STARFISH: A Visually Stunning Debut Exploring Grief

For the end of the world, press play.

A.T. White’s debut feature Starfish follows Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), whose reality begins fraying at the edges as she struggles with the death of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson). The film opens at Grace’s funeral and her gravestone reads ‘Always Right,‘ which is the first insight we get into the deceased character.

Aubrey heads to Grace’s apartment, which helps to fill in the other parts of who Grace was: she left behind three jellyfish and a pet turtle. There’s old technology and, of course, starfish. Most notably is a mixtape titled ‘THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.’ 

Aubrey settles down and gets lost in her own thoughts as she agonizes over Grace’s death and what appears to be a previous romantic relationship. The film, especially at the beginning, is slow and quiet, just as you’d expect life to be during a period of grief. The emotion is captured well through Gardner’s performance and the beautiful cinematography as she sits inside Grace’s cabin-like apartment.

stafish1
Virginia Gardner as Aubrey in Starfish (2018) – source: 1091/Yellow Veil Pictures

After falling asleep, Aubrey awakens to a changed world. Outside, snow has fallen – there’s also fire, litter and crashed cars, as well as blood in the snow. The apocalypse arrived overnight, pulling in elements of pure horror and sci-fi. The multi-genre mix works together exceptionally well, and even alludes to Aubrey’s fractured state of mind. There are monsters chasing after her and she’s helped by a mysterious man on the other side of a walkie talkie – a friend of Grace’s who says she had the answer.

Grace’s ghost pops in to check on and help Aubrey from time to time. There’s a very eerie atmosphere throughout, especially as the monsters emerge and can be construed as a manifestation of Aubrey’s personal demons. Even though Grace hardly appears, her presence demands to be felt through the silence, the pets she left behind and her personality-soaked apartment.

Aubrey connects to Grace through her mixtapes which explain the mysterious signal that brings about the end of days and how it can hopefully be stopped. The sci-fi elements aren’t a major strength narratively, but they remain interesting. The film shares a similar idea to A Quiet Place with the sudden appearance of strange monsters, yet they are carried out in completely different ways.

stafish2
The arrival of the apocalypse in Starfish (2018) – Source: 1091/Yellow Veil Pictures

Starfish has a very wonderful atmosphere – it’s calming yet often alarming, but it works together alongside its blend of genres and beautiful camera work. It creates a very specific world and the soundtrack only helps to further bring it to life. As well as writing, directing and executive producing, White also composed the score and chose the other music that features in the film. As a musician himself (in the band Ghostlight), his passion for music and style has paid off.

The film’s strengths lie in its emotive atmosphere and captivating cinematography. In addition to its mix of genres, Starfish also features a beautiful animated sequence. It’s an ambitious but seamless blend of creativity that comes together to create a unique experience. Every part of the film’s production plays an imperative role – if one area failed, then the film overall would not be anywhere near as effective as it is.

Starfish is a visually stunning debut that explores themes of grief in unusual but rewarding ways. White promises that all money made from the film will be donated to Cancer Research, a generous decision likely due to the fact Starfish is based on his own experiences of grief. White is someone to keep a close eye on. He’s currently in the middle of developing numerous feature-length projects, one of which is described as an elegant 70s infused slasher.

Starfish is now available on VOD in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Growing Up and Letting Go: An Ode to the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON Trilogy

Perhaps lost in the shuffle of Captain Marvel’s box office success and Us’s stellar opening back in March, a heartwarming, smart, and joyful animated film trilogy came to its bittersweet conclusion. Since their debut in 2010, the How To Train Your Dragon films have become critically acclaimed box office successes for DreamWorks. They tell a visually stunning, heartfelt tale about friendship and family, the pains of growing up, and the struggle of finding yourself.

You could label those typical kid movie “lessons” but these films delved into more mature themes like loss, the idealism of childhood, and the pressures of adulthood. The trilogy concluded this year with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Loosely based on the series of children’s book by British author Cressida Cowell, the success of the films spawned an animated television series and a handful of short films.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) – source: Paramount Pictures

BACK TO THE START

Set in the time of the Vikings on a remote island called Berk, the series tells the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the scrawny, awkward son of the mighty chieftain Stoic (Gerard Butler) and his unorthodox, but enduring and heartwarming friendship with an adorable and spirited dragon named Toothless. When we first meet Hiccup, he’s insecure and struggling to placate his intense and distant father, and lives in a world where hunting dragons is what being a Viking is all about. Hiccup’s forbidden friendship with Toothless becomes a catalyst for him coming into his own as a leader, improving his relationship with his dear old dad (who’s really just a big softie), and proving to the people of Berk that peaceful coexistence with dragons is possible.  

It’s a classic coming of age story: as Hiccup grows as a leader by doing things his own way, he discovers that the things he thought made him weak and a bit of an oddball (his compassion and imagination) were really his strengths. His “weaknesses” allow him to see things from a different point of view and change things in Berk for the better.

How To Train Your Dragon (2010) – source: Paramount Pictures

It’s also a classic animal-kid friendship story. Over the course of the three films, Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless strengthens and bolsters him through every up and down in his life, including finding out his long thought dead mother (voiced by Queen Cate Blanchett) is actually alive and a dragon rider herself, and (spoiler alert) Stoic’s tragic death in the second film. The two rely on each other in more ways than one; this mutual reliance is manifested physically in their similar injuries and disabilities that mean they can only fly together (or so we think until the final film).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) – source: Paramount Pictures

AUDIO-VISUAL AESTHETIC

Director Dean DeBlois created a triumphant animated world within the films that is impossible to tear yourself away from. It’s the individual elements (score, cinematography, and CGI magic) that immerse the viewer in the fantastic world and make the greater whole something really special to watch.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – source: Paramount Pictures

John Powell’s score has been consistently praised from the first notes of the Celtic-inspired “This is Berk” that opens the first film, through the ethereal “Where No One Goes”, a collaboration with Sigur Ros lead vocalist, Jonsi, to the epic “Once Were Dragons” that closes the saga. The vibe of the music is epic and and joyful and romantic; the score of the first film earned Powell his first Academy Award nomination.

It boosts the story’s whimsical nature while also reflecting the more simplistic undertones of the story. You can’t help but get excited (and even tear up) when you hear the familiar and unique theme utilized in a brand new way, whether it be during a mournful goodbye, a triumphant victory, or a romantic flight.

The films are visually hypnotic: the vibrant hues and colors used (especially in The Hidden World) are impossible to tear your eyes away from and will have viewers of all ages looking up at the screen with a childlike wonder. They absolutely benefited from the touch and consultation of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – source: Paramount Pictures

Each time we see Hiccup and Toothless take flight, there’s a feeling of true transcendence and exhilaration that stems from the combined efforts of the sweeping score and breathtaking visuals. In The Hidden World, when Hiccup finally finds the titular realm, we are treated to a lengthy, colorful scene of countless dragons flying through luminescent, glowing landscapes that look like abstract paintings come to life. It’s moving and immersive and brings the viewer right into the action.

