“Marriage Story” is no “Kramer vs. Kramer”

Much like Kramer vs Kramer, this ironically named movie follows the disintegration of a marriage and the legal processes therein of divorcing your spouse (a more contextually harmonious title would be “End of Marriage Story” or even “Divorce Story”). But Noah Baumbach names his film Marriage Story because the premise he chases after is something like “love conquers all, even divorce.” Which is why he oscillates between the little expressions of love and couples that with the vehement anger and disgust expressed by our two ill-fated lovers: Charlie and Nicole.

These characters share a son, Henry, whose custody and place of living is the main question they argue about. Both Charlie and Nicole feel like they lose their agency and control to their attorneys in the divorce process. The divorce lawyers construct an illusory version of the truth in order to win the case rather than listening to the truth that organically emanates from the characters. This seems like a good metaphor for the film as a whole, where the illusion of “real” takes precedence over the authentic.

Which brings us to our emotional stakes.


EMOTIONAL STAKES

Marriage Story feels like it sprung from the mind of a theater director who wanted to put up a play where the only note was to “be real”. And so, as often these plays become, it transmogrifies into a clinical study where true emotion gets substituted for sensational artifice.

The image of “real’’ is carefully crafted as if designed by a lab that dictates where to place the likeable scenes and where to inject the exposure to the darker sides of human nature. Have Nicole give him a trumpet here to make us like her at this moment in time. Have the stage director touch Charlie’s thigh here to make sure we know something morally ambiguous is going on. It becomes so tirelessly technical that I didn’t care much for the relationship between Charlie and Nicole. Instead, I saw all the little buildups where the director indicates how the audience should feel rather than organically letting us decide on our own. Examples of these moments are whenever an inauthentic tableau appears for the sole purpose of reminding audiences that film is a visual medium. This is perfectly illustrated whenever Charlie and Nicole both hold onto their son and he is caught in the middle. A pictorial metaphor so cliche and unsubtle that I rolled my eyes every time this happened (read: at least 3 separate moments of the film).

Another instance is when Charlie comes over to help Nicole close her gate and as they close the gate on each side, they stare at each other symbolically closing the door on their marriage. I don’t think the filmmakers could have made these moments any more obvious to the viewer, it’s as if this movie were shouting to us: “you are stupid! This is what’s happening!”. Not trusting the audience’s intelligence or ability to understand the subtleties of loving someone while hating them, too.

I doubt that the characters of Charlie or Nicole, who consider themselves artists, would enjoy this movie.

Let’s pick apart the hackneyed emotional climax. Scream, scream, sob. “Yes, yes, good, keep that emotion” says the theater director. This comes more from the realm of acting exercise than anything I’ve ever seen in real life, ever. I have, however, seen this scene countless times in plays and staged productions. I felt nothing during this scene. It didn’t offer anything new to say and passed by all the tropes of lovers’ quarrel since Euripides’ Medea. Charlie even punches a wall while shouting “you’re f***ing winning!” as if to reaffirm his masculinity after feeling like it’s being taken away from him by his ex-wife. Every moment is so wrought that it feels like it was written by a bot who was forced to read tragedies and penned this a couple minutes later.

As someone who’s seen his parents’ marriage fall apart at a young age, I can say that the kid was quite passive and did not have much of a personality. The movie was not focused on the kid and there was never a moment of real danger like in Kramer vs. Kramer when Dustin Hoffman heartbreakingly races through traffic to get to the hospital. The paradox in the Kramer vs. Kramer scene is that by being a good father and rushing to get medical attention after his kid falls, the court will only see him as a negligent father who lets his kid fall on the playground in the first place. And then, he has to battle the doctors to stay in the room to take care of his son who’s painfully getting stitches. Those are real emotional stakes. He is fighting for his son and asserting his role as a father who’s here to take care of him. And I think the reason that Marriage Story lacks a situation like this is because the kid, Henry, never drives the story. The movie thus lives up to the “Marriage” aspect of the title while leaving out the fruit of their marriage, their parenthood, on the backburner.

