PREVIEW: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel makes her living as a celebrity biographer. However, when that no longer pays off, she uses her talents for deception as she tries to maintain her failing writing career by forging letters from deceased authors and playwrights. Based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Melissa McCarthy stars as the infamous forger as we explore the underlying motives and consequences of her actions in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. This biographical drama is now playing at the Michigan and State Theaters.

REVIEW: Boy Erased

The leaves have fallen, snowfall has commenced, and the best time of the year has finally arrived — the “sweet spot” for Oscar contenders. October through December have proven to be the most influential months to release the greatest Oscar-nominated films. With each year, it seems that more films are becoming more diverse and inclusive whether it be seen through its cast, its creative team, or its storyline. Since Moonlight’s monumental success in 2016, we’ve also seen Call Me by Your Name in 2017 and for 2018, it appears that the next biggest contender will be Boy Erased. Not only does Boy Erased put LGBTQ at the forefront, but it also attempts to address a challenging topic.

 

Boy Erased is a film based on Garrard Conley’s memoir. It tells the story of a teenage boy whose religious-bearing parents enroll him in a conversion therapy camp. Throughout the film, we see minimal glimpses of Jared Eamon’s past. In a rather typical nature, Jared portrays a generalized heterosexual lifestyle as a high schooler. He plays on the basketball team, has a cheerleader girlfriend, and is encouraged to spend time at his girlfriend’s house to avoid freezing up “when the time actually comes.” In a relatively understated scene, we get the first glimpse into Jared’s uncertainty and battle with his sexuality where he swiftly rejects his girlfriend’s sexual attempts and counters it with his religious morals.

 

During Jared’s college career, it is apparent of his crush on a peer who he frequently spends time with outside of class. However, this relationship led to a painful and terribly disturbing sexual assault scene. Following Jared’s assault, his assaulter, Henry, falsely claimed to be a school counselor as he called Jared’s mother to inform her of his “behavior.” When confronted of his sexuality by his parents, Jared initially declines then later returns to confess that he is indeed gay. In a firm tone, Jared’s father asks him if he wants to change, which Jared responds with compliance and the desire to change.

 

Marshall (Jared’s father), a Baptist minister, insists on enrolling Jared in a conversion therapy program. Upon his arrival at the camp, it seemed like he was arriving for a jail sentence. All of his belongings were taken, stored away in a cabinet, and informed that notebooks, phones, etc. would be monitored. In a typical motherly fashion, Nancy expressed some uncertainty and discomfort with dropping her son off. Jared initially accepts the principles of the “Love in Action” program conducted by former LIA participants. The program utilizes Christian principles to define their sexuality as a sin that they willingly chose to make. Through various activities, Jared quickly acknowledges that these exercises are nothing short of psychological and physical abuse.

 

Aside from the societal (and even political) significance of this film, it suffered most from its cinematic elements or lack thereof. The entire film was centered solely between Jared and his parents, Nancy and Marshall. They were presented as a wholesome, loving family. Throughout the film, it is evident that Jared has had a decent upbringing where he expresses his understanding of moral beliefs. Furthermore, it seems that his parents are presented as fairly innocent throughout — as in, they deeply love their son, but his “choice” is simply against their beliefs and is not to be accepted. My only caveat to this was in what I found to be the most powerful scene throughout the entire film. Following Jared’s dramatic exit from the camp, we watched a raw scene between Jared and his mother. Played by the skillful Nicole Kidman, the dialogue was extremely moving and emotional as she spoke with regret on sending him to the camp and explained her intuitions of a mother.

 

For this film to have tackled such a sensitive topic, it lacked the power of evoking emotion, especially where it had the most potential. Many scenes that felt important were presented in such a way that you knew they were intended to progress the story but did not punch the audience as it could have. Moreover, the film also failed to capitalize on its supporting characters. Since so much emphasis was placed on Jared and his parents, the purpose of other characters was confusing in retrospect. Consequently, when presented with extremely emotional instances from other characters, the audience could not empathize as much as we should have simply because the other characters weren’t given an adequate chance to be developed.

 

In conclusion, this film represented an important subject matter and was successful in that regard. However, its quality of filmmaking is what will hold this film back from being amongst the most competitive Oscar contenders that follow. Boy Erased is inevitably a heart-wrenching film to sit through but its relevant purpose should not be ignored.

 

REVIEW: Deluge

At the Friday gallery opening for Gideon Mendel’s Deluge, I had grabbed a seat in front awaiting the artist’s talk when the artist himself appeared and encouraged us to first go and watch his 14 minute piece in full before returning for his talk.