THE FINAL FLIGHT

The finale itself is a rather simply plotted story: a villainous dragon hunter wants to kidnap and kill Toothless and steal the Berkian’s dragons. (Both sequels have a bit of a generic villain problem as neither’s presence feels especially haunting or memorable, but the focus of the films is more on the relationships between the heroes so that doesn’t necessarily lessen the emotional punch the movies pack.) By the time we meet up with him in The Hidden World, Hiccup has created an almost Utopian civilization in Berk where dragons and humans live in harmony. The external threat of the dragon hunters causes Hiccup to abandon home in search of a “hidden world” where his people and dragons can live in peace, safe from those who would harm them.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – source: IMDb

The final film more than any of the others seems to advocate for animal rights and critique the way we as humans take for granted the utter beauty of our world and the creatures we share it with. The villains of the series (with the exception of Hiccup’s misguided dad) embody a desire for control and dominance; they want to use the dragons or kill them to gain that control which is shown in complete juxtaposition with Hiccup’s earnest and determined plan to find a safe place for them. From the get-go in the final film, we get the sense of the end of an era. Hiccup is optimistic but eventually realizes that what they’ve built can’t last and that they have to let the dragons be free, as others will never stop trying to control them.

VIKING LESSONS

We find comfort in stories that we can relate to, sometimes when we least expect it. Sometimes a film hits you right in the feels because it pushes the exact button that’s been stressing you out or weighing on you in your own life. In the fall of my senior year of college, I watched How to Train Your Dragon 2 a lot. A couple of times in one week once actually, and it made me feel a lot of feelings. Looking back, I realize that I felt a profound connection to what Hiccup was going through: the feeling of having to grow up, rely on yourself for answers, and have others rely on you as well, without having much of a clue of what to do.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) – source: Paramount Pictures

When I sat down in the theater to see The Hidden World with a friend and fellow Toothless fan, we chuckled at ourselves sitting there among mostly young kids and their parents. When Hiccup and Toothless were saying their inevitable goodbyes, I heard the little boy next to me say to his mom, “I don’t like it! It’s making me sad!”. As I blinked back my own tears, I realized that that was part of the point: sometimes growing up means having to say goodbye to things we love.

The focal point of the entire story was the loving, codependent relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, therefore its very real conclusion was that they had to say goodbye out of necessity to each other’s growth and survival. Their waning reliance on each other even manifests itself physically, with Hiccup manufacturing a way for Toothless to fly without a rider. Hiccup’s coming to terms with letting Toothless go is another step in his maturity and his reluctant and complicated march towards adulthood. It’s a bittersweet finale and a solid ending to a story that was consistently about finding your way by making hard decisions.

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – source: Paramount Pictures

When Hiccup and Toothless reunite years later, at the very end of the film, the little boy cheered up again, ecstatic to see the best buds flying through the clouds together once more. And as I watched it, I was struck by how satisfying an ending it was despite it not being your typical “happily ever after”. In short, the film found a way to balance its charming, silly, wondrous elements with some hard truths and maybe subconsciously expelled some fear of growing up in the kids watching it. The dragons may not be real, but the emotions sure as hell are.

This Spring, there’s been an air of finality to a lot of beloved epics: Avengers: Endgame brings the first major chapter of the MCU to a close, perhaps the last great communally watchable TV show just took its final bow, and we’ve laid eyes on the first trailer for the last Star Wars film in the Skywalker saga. The Dragon trilogy may not have as massive a following as any of the aforementioned cultural juggernauts but its finale curates a melancholic, soaring, and emotional farewell to a story that’s relatable for anyone who’s ever been afraid of that next step in life.

[CANNES 2019]: AND THEN WE DANCED: This One Also Lands

Since the release of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name in 2017, every gay romance story coming afterwards seems to be called “the *something* Call Me By Your Name“. It is no surprise that And Then We Danced and another Cannes release, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, were labelled similarly even before their premiere at the Croisette. Although this is extremely reductive toward any film that tries to create something new in the queer romance genre, it also makes us realize that, whether it was timing, casting or the quality of Guadagnino’s direction, CMBYN remained on people’s minds. So, is Levan Akin’s new feature lesser? Or is it going to break the chain?

And Then We Danced (2019) – source: French Quarter Film

And Then We Danced follows a young working class man named Merab (the charismatic Levan Gelbakhiani) who, unlike Elio, does not have time to play the guitar on trees and read poetry. Gelbakhiani’s character is a student at a traditional Georgian Dance school during the day, a restaurant server during the night and his family’s main bread winner 24/7. At school, Merab’s teacher gives him a hard time for his “effeminate” posture, even though he’s been dancing “since he could walk”. Everything changes when, you guessed it, the new replacement student, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives and becomes his direct competitor for a place at the final audition, but also the object of his most intense desire.

Source: IMDb – French Quarter Film

If some of the staring and clothe-sniffing resembles Call Me By Your Name, everything else is fairly different. For one, And Then We Danced also represents desire through food, and secondly but most importantly, Georgian dance takes a capital role in the movie. It is impossible not to be fascinated by every single arm stretch and pirouette.

Unfortunately, we only get a few full wide shots during the dancing sequences, which is bit of a shame given the performers’ talent. However, this will not stop anyone from jubilating at the end of the movie that, if the rest has not already, will convince you to watch Georgian dance videos for hours on end on YouTube.

And Then We Danced is not only a love story between two men, it is a journey of self-discovery and identity, in terms of queerness but also of family relationships. Merab has a difficult relationship with his brother, which may seem a bit over-the-top at times, but manages to execute a perfect landing by the end of the film. Moreover, And Then also lets Merab explore Tbilisi’s underground LGBTQ+ community briefly, but just enough to make him realize he is not alone.

One of film’s strong points is that even through hardships and heartbreaks, life goes on. There is one wonderful tracking shot near the end of the film that follows Merab from one of his loneliest moments to the warmth of his friend’s arms. Even if, once again the female friend could have been better explored, here she is the support and hope that everything will be okay. After all, as the title says, even during our lowest lows, at some point, we must start dancing again. And probably stop labeling every gay film after Guadagnino’s because this one certainly deserves its own praise.

ALADDIN: A Diamond in the Rough?

I’ve been skeptical for a while of the Disney live-action-remake-moneymaking-wave that everyone seems to be riding on, so I wasn’t particularly excited for Guy Richie’s Aladdin. The trailer left me unimpressed and somewhat overwhelmed, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it more than I expected to!

Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019)
Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

The beginning was a little shaky, grounding itself as a new perspective on something familiar – throwing us straight into the boy-meets-girl story-line, so it isn’t quite a “whole new world”, but I’m not expecting that from any Disney nostalgia-fest. The plot also follows the original animated film, reusing elements of the script and characterization. Some of this works – if it’s not broken, etc. – but sometimes it included a few stereotypes that should have been erased. The new characters, songs and dialogue (especially those centered around the female characters) are relevant to a modern audience, focusing on women’s rights and empowerment to address the sexist tones of the original, where Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) had been the only main speaking female character. However, the remake still fails to pass the Bechdel Test; the additional female handmaiden translates to me like a “boy-obsessed” teenager.