No running in the streets in Marriage Story

The closest comparison is the scene where the interviewer comes over for dinner and Charlie accidentally cuts himself with a blade he thought was retracted. But the interviewer is so subdued and kooky that we don’t feel any danger. Charlie even falls to the ground after the cut, making the viewer think he’s gonna pass out while his kid innocuously walks over him. And then…. Charlie is absolutely fine in the next scene. The stakes seem only to be emotional and the kid is simply not involved. Charlie doesn’t fight for his kid in the same way Ted Kramer does. The real fight in Marriage Story, so it seems, is LA vs. NYC. This takes away the immediate stakes of the crumbling family and propulses into the clinical debate which relies on superficialities. New York produces geniuses with MacArthur Grants, LA has money and space. These are extremely reductive views of two culturally rich cities. This does a disservice to the movie as the heart of the disagreement is an everyday debate in the artistic circles of both central characters. This serves more to fuel the LA vs. NYC mentality of filmmakers and takes away from the most psychologically rich part that could’ve been explored a lot more: the kid, Henry.

This seems contradictory because what the parents are fighting about appears to be about the custody but if you dig deeper, it is actually not. This is why, while this film is technically proficient, it lacks the emotional maturity to guide the audience rather than indicate to the audience on how to feel.


DIVERSITY: A PRIVILEGED LOOK AT DIVORCE

Finally, a note on diversity. Marriage Story lacks diversity. The story revolves around two affluent white New Yorkers who can afford a bicoastal LA-NY divorce while working in the arts. Charlie can fly back and forth pretty frequently to see his son, who lives with his mother Nicole. Both parents pay for quite expensive lawyers. And in the end, they don’t really lose anything.

I have no idea why people are upset this film or its actors didn't win more Oscars for this. Overdone, indulgent and missing the point - ⭐ 

Article (written by me) also published on: Incluvie’s Medium Page.

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation— Reviewed

The 92nd Academy Awards were an interesting bag of snubs and nominations, especially concerning diversity, but here’s a quick rundown of an area that could often get overlooked: the animated short films.

Hair Love (USA)

This short normalizes black hair and celebrates black beauty. It shows a father tenderly helping his daughter to do her hair and embracing her femininity. Director Matthew A. Cherry says “We’re not used to seeing black fathers depicted in this light. In the media, black dads are often not present or if they are, it’s some kind of negative connotation. This seemed like a good opportunity to tell a story about a black family that has natural hair, and in the medium of animation,” And the director has succeeded in showing a compassionate and affectionate father-daughter relationship and the themes of self-acceptance, love, and beauty shine through. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


KitBull (USA)

Kitbull’s title is a portmanteau of Kitten and Pitbull, the two central figures in this short. These two figures, despite their differences, slowly develop trust and a friendship. Their friendship gives them the courage to get out of their situation (the pitbull has an owner who mistreats him and the other is a scared alley cat) and eventually and escape to a better life. It’s a sweet short with an enduring message of friendship and hope between species and that our differences aren’t as important as the way we treat each other. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Dcera/Daughter (Czech Republic)

Perhaps the most original of the bunch, this Czech student short also looks at father-daughter dynamics, but in a much different light. It tackles themes of loss and creatively explores grief and memory. The dynamic camera work gives the story momentum and the paper mache figures express so much without facial expression, a testament to this short’s artistry. The stop motion animation and the hand drawn faces conveys a humanity that allows for emotionally powerful sequences. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


妹 妹 / Sister (USA)

“Dedicated to the siblings we never had.” This sweet sibling love letter displays Siqi Song’s quirky and inventive style. She uses wool as “The texture is really dreamy; that resonates with the themes about memory and about childhood.” This felted stop-motion animation delivers a sweet, honest, and intimate portrait of family life in China with the one-child policy. The message of potential loss of sibling-hood and therefore childhood is powerful and well-executed. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Mémorable (France)

This irreverent short follows a painter and his wife coping with his advancing dementia. As he starts to lose his memory and sense of reality so does the animation become more hallucinatory and abstract. This is probably the most visually striking and compelling of all of these, with a memorable end sequence and also equipped with humor and visual gags. ⭐⭐⭐⭐


OSCAR WINNER: HAIR LOVE

CHOICE : HAIR LOVE

Article (written by me) also published on Incluvie’s Medium Publication.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER REVIEW

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX

One of my friends put it best, “The Rise Of Skywalker” satisfies the left brain’s logical and reasoning side but leaves the right brain’s creative and emotional center a little disappointed. This plot driven movie has a lot of action and ties a lot of things together but it lacks character development and emotional stakes. Let’s see why.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!


