Tag Archives: meaning

Brutal, Disturbing, Vicious & Poignant — “The Gift”

Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Understated performances never get their due.

The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.

Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.

The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.

The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.

I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.

Jason Bateman in The Gift
Jason Bateman plays a subtler form of toxic masculinity.

Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.

Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.

For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.

All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.

The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.

One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Gift have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes.

This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.

The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.

It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.

It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.

The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?

For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.

Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.

The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”

The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.

Where did we get our awesome images? The featured image is from Entertainment Weekly’s brief review. The 2 in-article images are from Vanity Fair’s interview with Rebecca Hall.

Have You Heard… “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol?

Songs of 2014 – “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol

by S.L. Fevre

If Jay-Z is the Catholic Church of rap gods, old, opulent, and claiming to be the one and only true choice, then Kanye is Jesus. Kanye sacrificed himself to redeem the rest of the gangsta rap gods’ sins – champagne, bitches, guns. He killed the image by burning down his own.

Now, rap is a post-apocalypse of movements trying to build from the ashes. That’s not a negative. Rap is the only genre looking at itself and not liking what it sees. Its soul is being freed from a withering body. This year, rap started believing it can change the world again.

Have everything you’ll ever want? That’s too bad. Today, extravagance is a maladjustment, and boasting only assures others how ashamed you are.

“Au Revoir” opens by boasting about Chancellor Warhol’s stuff, like the “Look at all my shit” moment in Spring Breakers, but it’s not long before he’s confessing his sins (“If you did the shit I did you’d pray for a son, too”) and denying himself via REM (“I’m losing all religion, I think that’s me in the corner”). He tries to justify his excess to God:

“Please Lord forgive me for being Lord of the Flies
But I remember the days I couldn’t afford to buy,
Couldn’t afford to drive, couldn’t afford a ride,
I couldn’t afford the bus or the time passing me by.
Is it too much to ask to chill with model faces?
Ass in high-waisted, feeling they highly wasted.
Know it sound shallow for avant garde,
But I’m from Les Miserables where they learning to rob.”

He admits to God that he’s making up for lost time, and trying to make his earlier struggle feel worthwhile by rewarding himself with excess. This is directly followed with:

“Take the Tokyo Sonatas play em over Sinatras,
I’m trying to take all my sins and turn em in to an opera.”

Tokyo Sonata is the award-winning Japanese film in which an unemployed father pretends to remain employed in front of his family. Similarly, Chancellor Warhol is chasing icons in order to be one, trying to fulfill a gangsta rap image that’s a lie. What’s worse, he’s created this from personal experiences both real and imagined.

Juhi’s beautifully sung chorus keeps returning to challenge him:

“Time is forever, momentary bliss
Now how can you last with a heart like this?”

The closing repetition,

“Who’s gonna save me now
Cause I’m so underwater now,”

reveals how lost he feels in a world made up of image and disposable things – guns, cars, people.

Casey Culver’s exceptional music video reflects this when Chancellor Warhol boasts about all his possessions in the middle of a desert. At the end, he and Juhi wander populated city streets without making any human connection.

The words “Au Revoir” themselves don’t just refer to a character’s contemplation of suicide at the end. They say goodbye to a certain image and way of life in rap. Chancellor Warhol recognizes not just how badly mainstream rap has taught young men, but how much achieving that rap god image can take away from the artist himself. It’s time to retake rap before it kills itself, he says. I agree.

Have You Heard… is a stream of song recommendations, many of which may be new to you. It’s also the kind of analysis that’s missing in a music industry obsessed with image and celebrity instead of the music itself.

Why “Gotham” is So Damn Good

Gotham lead

by Gabriel Valdez

We’re three episodes into Gotham on Fox. I didn’t expect it to be good. I thought I’d watch a few episodes of something trying way too hard to be stylish and then I’d give up. It would forever fade from memory and every once in a while someone would ask, “Remember when they tried to make Gotham?” and we’d both laugh before forgetting about it again.

How wrong I was, and how glad I am to be that wrong. Gotham is the best new show on TV. It’s the best thing Fox has running and, if it keeps this up, it’s going to be the best show on TV, period.