With that being said, I was very impressed by the cast with Mena Massoud really standing-out as a newcomer. I found that he really embodied the awkward yet adorable character of Aladdin for a new audience. Will Smith did his best to fill the very large shoes that Robin Williams left behind with his beloved vision of the Genie; at times the script fell a little flat, as it really required the original chaotic energy that Williams brought through his constant improvisation and the character being built around his humor.

Still, there was some excellent new content from Smith bringing elements of his own personality into the character – especially shining in the somewhat improvised and definitely awkward “jam” scene. Some musical scenes and characters definitely look better through the art of animation, so I was very distracted whenever the blue-version of Genie was on screen – it felt out of sync, on a similar level as glitchy video game.

Will Smith and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019)
Will Smith as The Genie in Aladdin (2019) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

Another character I really focused on is Jafar. As an all-round Disney fanatic, my favorites are always the villains and always feel let down with the live-action incarnations. Patrick Stewart apparently campaigned for the role after regretting turning it down in 1992; given the backlash to rumors of Tom Hardy, though, this probably wouldn’t have been well-received, and would have taken away from the 90% non-white cast. Regardless, Marwan Kenzari (also known as “Hot Jafar” on set) performed well with the script and direction he was given.

I do find that live-action villains aren’t nearly as expressive and the on-screen villainy isn’t as intense; with the remakes I feel there’s more pressure to be realistic with a physical performance rather than voice-acting, and perhaps the fear of embarrassment is a factor with portraying an exaggerated villain if the risk doesn’t pay off. I was disappointed that they didn’t include the over-the-top “Prince Ali” villainous reprise (the one part that gives Jafar a rare musical moment!). The villains are usually the most memorable characters for me, so I’m surprised that he was outshone by a CGI carpet.

The singing ability across the cast was, again, better than I expected; after being let down with the huge amount of auto-tune in the Beauty and the Beast remake, it was a nice surprise to find that the songs sounded natural, though the additional songs felt very modern compared to the rest of the score. I will admit I really enjoyed “Prince Ali” as it’s one of my favorite Disney songs; it translated really well as a live-action piece with the energy and vibrancy it brought to the screen.

Naomi Scott in Aladdin (2019)
Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin (2019) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

The traditional dancing and costuming also brought this vibrant energy throughout the film – bringing elements from the Broadway musical. It’s something I feel doesn’t stand out in the animated version as all of the characters appear in the same style throughout, so here, Jasmine’s extensive costume changes and the party scene gave the opportunity to portray the culture on-screen further to a broader mainstream audience.

However, comparing this vibrancy to the CGI locations, scenes seemed very busy and cluttered – and this was certainly the case in some locations, with the Cave of Wonders’ background scenery taking my concentration away from the plot (although of course, anyone who’s seen CGI blue Will might think that’s a good thing). The scene cluttering was my major gripe for the film as a whole; sometimes there was too much happening with questionable editing choices, sometimes scenes felt bland without the vibrant colors which the fictional Agrabah setting could lend itself to.

So if you’re looking for a familiar, fun, family-friendly film to fill your time – Disney’s live-action reincarnation of Aladdin might be the movie to grant your wishes. It isn’t a whole new take on ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, whilst including small links to the other stories; I wouldn’t describe it as a Cave of Wonders, more like a Diamond in the Rough of Disney remakes – however, you could always watch the animated film straight after like I did.

Aladdin is now available in theaters worldwide.

What CHARADE Can Teach Us About Plot Twists

Fair warning: I’m about to spoil each and every plot twist of a 56 year old film. The thing is, though, Stanley Donen’s 1963 screwball spy caper, Charade, has about six of them. They almost all hinge on the preposterous premise of questioning Hollywood’s Golden Age poster boy Cary Grant’s undeniable trustworthiness. Although the significant age gap between Grant and his romantic co-lead, Audrey Hepburn, was an ever-present unpleasantness throughout the majority of these classic adventures, his typecasting demands he never exhibits anything less than roguish, yet assuredly benign, charm.

Spoilers, plot twists, and unexpected reveals have all been on our minds in the last month, as Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, latched on to one of the most fervently debated aspects of media culture and firmly took a side as part of their gargantuan marketing campaign. Unless you’ve taken against the biggest crossover franchise ever conceived (who can really blame you?), it’s more than likely you’ve experienced the most important blockbuster event of the year already. But “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” has been retweeted, hashtagged, and warned by the very stars of the film itself so feverishly for the past month, we’re still in a very tentative position in regards to spoilers.

Avengers Endgame
The cast of Avengers: Endgame (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios

What was once a pleasant unspoken rule among film fans has now been weaponized, both as a marketing technique and an excuse to cause harm to other cinema patrons. Upon the release of Endgame, a man in China was attacked by multiple assailants for revealing spoilers outside the cinema. The resounding response in many online circles? He deserved it. Whilst revealing previously secretive plot machinations to fans eager to enjoy their viewing experience unsullied by details surely warrants at most a stern telling off, have we really become so absorbed in a multi-billion dollar franchise that anyone who comes even remotely close to damaging its near worldwide status as an infallible institution is considered a criminal worthy of violent punishment?

Considering this, let me recommend to you the 1963 film Charade, perhaps misguidedly, by ruining its central conceit, one that only becomes apparent after some thirty minutes or so. Cary Grant is credited as Paul Joshua, a man who befriends and assists Audrey Hepburn’s newly widowed Reggie Lampert as she becomes the target of a group of dangerous men who are after her late husband’s hidden fortune, stolen by them and the deceased Carson Dyle during WWII. Lampert soon finds out that Joshua has assumed a number of aliases, and may or may not be working with her pursuers. By the end of the film, however, Grant will be known as Brian Cruikshank, a government official tasked with recovering the stolen fortune.

Throughout the film, Grant is referred to as Alexander Dyle, Carson’s brother out for revenge, and Adam Canfield, a professional thief after the fortune, whilst Lampert’s initial government ally, Hamilton Bartholemew, reveals that he is actually Carson, now obsessed with exacting revenge on his fellow soldiers and reclaiming the treasure for himself after secretly surviving the German attack. Are you following?

Charade 1
Audrey Hepburn and Dominique Minot in Charade (1963) – source: Universal Pictures

Charade’s complex twists and turns have earned it the moniker of “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made”, but it’s not the relentless revelations that give this caper its spark. Grant’s goofy, cross-eyed face when he uncovers his true identity really says it all; you really expected Cary Grant to be the bad guy? Leaning heavily on romantic constructions of Hollywood stardom, Charade, despite its numerous diversions and brief flirtations with a darker narrative upheaval, remains predictable until the very end. We don’t buy for a second that Cary Grant could do anything close to harm to Audrey Hepburn, nor is it at all feasible that the wily Hepburn would deign to fall in love with a genuine scoundrel.

