With Valentine’s Day almost around the corner and with Fifty Shades Darker about to hit the theatres,I decided to make an alternative list of filmsfor all of us who don’t celebrate this annual “holiday” that is, let’s face it, the embodiment of everything that is wrong with contemporary consumerist society.
If you’re here for films such as Nicolas Sparks’s clichéd romantic dramas, young adult love stories such as The Spectacular Now or Paper Towns, British tear-jerkers such as Me Before You, ultimate crying out loud classics such as Titanic or feminist (but not really) films about “female empowerment” such as Trainwreck, this list probably won’t be for you. But if you’re up for something different, real, at times depressing and edgy… then there’s no doubt that you’ll find something perfect for February 14th on the list.
Deep in the woods and far away from American capitalistic society, plagued with culture of consumerism, materialism and narcissism, Ben Cash, a patriarch and a father, is raising his six children. Surrounded by nothing but trees, rivers and mountains, his family is living in an unconventional and self-sufficient micro-utopia, based in their unanimous and unconditional refusal of living in what they call “capitalistic fascism”. Refusing to live in a society controlled by money and material goods, they instead form a highly routinised, but entirely self-sufficient way of living, where nothing but demanding physical routines, exercising of survival techniques and extensive, in-depth learning of maths, physics, literature and philosophy fill their daily schedule.
Science fiction is a genre too often misunderstood as something entirely fictional and futuristic. But if we dig deep and undress the carefully constructed metaphors (such as the presence of aliens, monsters and human mutants) we will find that the foundation of such films is always a commentary on our contemporary world. Somewhere under the surface, between the lines, science-fiction is always addressing our political, socio-economic or environmental situation, tapping into our collective fears and with a cathartic ending reassuring us that, no matter what dangers the humanity faces in a certain socio-historical moment, everything is going to work out just fine. Whether it is a sci-fi movie from the Cold War era, influenced by the nuclear threat and fear of communist Russia taking over the world, a post 9/11 alien-invasion movie that taps into people’s fear of terrorist attacks, or an environmental catastrophe movie from the early 2000’s when the reality and undeniable threat of global warming entered into our collective consciousness – there is always an important correlation between a science fiction story and an era in which it was made, even if such films do not always approach these subjects in the most impartial and non damaging way. But this is where Arrival so extraordinarily stands out from alien films that we have seen in the past, proving itself to be one of the most outstanding and humanist science fiction films of the past decade.
We all too often forget what an important educational role films can have, how much we can learn from them, how they can shape our opinions and how they can sometimes even shatter the existing social, national and religious barriers, giving us a better and more emphatic understanding of the world outside of the cultural bubble we were born into. Of course films can also do the opposite: reinforce the Eurocentric world-views, stereotypes about marginalized groups, problematic ideologies and socially constructed gender roles. It is precisely because of that that it is so wrong to view films as a simple form of entertainment; something that helps us to shut down our brain while watching meaningless action-infused CGI. Films always, even when we do not necessarily realize it, carry important social, cultural and/or political subtexts that often have an influence on our perception of the world. This why it is crucial to expose children and teenagers to good, informative, thought-provoking, although maybe not always easy to process cinematic experiences. And not only that: to also teach them how to watch films, how to read cinematic codes, how to interpret the story and how to reflectively and critically discuss about the film medium. There is undoubtedly still a long and challenging journey ahead of us before we will succeed at making film studies a respected part of a school curriculum, but Eye On Film is indeed one of the first and very much important steps into the right direction.
Putting micro-societal life under a microscope seems to be the territory where Vinterberg excels the most – whether he is testing complicated family bonds in an unsettling and uncompromisingly complex Dogme 95 film Festen, or examining a small community that has its strength and tolerance tested by an innocent lie in The Hunt. After temporarily leaving his typical thematic area by exploring Victorian England in last year’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, he has now returned to his native Denmark and adapted one of his stage plays into what may be his most personal film yet.
Partly inspired by Vinterberg’s own upbringing in a hippie commune in the 70’s, it explores the ups and downs of a social experiment where multiple families try to live under the same roof, living by the principles of direct democracy where each of them, no matter the age, gender or monthly income, has an equal say, where everyone’s vote (including children’s) counts and where everyone’s opinion is heard and acknowledged. At least that seems to be the original idea. However, some of the members, their good intentions aside, seem to be far from immune to expanding individualism that is tearing down the collective spirit of the 70’s hippie era and things soon turn awry as some of them start to put their own aspirations and self-fulfilments before the collective good.
