REVIEW: Normal People

At first glance, Sally Rooney’s novel, “Normal People”, is extremely simple. It tells the story of two high school students, Connell and Marianne, and their unusual and potent attraction to one another. The book follows the two through the end of their college careers, and the end of their relationship (which still deserves an ellipse and the phrase “for now” stuck on the end of it). The novel, recently turned into a limited series through the streaming platform Hulu, premiered late last month in its entirety. What the television series does so well is it reveals with great dexterity and skill the underlying tension and complexity of Marianne and Connell’s relationship.

Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, the main actors playing Marianne and Connell, are fairly new faces to the screen. The series is full of a myriad of close-up shots of the two actors, and several intimate, long, and artfully-shot sex scenes. The two actors’ chemistry on-screen is undeniable, and their performances ground the series in genuine human connection. The ensemble of actors that join them on screen deserves much praise as well; Aislin McGuckin, the actress playing Marianne’s mother, Denise, and Fionn O’Shea, playing one of Marianne’s boyfriends, Jamie, in particular, come to mind for their performances.

One worry I often have when watching screen adaptations of books is not even so much the accuracy of the script, compared to the events in the book, but rather if the on-screen version will be able to capture the same magic and essence of the novel it is adapted from. I think it is telling that Sally Rooney had a hand in writing all twelve episodes; that is to say, it shows. The series has the same careful, diligent, and gentle approach that the novel is so renowned for.

The charm of “Normal People” lies in the title itself. It is a simple story, about two imperfect people who always manage to find their way back to one another. It is shaded by the belief in “soulmates”, and elevates two ordinary characters to an extraordinary love. “Normal People” represents something the majority of the population wants; true, unconditional love. The series is an effective adaptation because it understands the heart of the story, and doesn’t try too hard to extrapolate unneeded details from the source material. It is a simple show; not particularly flashy or thrilling, but it is refreshing to me that it does not have to be. The simplest shots are oftentimes the most captivating. Rooney and the rest of the creative team train the audience early on to find the magic in the details, whether it be the slight raise of Marianne’s eyebrow or the way Connell wrings his hands and laughs when faced with a serious question. “Normal People” has done an exceptional job of parring down the series to exactly what is needed and nothing more.

In a world of endless streaming options, whether it be movies, podcasts, or television series, it can be overwhelming to make a choice of what to view or listen to. I would highly encourage those that are looking for something true, genuine, and delicate to consider taking the time to watch “Normal People” in its entirety. It does more than justice to the beloved novel; it illuminates it.

PREVIEW: Normal People

Based on Sally Rooney’s award-winning novel, “Normal People” is set to premiere as a limited television series April 29th on Hulu. “Normal People” follows Connell and Marianne’s intrinsic attraction towards each other through their high school and college careers. Rooney’s novel is fueled by passion, trauma, and the most unusual power struggle between the will-they-won’t-they couple. Daisy Edgar Jones plays the Marianne to Paul Mescal’s Connell. The entire series, comprised of twelve episodes, will be available to watch on Hulu Wednesday, April 29th.

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: Film Screening: The River and The Wall

“Building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security.”

-Will Hurd, Republican Congressman of Texas

A politicized landscape can be both metaphorical and physical. We preoccupy ourselves with the issues, and the solid ground they concern disappears. But for all those who benefit from this space–wildlife, nature enthusiasts, fishers,–forgetting is impossible. The land is sacred, life-giving, the means for making a living. Politicians in faraway places decide what happens, unaffected by the cascading effects a complete wall would have on the life here.

Important populations which have historically struggled to survive are put at risk by Trump’s border wall. Black bears and mountain lions, just coming back from local near-extinction, will suffer geographic isolation, decreasing genetic diversity and weakening the populations’ ability to withstand disease or other destructors. The meandering nature of the Rio Grande and the unrelenting straight edge of the wall necessitates a wide swath of no man’s land by the river, unjustly punishing local landowners and workers. The US side will lack the river, along with its aesthetic, spiritual, and bodily supportive value.

It’s impossible not to draw a connection from this to Robert Moses’ tyrannical reconstruction of New York during the mid-20th century. Caring not for the residents of its “slums” (read: people of color, the impoverished, undesirable white ethnic groups), he cut straight through with expressways and less-than-affordable new public housing. Rich, dense communities were reduced to identical buildings cut off from the rest of the city. The cultural and physical landscape of their old home had completely changed. He, like the Trump administration, was detached from the people he affected, and in this he lacked the knowledge and empathy necessary to be a leader of that kind. 

The river is our equalizer between us and our neighbors. A source of life, a means of survival and emotional wellbeing. The alluvial river plains, fertilized by upwelling of rich sediments during floods, are extremely productive areas. Losing out on this agricultural resource would be disastrous for farmers and the communities they support.