A full fourteen minutes would usually test my patience for any single video piece- but the alien, overwhelming imagery coupled with constantly changing scenes spread out across five screens made the piece seem much shorter. When the piece looped back around to the beginning, I was sadly not yet ready for it to be over.  There were scenes that were very human and intimate, with figures forlornly staring into the camera in the flooded remains of their house. Other scenes looked like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic film, featuring boats gliding through sunken cities. Still others were more purely visual, focusing on the way that reflection and the waterline changed the landscape on both large and small levels.

The artist’s talk following our viewing of the piece itself was quite enlightening about both Gideon Mendel’s process and personal reflections on the work. We learned that the project was over a decade in the making, and had originally been meant to cover all environmentally caused natural disasters, but then narrowed in focus. He also reminisced that he encountered an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the government and the status quo regardless of where he went, whether it be the most affluent or the poorest neighborhood imaginable. I was struck by the equalizing power of natural disasters, not caring about the color of your skin, or your background. Although, and Mendel made sure to note this, those previously mentioned factors made a world of difference when it came to an individual’s ability to recover from said disaster.

One of the things that I appreciated the most out of the entire event, was when the artist was prompted to answer where he felt his work best fit between the worlds of photojournalism, environmental activism, and fine art.  He instead insisted that his work not be pigeonholed into any one single realm, instead occupying a sort of middle ground. I could certainly see aspects of all three in his work, and agree that they were far more effective when used in harmony, rather than trying to merely fit only one category.

Another interesting element of this particular exposition was displayed in the utilization of the dual rooms.  The main gallery space was used to very effectively show the video, completely darkened with benches to allow viewers to sit and enjoy the entire 14 minutes of the piece.  The other room was used as a peek into Mendel’s behind the scenes process and organization of his material, with raw footage being played on projection and several wall installations on each of the walls.  Over the course of the two weeks that Mendel was to be staying at UM, he was challenged by the gallery curator to experiment in arranging, rearranging, and adding to the walls, so they might appear different in a week’s time than they were when I photographed them.  I was particularly inspired by the artfully arranged collection of photographs. The other wall was a play on the square format that is currently so ubiquitous due to influences such as Instagram.

Deluge will be displayed at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery right inside the entrance of the South Thayer Building until the end of the semester, December 18th.  The gallery is only open from 9am-5pm M-F, so be sure to stop by in between classes and experience Gideon Mendel’s provoking piece for yourself. Also if your interest was piqued by this piece, definitely check out Gideon Mendel’s website (http://gideonmendel.com/) or check out his instagram @gideonmendel .

 

REVIEW: The Hate U Give

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The Hate U Give is a stunning film. I felt like I was at the edge of my seat throughout almost the entire movie, my heart ready to lurch forward and join the characters in their fight against injustice, tears welling in my eyes despite myself. In the aftermath of her friend Khalil’s being shot by a police officer, protagonist Starr Carter finds herself in a crucial position to help his case as a direct eye witness; the movie is her navigating her choices to speak up, to fight, and to help her friend and community after his death. The movie seamlessly juggles multiple plot points and themes simultaneously– from large-scale institutional racism, to microaggressions from her close white friends who sympathize with the police officer who shot Khalil; from Starr going to a private school and having a white boyfriend, to loving the black neighborhood in which she grew up; from Starr’s obsession with Jordans, to calling her parents her OTP. The movie shows us so many parts of the black experience in America– political, social, personal, cultural– it seems to maturely accomplish the exposition of so many issues while staying true to underlying the institutional injustice against black people in America. The Hate U Give is a beautiful, mature, and important movie, and I urge everyone to go see it.

The scene that still won’t leave my mind is the one in which Starr’s friend, Khalil, is killed. Starr and him are childhood friends and spent most of their days as kids together, playing Harry Potter, goofing around in the streets of their neighborhood, but they drifted apart as they got older. In the beginning of the movie, Starr and Khalil meet again at a party. They recount their childhood together. Khalil tells her what Tupac meant by THUG LIFE: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”– meaning that the unjust systems propagated through our institutions, politics, and social norms eventually repeats itself when it is manifested as hatred and anger in the youth. In the car, Khalil and Starr share a kiss, and for one blissful moment, everything feels good.

Then the police officer pulls Khalil over for what seems like no reason. The film does an incredible job of capturing the small, minute details that culminate to his shooting: the way Khalil refuses to turn down his music, the way the officer ungracefully attempts to regain control of the conversation, Starr silently pleading Khalil to do as the officer says, the officer’s nervousness around both Starr and Khalil, Khalil’s reaching into the car after being patted down to grab his hairbrush… The scene is so carefully constructed and all the moments lead up to another. I’m still running it over in my head, trying to find something that could have prevented it from happening. But that’s the thing– this is a tragedy that has not only happened once, it is not an isolated event– it is the tangible and repeated reality of African Americans in America today. This movie makes you realize that what conspired with Starr and Khalil is the culmination of years of institutional racism, and begs for action from its audience members.

