The Lobster (2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

a24 visions

lobster2-xlarge

I knew I had read literature that fell into the genre of magical realism, but it wasn’t until I read One Hundred Years of Solitude the summer of 2004 and followed that up with a ravenous consumption of Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction that really came to understand, and in turn fall in love with, the genre. Magical realism is a style of storytelling that presents a normal world where there are extraordinary occurrences that the populace views as simply mundane. This is often used as an extended metaphor to be dissected and explored,usually a commentary on our own perspectives of the world. There are many everyday practices that to alien eyes would pop out as bizarre and unreal, but for us it’s simply life.

The Lobster falls strongly into the category of magic realism, without it become a “cute” gimmick. The film tells the story of David (Colin Ferrell), a divorced man who must stay in a hotel for singles for 45 days and find a partner. If he is unable to find a partner he’ll be transformed into the animal of his choice. In David’s case, he chooses a lobster (They stay fertile their entire lives). There is an eclectic cast of characters that we watch interact, with moments of brilliant dark comedy and painful heartrending tragedy. The film has a very defined split as David makes a drastic decision about his place in the Hotel as well as the society midway through.

This is the second film I’ve viewed from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director. His breakout film, Dogtooth, explores the nature of family units focused on a couple who have kept their adult children locked up on the property for their entire lives. It balances the same comedic tones and horrific violence, but I think The Lobster elevates that to a masterful level. It also continues the director’s work examining the cultural norms of Western society, in this instance the concept of falling in love in the modern era.

Personality is absent from every character in the film. Conversations are monotonous and devoid of emotion. A character is violently punished for self-pleasure and his reaction is fairly muted for what happens. Characters fall in love and barely crack a smile. Characters die and are killed and everyone essentially walks away with a shrug. There’s no room for sentimentality in the world, dating, marriage, and having children are like business transactions. It is expected and frankly demanded of everyone in the world of the film. David is faced with a choice of severe sentimentality at the film’s conclusion and as I simmered on it afterwards it struck me that by not committing this act he would show the strongest sense of individualism in the entire film. So while, the culture around him is unsentimental he would possibly conform to it in the end.

What is most interesting are the “rebel” group in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) imposes a system of rules between the other loners, especially no physical or romantic contact. We see the bloody results of a simple kiss and worse is implied. While the Leader believes she is shirking the status quo of required relationships, she is actually creating a parallel system of dogmatic social norms that are punished with the most extreme methods. This leaves us to wonder if individualism is even a workable concept in this world.

The couples that do end up together are driven by the requirement of a match up of defining characteristics. David is nearsighted and seeks out a partner who shares that trait. Another character is saddled with a limp (the result of trying to find his mother who was turned into a wolf after a failed matchmaking attempt). Yet more characters present themselves this way: She has chronic nosebleeds, he has a pronounced lisp, she is emotionally distant, she loves butter cookies. Even in the film’s credits a multitude of characters are named by their defining trait. Almost the way, when filling out an online profile for a dating service, you would highlight aspects of yourself that you want to present, aspects that are intended to provide others with a definition of you.

Lanthimos is exploring the way people form romantic relationships in our current era. If you look at the business of matchmaking, whether it is OKCupid or speed dating or Match.com, people are boiled down to their essentials. Personality is near imperceptible and a person’s true nature is impossible to convey through these methods. But Lanthimos isn’t happy to simply comment on technology’s relationship to our relationships, he goes deeper, to the very core of why anyone ends up with anyone else. Characters lie about their defining trait in desperation to end up with someone else. The Hotel guests routinely arm themselves with tranquilizer guns and hunt the band of guerrilla Loners in the surrounding forest. And the Loners in turn sneer at those foolish guests who stupidly pursue companionship. All of these characters are deluded and define themselves based on cultural expectations, whether in conformity or opposition to. The Lobster ends on a suspended note, blatantly letting us stew on what happens next. Is their any way to succeed in this world, or is the best you can hope for to become a lobster?

The Nice Guys (2016, dir. Shane Black)

the-nice-guys-film-goruntusu

Shane Black is one of the fathers of what would become the 1980s buddy cop genre. His addition was Lethal Weapon, written when Black was 23 years old. Black’s career experienced a slump in the 90s and early 2000s when he wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With this film, Black returned to play with the genre he helped create while poking fun at the movie industry. Some critics disliked the self-awareness of the picture even though it had very sharp, funny dialogue. The Nice Guys has found a nice middle ground, where it plays with genre conventions while also delivering a self-contained mystery film.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a grizzled private investigator who specializes in helping young women and girls deal with creeps. This crosses his path with who he believes is a creep, Holland March (Ryan Gosling). March is actually a fellow private eye, except he’s a buffoon. The two, along with March’s precocious early teens daughter (Angourie Rice) become embroiled in a mystery that involves the death of a porn star, an enigmatic college student on the run, and the Detroit auto industry.

The Nice Guys does a lot right. It balances being a 1980s buddy cop film set in the late 1970s, as well as being a variation on the film noir genre. There are a lot of failures in the film. Our protagonists are very flawed, as every good noir should have, and they comically fumble and deal with more serious dramatic character flaws. Healy is a man who goes to violence as his first resort and has to deal with a challenge to that way of thinking. March is more of the comic relief, but has his own guilt about the way he’s raised his daughter and how he caused his marriage to go to ruins. The balance between these two and the lynch pin of the entire film is Holly, March’s daughter played by the remarkable Angourie Rice. If this film had been made in the 1970s this is the Tatum O’Neal role.

The mystery is complex and labyrinthine, but with enough clues being delivered through dialogue that a viewer can figure things out as they go. The film does present a hyper-realized 1970s. Driving down Hollywood Boulevard we see posters for a litany of films from the era, characters read newspapers talking about the gas crisis and Los Angeles’ severe smog. In the end, not much of these elements add to up to anything life changing. The resolution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, but keeping in line with the down endings of traditional noir. What The Nice Guys does provide is a fun alternative to the more overblown CGI-fests that typically flood our movie screens this time of year. The film is an enjoyable throwback to a style of film not made often.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

You wouldn’t be wrong if you mistook Midnight Special for a peer to the early film works of Steven Spielberg or akin to something like John Carpenter’s Starman. It’s a film that wears its inspirations close to its heart without becoming a pastiche like Super 8. The shot of a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle speeding across the wilderness of the Gulf is intended to evoke the sense of the familiar, like a movie you would come across on a Saturday afternoon that you remember from your childhood.

Midnight Special is the story of Alton, an eight year old boy, who is held up as a messiah figure by a religious cult in Texas. He’s kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family friend (Joel Edgerton). They embark on a multi-state race against the religious cult and the U.S. government, both of whom have ideas about what Alton is and what he knows. The secret of Alton is something that will change the world’s understanding of the universe, but he had to reach a location in the Florida Everglades by a certain date or his purpose will remain a mystery.

There is very little modern technology present in the film which adds to its timeless feel. Alton reads early 1980s DC Comics during the road trip. A bank of payphones play an important role in bringing a character into the fold. This is a film that, while obvious not in the 1980s, makes you question that face throughout. Adam Driver, as an NSA analyst, comes across as the role Richard Dreyfus would have played had this been made thirty plus years ago. A moment near the end of the film involving a military roadblock of an important access road immediately rang familiar in my head as something out of Close Encounters.

It’s very obvious Nichols is a fan of that and Spielberg’s earlier films. But where the two men split is in the way they portray wonder. Spielberg has his famous slow push in on the awestruck face of a character. Nichols plays things very subtle, which is not always a positive. While, we never feel pushed into sentimentality about the characters there is a sense of distance with them. Withholding a more profound connection with the characters can be frustrating, but in other ways Nichols’ creating an absence of details can add to the mystery. Early on, Alton’s father stands before a man with a gun drawn. The man is in a chair pleading for himself. The scene ends without a resolution. Halfway through the film we learn the man is still alive and never shot. The way it is played works as a surprise and deepening of the mystery that draws us in further.

Nichols is a director intrigued with messiah figures. In Take Shelter (2012) he presents us with a potentially schizophrenic visionary, making us question the reality of the main character’s point of view. He subverts our expectations in the finale of that film and leaves us asking lots of questions. Midnight Special feels more straightforward. We are never meant to question the unearthly power of Alton and see evidence of it from early in the film. This messiah is a tragic figure and I started to view the film through the lens of a story about parents dealing with the death and loss of their child. In the end, our characters are left changed, their faith reshaped. We never truly learn the details around Alton and we are in the survivors’ shoes. Left to wonder about the purpose of this world we inhabit.