Star studies’ symbiotic relationship with traditional narrative and film theory is illuminated brilliantly in Donen’s fable of subterfuge and acerbic passion. Much like today’s Avengers, Grant and Hepburn succeed because of their personas, and the audience demands it while morally dubious character actor Walter Matthau’s on-screen façade expects no such dependency. Now we seem to be returning to an archaic form of stardom, in which certain stars become almost synonymous with certain characters and studios and little else besides, movie news exterior to the usual casting announcements, trailers and stills have become interwoven with the fabric of film culture.

Prior to the release of Endgame, it was close to common knowledge that the contracts of certain stars, primarily Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be up once the third phase of the gargantuan blockbuster experiment had run its course for the time being. We felt even more poignantly than audiences of popular films in the 50s and 60s how tied we are to these icons of super-heroic movie stardom and there was a palpable atmosphere of acceptance. Although the Avengers were never not going to come out on top, it was likely that Iron Man 4 was not emerging round the corner in the near future.

The romantic screwball capers, Hitchcock and co’s espionage thrillers, Westerns, space odysseys and the comic book confusion of today’s blockbuster scene, they’re all crafted as reassuring escapism. While the catastrophic unraveling of our favorite heroes at the end of last year’s event film, Infinity War, definitely felt like a cosmic upending of our satiated expectations for narrative satisfaction, was the snap really much more than a good old fashioned cliffhanger to get us back in the seats for more of the same thing the following year?

Charade 2
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963) – source: Universal Pictures

Charade might have about as much in common with Avengers: Endgame as Loki has with Thor, but it’s an ideal exercise in testing just how much we should care about narrative details. While I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to sit down and enjoy the latest Marvel entry completely blind (I, myself, was among them), our provenly violent aversion to spoilers is perhaps an unfortunate cross-contamination with the way we watch TV. Streaming has certainly alleviated some of this, but the rare series that airs week-to-week often maintains that level of secrecy that demands your silence until everyone in the room is known to have seen the latest episode. My proposal: let’s let movies be movies.

Now you’re aware of almost the entire plot of Charade, I encourage you to give it a go anyway. While the twists are certainly surprising, they’re so incomprehensibly numerous that the narrative begins to feel parodic. Once you settle in to the truth that Grant will likely reveal yet another hidden identity every twenty minutes or so, your eyes will begin to attune to the real specifics of the feature. Grant’s combative heroics and irresistible charm, Hepburn’s stoicism and obsession with gastronomic coping mechanisms, the fluttering gestures of flirting fingers and the impossibly quick-witted dialogue of a finely-tuned script. Unlike the latest in an ongoing series of televisual, narrative dependent blockbusters, Charade is impossible to ruin, and teaches us that maybe we all need to take a breather when it comes to spoilers.

POINT BREAK and The Romance of Adrenaline

The opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surfer heist thriller Point Break sums up the film brilliantly. We cross cut from the two opposing sides of the law to an environment where they feel like they can channel inner peace.

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is shooting at target practices during a torrential downpour, with seemingly no hesitation for what his obstacles may be – he just wants to do the right thing with the task his given. Then over to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who treats the ocean like some godly presence who he is privileged to even share time with, photographed with a majestic vision that captures the way only Bodhi and his crew see the summer waves.

Point Break (1991) – source: Twentieth Century Fox

The Romance of Adrenaline

Bigelow never sees any apparent differences between the two men, and instead uses water and success to show how similar two sides of the law are. They’re both chasing a thrill, a high to keep their lives exciting by whatever means, to up the adrenaline seeking. Utah chases this by serving the FBI and being celebrated for another criminal caught, while Bodhi seems to hardly acknowledge the moral consequences that bank robberies may possess. To him, it is just the next logical step away from surfing and skydiving that he finds that rush of energy.

A year prior to Point Break, Bigelow had directed Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, following a rookie cop who is stalked and taunted by a witness to a botched robbery. The film never did as well financially as Point Break, but we can see Bigelow is interested in similar ideas, like the cat and mouse chase that feels like these two are meant to be each other’s foils. The idea that she looks at two people whose approaches are totally different styles, this leads Bigelow to question how and why people have fixations towards each other in the first place. To some extent, this is similar to the best picture/director winning The Hurt Locker. We follow a group of men in Iraq, but it is Jeremy Renner’s Will James who really begins to develop an addiction to feeling alive during his time stationed in the sandy ruins whilst disarming bombs. Similar to Bodhi, they wouldn’t know how to continue with their lives if they didn’t feel some kind of rush somehow.

Expert Casting

One of the many achievements that comes from Point Break is just how brilliant casting Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah really was. Typically taken for granted, Reeves contains such an idiosyncratic quality about him, it makes his essence difficult to define when it seems easy. Before John Wick, Matrix or Speed, Reeves was primarily known for the “frat guy”, meathead persona that was tagged onto him in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure; a kind of guy who may not be the brightest or the best at what he does, yet is well-meaning in his motivations.

The previous generation would never have had a type like Keanu as a leading man, given his body structure you can find in a Schwarzenegger or a certain macho attitude like Bruce Willis. His performing never grants you much investigating, he puts all emotion on the surface without much understatement. Utah is the antithesis of a rookie, “young, dumb and full of cum” as startlingly put down by stern FBI supervisor Ben Harp (John C. McGinley), who is in over his head and begins to be seduced by Bodhi’s high octane lifestyle.

Point Break (1991) – source: Twentieth Century Fox

Bodhi is also expertly modelled by Patrick Swayze, who breathes likeability in an otherwise unlikable person. He’s kind of crazy and Swayze makes that easy to forget if it were anyone else cast as Bodhi, taking into account this was his follow up to Dirty Dancing, Road House and Ghost. This succession announced that Swayze is now someone who’s set to be bankable, and more importantly, charismatic. This run of hits granted him access to work with anyone he likes, now that he had been proven to headline. Bigelow not only casting him, but in the role of the villain, proved to be an incredibly clever decision given his type as the charming hero or romantic lead; in a turn of events, he uses his looks not to swoon a romantic lead but to captivate the audience that he is saner than he says he is. Bodhi is someone that just can’t be tamed until Utah shows up, even when Pappas (Gary Busey) connects the dots between the surfing community and the summertime bank heists, which then allows Utah to act as the mole. Bigelow has them coexist with one another so Bodhi can continue with upping his own game and Utah trying to stop him in the process, because this is all a game to Bodhi.

Incomparable Direction

It has always been pretty odd that in order to have a legitimate appreciation for Point Break, it is had with a sense of irony like you’re in on a joke that the movie itself isn’t even in on. Bigelow takes everything seriously while balancing with the silly cat and mouse dynamic of Bodhi and Utah. From the skydiving, to the heists, to the football on the beach, it is all done with a sense of humor from screenwriter W. Peter Iliff married with Bigelow’s masculine, hard-edged tactility and commentary are sensibilities that shouldn’t mesh but go very well together.