NO TIME TO BREATHE

A sense of panic permeated throughout the movie almost to the point where whenever a slower scene started to emerge it would be cut short by the arrival of imminent danger. I found myself at the edge of my seat for most of the film. Not because I was riveted, but because the story boomeranged back into action pretty frequently.

The new generation of core characters (Rey, Finn and Poe) did not have much dialogue between them, rather they mostly resorted to barking orders at one another and screaming in the face of potential peril. I began to question when there was going to be a quiet moment for some interpersonal scenes, or characterization. But most of the film felt like an anxiety fueled dream where you are constantly being chased and you have to keep running away.

There was also a near soap opera level number of twists and non-deaths. Constant back and forths where we are uncertain whether a character dies or not and who survives. The biggest example of this was the death (or not) of Chewie. This moment felt like it was especially tugging at our heart strings but almost in an artificial and hurried way because shortly after we found out he was actually alive, which doesn’t give us as an audience any time to mourn. In fact, it was mostly the scenes where the dead characters from original trilogy appeared that had an emotional lean.


RELYING ON OLD CHARACTERS

The only real emotional scenes were when Leia, Han and Luke showed up. I would rather they have constructed a story where we cared as much about Rey, Finn and Poe but such was not the case. Any difficult decision (eg Rey giving up or Kylo Ren doubting his evilness) felt like it was furthered along with the help of an old character (Luke and Han respectively) and that didn’t allow the new characters to develop their own emotional stakes as much nor for us to care.

Relying on the power of the old crop as iconic characters made it impossible for the new characters to blossom and therefore felt like it was impeding on the story. As nice as it was to see the older characters it somehow felt inappropriate, almost like they were shoehorned into a story that wasn’t about them which made their appearances seem cheap.

JJ Abrams is particularly adept at relying on nostalgia and playing it up in his movies (as seen in Star Trek, Star Wars Ep. VII, and more) but bringing back Emperor Palpatine felt a bit too far fetched. “The dead speak!” was met with an eye-rolling degree of incredulity. Even in the Rey/Kylo Ren communication sequences, it was through the mask of an old character: Darth Vader.


KYLO REN/ BEN SOLO

My left brain was pleased with the Kylo Ren storyline inasmuch as it mirrored Darth Vader’s arc. Starts off bad, gets redeemed at the end, in other words: familiar.

But my emotional side had a hard time mapping over the Darth Vader storyline to this one because we have seen Kylo Ren be a lot more sinister than Darth Vader. We’ve seen him kill his father and we’ve seen more of his origin story. We see him do inexcusable things and grow in his hatred.

Darth Vader meanwhile, as evil as he was, came into the story as a prototypical villain from whom we’d expect these kind of evil inclinations and only acted in a way that made sense within the realm of his character. Villains will kill. Kylo Ren, however, was introduced in a much more ambivalent fashion, going back and forth between each side of the force, struggling between good and bad and consciously choosing time and again the dark side.

And lastly, I didn’t see the use of the kiss at the end between him and Rey for the 10 seconds while they were both still alive. It felt like a haphazard attempt to round out the Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo arc by cementing him as a “good” and redeemed character.

There was a romance that felt more called for, among the omitted storylines which bothered me, namely..


THINGS THAT WERE MISSING

A Finn and Poe romance! If The Rise of Skywalker was all about pleasing the fanbase why didn’t they work this in? According to Oscar Isaac, he was onboard but the Disney execs were not. Throughout the trilogy it seemed as though there were hints and moments where there was tension and chemistry between the two and thus them getting together felt like a logical conclusion. And there was a big online push for them to end up together. But The Rise of Skywalker decided to keep their relationship platonic and give them each a sort-of girlfriend. If there has to be a romance, they should have made it this one or not at all — the kiss between Rey and Ben was confusing and rushed.

