REVIEW: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I always try to go into movies (and, well, most other events in my life) completely blind–I hate to watch trailers or read plots; just knowing basic facts ahead of time, like which actors are in the cast, upsets me. This has become a self-enforced law in virtually all areas of my life. So it wasn’t until a few minutes in that I realized that Colin Farrell, the very man who enchanted me in The Lobster played a main character (I found out later that the director was also the same in both movies). Exactly what I didn’t want to happen happened then: based on this new knowledge gained early in the movie, I began forming expectations. When I first watched The Lobster last year, alone in my dorm room in early spring just before the sun went down, I was floored. After it ended, I walked outside and hung onto a stop sign to keep from blowing away, though the air was still.

The result of comparisons like these is almost always disappointment. To regard a piece only as a continuation of a body of work, rather than its own autonomous thing which works in cooperation with itself, is a mistake that typically cannot be undone. This is probably why I didn’t exit my house at the end to clutch at a telephone pole or something. In fact, I forgot how it made me feel almost directly after, which is completely different from my relationship with other movies. 

Still, at some parts I was taken back to the old feeling, that sick gut high-pitched thing stuck somewhere in a nasal or orbital cavity when your mind bends a little painfully. I got this towards the end, as the children begin competing to be spared. Nothing else was starkly shocking in the same way. Not when Steven forces donuts down his son’s throat, or Anna flatly suggests it’s only rational to kill one of the children. When nothing really strikes, there is nothing to grab onto, nothing that connects us to the story.

Nicole Kidman, despite her brilliance in drama, was out of place in this movie. She thrives in hard-hitting, emotional film, not parts where she needs to seem totally unfeeling. Similarly, the presence of Alicia Silverstone got my goat at first, until I separated her from her Clueless days: as she’s grown up, her glazed-eye stare has shifted from strangely flirtatious boredom to something closer to slightly-conscious paralysis. The way her face moves can be disconcerting, bringing about an inexplicable sense of panic in my chest. And all three of the kids were perfect for this kind of acting, as all children are.

It was also clear the crew put thought into how they played with lighting. Much of the time, scenes were engulfed in golden light, sometimes artificial, but warm all the same. Maybe it was just the presence of Kidman, but it gave me some Eyes Wide Shut sensations. Rather than acting as a contrast to the coldness of the characters, it invited me into readily accepting the social norms of the world Lanthimos creates.

The movie wasn’t bad, but it was forgettable. Instead of still thinking of the questions it raises (it is morally wrong to have a favorite child? Who is most responsible in medical malpractice situations? What kinds of guilt can we handle, and how much?), I’m just flashing back to Martin messily eating spaghetti with a white shirt on. Unfortunate, maybe, but it’s the truth.

 

REVIEW: I Am Not Okay With This

Despite a general acceptance of non-heterosexuality in modern media and society, queer characters are often placed in plots that are only focused on their ~journey of self-discovery~ or in supporting roles that stereotype and tokenize them. So often, they are reduced to their sexuality, communicating to the audience that this is the only part of their identity worth mentioning. Surely, it’s important to feature queer characters in media, but every story can’t only be about their struggles with unaccepting parents/religion/schoolmates/colleagues/whatever. We normalize queerness by incorporating it in media in a wide variety of ways. 

So I was overjoyed to find that this series has a queer star who spends some time recognizing her sexuality, but is primarily preoccupied with a full storyline about her new mind powers and their possible connection to her late father.

Based on Charles Forsman’s comic of the same name, the series honors the original work, often taking sections of text into the script verbatim. I’d say that the writers could have taken some more liberty with dialogue, which could be lacking in originality sometimes. The media move from comic to television necessitates this; while comics with a minimalist art style depend on fast-paced conversation between characters to drive the story, live action dialogue is generally less important. Makers of television are freer to insert some more artistry in angles, lighting, wardrobe, delivery and content of lines. 

A lot of talented people worked on the series: people responsible for Stranger Things and The End of the F***ing World, actors who starred in the updated version of IT. But if I know anything about logical principles, I know that past performance is not indicative of future results. I Am Not Okay With This is an unfortunate piece of evidence for that rule.

Along with the lacking dialogue, there were too many illusions to late 20th century pop culture, like The Breakfast Club-esque episode and the constant Carrie references. While I understand the the entire plot is literally another reboot of that classic Stephen King story, they could have strayed a little farther, style-wise. The spring fling dress is even similar to the one Sissy Spacek wears in the original movie, pale pink satin with spaghetti straps. She does the whole walking home from the dance in the middle of the road covered in blood thing, and she doesn’t add to it. If you’re going to pull so directly from classic works, you need to do something that differentiates it from the original, pushing it farther, bringing into modern times so it can be understood within current social politics.

It’s sad when the arc of creativity starts to decline for previously awed artists. This feels like the desperate reaction to writer’s block that should’ve been given some more time to simmer. Still, most folks are wont to continuously seek out media that gives them the same kind of satisfaction as they’ve experienced in the past. So, at this psychological level, the series does a great job. Though that feels like some kind of exploitation, it fills a demand. I’m not sure I’d call it art, though.

 

REVIEW: It Comes At Night

Why is legitimate talent wasted on awful screenplays?

Chuckling a little to myself, I chose thriller about a mysterious disease that forced families to isolate themselves from outsiders. I figured I’d finally be on the edge of my seat after weeks of watching painfully monotonous news coverage of minutely different facets of the same story. Turns out I was in for the same kind of boredom I had grown accustomed to in the past couple of months.

Horror movies (and increasingly, even the most confidently-labeled “cerebral” thrillers) have long been a genre that works with the same materials to build a plot. They use the same monsters, the same dialogue, the same archetypal characters. It is so dreadfully rare to find a horror movie that doesn’t settle for mining the same types of basic fears assumed to be common to all human beings. Sure, writers could start there for some aspects of their work, but all too often they also refuse to go further.  The next time I see another humanoid, tall, skinny shadowy figure drooling black goo from its mouth in a movie, I’m going to lose it, and not in the intended way. 

So anyways, this movie is about a family lucky enough to own property a long ways from the densely-populated city during a mass infection event of some mysterious disease. Already, the lack of context bugged me: where in the sam hill is this house located? Who is this family? What is this disease? How long has it been around? What has its global impact been? I kept waiting for the first rule of science fiction to be honored (a logical explanation of the way the world works in the story), but it never was. While some might argue that the vagueness adds to the scariness of the disease, to me it’s an excuse for lazy writing. There is such little substance in the world building the writers do that it distracts from whatever level of terror I’m supposed to be feeling, and replaces it with annoyance.

Though I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outdated, patriarchal family structure in the movie, I was. The dichotomy between femininity and masculinity was incredibly strong; it was made abundantly clear that the men were protectors, women were caregivers (and meant to be protected), and that these strict roles should be considered ideals. Men made decisions, and women made comments that could easily be dismissed. This is terribly common in horror, pulling on the legacy of the old days of female victimhood (King Kong, Creature From the Black Lagoon, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera). I’d thought we’d made it a little further past that. It’s almost like we need more female horror screenwriters. 

Going into the horror/thriller genre should not be a shortcut into movie making for unimaginative writers. There are some who are raising the standards, like Ari Aster (Midsommer), Julia Ducournau (Raw), and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth), but it isn’t enough yet to discourage the countless carbon copies of a basic slasher flick. Still, the future looks bright.

REVIEW: Per Petterson’s Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes: Stories

Though he’s known primarily for Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson’s first publication Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes: Stories is something special.

It’s reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh for me; I’d always thought of that bear as a little old lady, thoughtful and sweet, but detached from the pains of reality as a child might be. Both Winnie and this book are able to be read by older children and adults; they’re both a little look into psychology and events that work as living memories, told through the brightness of youth.

Petterson in recent years.

Arvid, the young boy who narrates the stories, is just like this. We don’t get his age, but it’s clear he’s no more than around eight years old. Petterson works an ambivalent melancholy into his vignettes; while Arvid is a fairly optimistic, frank kid, he’s also fully aware of the significance of the events he bears witness to: his grandfather’s death, his neighbor Fatso’s addictions, his parents’ marital strife. The author does well explaining the in-between; that is, the place where coming of age has already been in the works, but the details are maybe a little vague yet. Somehow the strange, unmolded stage that Arvid occupies has its own grace.

Luckily, Petterson avoids getting too trope-y with how he approaches The Big Subjects (which are too often the same types of scenarios, barely altered by a group of tired storylines). There is no apparent theme or timeline to his stories, like some proposed common biological clock: falling in love, getting a job, having kids, death. I liked the focus he has on a single, small section of one kid’s life. This doesn’t distract the reader with looking for predetermined developments key to coming of age. Instead it is reflective of how a lot comes into semi-clarity all at once while we’re young.