While Iliff’s take is to make another FBI thriller with a twist, Bigelow is interested in exploring much more and frankly finds the central dynamic kind of silly. Not to say she doesn’t care, but the amount of time and energy Utah tries and keeps failing to bring down Bodhi is so hyperbolic that the movie can’t help but maintain the idea of almost achieving what you set out for. At the same time, the way Bodhi speaks about the adrenaline in his life, wave like no other and religion is so out of place that Bigelow finds it to be absurdly to thought out, even having the main female character Tyler (Lori Petty) to comment that it is “just guys being guys” in regard to how intense Bodhi can get with his lifestyle.

I consider Kathryn Bigelow to be possibly our finest action-oriented filmmaker we have right now. From the thrilling, well-choreographed heists we see here, to the gritty, documentary-like set piece of recent work like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit, there is nobody else that can produce and reproduce a feeling of anxious tension during the action better than her. She has come a long way with the way she directs her action too, the camera maintains a sense of stability through the scene with a chaotic-like procedure. She has come from a sensual approach to more of a visceral one and neither has done her any wrong, the experimentation has always been welcome.

Image result for point break 1991
Point Break (1991) – source: Twentieth Century Fox

Particularly in the heists, there is a lot going on but the geography is never lost. It also helps that the ex-presidents never go to the vault so Bigelow never spends too much time with the action anyway. In the modern phase of her career, she has really perfected the way in which to use shaky-cam techniques for meticulousness, not just flash. We can see the contrast during the drug house raid where the scene is shot pretty standard, but gets the point across with the efficiency on display here. It has weight to it, like it’s revving up for something that can’t be overstated, Bigelow loves the set up for a kick-ass action scene just as much as she loves the payoff.

Twenty-eight years on, Point Break continues to be a staple of expertly-made action filmmaking that is just as fun as it is discreetly romantic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker or two main leads, it could have the potential to just be another thriller with a neat nugget of an idea in 1991 that just got eclipsed by Terminator 2. And as many comparisons may come to Fast and Furious, the skeleton of the former may be reproduced but the feeling of the latter can’t be matched.

KILLING EVE: Season 2, Episode 7: Wide Awake

WARNING: Contains heavy SPOILERS for Killing Eve Season 2, Episode 7

It’s been a big week for TV. With the finale of Game of Thrones and the tepid response that it received from the fans – myself included in that – it’s time to turn back to the show that’s yet to let me down.

The penultimate episode of the second season of Killing Eve opens with Villanelle or technically ‘Billie’ receiving an apology present from Aaron Peel. This follows on from their altercation last week which ended with Villanelle striking Aaron across the face. It would appear that Konstantin’s interpretation of Aaron Peel was correct; rather than be turned off by ‘Billie’s’ abrasive behavior, he’s more enamored by her, which of course works in the favor of Operation Manderlay.

Shortly after receiving his present and subsequent invitation to lunch as an apology, Eve enters Villanelle’s apartment to discuss the next stage of the operation. There’s a tenderness and frank vulnerability to both characters in this scene. Villanelle seems genuinely concerned by Eve’s distressed appearance, inquiring “You okay?” and “Do you want to talk about it?”. The source of Eve’s distress stems from Villanelle’s confession from the previous episode, that she doesn’t “want anything” or “feel anything”. This has Eve visibly rattled, her concern only fading when Villanelle tells Eve “I feel things when I’m with you.” Never a show to get too sentimental, Eve and Villanelle’s conversation is interrupted before Eve can respond, by one of the two women from the previous episode. Apparently Villanelle’s idea of “cooling off” involved intimidating and then seducing the two women from the kebab shop as opposed to skinning them like, well, kebab meat.

A96C37B7-5D25-485E-9B8F-8CCA9BE301DA

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: BBC America

Mood well and truly killed by this entrance, Eve switches back to work mode, telling Villanelle in a clipped manner that “Aaron Peel is going to Rome, we think that’s where the sale is taking place.” before she attempts to make a swift exit. This is stalled by Villanelle urging her to not be jealous, claiming “I’m not with them, when I’m with them” in a pointed manner.

Call Me Maybe

‘Billie’s’ lunch with the controlling and almost certainly psychopathic Aaron goes smoothly, with an invite to Rome sealed with relative ease. With Eve’s earlier irritation with Villanelle subsiding, worry and concern takes its place. She leaves several voicemails for Villanelle, the first of which says “Hi, it’s Eve. Just send me a text when you’re finished or otherwise I’ll worry that you’ve been murdered or something.” This sentiment alone shows the viewer exactly how far their relationship has come. In the fourth episode of season 1, Eve actively roots for Villanelle’s murder/death, saying “I want to kill her” yet a season later we see Eve concerned for Villanelle’s well being.

Throughout the episode, this concern, this obsessively protective instinct that Eve has for Villanelle is displayed in abundance. Eve later visits Martin, the resident psychopath expert, to ask for advice on how best to ensure Villanelle’s safety when placing her in Rome with Aaron, or as Eve articulates it “We’re putting our asset, the psychopath, undercover for a few days. It’s a high stress environment with a man who’s extremely irritating, likely a psychopath, most definitely a control freak. So I wanted to ask you if there’s anything you can think of, anything that might diffuse things if they get out of hand.” Eve’s reasoning is that she “wants her to be safe”.

49009B77-68FE-498F-B364-09E2EE14E7EF

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: BBC America

Instead of receiving advice on how to ensure Villanelle’s safety, however, Martin begins to ask Eve about her own state of mind. When asked how much of the day she spends thinking about Villanelle, she responds “Most of it” and when asked if her and Villanelle are in a relationship she replies “Define relationship”. Martin continues his line of questioning asking “Are you behaving differently, doing things that you normally wouldn’t?” to which Eve’s unequivocal reply is “Yes” and finally when asked to describe how else she feels, she delivers the crucial line “I feel wide awake.” Whilst the surface of this episode is hinged around the progression of the operation, the underlying focus remains on Eve’s steadily morphing mentality and her growing relationship with Villanelle.

Carolyn also inquires as to Eve’s state of mind, ruminating over whether she has exhibited “any escalation, increased attention seeking, recklessness?” All of which can be answered with the affirmative. After all, over the course of this season we’ve seen Eve nearly push a man in front of a tube train, put out a hit on herself, hire a known psychopathic assassin for an MI6 operation, fire one of her most moral and logically sound colleagues (Kenny) and ultimately cause the breakdown of her marriage. That’s not even mentioning her offhand comment moments before her meeting with Martin, where she runs into a man on the psych ward who has “killed three women” and she merely responds “He could kill the shit out of me”, a thoroughly desensitized and abnormal response.

8627B35B-0B8D-400E-8044-83DCF363C30E

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: Nick Briggs, BBC America

The assertion that she feels “wide awake” perfectly encapsulates her growing ability to embrace the darker and more exciting parts of her life. Eve has always harbored a duality, a desire for normality and a dull, listless life with Niko, but there’s no quelling her thirst for danger and thrills. This comment then, feels like an acceptance, a confession of her welcoming the part of her life that contains the things that make her feel alive and awake.