Another thing: where in the hell is Rose Tico?

Rose was such a big part of the “Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi” I was convinced she would be a big part of this one, too. She was a scrappy, fresh and interesting character and I wanted to see more of her. Alas, her screen time was less than two minutes (1m16s to be exact: according to this website) out of 2 hours and 20 minutes full time.

Another thing that bothered me/ was omitted was that Finn never gets around to revealing to Rey what he was going to tell her when he thought they were all going to die. Not a big issue, but a little frustrating.


FINAL THOUGHTS

At some key moments, most notably the final celebration sequence after the victory, the music was used more as a crutch than to enhance an already good scene. It was indicating the audience on how to feel rather than it organically swelling up.

Another issue I had was Rey going back to Tatooine, burying the lightsabers and proclaiming herself as a Skywalker. As a message, I didn’t mind, because the thematic logic behind it is that one can choose their own identity and forge their individual destiny. But in regards to the story, if felt more like a winky reference to the old movies without considering the implications. Tatooine was a place where a lot of tragedies befell the Skywalkers: Anakin was ripped away from his mom, Luke’s family was murdered… and so burying their lightsabers on that planet doesn’t beget the sort of respect Rey may have intended by doing that and instead seems like a plot device to reference the old movies one more time before the end credits.

For something positive, the visuals were stunning. Each world had its own very specific design and the color palette was clearly defined and felt specific to each planet or setting.

So concludes this new trilogy. Not a terrible movie but much too reliant on speed and action. The inattention to emotional development and characterization made for a movie which unfolded more like a puzzle of logic where all the storylines come together rather than a down to earth and powerful story. – ⭐⭐

OLD JERUSALEM REVIEW

Image result for old jerusalem chicago menu

Walking into Old Jerusalem feels like entering a cozy home. Grandma’s in the corner folding cutlery into napkins or reading receipts while quietly conversing to the rest of the staff in Arabic. It seems family run – in the best way possible – and offers some of the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had in Chicago.

RECOMMENDATION:

APPETIZER: Jerusalem Salad (pictured below on the right).

It’s just cut up tomatoes, cucumbers with a tahini base and a some herbs/spices, but it just tastes so good! To be eaten inside a pita roll or as a side dish for….

ENTREE: Hommos with Meat (pictured below to the left).

This beef special hits all the right spots – especially when paired with Jerusalem Salad. The beef (and hummus) is salty and packed with protein while the salad is lean and refreshing— a winning combination.

VEGETARIAN ENTREE: Falafil plate

A generous assortment of vegetarian options.

DRINK: Mango Juice

The mango juice is exquisite. A thick and sweet nectar with genuine mango taste and a pleasantly thick, almost creamy texture.

DESERT: Baklava

The fillo dough mixed with walnut and covered in honey is a great way to end the meal, maybe even an Arabic coffee too.

This Middle Eastern restaurant is a fun, laid-back spot in Old Town that’s not too expensive and has great taste – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

PARASITE REVIEW

Bong Joon Ho delivers this chilling masterpiece with precision and power.

Parasite follows the Kims, a Korean working class family of four who barely get by even when collectively pitching in from their low-wage jobs. When a family friend brings them a rock that’s supposed to help bring luck, prosperity and greatly enhance the family’s riches; the story starts to form.

They manage to trick their way into getting hired one by one as staff for a rich family, the Parks. First the son, Ki-woo, gets hired as an English tutor and sees the opportunity to con his wealthy bosses into hiring the rest of his family. His sister, Ki-Jeong, becomes an art therapist for the rich couple’s son. His father, Ki-Taek, becomes their chauffeur and his mother, Chung-sook, becomes the cook and house staff.

There are several things worth noting about this film: its power, tragedy and subtlety. And in this review we’ll look at those through an analysis of meaning and a breakdown of tone.


METAPHOR FOR CLASS DYNAMICS

This sketch, although humorous, is an insightful look at the issues with the social class system. Though this about the UK, it captures the societal mentality when regarding social classes, income gaps and cultures within a country. It is therefore transposable to South Korea, which has a similarly strict delineations of class.

“Money irons everything out” – Chung-sook

SPOILERS!!!!!!!!

In Parasite, the rich family for the most part is not nefariously looking down at the lower class like in the sketch above, rather they are oblivious to the lower class’ struggles, which, in part, contributes to inequality. The exception perhaps is the father, Mr. Park, who notices when Ki-Taek uses vulgar language when another car cuts him off, and gives him a disapproving look. But, the Parks ignorance towards their privilege doesn’t mean they aren’t profiting off of other people.

The mom, Yeon-kyo, is so unaware of her surroundings that she doesn’t even notice the man living in hiding in the basement. The man underground, meanwhile, has no access to the outdoors, lives off of discarded food from the Parks and turns on the lights every night upon Mr. Park’s return from work, so that he feels comfortable. This exemplifies the Parks’ ignorance towards little expected comforts, which are the result of someone’s else work.

Parasite offers up some pretty grim messages too:

  • if you’re poor, then you’ll inevitably have a hard life
  • and, money doesn’t equal happiness

This first message intimates a sort of predestined life dictated by class. For no matter how hard the Kims try, troubles always seem to come knocking at their door. The epitome of this is captured in the oddly fascinating scene where Ki-Jeong smokes a cigarette while the toilet erupts a grimy black substance and slowly floods the entire bathroom. Hauntingly beautiful.

Since the theme of destiny governed by class is present throughout the whole movie, it makes sense that the family’s attempts to get out of their class would have tragic repercussions. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy in that way. Fighting, like Atlas, against an immovable reality. Ki-Jeong, got killed then not because of a random act of violence but because the Kims allegorically played with fate by conning their way into being rich.

By doing this, Bong Joon Ho shows the difficulty, the near impossibility of change or progress in a society that still separates people based off of their wealth, vernacular or by the color of their skin. This is an urgent and powerful message for Korea but equally for countries that operate like this, too (read: many, if not all countries’ systems).

The second message is that material wealth is not necessarily the most valuable kind of wealth. By the end of the movie, the Kims accumulated money in their bank accounts, but they lost someone who was a lot more valuable to them. They lost Ki-Jeong. And, Ki-Taek now has to live in hiding and he has lost his freedom. Ultimately, family and freedom were the most important aspects to the Kim family unit. Even though they got a taste of riches, it wasn’t worth the trade in for a dead daughter/sister and a father/husband who is in hiding.


TONE

Essentially, Parasite worked as a dark comedy for the first half, even producing laughs along the way. I even thought to myself: “is this the dark film everybody been’s talking to me about?”. What I didn’t realize was that is that the story was gaining momentum before becoming dark.

The tonal center was gradually building out of a dark comedy and shifting slowly into a frenzied, harrowing thriller. This wasn’t so much of a sudden change but a gradual progression which speaks to Bong Joon Ho’s mastery of tone and subtle storytelling.

With an unforgettable mindfuck of a crescendo at the party scene.

Parasite is a wild, politically engaged, and beautifully executed movie – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

KNIVES OUT REVIEW

A playful movie that looks at the murder mystery genre and says: “I’ve got an idea .”

This movie was an awful lot of fun: why?


GENRE PLAYFULNESS

Genre playfulness is when someone creates a piece that nods to the iconic films or works from that genre but delivers it in a unique style. A genre has its own language and world, and although playful, genre-specific movies might contain cliches or use recognizable tropes, they do not veer into spoof territory. Instead, they function as a fun(ny) homage to the genre.

The language of the murder mystery genre might come in the form of a classic storyline (murder occurs, all-knowing detective tries to pick murderer out of a group of suspects who were all present). It also has a certain aesthetic, fancy Victorian-era mansion tucked away in the woods. An autumnal decor, yellow and brown leaves that remind us of the spookiest season of all, Halloween. Trick doors to an abundance of rooms that display opulent wealth. There’s also usually a party and the guests become suspects. A lot of this is owed to the world forged by crime fiction author and world’s best-selling writer, Agatha Christie.

