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The Five Keys to Understanding (Film) Criticism

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With the release of DC’s Suicide Squad, the gulf between audiences and critics has widened, at least momentarily. Audiences, the filmmakers and actors who worked on the film and the DC fanbase have reacted to the film’s critical paddling mostly by pushing back against the critics who took umbrage with things like the film’s pacing, characterizations, and….well everything, really. This isn’t the first time a film has sparked the audiences vs critics debate, or even the first DC movie, and whenever this happens, the same arguments seem to be brought up by the anti-critic contingent.

“Who are YOU to say what movies are good or bad? If you enjoy it, isn’t that what counts?”
“What do you want, it’s entertainment. Do you want all movies to be Citizen Kane?”
“Critics are just snobs who hate genre movies. They want to ruin everyone’s fun”

For film critics, it’s tiresome to see these same arguments trotted out year after year, especially since many of them are ridiculously off-base. These arguments all too often completely fail to understand the critical mindset, the value of criticism as a cultural practice, and even the nature of art itself. Or at the very least, mainstream narrative art. Bear in mind here that a great deal of what we’ll be talking about gets a little hazy when discussing a non-narrative and experimental film. The divide between audiences and critics seems most pronounced when it comes to North American narrative films, particularly summer blockbusters, so that’s primarily what we’ll be talking about here today.

And we’re here today because of these arguments, these misconceptions about critics, need to be put to rest. Film critics and audiences are on the same side. Both want to come out of every movie they see enriched and satisfied, either because they saw something intelligent and entertaining, or challenging and affecting. Perhaps even both at the same time.

So what do you need to know to understand and appreciate the critical mindset? Mostly it can be boiled down to five key points.

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Movies can be objectively bad

We’ve all seen bad movies. Movies that don’t make sense, movies with flat, unlikeable characters, movies where you can’t tell what’s going on in a given scene due to poor editing and camera work. It’s happened to everyone.

And yet, you’ll often come up against the argument, usually when someone else is defending a film, that there’s no such thing as a bad movie. Films are an art form, and therefore their quality is in the eye of the beholder. If you see a film and enjoy yourself, that’s all that matters.

This idea is, and this may be hard to hear, a fallacy. It’s simply untrue.

Very, very few art forms are truly and entirely subjective. Everything from film to music to games all has an element of craftsmanship to them, and this is especially true of a field as technical as film. A movie is composed of over a dozen elements working in harmony, and there’s room for objective failure in all of them, even if you may not be precisely aware of it. Just because you don’t see the failure doesn’t mean it isn’t there, although you may be noticing it on an almost subconscious level.

To show an example, let’s take a look at a system of editing known by many names, but for our purposes, we’ll call it the 180-degree rule. Let’s say a scene is depicting a conversation between two characters. Nothing fancy, just two folks talking. Now draw an imaginary line between them. The 180-degree rule states that the camera should always remain on one side of this line. Why? Because that way each character is consistently occupying one side of the screen, and facing in the same direction. It helps our brains keep a consistent mental image of where everyone is in the room and where they’re facing. If you break the rule “cutting across the axis”, then suddenly a character who was consistently on the left side of the screen facing right is now on the right side facing right, and for a moment your brain goes “wait, did they move? It looks like they’re talking to themselves”.

Film is full of little things like this, little mistakes that can make your brain skip for a second. Of course, this can also be done intentionally, but it has to be for a good reason, like keeping the viewer subtly off-kilter to make a horror film that much more tense and disorienting.

There are bad ways to tell a story, too. Your characters could contradict themselves, could be poorly defined, could lack a clear motivation. Your narrative could have logical gaps, or not have a consistent theme. You might not notice it at first glance, but it’s there, and I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the back of your brain, you’re going “wait, what?” and your enjoyment is being impacted in ways you may not realize.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about pretty much everything in entertainment. There’s a right way and a wrong way to try and excite someone, scare someone, make someone laugh. There’s a wrong way to present certain ideas, a wrong way to represent people. These right and wrong ways aren’t something that people decided upon, a set of rules written years ago by some secret cabal. They were defined over the course of literal centuries of trial and error. They are, in a very real way, objective.

This, however, opens up an uncomfortable possibility for a lot of people: it means you can be wrong about a film. You could think a film or similar piece of art is good, but be straight-up, flat-out incorrect. It’s not a fun position to be in, which is why many people deny that the possibility even exists.

But I have good news.

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You’re allowed to like bad movies

As I write this, I’m sitting just out of arm’s length from a carefully curated collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays. It contains many fine, high-quality pieces of cinema, like most of Kubrick’s filmography, some Herzog, genre classics like Back to the Future and Die Hard.….and also a fair number of straight-up bad movies. Have you ever seen Neon Maniacs? Absolutely atrocious film, but it’s also a total hoot to watch with some friends. How about a little number called Yor: The Hunter From the Future? Now therein lies some fun. My friend, have I ever introduced you to the films of David DeCoteau?