It poses the story of how Gotham grew from a corrupt city to the noir ideal it is in every version of Batman. The first episode handles the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and the origins of a young Penguin and Catwoman are already well underway.

All the Gothams before this one have reflected in some way a fantastical city full of our darkest and deepest fears. Whether it’s the 60s modern art lampoon, Frank Miller’s echo of cyberpunk, the dark 90s cartoon that messed with my childhood, or Christopher Nolan’s path-to-a-third-world-country take, Gotham has always felt several steps away from reality, as much fantasy as noir.

Gotham id ego superego

This Gotham is no different in presentation, with lush backdrops, neon highlights, and early morning/late afternoon Blade Runner backlighting – my god, if I lived in Gotham, I’d make a fortune just manufacturing blinds. What the showrunners have recognized, however, is that there’s no need to exaggerate Gotham’s corruption anymore. Corporate monopolies in bed with organized crime, paying off the government through media buys while the cops beat confessions out of whomsoever’s unlucky enough to be standing by? That’s not noir fantasy anymore, that’s an evening watching the news.

The villains may be fantastic, but the internal struggles of characters like Jim Gordon and young Bruce Wayne? That’s the same frustration we see echoed across our news feeds as we read about the climate, cops shooting kids, water burning out of fracked cities’ pipes.

Though the first episode deals with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, by the end it’s painted a picture of how organized crime relies upon law & order to function most effectively. One isn’t possible without the other.

The second episode, “Selina Kyle,” involves villains snatching children off the street, but by the end of the episode – I’ll avoid major spoilers – it’s not what the villains planned for the children, but what the city does with them, that’s most haunting. They use the threat as justification for taking all the homeless youth off the street and effectively imprisoning them “for their safety.” The public goes along – keeping kids safe sounds good, but in the back of our heads, we’ve been taught streets with less poor people is safer for us. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, regardless of imprisoning children without due process…we go along with it. There’s enough in us to justify it.

Gotham Selina Kyle

This reminds me of the seizure of flooded, low-income property in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, evacuated homeowners only returning to the city to find the administration had changed the law to seize all they owned and shove out the poor. “To protect citizen’s property.” It reminds me of justifications of war to “make the world safer” and “spread democracy” and our first order of business being to sell off another country’s oil fields. It reminds me of Pennsylvania days ago cutting benefits to teachers and forcing them to pay for their classrooms’ textbooks, while it maintains its far more expensive $1.7 billion tax giveaway to Shell in order “to create jobs.”

All good messages. All just enough to make too many nod their heads and go along. Maybe we don’t like it, but…we’ll suffer it.

By Gotham‘s third episode, “The Balloonman,” a vigilante has already arrived on the scene. The point isn’t that he murders a Wall Street tycoon who bilked his investors, a corrupt cop, and a Cardinal who fooled around with children. The point is that his existence is a direct result of actions taken in the second episode.

Yeah, Gotham gets its style right, Jada Pinkett Smith is killing it as Fish Mooney, and Donal Logue gives the best portrayal of corrupt-because-he’s-lazy cop Harvey Bullock we’re ever going to get, but Gotham understands it no longer needs to embellish corruption. The heroes and villains may be supersized, but the reasons for these crimes, a government’s reaction to them…the similarities to our own world are too stark to ignore. You could call this The Shock Doctrine: The Series and it wouldn’t be inaccurate.

Gotham conscience

Let’s take Bullock for a minute. He’s true to the character I knew on the 90s cartoon. Driven by his gut, constantly complaining through mouthfuls of something greasy, willing to beat a suspect, always taking the easiest clue even when it clearly misleads…but when he’s reminded and encouraged, his heart is able to find the right place. Partnering him with Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the show’s ethical code since there isn’t a Batman yet, means that he’s always being reminded and encouraged.

It’s easier to identify with Bullock than with Gordon, though. Gordon is a boy scout. He’s straight-laced, tortured, and intense. Bullock’s the one who knows everybody worth knowing, who can kick his feet up and relax (even when he’s on the job), and who can make you laugh.

This contrast only helps hammer home Gotham‘s point all the more. Here we are, presented with a man who’s giving, involved, trying to do what’s right, and risking his neck for it. We identify with his lazy partner. It’s a genius move on Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller’s part to not just make Bullock the comic relief, but the beating heart of the show. We’re going to worry more if something happens to him than to Gordon.

It’s a critique on its audience, and on the broader values of American culture right now. We’re more like Bullock, it challenges, and we watch the Gordons get swallowed under every day.

Gotham ethics

Look, that’s not going to be racing through your mind as you watch. The show is a design triumph. It features actors just on the right side of hamming it up (some overacted moments in the pilot are drawn back quickly). The music is phenomenal, and weird in all the right places. The plots are solid, but more crucially, the pacing is superb – we get a stylish procedural every week, movement on three origin stories and a larger gang war arc, and there’s still usually time for an Alfred or Gordon monologue. Gotham might have the best pure pacing on TV.

(Compare that to The Strain, where a character can start sneezing and doesn’t finish until we’re reminded he exists five episodes later.)

Gotham – like a Batman movie – even offers opportunities for stately actors to come in and put the pedal to the metal as guest villains for an episode. Lili Taylor’s over-friendly knitter is a joy to behold in the second episode.

You won’t sit down to watch and think, Gordon and Bullock are an analogue for my own internal struggle between intervening and passively accepting. But they are, and you may think about it later, and that struggle – both in the show and in every one of us – that’s Gotham‘s most compelling facet. I want to come back every week not to see if Gotham gets saved, but if I do.

Gotham airs on Fox every Monday night at 8/7 central. You can find it on all the usual culprits – Netflix, Hulu, etc.

Ode to the Curious — “The Maze Runner”

The Maze Runner lead

by Gabe Valdez

When I was younger, almost all my scripts and stories started the same way. A man or woman wakes up somewhere mysterious, not knowing who they were or how they got there. It’s the easiest set-up in the world. It takes the burden off of the characters and puts it on shaping the story’s world.

Since then, I’ve learned to expand my repertoire, but that simple amnesiac set-up is what allows The Maze Runner to deliver a tight, fast-paced sci-fi tale. Based on the young adult novel of the same name, the film follows Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). He arrives in a community of young men, all amnesiacs, though some have been here for years. Their safe glade is surrounded by a towering maze. They’re trapped, but a select few explore the maze by day and return at night when ravenous monsters called Grievers hunt.

Obviously, Thomas will become one of these maze runners – it’s in the title – and try to find a way out. I mentioned a few weeks ago that inexpensive sci-fi movies are often forced to choose between good acting and their visual effects budget. The Maze Runner skirts this issue in a few very smart ways.

Maze Runner contemplation

Every actor is a young unknown, so they don’t cost a high salary. O’Brien has the most developed career among them, and that’s only because he’s a lead on MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is the first I’ve seen of him, and he’s a fascinating choice for the lead. He downplays dramatic dialogue, which lends his performance realism, but commits wholesale to the physicality of his role. Every time Thomas is knocked down, grabbed, chased, or otherwise wrenched around, O’Brien sells the moment perfectly.

The two biggest action scenes happen at night. They’re filmed well – you can tell what’s going on – but the darkness saves incredible amounts of money by requiring less fine detail in the CGI. It also aids the film’s horror trappings.

The musical score by John Paesano – his first for a major film – is superb, evoking John Williams during some of its finer moments. Similarly, the sound, production design, and cinematography all stand out. If anything, The Maze Runner reminds me of last Fall’s Ender’s Game, and not even for its subject matter, although there are passing similarities. Both hone in on a set of technical elements done well while diminishing the importance of what they couldn’t afford.

Maze Runner Griever Chase

Both are sci-fi movies that triumph not on overarching vision and vast spectacle, but on character psychology and getting the details of every moment right. They trim all the fat off, leaving only the meat of the story remaining. The only misstep in The Maze Runner is an awkwardly tacked-on ending that over-explains the movie’s mysteries. Still, it doesn’t take much away from the earlier experience.

Like other young adult fare – The Hunger Games, Divergent, even this year’s Captain America entry – The Maze Runner centers on a young outlier who bucks a system designed to hold his or her friends down. What all these movies share isn’t the idea that it’s the bravest or most macho who solves a crisis. One word keeps coming up in The Maze Runner, and all these heroes share this one common superpower: “curiosity.”