Worcester Sauce

Whilst Eve wrestles with her conflicting sides, Villanelle has plans of her own; she wants Niko’s Shepherd’s Pie recipe because “Eve likes it”. Holding someone’s (hopefully soon to be) ex-husband at knife point in order to get this may not seem like the wisest method, but the thought process behind this decision is quite romantic in a very Killing Eve way. Villanelle is aware that Eve would “never forgive” her if she were to hurt Niko, so she makes a compromise by killing Gemma instead. And all for a Shepherd’s Pie recipe.

It’s a scene that could seem offhand and silly, even irrelevant, but much like Eve is doing more this episode to convey her feelings towards Villanelle via her incessant worrying for her safety, Villanelle is reciprocating in her own way. Aligning their characters feelings has been a drawn out process, but it’s one that’s intensely gratifying to watch the pair struggle with as they learn to read each other’s subtle (and not so subtle in Villanelle’s case) expressions of love.

4151D8CC-D1D1-4D5B-A3FA-BEE1876E71B5
Jodie Comer in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: Parisa Taghizadeh, BBC America

What Happens in Rome, Stays in Rome

Before heading to Rome, there’s time for a warning from Kenny to abandon the operation. He tells Eve “Don’t go to Rome. Just don’t, trust me, get out of it,” but before he can continue, Carolyn enters and the conversation is over. With only one episode left to go, it’s a safe bet that Kenny’s failed warning will manifest next week. There’s been something off kilter about Carolyn and the operation as a whole from the beginning, so it’ll be satisfying to see what exactly it is that Carolyn has been hiding.

With the warnings from both Martin and Kenny well and truly ignored, Eve heads to Rome accompanied by Hugo, to oversee Villanelle during her attempts to get the names of the potential buyers of Peel’s ‘weapon’. The second half of this episode slips into a study of voyeurism and control. We see Aaron Peel watching ‘Billie’ via hidden cameras, we watch Eve and Hugo listening in to Aaron and Villanelle’s conversations through hidden microphones and we observe Aaron meticulously controlling ‘Billie’ from her outfit to her food choices.

Aaron and Villanelle’s relationship is surprisingly gratifying to watch. Their interactions, whilst false on the level that Villanelle is essentially acting as ‘Billie’ during these interactions, they seem to share a twisted kind of affinity towards one another. Hugo even called them “the perfect match” and Villanelle herself joked that “maybe we’re soulmates”. Of course both of these comments were made with wry humor attached, yet it’s true that Aaron and Villanelle do have things in common. Aaron describes Villanelle as “a void” adding “me too”. However, it becomes apparent that their ‘brand’ of psychopathy don’t quite align, as Aaron “never gets lonely” and shows no interest in talking to or sleeping with anyone, whilst Villanelle does “all the time”. There’s a mutual understanding between the two, but it’ll be interesting to see how long that lasts; Villanelle isn’t best known for her ability to take orders and relinquish control.

28CB95FA-BE2F-4B85-BE19-2224EC036158

Jodie Comer and Henry Lloyd-Hughes in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: BBC America

Thanks For The Threesome

After gaining as much intel as possible for the day, Villanelle returns to her room, mic still firmly on. It’s at this point that she begins to address Eve via the mic, who is listening through an earpiece now that Hugo has gone to bed. She tells Eve “You should let yourself go once in a while. I could help you”. The effect on Eve is instantaneous. She finds sexual relief in the form of Hugo, saying “Don’t talk” when he begins to, instead focusing on the sounds of Villanelle’s heavy breathing in her earpiece.

Not only does this show Eve using Hugo as an object or commodity, something to be utilised for her own personal gain, but it shows her lack of remorse at doing so. The following morning, awakening to the sound of Villanelle’s sleepy “Morning, did you sleep well?” Eve allows herself a smile, before Hugo’s greeting of “Hey” breaks her out of her reverie, responding unenthusiastically with “Hi.”

This closing scene sees Eve crossing a line by irrevocably tying her sexual desires to Villanelle, accepting Villanelle as the catalyst for her arousal, as well as showing the cold and callous manner in which she is manipulating people for her own needs. Quite similarly to a certain someone else we know. It’s no coincidence that the episode opened with Villanelle basking in the morning after she’d consorted with two unnamed women. The cyclic nature of the episode served to further tie the two women together, merging their natures ever closer.

22468A46-BBEE-4A48-9842-F852428A3A28

Sandra Oh and Edward Bluemel in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: Gareth Gatrell, BBC America

You’re Mine

Next week is a wrap on Killing Eve Season 2! From the promotional clips that have been circulating, to no ones surprise something goes terribly wrong with the operation, causing Eve and Villanelle to ultimately be left to their own devices. They’ve been warned a multitude of times over the season that they’re “on your own” if anything were to happen, so it’s just a matter of waiting to see how they manoeuvre their way out of it.

It’s finally the return of Raymond too, which is both exciting and terrifying. As we know from Konstantin, he’s essentially a glorified executioner, hired by The Twelve to ‘put down’ assets that are no longer required AKA Villanelle.

Will we find out once and for all who The Twelve are? Will Carolyn betray Eve and Villanelle? Will we get a Villanelle/Eve kiss? Where will our two leads be left for a year until we join them again for season 3? Here’s to hoping that we get a yes for at least one of these.

EDC6BE04-03F8-44AF-AA68-CAE20F9F5210.jpeg

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: Gareth Gatrell, BBC America

All Killer No Filler

  • Villanelle listening to Eve’s voicemails on her bed like a schoolgirl in love
  • I couldn’t remember her name, could you tell?
  • Villanelle singing Blondie “One Way or Another” to Eve via her hidden mic
  • Eve rolling the spare mic concealed in a bread roll to Villanelle; their hands brushing and Eve’s fingers lingering in the air after the contact has ceased

0D8F1ED4-672B-4B82-8179-72ED9DE9D691.jpeg

Fiona Shaw in Killing Eve Season 2 (2019) – source: Nick Briggs, BBC America

Killing Eve will return next year for a third season and it is set to air in the UK starting June 8th on BBC One.

Revisiting BUSTER’S MAL HEART

Back in the fall of 2016, I attended my first film festival screening. The film I saw was Buster’s Mal Heart directed by Sarah Adina Smith at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was incredibly excited for this film as it starred my favorite actor at the time (and still to this day), Rami Malek. Malek became my favorite actor through his performance in Mr. Robot, and this film had so many similar stylistics that it is a perfect film for others who enjoy the show.

Since it has been so long since I watched this, and I often mention it as being one of my favorite films, I thought I would revisit it and write a more formal review.