The beautiful thing about this movie is that it engages with these sprawling problems of racism and police brutality while not losing sight of the humanity and individuality of its characters. It freely explores the nuances of Starr’s code-switching between her using slang in the “hood” that she lives in, but speaking “proper” when she’s at her private school. It shows a hilarious scene of Starr introducing her white boyfriend to her dad (he said, “Chris? What kind of plain-ass name is that?” I nearly spit out my drink). It shows a joyful party of young black people having a good time together. It shows how much Starr’s parents love each other. This movie is so full of joy and sorrow and, ultimately, hope that it resonates and hits a deep chord of exigency with its audience members.

The movie was based on the book of the same name by Angie Thomas, which I read in the summer before watching the movie. There were a few characters and events left out of the movie adaption for the sake of brevity, and some events added or slightly altered in the end to thematically tie the film together, but overall, it stayed true to the heart and humanity of the book. I urge everyone to go watch this film as a powerful and engaging social commentary.

REVIEW: International Studies Horror Film Fest

There are hidden gems of all sorts in this world, from underground bagel joints to hole-in-the-wall consignment shops to rooftop stargazing parties. The sixth annual International Studies Horror Film Fest is no exception to this hidden gem phenomenon–although at any one time there were hardly ten people comprising the peanut gallery, the time I spent in the Hatcher Library this Halloween was far more magical than, say, a packed football game or waiting in a mile-long line to get into the club. There’s just something special about gathering with a group of strangers to watch spooky movies nobody’s ever heard of.

The first movie, Little Otik, was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. It lies somewhere between directors Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jennet, like if the characters of Beetlejuice and Delicatessen had a love child. Between the extremely up-close shots of people sloppily eating soup and disturbing stop motion animation scenes, this film holds everything I love about some of my favorite movies. The translation of the 19th century traditional fairy tale “Otesanek” into modern-day surrealism is a far better alternative to the diluted brothers Grimm stories we are saddled with in the US.

Plus, little treasures like this:

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I have to say, the other movies were not as good. What We Do In The Shadows was framed as a “documentary” on a group of “vampires” living together in an old, dusty house. The next line you might expect me to write is “hilarity ensues,” but what actually ensues is 87 minutes of the stale side of campy–there were a few hearty laughs from the audience, but the whole thing seemed like a rejected MTV movie script that New Zealand fished out of the trash. Yet somehow, the part of me that cannot let go of a love for Napoleon Dynamite and Crossroads (you know, the Britney Spears movie) had me laughing on the inside too.

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Ghost of Mae Nak, which was released in 2005, really looks like it’s from 2005. The entire movie looks like someone applied a bad filter on it, not to mention the marginal special effects. I must say, though, that Mak and Nak’s relationship was exceptionally cute, and of course I gobbled the melodrama of Mak’s coma right up, being the dramatic fool I am. However, the title character did nothing but pull the same “scary” face and scream at people. I feel they could have been a little more creative with this.

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Finally, there was Go Goa Gone, a self-proclaimed “zomcom.” This went exactly as you might imagine it would: it was a spoofy husk of a bona fide horror movie that relied on moderate gore to retain its classification within the genre. The zombie makeup and action scenes were certainly nothing to scoff at, if a bit repetitive. Though I’m generally not a hardcore fan of zombie movies, I do believe they have the potential to be high-quality contributions to the world of film. Train To Busan, for example, had a rich and heartwrenching storyline. Go Goa Gone may have been able to boast this if it had not gone so directly down the comedic route.

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I understand the difficulty of choosing the perfect lineup for a Halloween film fest. Too many hours of intensity and violence can exhaust even the hardest psychopaths amongst us. However, none of these movies were actually scary, even for someone who is definitely affected by the Goosebumps TV series (I’m talking about myself here). Turning off the room’s lights could have helped, and maybe a paper skeleton or two to serve as decorations on the otherwise bare walls. While there were good parts to the movie showing (including our wonderful host), there is room for improvement. I have no doubt that the seventh annual film fest will knock the socks off of everyone in attendance!

Welcome to [art]seen!

Our [art]seen bloggers are University of Michigan students who review arts events on and near campus, sharing their thoughts and experiences on live music, film screenings, dance performances, theatre productions and art exhibitions.
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