Curiosity lets us see the world from someone else’s perspective so that we might better understand a struggle beyond our own. Curiosity lets us know that it’s not being strong that’s important, it’s knowing when to be strong and when to stay your hand. We don’t need to lead all the time, we need to recognize when our leadership is needed and useful. Curiosity makes the best traits in us more effective, and less prone to misuse.

This theme speaks to a lot right now – political deadlock, protests of the justice system, the de-funding of our education system. Even Texas is drastically reducing AP History courses because they teach history from the perspectives of many countries, as if knowledge of someone else’s experience is harmful or evil. These films are all screaming to get our attention and remind us how valuable curiosity really is, that knowledge and broader perspective are the silver bullets to so many of our current woes.

There’s a character in The Maze Runner named Gally. He hangs back when others search to escape the maze. He knows the maze is a trap designed to keep him there, but he feels safe. He calls the trap “home.” Staying downtrodden keeps him in comfort without any risk. I worry at a time like this how many perspectives Gally reflects in the real world.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Maze Runner have more than one woman in it?

Yes, barely. It stars Kaya Scodelario as Teresa and Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Nope.

3. About something other than a man?

Nope.

Can it be forgiven? Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner specifically concerns the interactions of young men isolated from any female presence.

In truth, the movie could easily mix men and women together and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the basic plot. It would, however, cast the entire premise in a very different light. Though decisions are never discussed or presented as specifically male, you can’t ignore that certain social constructs in the film are the result of an artificially male environment. Events and conflicts wouldn’t lose their power if Thomas arrived in a mixed gender community, but they would lose their context, and so much of what The Maze Runner has to say relies on that context.

The lack of women in the cast is not something on which I feel one should judge The Maze Runner. It’s a conscious choice that’s far too central to the movie’s premise and themes.

That said, I’d be very curious about a companion piece, following a group of young women trapped in a similar maze. The similarities and differences between such films could be compelling. After all, Hollywood’s always looking for spin-offs and franchises.

Maze Runner cap

Go Watch This: “Every Other Freckle” by Alt-J

Every Other Freckle boy

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

[NSFW warning for the videos.]

At the end of every week, we messily exchange a bunch of stuff we’ve watched, hoping our own passions will spark with another writer and we can gain some traction on article ideas. The most contentious topic is music videos, I’m guessing since we’re running a Best Of list of them every month.

There’s one we haven’t been able to stop talking about since it ran, and that’s Alt-J’s “Every Other Freckle.” It’s actually two music videos, a “Boy” and a “Girl” version, and the way they interplay is one of the boldest music video statements of the year.

Two videos, one centered on a man, one on a woman. Both attractive. Not very safe for work. The images in between their close-ups are the same – buffalo stampeding, seagulls soaring, a cat pouncing on things. Each video on its own is cute, well-filmed, and seems like a celebration of sex and the human body, no matter the gender. When paired together, though, the message becomes wholly different.

The storming caveman in the “Boy” video seems like something subconscious in the male ego, a drive toward violence. When viewed in the “Girl” video, that violence suddenly has a target. The seagull, seemingly a musical accompaniment in the “Boy” video, becomes a yearning to escape in the “Girl” version.

Watch the videos synched together, side-by-side, and each reacts to the images of the other, and to slight syncopations in the delivery of certain metaphors.

Violence that seems aimless in the “Boy” video becomes a direct confrontation, a male assertion of dominance. Images of gathering fruit in the “Boy” video that seem out of place suddenly become a disturbing metaphor in the “Girl” video – he looks determined, she looks fearful as the armful of apples falls from each of their grasps. The genius of the paired videos is that they shift the lyrics themselves from clever and funny in “Boy” to scary and harmful in “Girl.”

The metaphors in one video don’t hold complete meaning until you view its partner, and suddenly it all turns from contemplations of beauty to a portrayal of obsession, violence, and possession. It’s a brilliant statement. This isn’t a full analysis – if it were, we’d be talking about its Garden of Eden metaphors and how slick the editing is. This is a “We Can’t Wait Till the End of the Month to Tell You About This So Go Watch Now Because We’re Obsessed With It!”

Watch one and then the other, or synch them up to run side-by-side. But do watch them.