MV5BOGRkYTg1NGYtN2QzMS00NTI1LWI1YTQtZmYzMWNjNmE2YjFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk0NTQzNzY@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,743_AL_.jpg
Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) – source: Well Go USA Entertainment

Buster’s Mal Heart, at its core, is about how grief and hopelessness can lead you down a  haunting path of depression and paranoia. Rami Malek plays a simple family man named Jonah, who struggles to keep his family afloat and raise his young daughter while working the night shift as a hotel concierge. He and his wife (played by Kate Lyn Sheil) dream of buying a plot of land and becoming self-sufficient, but in reality, are stuck living with family, feeling trapped by the walls around them. Malek’s character in the latter half of this film transforms into an equal parts infamous criminal mountain man who breaks into vacation homes when they are empty in the winter and Y2K conspiracy theorist who is referred to by the name Buster.

It is confusing in the same way that immense grief will warp the reality you live in, and such is the case for our main character Jonah/Buster, from a turning point in the film this grief takes him to a literal crossroads, one that splits his being in two and brings him to different realities of his life. From its non-chronological timeline to the plot points and scenes that seemingly make zero sense (although I believe Smith has some deeper meanings threaded into those), it creates the perfect tone to watch this character spiral further and further until he falls into this way of living, being and thinking that only he can make sense of, and the viewer has no way of comprehending.

MV5BY2ZiNGEzYTItM2JkOC00NTg2LWI3OTMtNWQ5ODI5YmJmYTgzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk0NTQzNzY@._V1_.jpg
Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) – source: Well Go USA Entertainment

When I first saw this I remember finding it quite confusing, as well as seeing other reviews discuss the confusing story-line. That being said though, the twists and turns sneak up on you, making it so that as you are watching the majority of the film you will think to yourself that it is actually quite understandable, up until it goes completely off the rails near the end. This was exactly my experience when re-watching, I kept thinking to myself that I was actually following the plot really well, that all went downhill very quickly near the end though. The film is a perfect blend of mind-twisting nonsense and brilliant interweaving alternate visions of reality through the eyes of Jonah.

Smith showcases a downward spiral in such an effective way, clearly showing how each hardship that Jonah faces affects him mentally. It is both extremely upsetting and terrifying at the same time.

MV5BMzgzNjFhMmUtZDNmYy00N2M2LThiMzMtYjkwMjA4NjlkZjIwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,735_AL_.jpg
Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) – source: Well Go USA Entertainment

The performances are fantastic from everyone. With such a limited cast, the film relied on Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Sheil, DJ Qualls and the adorable Sukha Belle Potter who plays the young daughter were all able to shine in this. Malek was just as fantastic here as he is in his other roles and plays this character at the same brilliant level that he plays Elliot in Mr. Robot. His ability to switch from pure and wholesome family man to overtired hotel concierge to paranoid mountain man conspiracy theorist to a man stranded at sea was something he managed to do seamlessly, and he continues to impress.

It would be a shame to review this and not talk about how it has some genius comedic moments in it. It’s hard to believe that such a dark and depressing film could also have such hilarious moments, but it does. You are in for some perfectly timed comedic treats when watching this, all I’m going to say is that you may be hesitant around Crock-Pots from now on.

MV5BYmZjZTFlZjktMzFiZC00MGZmLThjYjYtODRmNzRlNTIyMzkwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk0NTQzNzY@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,867_AL_.jpg
Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) – Source: IMDB

Sarah Adina Smith not only directed this film but also wrote and edited it, and did an incredible job at all these roles (I also want to give a special shout out to the very female-heavy crew). This film just proves her immense talent, and I am really looking forward to hopefully seeing much more in the future from her.

This is a movie that is tough to shake, and Smith’s brilliant writing, directing and editing places you right at the core of all the emotion it portrays. I’ve been thinking about this movie for years and it still hits me just as hard as it did the first time I saw it.

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR and Two Conflicting Schools of Thought

Early in The Sun is Also a Star, a character puts on a jacket that reads on the back “Deus Ex Machina”, while another character writes it down in his notebook of poetry. For anyone who isn’t familiar with that phrase, its Latin for “god from the machine”. It’s often used in movies as a cheap way out of an otherwise inescapable situation, usually shrugged off as coincidence within the movie. Whether it’s Batman’s utility belt with all the right gadgets or the aliens in Signs being allergic to water, a deus ex machina is always there to save the day for the sake of advancing the plot.

The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

In The Sun is Also a Star, based on the young adult novel by Nicola Yoon, our two leads meet through coincidence, ironically thanks to that famous (and sometimes infamous) Latin phrase. Natasha Kingsley is the one wearing the jacket in this case. She is on her way to the immigration office in a last ditch effort to persuade a lawyer to let her family stay in New York City and not be deported to Jamaica. Daniel Bae, meanwhile, is at Grand Central Station, seeing the jacket with the words he wrote in his notebook. He knows this must be fate, and follows her out of the station. He gets her to talk by saving her from a fast car rounding the corner.

Everything about their meeting and their parallels is all chalked up to fate in Daniel’s eyes. To Natasha, however, her passion for science makes her shrug it off as coincidence. These conflicting ideologies were my main problem with the movie. The movie couldn’t decide whether it wants to be cute and say “it’s written in the stars” or have it be coincidence that these two meet. The only way to really break it down is look at the perspectives of the two leads.

MV5BMDFkMDcwZjUtZWIxNi00ZmQwLWIyYjYtNTNhYzk2MjZmMTJmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_
The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Natasha is played by Yara Shahidi, and she starts off as the more interesting of the two. She has a passion for science and wants to go to college to be a chemist. She doesn’t really believe in love because it can’t be observed by the scientific formula. She represents the people who believe more in coincidence, which she mentions through the first half of the movie. She works hard to get to the immigration office and fight for a chance to stay in the country with her family.

Daniel, meanwhile, is played by Charles Melton. He has a lot of charisma to go around, making Natasha say “I wish I could bottle up your confidence and sell it. I would make a shit ton of money.” His family wants him to be a doctor but he has passions that make him go a different direction. He belongs to the people who believe in fate and the power of the universe, which is fine if you believe in that. Personally, I don’t.

MV5BNGM0MzIzYjctNDBjOC00ODExLTlhMGUtYzU1MmNhNTQzNjg0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1428,1000_AL_
The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

When the two meet, they don’t hit it off so well. Their conflicting thoughts make for interesting chemistry between the two and it was this part of the movie that had me the most interested. The cynic versus the romantic. It’s not the first time this has been done in movies, but I thought it was done fairly well in the first half. They have a small date (she doesn’t want to call it a date, however, I only say it for lack of a better term) at a planetarium where she gives in to his charming outlook on life.

My favorite scene is hinted at in the trailer. Daniel and Natasha go to a karaoke bar and she daydreams about the future as he sings the classic “Crimson and Clover”. She imagines them getting married and having a child together, only for reality to kick in and tell her she has an appointment with another lawyer. The following day, Daniel has an appointment with the same lawyer for his Dartmouth interview. Is it coincidence or is it fate? The movie wants it to be the latter, but my cynical mind never wavered. I knew it was coincidence.