My favorite of the stories (though it could probably be argued we’re meant to take the book as one cohesive story) is the sixth, called “Fatso.” It’s a sad sort of endearing to note how similar the two are, in their gentler, considerate side. In the movies, they would’ve been friends, like Tripper and Rudy in Meatballs. But here, Fatso is the town laughing stock, not a cool camp counselor. Arvid instead ignores the newfound respect Fatso has for him after they talk a bit, and it made me wonder whether there comes a time when the voice of others rings truer than one’s own.

It’s hard to say whether Petterson distorts the reality of childhood at a level that is indefensible. Anytime an adult author writes behind the eyes of a child, they are wont to add some literary character to them; a thoughtfulness that doesn’t organically spring forth from most kids. Otherwise, they simplify their thoughts past realistic limits, and the story is no longer interesting to read. Arvid is comfortably in between these two, shown to have independence but with the source of it mostly originating with his parents’ often lax attitude towards his adventuresome will.

Check out this and other books by Per Petterson via online book merchants, or at your local library.

REVIEW: Mary Poppins

It’s a real tall order to ask a live performance to be able to make magic in front of their audience’s eyes, and you can bet none of these 100+ Burns Parks Elementary students are much over 4’10”.

Somehow, the group of kids, with the help of a few adult actors, crew, and directors, did just that. From the wondrous costume design to the joyful choreography, this production succeeded in every meaning of the word.

While I might usually stick to metrics of artistry and professionalism to review a performance, this production of Mary Poppins is impossible to judge that way. It was just too darn adorable. Exhibit A is to your right. Image may contain: 4 people, people sitting, hat, child, stripes, outdoor and closeup

Emily Betz is the magician behind the costume design, which really brought the show together. The way she balances bold, whimsical colors without it being too brash or distracting is amazing. It’s no wonder she specializes in all things Disney. It takes a special, rare kind of person to so perfectly embody childishness as art in the way she does. The fact that just about everything was handmade was shocking, and I’m sure a great joy to the financial aspect of the project.Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

The show also featured a Queen Victoria cameo by community theatre devotee Fredda Clisham, a centennial and all-around fabulous lady. She has been in Burns Park Players shows for the past 15 years, and is known for a move where she coyly pushes up her breasts, a tradition with origins in a previous play’s improvised scene.

Several other Burns Park Players veterans were also involved in the production. The director, Rachel Carpman, has been coming to see the group’s plays since 1994. Omkar Karthikeyan, is a parent of one of the young actors, but rather than simply driving his second-grader to play practice, he got fully involved. He played the chimney sweep Bert in the production, and was totally, completely his character. As energetic as the children both on stage and in rehearsals, he is surely a permanent member of the Players family.

All of this hard work coming from a crew of around 200 children and adults is lovely to see. Local theatre groups are a gift to a community, truly. The pressure is low, but the belief in the art is great. The art of pretending, of community-building, of creating something so earnestly certainly is a magic of its own, perhaps even rivaling our favorite nanny. You can take a child’s enthusiasm for granted maybe, but the adults are also so clearly passionate about the troupe. So much joy is lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, but some things have the power to save us. The creativity involved in a story like Mary Poppins is strong, between the costumes and the flying away via umbrella and the floating quality of the songs. It brings the performers, crew, and audience together with a present-tense nostalgia unlike anything else.

Note: As my pictures were of bad quality, taken far from the stage, I borrowed a few from what was posted on the Burns Park Players Facebook page. Photo credit to Kara Cuoio.

PREVIEW: Mary Poppins

Whether you’re five or 95, Mary Poppins is an absolute delight.

The Burns Park Players present a special, family-oriented production of the Disney classic this week, intent on bringing all of Ann Arbor the joy and wonder of the nanny we all wanted for ourselves.

Since its 2013 departure from Broadway, productions of the play can be hard to find. Luckily the talented actors of this local troupe are doing us this service. Plus, the proceeds from ticket sales goes toward funding the arts in schools around town!

Showtimes are:

February 27, 7:30 PM

February 28, 7:30 PM

February 29, 2:00 PM

March 1, 2:00 PM

All at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St.

Ticket prices range from $15-25, with special student pricing of $5 off when you apply discount code SPRINGBREAK at checkout.

Get your tickets here or at the door.