Erik and Ana (Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm) are a middle-aged couple with a teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) who find themselves at a crossroad after Erik inherits a mansion-like family house, clearly too big for a family of three to live there by themselves. Erik’s initial reaction is to sell it, but Ana seems to have something very different in mind: why wouldn’t they invite some friends to live with them instead? This way they could share all the expenses while also enjoy the company of interesting individuals. However I otherwise support this way of living, this has to be read as the first alarm of what is yet to become of their marriage, since the decision is not instantly unanimous and Erik, otherwise an architecture professor, needs some convincing by his wife whose main reason of establishing a commune is the need to fill a gap that started to spread through their marriage. Since Erik likes to repeat his stories and hardly ever says something interesting or surprising anymore, she wants to expand their “family” to enrich their dinner conversations – the commune is therefore hardly the reason for their marriage to fall apart, for their relationship starts to disintegrate long before any of the new house members moves into their communal home.
The first to join them is Ole, their old nomadic friend who moves into the house with nothing but a bag of clothes and leftist literature. The next addition to the family is a couple with a sick child, then there is promiscuous Mona and a foreigner Allon who barely speaks Danish, is prone to cry whenever he gets upset and has problems holding a job for more than a few weeks. Together they make a weird and interesting group of people that seem to thoroughly entertain Ana, while bringing nothing but frustration to Erik who starts to feel like his voice is no longer heard. And as most men who feel like their ego has been neglected, he turns for attention elsewhere. However, what was supposed to be a meaningless fling with one of his students ends up turning into a full-on affair. But it is not until his daughter accidentally walks in on him that he decides to come clean to the rest of the household, which throws the entire family, as well as the film itself, into a downward spiral of messy emotions and melodrama.
I would have wished for a fuller and more substantial development of the supporting characters, but as the film progresses they slowly start to fade into the background instead, clearing the battleground for the initial family members. It is now Erik who ties to push their social experiment even further by suggesting that he and his new girlfriend Emma should move in the commune while his wife is still living there – and it is here that the film starts to delve into melodrama all too frequently. But Dyrholm nonetheless manages to give a fantastic and nuanced performance as a woman who is trying to be open-minded about her husband’s affair, trying to accept and befriend his new woman, but gradually breaks down and completely falls apart, losing her job and family along the way.
There is one event in particular that shows how direct democracy, while great in theory, does not really work when people entitled to a vote do not perceive one another as entirely equal. After Erik’s initial proposition of Emma and him moving in, the rest of the household appears to be hesitant; they can see Anna’s poor mental condition and they don’t think their moving in would be good for an open and carefree communal life that they have established. Them voting Erik and Emma out of the house is, of course, the right call. However, this vote could have counted only if all of them would indeed be equal, without anyone having the authority over everyone else – which, of course, is not the case. This is, after all, Erik’s house – he is the owner who was prepared to cooperate at their decision making until he found himself in danger of getting thrown out of his home by people who moved in to help maintain the house and share the expenses. It is also Erik and Ana who are paying for the majority of the bills since they are the only ones with steady and well-paid jobs, while others hardly contribute anything when it comes to money. And it is here that their experimental way of living finally shows its messed-up baseline: not everyone’s voice can be equally important and equally heard if they are not, in fact, equal. For complete social equality to exist, economic equality needs to be achieved first – because as long as some will own and earn unproportionally more than the rest they will undoubtedly perceive themselves as more entitled to making decisions and expressing opinions. This scene may not be one of the most memorable in the film, but it is, in my opinion, a crucial one, for it is here that the hierarchy among the members of the commune is established and where democracy as well as their somewhat socialistic way of living, is finally and irreversibly defeated.
As we came to expect from Vinterberg, this is an excellent and engaging study of family dynamics, as well as of power relations and possibilities of collective living in general. How far are we prepared to go at making our private affairs public, of collectively making our life decisions? Of sharing everything we own and putting collective needs above our own? Not very far, is what Vinterberg is trying to show us – and this message seems to resonate even more in today’s world of beastly capitalism.
The Basics: Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg Written by: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen Running Time: 111 minutes Year: 2016 Rating: 7
This film was supposed to be about the worst superheroes ever – about the bad-ass, chaotic, nihilistic criminals who are brought together to fight an even bigger, other-wordly evil that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. But as it turns out, they’re hardly anything of the above. Sure, they’re criminals – something that the film quickly establishes by letting us know they are all in high-protection Louisiana prison. But where’s all the chaos, anarchy, things spinning out of control when these inexplicably bad guys get set free? They’re far from the “worst heroes ever”, as Amanda Waller introduces them before turning them into her soldiers – not only that, they can hardly even pass as actually being bad. And as if that’s not enough, the film seems to be disturbingly aware of that for we are constantly reminded that they are, in fact, dangerous and evil, working on the wrong side of the law. “We’re the bad guys!” Harley Quinn points out defensively when she stops in front of the store window to steal a purse – just in case we forgot because based on their actions they seem anything but.