MV5BNTNmMGU5NmUtMjI5NC00MWU1LTk5YWEtNzE0OGQ0OGUxNzMwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_
The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Going back briefly to the “deus ex machina” discussion, I was dreading that some sort of hidden document would save Natasha’s family from being deported. I was surprised that they got deported anyway because they really tried to hammer in the idea that the universe is always there for you and things happen for a reason. Her narration goes on to tell us that her and Daniel drifted apart following her deportation. This felt very natural and realistic. This ending is quickly undone by a “Five Years Later…” title card that brings Natasha back to New York for a day in the coffee shop where she and Daniel spent time together. And guess who’s reading poems during an open mic session?

The Sun is Also a Star presents two schools of thought and is unable to decide what it wants to settle for. If they wanted to go the realist route, like how Natasha is, they would’ve ended it with her being back in Jamaica and the two slowly drifting apart. Instead, it tries to take Daniel’s side and tacks on this happy ending like they were meant to be together. The script, though corny at times, did provide the two leads some solid chemistry.  Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, or maybe the book is better than the movie, I’m not sure. I just wish the story could make up its mind on what it wanted to be about.

The Sun is Also a Star is now in theaters worldwide.

Cate Shortland is Black Widow’s Last Hope

It’s been three weeks since Avengers: Endgame flew into theaters crushing every record in its path. It did the impossible: ended a 22-picture saga that has culminated over the last eleven years. To much enjoyment, the audience saw all of their heroes in action to take down the evil tyrant. But, one character that has been apart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was underused and undervalued yet again: Black Widow, the team’s first female avenger.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers (2012) – source: Marvel Studios

But even though Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was treated poorly once again in the MCU, she still has a long awaited solo movie coming up. Judging by the rumors of principle photography starting this June, one can assume that the film will most likely be released on Marvel’s next available date, May 1st 2020. This would put Natasha in an unique position by starting the MCU’s mysterious Phase 4 since Spider-Man: Far From Home ends Phase 3. But even though we don’t know where Romanoff’s story will go from here or how it will introduce Phase 4, we do know who will be behind the camera.

As a producer of the film, Scarlett Johansson has been heavily involved in the development of the project, unlike most Marvel stars in relation to their solo features. She has a say in almost every element of the film, including who directs the picture. After a year-long search of over 70 directors, Johansson and Marvel President Kevin Feigue chose Cate Shortland to direct the feature due to Johansson’s love for Shortland’s 2012 film Lore. So as an avid Black Widow fan, I watched Lore and Shortland’s latest film, Berlin Syndrome, to see what I could expect for the long awaited movie. After viewing both of them, I have faith that Natasha will finally get the treatment she deserves.

Lore

Lore tells the story of a young German teenager, Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl) at the end of the second world war. At the start of the film, Germany has just lost the war and her parents, one of which is a Nazi officer, are arrested on war crimes. Germany, now divided, is no longer safe which forces Lore and her four younger siblings to travel on foot across the country in order to seek sanctuary.

Saskia Rosendahl and Nele Trebs in Lore (2012) – source: Edge City Films

Shortland uses Lore’s perspective to show the state of Germany after the war, but the film is not just about a young girl walking across a country. The film at its core is about Lore realizing that she was on the wrong side of history. Through her journey, she learns what her country and parents have done to innocent people during the war. She attempts to accept what her family, her society, her country, and Lore herself have done. The film is a coming-of-age story but it is also a story where the protagonist finds out that everything she’s learned, believed in, and valued was a lie. Lore isn’t guilty or innocent – she was corrupted. She believed in what her country was telling her, what her teachers were telling her, and what her parents told her. Lore believed that her parents and country were fighting evil forces because that is what they said they were doing, but through this journey, she finds out it was the exact opposite.

Berlin Syndrome

Shortland’s other film, Berlin Syndrome, also follows a young woman in Germany. Here, we meet Clare (Teresa Palmer) who is backpacking in Europe alone when she meets a charming man, Andi (Max Riemelt). The two start to go out together but one morning, Clare finds herself locked in Andi’s apartment as his hostage. The film then follows Clare as she tries to escape the apartment by any means necessary. As an audience member, we see Clare fight for her free will as she attempts to outsmart her captor.

Max Riemelt and Teresa Palmer in Berlin Syndrome (2017) – source: Aquarius Films

Both of these films are dark, intense, and incredibly complex character pieces. They are not based around movie stars, big budgets, or explosions. Shortland tells the stories about people in the shadows and the ones lurking behind a mask. Her films are not about the hero, they’re about the survivor: the person who manages to overcome the impossible obstacle.

All of these themes fit perfectly with Black Widow’s character.

Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – source: Marvel Studios

Think about it: Natasha Romanoff was trained to be an assassin; a gun for hire. She didn’t have the opportunity to have likes and dislikes or preferences. She just had to follow orders and be the best at them. Like Clare, she didn’t have free will. Similar to Lore, Natasha believed that she was fighting the forces of evil. She believed in her country and believed what her handlers were teaching her. It is only when she started to become more self aware that she realized that she was committing acts of terrorism for the KGB. From when Clint Barton recruits her, Natasha goes on a parallel character journey to Lore’s: she realizes the role that she has played in history. She learns that instead of fighting the forces of evil, she was a force of evil. This leads her on her own personal quest to make active decisions in her life and outweigh her acts of terrorism with acts of heroism.

Black Widow’s also journey is also similar to Clare’s in Berlin Syndrome. After defecting to America and joining SHIELD, she attempts to develop her free will, something that she was denied when she was apart of the Red Room. Natasha’s free will has been something she has been building throughout the MCU. Since then, she’s been trying to build a personality with values, beliefs, and loyalties, all while outsmarting all of her opponents. Just like Clare.

Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) – source: Marvel Studios

Cate Shortland is a strong character driven director. She’s likes to push the envelope through her stories to discuss the power of corruption and human agency. She humanizes the villains, attempts to turn them into heroes, and manages to make her audience sympathize with them. Her films are dark, edgy, intelligent, sexy, and live in the dark shades of the human psyche. They tackle interior battles on the exterior, which results in a rich and cathartic movie-going experience. Her films are about one’s inner demons, the dark side of humanity, and most of all: understanding one’s self worth. These tropes that Shortland excels in perfectly describe our favorite former Russian spy.

This type of film: a gritty, edgy, low-budget, character driven piece about one’s realization and taking agency of one’s life for the first time would be a fresh new genre for Marvel and a great way to kick off Phase 4. It’s new. It’s different. It fits the actor. It fits the character. It demands attention.

As of now, no one knows where exactly the Black Widow movie could take the MCU, especially after the events of Avengers: Endgame. But, if this film truly does launch Marvel into the next big story, Shortland certainly has her hands full. If her last two films can tell me anything about the future of Black Widow, it gives me hope that Natasha might get some justice after all.

Lore is available to stream on Prime Video and Berlin Syndrome is available to stream on Netflix.

%d bloggers like this: