haired and bushy-bearded Adam Scott turns to the camera, takes a drag of his cigarette, and looks straight into the lens. He blinks hard, his lip trembles, and he begins to cry, only to wipe away his tears seconds later when his college-aged brother Peter (Alex Frost) returns to their diner booth. Scott’s character, Caleb, then makes a couple of comments warning Peter that the waitress (and all women, for that matter) are “whores” before harassing her for the slow service. Just as soon as the audience perceives Caleb to a be a sensitive man, even appealing to the audience directly with his deep brown eyes, he gives us whiplash, turning into a brash and misogynistic brute in seconds.

With this cleverly crafted first scene, I expected the film to set up an interesting premise about male emotions – how men really feel vs. what society tells them they should feel, and how men release their emotions as a consequence of this – but I guess that was just me expecting too much. Instead, it’s just another indie film about an emotionally fucked up guy from a small American town who has problems with women: business as usual.


Caleb is a 30-something guy mad at the world for a number of reasons, which apparently gives him reason to act however the hell he wants. Throughout the film, we learn that he’s a construction worker in Norfolk, Connecticut, who spends his evenings in bars or in motels with hookers; he’s a photographer of sorts; he’s obsessed with protecting his younger brother from women, whom he deems evil and manipulative; he hates his father (J.K. Simmons) with a passion; and his mother died shortly after she divorced his father when he was a teen. Of course, because Caleb has such a confusing relationship with women, he uses sex as a way of dealing with his problems. It turns out he’s even in love with his younger brother’s girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow), because (get this!), with her late 2000’s “scene”-style makeup and jet-black hair, she looks exactly his ex-girlfriend. There’s also a weird subplot about his insomnia problem, which seemingly only serves to show us a glimpse of his previous relationship and prove the two women’s resemblance through a series of snapshots of Caleb and his ex embracing in misty fields and shadowy kitchens.

Still, Caleb’s character of the troubled guy who has a fucked-up relationship with the female sex because of his parent’s own fucked-up marriage is not unique, especially to indie films, and it often feels like his emotional trauma is an excuse for his brutishness and misogyny (In one scene, he grabs Emma by the throat in the supermarket and threatens her life if she ever “hurts” his brother, but it’s okay because he stops her as she’s leaving to apologize! In another scene he forcibly kisses her in a diner, but it’s fine because he stopped by the house later to say he’s sorry!) The plot also seems to get tangled up and confused with itself: Caleb explains that he hates his father for mistreating his mother and abandoning her when she was dying, yet he takes his anger out on other women? There is also no hint as to what his ex did that was so soul-crushing, which adds to the confusion as to why he regards women so lowly. I guess he just spent too much time hanging around his chauvinistic dad?


The most frustrating parts of this film are the predictability of every plot point and the clichéd aspects of Caleb’s character. There was an opportunity to make a real statement about how some fathers mess their sons up and how men struggle expressing themselves meaningfully in a society that is constantly pushing the macho stereotype onto them. There are glimmers of this struggle in Caleb, with his endless apologies and tearful moments, but the message is never fully developed. Even so, Scott’s acting is the saving grace of this film – he manages to play the scummy guy with a sort of charming awkwardness. As much as I hated Caleb for being a douchebag who dumps his emotional baggage on women and then uses them for sex as some sort of “healing” process, Scott plays the role in a way that genuinely made me feel for the character. The moments when he breaks down after bottling up all of his frustrations for so long are moving, but I remain disappointed all the same because there’s no real indication that Caleb learns from his errors. Throughout the film, he voices his concerns about his self-destructive tendencies, but then repeatedly gives in to them; he can’t even control himself when it comes to protecting his brother, the person he claims to care about the most. He does channel his anger for good reasons, too, like getting into a bar fight with a man he saw groping and harassing a woman – but is this supposed to redeem him and cancel out all his previous mistreatment of women in the film?

Although Caleb seems to be heading in the right direction by trying to right his wrongs in the final scenes, it would have been so refreshing to witness that change occur over the course of the film instead of seeing his every impulse acted on and later justified by his emotional instability and childhood traumas. I would like to think that maybe that is the film’s point – that so many men have never been told “no” and as such believe they can act however they want, which usually means violence because their emotions are often not accepted in our society – but I know better than that.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2

(Screencaps by me; gifs from my film blog.)


With “I, Tonya”, Harding Finally Gets A Fair Shot

via Proof in the Picture

The story of figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan is a complicated one that has become a sports legend of sorts over the past 20 years. Whenever told in the past, Harding has always been the villain, depicted as a jealous, rough-around-the-edges country girl who would go to crazy lengths to ensure her victory over Kerrigan – and who did. In countless documentaries and news specials on the incident, the same story is repeated ad infinitum: Harding hated Nancy Kerrigan with a passion, Harding ordered that Kerrigan’s kneecaps be smashed, Harding never owned up to her evil deeds. In “I, Tonya”, director Craig Gillespie tells a different, perhaps more truthful story. He shows us that the details of the incident are more complicated than they seem, and he finally gives us a reason to root for Harding.

Gillespie portrays Harding (Margot Robbie) as a woman unloved and misunderstood. The film begins with Harding as a young girl, pushed to the absolute limit by her domineering mother (Allison Janney) who won’t even let Harding take a bathroom break in fear that it will break her concentration on the ice. After years of enduring both her mother’s physical and mental abuse, Harding finds herself a man who loves her – or so she thinks. Her new husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, of “Captain America” fame) is even more abusive than her mother; over and over again he beats her up, leaving her with bruises and black eyes, and then begs her for forgiveness, which she all too often gives him. Even the judges give her a hard time despite her having more difficult jumps than the rest of the field – they downgrade her scores because she skates to rock music and tell her she doesn’t represent the kind of role model they want to crown champion because she doesn’t come from a wholesome American family.

via Cinema Vine

Despite everything working against her, Harding manages to rise to the top of her sport. She skates at the 1992 Winter Olympics and finishes fourth, then decides to try for the 1994 Olympic team. Then the infamous incident occurs and her world spirals out of control. Whereas most documentaries about the incident show Harding to be the plotter of the vile deed, in “I, Tonya”, she knows nothing of the crime or its plans until it’s done.

Gillespie’s film is intense and engaging as it rapidly moves from being a comedy at one moment to a gruesome drama the next. Margot Robbie is excellent in the starring role, and she truly captures the mental distress and inner conflict the real Harding endured under so much outside pressure. Gillespie’s integration of documentary-style confessionals into the film (which are made to look identical to real documentaries of the incident) contrast how the story has been told for the past 20 years with what the film puts forth as truth. The hyperbolic style of the film, with characters breaking the fourth wall and the hyper-speed CGI spins performed by the skaters, would in any other case seem excessive and over-the-top. It works for this film because the exaggeration matches the magnitude of what was a national incident – as Harding’s character says near the end, she was the 2nd most known person in 1994.

via The Observer

In “I, Tonya”, Harding is not the enemy, the perpetrator, or even a collaborator. Instead, she is an innocent bystander – a woman simply caught up with the wrong people at the wrong time. This is perhaps the first time Harding has been humanized in a film; she is finally someone you can feel sympathy for because her backstory, her struggles, and the truth are brought out. In a way, the film lets Tonya tell her side of the story, and in doing so, finally gives her the fair shot she’s been asking for all her life.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 1/2

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Review: Jarmusch’s “Paterson” is Simply Charming


Paterson (Adam Driver) is not your typical movie protagonist, if only for the fact that he is so plain. His life is nothing special, and his days are spent so similarly that they eventually all blend together. Every morning he wakes up somewhere between 6 and 6:30 and goes to his job as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He spends his free time at lunch meditating on a waterfall in a local park and writing love poems inspired by symbols he sees in daily life (rain, twins) and the quirky conversations he overhears while on the bus. In the early evening he returns home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who seems to be pursuing a new artistic endeavor every day – one day she’s painting curtains that look like they’ve been designed by Yayoi Kusama, the next she’s baking and decorating cupcakes for a craft fair, and the day after that she’s teaching herself the guitar so she can become a country music star. Paterson and Laura live with their Marvin (credited as “Nellie” on IMDb), their charismatic bulldog, who Paterson walks every evening, always stopping off at the same pub to unwind for a few hours and occasionally helping the other regulars with their life issues.

“Paterson” is a very “Jarmusch” film – a slice-of-life picture about people who aren’t particularly special or gifted and the simple lives they lead with the slightest comedic touch. Jarmusch’s films are relatable because their characters are so unremarkable, and they bring us back to reality by reminding us that not everyone is doing something new and exciting as Instagram so often fools us into thinking (Paterson doesn’t even own a cell phone!). His characters are real people who aren’t beautiful, who may never move out of their small town, who may never make a dent on the world at large – and that’s okay. They’re happy with their lives as they are, and if they aren’t, they eventually get over it. It’s the simplicity of the film that helps us to see beyond all the surface details and remember what we’re always seemingly forgetting: that life doesn’t need to be perfect or grand to be good.

Jarmusch’s film is a beautiful musing on the importance of having and pursuing life dreams, and it is delivered charmingly. Adam Driver plays Paterson in an understated manner that one may mistake for indifference, but that perfectly fits the mood and style of the film. As Paterson walks the sunlit path to work each morning, he recites his poetry in his head and the words materialize on screen. The conversations between passengers on the bus are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s 1994 film Night on Earth, and reiterate the idea that everyone has problems, no matter how big or small, serious or petty. Jarmusch’s stylistic choices and subtlety of emotion make “Paterson”, which otherwise could have been a boring story, memorable and heartwarming.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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“Akerman’s Most Accessible”


On Thanksgiving Day, I curled up on the couch to watch a film while the aromatic smells of the holiday meal wafted into the living room from the kitchen. Looking to watch something with a lighter tone, I remembered that some kind soul had uploaded Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996) to YouTube, and decided it would be the perfect film for that day.


The film opens with the famous New York City skyline. Dr. Henry Harriston (William Hurt) is a therapist who is bored by his life and annoyed with being constantly bombarded by his patients’ phone calls in which they describe their fantasies and breakdowns in minute detail. Looking to add some excitement and freshness to his life, he takes out an ad in the paper for an anonymous apartment swap with someone in Paris. Beatrice Saulnier (Juliette Binoche) comes across the ad by chance and jumps at the opportunity to go to New York, and they both rush off to each other’s apartments with unfinished business left behind for each other to deal with. Henry arrives at Beatrice’s flat to a mess of dirty dishes and dirty laundry, and then must with more phone calls (the very thing he was trying to escape) from Beatrice’s many boyfriends. He is even attacked by one in the middle of the night, who he then hilariously counsels. Meanwhile, Beatrice explores the city, cares for Henry’s beautiful golden retriever , and offers her unprofessional but miracle-working advice to Henry’s patients. Exhausted by the language barrier and Beatrice’s boyfriends, Henry returns to New York to quit the apartment experiment, but by then Beatrice has become so absorbed in her role as his fill-in therapist and has even assigned her friend Anne (Stephanie Buttle) the position of receptionist. He is unable to “make an appointment” to see her, so he pretends to be a patient so he can get his apartment back, but his plans fall through when he ends up falling in love with Beatrice through their weekly heart to hearts. Henry keeps up the ruse until his true identity is eventually revealed …


This has been referred to by many as Chantal Akerman’s “most accessible” film. This is perhaps due to the fact that the dialogue is mostly in English or because it’s a simple rom-com with none of the deeper political or social commentaries most of her other films contain. I find that this is my least favorite film of all of the ones I’ve seen by Akerman so far because it lacks the social analyses that I loved so much in her other films. Binoche’s talent is wasted on a childish and clueless character who speaks in an affected high-pitched tone that is clearly not Binoche’s own and which only ceases being annoying after you get used to it halfway through the film. Hurt is dull, dull, dull, but I find him so in most films. The story is clever and cute and flows well, and I appreciate its understated romance that omits what I expected would be a cliché and melodramatic reveal at the end. Still, all the film can really offer is an hour and a half of entertainment. Fans of Akerman’s probably won’t care for this film as it appears to be her attempt at making a more mainstream picture and lacks the distinct qualities her other films have. It seems like Akerman tried to put her own twists and touches on this Hollywood love story, but the boring characters and empty acting combined with the conventional tale overpowered her efforts.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2

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Dean on the Big Screen

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset
The Film Forum’s poster display for the 60th anniversary of Giant, part of their retrospective on James Dean which included screenings of Rebel Without a Cause.