What bothered me about this documentary was the clearly elevated position on which its subjects stood. It really was not an accurate approximation of a migrant’s dangerous journey. They’re equipped with strong horses, expensive bikes and hiking gear, nice canoes. They are all young, in good health, physically strong. All the methods of transportation the five used (bikes, horses, canoes) are physically taxing. The film failed to bring up the unique dangers that elderly migrants face on their way, and also children, pregnant women, the ill. That side of the issue is an even darker facet, and it should be represented here.

Luckily, the film was able to balance the tragedy of our likely future with the joys of past and present. The cinematography was graceful and rugged at once, the environment lending itself to an exploration of the simultaneous existence of fear and awe. It seems to reflect a migrant’s experience because of that.

The ending was too idyllic for my taste, a little too naively hopeful. We see little direction for viewers to seize and act from. Emotion alone is not enough to argue against the political situation in which we find ourselves.

This website is a great resource for investigating what you can do.

 

PREVIEW: The River and The Wall

Free movie screenings truly are a gift to all, especially when they hit mid-week, the toughest time to get through. And with The River and The Wall, we’ll even learn a little something about the world.

The film follows the experience of five friends realizing just how impactful the in-progress U.S.-Mexico border wall truly is. It combines elements of philosophy, environmental science, politics, and human nature seamlessly, showing us exactly how interconnected such disciplines can be.

Head down tomorrow, Wednesday, February 19, 6 PM to the Gallery in Hatcher Graduate Library to watch with me. It isn’t confirmed, but there will likely be some snacks provided. Just in case, I’ll be bringing my favorite pretzels and some dark chocolate to enjoy.

REVIEW: Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary

Not the most uplifting selection of shorts, but these five documentaries were certainly thoughtful and artistic.

They combined beauty with a quiet sadness in the background that came forward only in brief moments. We are offered such an intimate look into personal tragedies and journeys in

this group of films, and that doesn’t always feel completely right. In Life Overtakes Me especially, we observe several refugee children caught in the coma-like state of Resignation Syndrome; they are unaware at that moment of our watching them being taken care of like invalids. The cool, pretty sunlight comes through the window to highlight a delicate hand, the rising and falling of the chest filling with unconscious breath. Their parents are filmed almost as a performance of parenthood, having to ignore the cameras’s eye and the incredible pain of not knowing–their family’s refugee status, whether their child will regain consciousness, what would happen if they were deported. It feels like an intrusion, something I don’t deserve to see.

Walk Run Cha-Cha was the most light-hearted of the five, though it was also the only one that made me cry. Ageism, particularly with women, is strong in the film industry, so I was happy to see an older couple featured in a way that connected them to their bodies and to each other. Too often mature subjects are discounted in their sensuality and ability, instead cast aside as static figures who do not (implied: cannot)

offer anything but old-fashioned wisdom, always from a seated position. They have less 
agency than their younger counterparts, often in a position of needing someone to take care of them. In Hollywood’s eyes, life seems to end somewhere around 35, maybe 50 for men.This shows that as we age there is still plenty more room for learning, for joy, for romance.

St. Louis Superman was touching without letting the audience forget its reality of systematic, racially-charged violence. The incorporation of Franks’ young son King was simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking (he learns so much so young: his father’s bravery, the effect that one’s drivenness can produce, the hypocrisy of institutions meant to protect, how deeply racism permeates those structures). His innocent eyes take in too much, and as we see him cling fiercely to his father, we’re forced to wonder whether his future will be painted more by cynicism or tenacity. 

 

In the Absence seemed the most abstract. We see almost no video of the passengers of the ferry, which makes sense as most of their phone recordings were destroyed as the ship sank. A large portion of the documentary featured the slowly tilting boat, a big beast of a structure, looking like a dying creature, maybe a whale. It brings to the mind a guilty kind of disgust; we’re meant to be second-hand mourners, but instead we see the government’s ineptitude and this huge, ugly thing taking its sweet time drowning hundreds trapped on board.

Finally is the documentary shorts winner: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl). The movie was a well-thought-out mix of history, interview, and politics, while getting closer to the heart through a close connection to a group of talented, spunky young girls. In a land that does not allow for any of the activities depicted in the film, it would have been more accurate to incorporate a touch more seriousness here, rather than depicting Skateistan as a magical safe haven. The point was empowerment and fighting for human rights, but these things can so easily be rosily shown, without the terror and violence involved in their capture.

If you haven’t seen these shorts, I’d recommend taking a pal down to your local theater, as it’s still playing for a few more days most places. This website will find a location near you that is showing them.