The point is, everyone likes some bad movies. Because while films do have objective quality, the SUBjective element, how we receive them, is also very important to consider. Art impacts us, it interacts with our memories and emotional makeup and a million other pieces of us and creates reactions that you can almost never predict. It doesn’t matter whether those reactions are even intentional or not, they’re there, and they’re valid.

Did you enjoy Suicide Squad? Did something about it tickle you just the right way? That’s cool. You’re allowed to be tickled by it, and no one else is allowed to give you crap for it. You’re not wrong for your feelings, and feelings are absolutely what we’re talking about here.

But what’s important is that you don’t confuse that positive subjective reaction with objective quality on the film’s part. Put plainly, “I liked it” is not a substitute for “It’s good”.

By the same coin, you can see a film of quality and high craftsmanship and have it leave you totally cold. It happens to film critics all the time. I feel a certain satisfaction from seeing a beautifully crafted film, but a film has to appeal to me on a personal level as well if it’s going to leave me bouncing off the walls with joy afterward.

The key is to keep both in mind because both are vital components of appreciating a film. For a long while, film critics were taught to ignore their subjective reaction to a film, favoring a totally objective view. Critics are only now getting out of this mindset, mixing their subjective reaction to a film along with their take on its objective quality. But many audience members and critic-bashers still seem to be caught at the opposite end of the spectrum, valuing subjective personal reaction above all else. This is how we got to the state of things where our last point became a necessary point to make. Many people still hold that objective quality doesn’t exist in film and that personal reaction is all that matters. But this kind of absolutist approach is just as harmful as saying that the objective quality of a film is all that should be considered in your personal appraisal of it.

Film is both a craft and an art form, and as such both the objective quality and its impact on the viewer are both valid talking points. To say that art is entirely in the eye of the beholder is false, but to deny the importance of how a particular film speaks to the viewer is also false. Both sides of the equation need to be kept in mind when appraising a film, separate but still side-by-side.

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Criticism is not an attack

This is important. This is SO important, you have no idea. Accepting this truth, if you haven’t already, may be one of the most important truths you can accept.

Let’s say you like a thing. A movie, a game, whatever. And someone comes along and says “I think this thing isn’t actually good, or needs improvement, or has some harmful qualities”. Is this person attacking the thing you like? And by extension, are they attacking YOU?

No. A thousand million times, NO.

The human being is a tribal animal. We collect ourselves into groups, tribes, clans. They can be focused on a strong leader figure, a place, a lifestyle, an object, and yes, a cultural artifact like a film. We organize ourselves into groups, like almost tribalistic fandoms, turning differences into disputes, and interpreting any word against the unifying element as an attack both on ourselves and the thing we’ve united around.

This is such a dangerous mindset and really one of the most consistently dangerous of human tendencies. For one thing, as we’ll discuss in the final point, criticism is most often a call for improvement, rather than destruction. A critic doesn’t want to destroy the thing they’re criticizing, they want it to be better than it currently is. Perhaps the way in which they want it to be better is different from the way you want it to be better. Perhaps you feel it doesn’t need improvement at all and is perfect the way it is.

If this is the case, take a breath and remind yourself that this isn’t a battle. It’s a discussion, and a calmly reasoned argument will serve you better than anger. The person criticizing the thing you love isn’t a “hater” or a “troll”. Odds are they love it just as much as you do, that’s why they want to make it better. More on that later.

It’s this tribal mentality that also leads to people interpreting criticisms of their passions, hobbies, interests, etc, as attacks on themselves. We identify our love for things as a part of ourselves, which is totally natural. Our passions make us who we are, in part at least. But your passion for something and the thing itself are entirely separate, and when someone criticizes one, they aren’t criticizing the other. Like video games? That’s great. But if someone says that videogames have some problems that should be addressed, that isn’t a commentary on you. Getting defensive about it as though you’ve been subjected to a personal attack is how debates and disagreements escalate into harassment or worse.

Remember point number two: you’re allowed to like whatever you want and no one is allowed to throw grief on you for it, that’s not what criticism is about. You’re more than welcome to (calmly, rationally) defend the thing you love.

But you’re not fighting a war when you do so, you’re having a discussion, and bear in mind that part of a discussion is listening. Because….

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Some opinions are worth more than others

Critics often get asked “Who are YOU to decide what’s good and what’s bad? What gives YOU the right?”. There are a lot of answers, but ultimately the one to bear in mind is this: movie critics, especially the successful ones, are people who know a LOT about movies.

Critics are, usually by trade, lifelong cinephiles. They’re the kind of people who watch more movies in a month than many people watch in a year. They watch the good movies and the bad movies, and the plentiful, plentiful mediocre movies, and in doing so develop a very good sense of what ingredients go into each kind. They learn how to notice those little things, like those rules of editing and other marks of craftsmanship we discussed before. The things that most people may only notice as a subtle feeling that something doesn’t jive, a seasoned critic will see highlighted with giant neon letters.