The film is an inconsistent mess that, as the story progresses, makes less and less sense. Perhaps one of the biggest questions that the film doesn’t manage to answer is why Waller actually puts the group of unrehabilitated criminals together, since the negotiations leading to their release happen before the biggest evil of them all, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) escapes from her captivity. Waller’s shady persona is otherwise perfectly captured by Viola Davis, but as far as the plot is concerned, we hardly ever know what her motivations are or where are her constant manipulations supposed to lead.
That being said, perhaps the biggest problem I had with the film is how it is supposed to be about the members of the Suicide Squad, yet it fails to let us know who they are actually supposed to be. Only Deadshot and Harley Quinn (and to a lesser extent, Diablo) manage to rise above the rest of the crew with flashback stories that give us some minimal insight into their personal life and that, as a result, also reveal the more human side of their criminal persona. Sure, the human part makes them weaker and more vulnerable, but it also establishes them as real characters, while the rest of the group ends up being somewhat forgettable and in retrospect quite insignificant.
Will Smith does a good enough job portraying Deadshot, but the one that really and uncompromisingly stands out has to be Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Margot perfectly captures her disturbing joyfulness, unpredictability and chaotic tendencies and manages to lift the character beyond the “hot but crazy chick” that she could easily become would this part end up in someone else’s hands, since most of the remarks made by other squad members made it crystal clear that she wasn’t supposed to be much more than a sexualized object whose presence was primarily to visually please the male audience. And director’s numerous close-up shots of her bending down in the tiniest hot pants was simply another proof that she wasn’t meant to be much more than a caricature of a frat boy’s wet dream.
If David Ayer managed to spend half as much time on establishing and exploring her character as he did on close-ups of her overly-exposed ass this would have been a much better film. However, portrayed as she is, she never manages to establish herself as anything else but Joker’s counterpart, as her whole existence, her every act, seems to be for and because of him. And even Margot’s charisma and undeniable talent can’t help much about the fact that her character simply does not have her own identity.
When the film finally tries to give us some insight into Harley’s head it once again manages to fail. When crossing paths with the Enchantress, each member of the squad starts hallucinating their deepest desires and life-goals due to her unlimited magic powers and this results in a unique opportunity to see into Harley’s subconscious; to see past her current madness and into the person, a psychiatrist, that she once was. And to my complete bewilderment this subconscious dream was Harley living a perfect little family life right from some 50’s lifestyle catalogue for women, while being married and having kids with Joker. The hallucination didn’t make any sense – even Deadshot, otherwise obsessed with getting back to his daughter, imagines defeating Batman and not being with his family. Where did this dream came from? If anything, her dream should be about escaping the suffocating power that Joker has over her – about breaking free from the psychologically and physically abusive relationship they are in. This would open up doors to establish her as a character that could exist on her own, as well as address the problem of domestic violence that their dysfunctional love life clearly represents. The film thus makes a poor choice of portraying their love story as a romantic one, because it is anything but. They are far from being equal partners in crime, Bonnie and Clyde of Gotham City. They are more like Sid and Nancy, where madness is their heroin and where Nancy eventually ends up dead due to a stab wound.
“I sleep when I want, where I want and with whomever I want” Harley points out at the very beginning of the film, as if this is somehow the core idea of female empowerment. But there is hardly anything empowering about her – true, she walks around with a baseball bat, but below her smudged make-up and pantless cheerleader appearance she is hardly anything else but a damaged, vulnerable and, as far as her hidden core values go, conservative character who is unable to break free from a destructive and abusive relationship.
Jared Leto does a fairly good job as the Joker, but since he went all Method-acting for a year (which resulted in a few disturbing on-set incidents that I wouldn’t mind characterising as harassment) I need to point out that there wasn’t a moment where I would forget that I am watching Leto desperately trying to fill Heath Ledger’s shoes. This was one, albeit perfectly adequate, very self-aware performance and all the publicity that was made due to his unprecedented commitment to the role just shows how unproportional Leto’s ego is compared to his acting abilities since he won an Oscar.
However, the weakest link of the film and where the story really fails to engage has to be the character of Enchantress. An ancient magical spirit that possesses the body of an archaeologist June Moone has to be one of the least interesting villains I have ever seen on screen and Cara Delevingne’s poor acting doesn’t help to lift this character above cringe-worthily awful. Her army of blobby faceless creatures also doesn’t manage to make things interesting and what we’re essentially left with is a messy and inconsistent story that threw all the potential of elevating this genre to something different and potentially more interesting out of the window.