On Tuesday I went into New York City to see Rebel Without a Cause, part of the Film Forum’s retrospective on James Dean celebrating the 60th anniversary of Giant. They screened East of Eden and Giant as well, and boy, would I have loved to see Dean act in all three films on the big screen, but I could only fit in one show. Still, it was a magical experience watching him in all his glory in his most famous role as Jim Stark, possibly the most thoughtful rebel ever depicted in a film. Upon rewatching Nicholas Ray’s visually stunning picture, I was still irritated by some of its weaker plot points, but I saw the deeper side to the story that I’d overlooked the first time around.

The film revolves around Jim Stark (Dean), a lost teenager who must try to fit in as the new kid in town. All Jim really wants is to have a chance to make friends and feel accepted, but his parents make that impossible by packing up and moving every time he gets into the littlest of trouble. He also feels controlled by his mother and wishes his father would be more of a man and stand up to his mother’s erratic behavior. In the first few scenes of the film, Jim meets another misfit, Plato (Sal Mineo), a boy who has been essentially abandoned by both his parents, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who cries about her father no longer loving her as he did when she was a child. After a series of fights with their parents and run-ins with bullies, the three find themselves together and realize just how much they have in common. The cast also includes Jim Backus playing Jim’s hilariously clueless father, Corey Allen as the big, dumb bully Buzz, and Dennis Hopper as one of Buzz’s henchmen.


Nicholas Ray excellently captures the struggles of life as a teenager in this landmark film, one of the first in Hollywood to focus on middle-class suburban kids. I was most impressed by how cleverly written the film is, especially the dialogue. It feels true to how actual high schoolers would speak and isn’t loaded with forced jokes and one-liners that are found in similar, more modern films. The film reveals its depth with the conversations between characters, most notably in the opening scenes between Dean and the police officer. The acting is also superb, and Dean, Wood, and Mineo have incredible chemistry; their interactions are so genuine and portray the awkwardness that naturally occurs between young people (which can likely be attributed to Nicholas Ray allegedly allowing James Dean to improvise many scenes, with the rest of the actors then following Dean’s direction). The complex relationship Plato develops with Jim is fascinating, as Plato simultaneously loves him paternally, fraternally, and romantically, and the homosexual undertones of their interactions were certainly groundbreaking for the time. Jim plays the part of the teenage misfit beautifully, portraying a deeper and more vulnerable side that is rarely seen in comparable characters from other films.

The film is deliciously shot in Cinemascope, and the bright, beautiful colors that pop off the screen are such a sight to behold on the big screen. The film drifts from the hazy, artificially lit rooms of the police station to a bright blue sky on the first day of school and a high school crowd dressed in bold patterns to characters standing in the shadows of darkened rooms, offering us visuals that look like something straight out of Edward Hopper’s oil paintings. The angles of the camera are stunning as well: during the fight at the observatory, we see Buzz’s switchblade glisten as the sun catches it in the forefront, looming over Dean’s short stature in the background; in another scene, the camera rolls over 180 degrees to show Jim’s mother trot down the stairs as he rights himself on the couch after a tumultuous night out.


I found Judy’s backstory to be weakly and creepily written: a father stops loving his daughter simply because she’s growing up? The inference I draw from that is that her father must view her as a sex object because she’s a woman now and no longer a child, and to stop loving her would be to avoid any conflict that could arise. It’s understandably disturbing and frustrating for her, and she reconciles it through her romance with Jim, but I felt there could have been more to her personal conflict to make her a deeper character as the other two protagonists are. There are also a lot of corny bits in here that are clearly a product of the time which make the 50s seem super corny, and they make the film feel dated in parts. The fights between Jim and his parents were also a bit ridiculous, laughable, and over the top, and I felt the film could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes – the last scene feels rather drawn out (which I assume was an attempt at suspense, but a bad one at that).

Even so, at the time of its release Ray’s film offered a groundbreaking view of the personal hell each teenager eventually goes through. Though the film has its weak and melodramatic spots, overall it is a strong, well-written and well-acted picture that offers us some universal and ever-relevant messages: all anyone and everyone wants is to be loved and to find their place in the world.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 1/2

(Photos from my Instagram; GIFs from my Tumblr)
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