Critics, through years of experience, develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t, because as we’ve already discussed, there’s a right way and wrong way to do a lot of things in movies. Critics, by and large, are good at spotting these things, as well as spotting a movie with unique and interesting elements to them, because they’ve been made (painfully) aware of what the norm is. Innovation, bear in mind, is something that’s hard to spot when you don’t have a sense of what constitutes the average or unremarkable.

To look at it from another angle: I know nothing about music, popular or otherwise. I don’t listen to the radio, or know much about who’s popular today or why. I don’t know what constitutes a good song beyond what I personally find catchy. My reception of most music is rooted entirely in subjective reaction. If you tell me that a given song is subverting a genre, doing something interesting with harmonies or melodies, or that the baseline is notably complex and multilayered, I’ll more or less have to take your word for it.

But if you ask me what’s interesting about the camera work in Mad Max: Fury Road, the depictions of gender relations in Ex Machina or what makes a given film subvert or conform to a given set of tropes or genre expectations, I’m your man. Why? Because I have a vast pool of reference from which to draw. I know what devices are overused because I’ve seen them a million times, and I know when something’s fresh and original, because if anyone’s seen it before it’ll be me. I can spot tired, cliched character types because I’ve met them before, and often. I can look at a given fight scene and tell you if it’s especially well-crafted because I’ve seen plentiful examples of what works and what doesn’t.

Which means that yes, the judgment of a seasoned film critic does hold more weight than that of an average or casual moviegoer. Critics, through their experience, are in a better position to identify a film as noteworthy or interesting, and critics will often spot problems that will go over the head of the average viewer. Every field has its experts, the people with the background and knowledge to view something from as informed a perspective as possible. When it comes to film, those people are film scholars and critics.

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Critics want the same things you want

Why do we criticize? Why do people, both professionally and in an amateur capacity, take to the internet and numerous other sources to offer our insight on various forms of media, in this case, film? Is it because we’re joyless, fun-hating grumps? Is it because we’re misanthropic trolls whose only source of pleasure is verbally tearing down the work of others?

No.

Or at least, not in the vast majority of the time. Every profession or calling has its bad apples, the people who are doing it for the wrong reasons or from a completely wrong-headed mindset. But when it comes to people who identify and are identified as critics, people who are known for it, people who consider criticism to be their bag, the overwhelming majority of crits do what we do for one simple reason:

We love movies. Deeply. Passionately. We want to see movies be the best they can be. We want every trip to the cinema to be a satisfying one, either because we see something that challenges us and moves us or because we just want to have a fun time.

Yes, fun. Critics like fun. They don’t want every movie to be Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Oddysey. Who in their right mind would? Can you imagine a world more boring, where every single film is a completely straight-faced, serious-minded piece of capital-a Art? Where nothing explodes, where no one tells a joke, where you have to watch a movie at least five times to even get it on a basic level? Nobody wants that.

Most critics, especially these days when the critical field is dominated by website-jockeys who grew up watching Star Wars, Jaws, Die Hard, and similar genre classics, are the biggest supporters you could find of big, loud popcorn crunchers. And what we want out of our entertainment is really the same thing everyone else wants.

We want the action to be exciting and interesting.
We want the characters to be complex and multifaceted.
We want to see something we’ve never seen before.
We want it to be technically proficient.
We want to connect with it on an emotional level, if only to the most fleeting degree.
We want films that feel like they were made with love and enthusiasm by the people who made them.

None of these things, not a single blistering one, precludes a film from being fun. And no one, not critics or audiences, will have their enjoyment ruined by these qualities being present. No one’s ever come out of a movie saying “I hated it, the characters were too interesting” or “It bored me to tears, I could tell what was going on during the fight scenes”. The things that cause critics enjoyment, when it comes to Hollywood at least, are the same things that cause audiences enjoyment. We just have a better knack for telling when those qualities are absent.

You might think these qualities are wholly subjective, but they aren’t. You might think that by pointing out the flaws or shortcomings of a film or cultural object we’re attacking it, and you for loving it, but we aren’t. You might think that we don’t want you to have fun, but we do.

Let me leave you with one last thought. Film criticism is less about the film at hand and more about whatever comes next. Because of the goal of film criticism, and really any criticism, is not to change the present, but the future. When someone says “this could be better”, it’s not an attempt at censoring or changing the thing in front of us, but encouraging improvement. The hope of every critic is that creators read what they wrote, or hear what they said, and take it to heart when they create something next time. And that by doing so, that creator creates something better than what they did before. Because yes, sometimes through the benefit of their unique perspective and experience, a critic is in the best position to recognize how something can be improved.

Sometimes, for all our occasional hyperbole or pomposity, we know what we’re talking about.

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Booski

    September 12, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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Film

‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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