The Basics: Directed by: David Ayer Written by: David Ayer (based on a comic book by John Ostrander) Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne Running Time: 123 minutes Year: 2016 Rating: 4
Lou Clark with her naive happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be a British variation of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – her main purpose in this awful film is, after all, to bring happiness and the will to live to the male protagonist; something that she is supposed to achieve with her kooky style, unrealistically positive outlook on life and a constant smile on her face (that in all honesty makes her look more mentally unstable than anything else). It all begins when she unexpectedly loses her job at the bakery where she got stuck working for far too long and starts searching for a new employment. Her being from a working-class family and completely unqualified for most of the jobs on the market doesn’t make it easy for her to figure out what to do next – this is until the aristocratic family of the region doesn’t call out in need of an assistant.
It is the Prince Charming who recently suffered from an incident that gradually comes to the rescue to our Manic Pixie Cinderella. And while the film leads us into believing that it is all about Lou showing him the meaning and joys of life, it soon shifts into something very different. For it is ultimately him, the aristocratic son, who shows her what life is really about: foreign films, classical movies and exotic travels. He shows her how fantastic and more fulfilling life is among the “cultivated”, richer and privileged – and it is far from surprising that she eventually ends up falling in love with him (or rather, with the life that he represents).
Now, I do not want to imply that it is impossible to fall in love with a disabled person – but I do want to point out how utterly ridiculous and unnecessary the choice to make the quadriplegic character an English aristocrat was. I would guess that most of the people who were unfortunate enough to have had an illness or an accident that left them in a wheelchair do not belong to the 1%, nor do they have a family who has the means to re-build their entire house and change the stables (!) into a new apartment where everything is easily accessible. While the film would certainly like us to believe that it is about quadriplegia and the impossibly complex question of life and death that such a condition usually brings with it, I do not believe that this is the case here. Him being in a wheelchair seems more like a plot-device that helps Lou’s character to develop and that makes us somewhat more invested into the love story that would never had happened if it weren’t for his unfortunate condition (since it is more than obvious that he would not have spend a minute of his time with this simple, uneducated, overly-nice and naive girl if he would still have been his old, healthy self).
Lou (played by Emilia Clarke) is a plain and uninteresting character that does not do much but spend time with her family and her self-involved boyfriend. She does not seem to have friends outside of this circle of people and she sure does not seem to have any interests in life (besides fashion; the most stereotypical female interest there is). She is also one of the least independent women I have seen portrayed in cinema lately – the kind of a woman who lets men to take her for granted and who never expresses her discomfort or disagreement because she does not want to offend anybody. And it is not until she meets a sarcastic, cynical, well-educated, well-travelled and rich beyond our comprehension Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin) that she reaches her full potential and blossoms into a curious and exciting new woman who leaves her old life behind and moves to Paris. She is a modern-day Cinderella and she needed her Prince Charming to be able to transform from the simple girl that let people walk all over her into a woman that does what she wants. She needed the Prince to be able to escape from her simple-minded athlete of a boyfriend and a family that was keeping her stuck in her unexciting hometown. So, despite the all-women crew that worked behind the camera and despite the novel being written by a woman as well, this movie ends up being just another story where a woman needs a man to succeed in life.
At least they do not get their happily ever after, something that I thought would somehow save this insufferable tearjerker. However, it turned out that even his death could not have saved the film. I do believe that euthanasia should be a possible option for all people who are not able to end their own life – however, this is a very complex matter and a very hard choice to make for each individual; something that the film does not emphasize at all. For Will living is not an option, not ever. I would have expected this decision being approached to more delicately, as I would also preferred the film to focus on his decision-making process and not only on the furious reactions of people around him, unable to accept his (selfish, at least from the film’s point of view) decision. We do not get to know him well enough to know what exactly is it that makes his life so insufferable – is it the awful feeling of being a burden to the people around him? Or is it really just because he cannot return to Paris for his ego cannot handle Parisian women not turning around anymore when he would pass them on the sidewalk? Because he cannot go skiing in the Swiss Alps anymore? Or go sky-diving? And jumping off a cliff? Because if so, this is a shitty reason; he has done and seen more things in his 20+ years than most people will ever do in their lifetime. And they do not seem to commit suicide over that. The bottom line is therefore this: His reasons for not wanting to live anymore seemed superficial and ultimately disrespectful to all disabled people who deserved a better portrayal as well as a more meaningful contribution to the conversations and dilemmas about euthanasia and assisted death.
The Basics: Directed by: Thea Sharrock Written by: Jojo Moyes (based on her novel) Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis Running Time: 110 minutes Year: 2016 Rating: 2