Knives Out uses a lot of these classic components. The setting is a creaky mansion tucked away in the forest. There’s an all-knowing detective, complicated family dynamics and a murder the night of a party, in which the guests —the family— are the suspects. The family members themselves seem straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, each having a motive creating a shroud of doubt as to who the real killer is. The film explores each character’s depth (and possible motives for murder) so it veers away from spoof territory.

If interested in parodies of the murder mystery genre, Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 film Clue or Neil Simon’s Murder By Death are worth checking out. As opposed to Knives Out, the characters in these movies are self-aware and ape the recurring situations or cliches of the genre. Clue reimagines the beloved board game into a story packed with jokes and true to its deceptive fashion, the movie had three different theatrical endings to confuse the audience across America. Murder by Death takes all the well known detective-types and puts them in a movie together. There are substitutes for: Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple and so on.

Since we know that Knives Out is not a spoof, the familiarity of the world being set up is only used so that it can be played with later.

So how does this film play with the genre?

Well, for one, as opposed to the common whodunnit? stories, we find out the killer little less than halfway through the movie. Instead, this movie asks the question: who hired the detective? This reversal of expectations is part of the fresh vision for the movie.

Also, there are some modern, and usually funny, updates on common characters. As opposed to the usual petulant entitled child, we get an internet troll son masturbating in the bathroom. As opposed to the hackneyed devilish butler (the butler did it!), we get a kindhearted and devoted nurse/caretaker. The grandmother who seems senile plays an important role in the end, etc.. These character variations are specific to Knives Out, which make the movie more compelling, unique, and therefore more fun.

Also, Knives Out use of humor serves to elevate and make the movie stand out.


HUMOR

If comedy often operates as cutting tension, it makes sense that the murder mystery genre would be ripe for humor. These crime-fiction stories have a certain poignancy and suspense to them, and Knives Out uses bathos to its advantage.

That being said, I was not expecting it to be this funny.

There were lots of moments I actually laughed out loud. My favorite part was hearing the folksy wisdom of Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc who delivers insightful analyses using metaphors with commonplace foods in New Orleans twang.

When Mr. Blanc plays a foreboding key on the piano, we are thrown in the world of a brilliant detective’s antics. The audience does not quite understand what’s going on or why he hits the key while interrogating them. The characters’ confused and blunt reactions to that cut the tension by mirroring the audience’s confusion.

“The party? Pre my dad’s death? Oh, it was great.” Linda

Additionally, the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the Ana de Armas’ character, Marta Cabrera, provides some endearing laughs. Marta is the heart on her sleeve caretaker and throws up at the thought of lying. That innocence makes some for sweet, if not a little gross, comedic moments.

There are also little nuggets of recurring jokes added in. The most engaging one being the family who keep getting Marta’s ancestral country wrong, which ultimately proves how little they think of her as family despite their rote repetition of that phrase.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!


TWISTS

Structurally, I appreciated the full circle quality of the opening shot and the closing shot with the mug that reads : “My rules, my house, my coffee”, but now with a different meaning put onto it. The blocking and metaphorical placement of the closing shot too was a powerful way to end. Marta, looking down on the family from the balcony, at home and wrapped up in cozy blanket sipping from a mug. The family, meanwhile, stand in the driveway, bereft of their expected inheritance and look up to her, the new owner of the house and estate.

With a lot of whodunnit? stories, the clues lie in the details and all information might be used later on. The twist of the knife being fake was set up in the beginning when the patriarch of the Thrombey family tells Marta as he stabs his card table that a trick knife is sometimes indistinguishable from a real one. Ransom’s final act of defiance and attempt to kill Marta is then halted because he used a trick knife. This underlying trickery parallels the deceitfulness of his protege grandson, so it seems like a fitting conclusion for Ransom’s character.


FINAL THOUGHTS

The family is played beautifully, you simply love to hate them. The acting in this all star cast is a triumph, especially the main character who is a revelation.

I also appreciated the message of the film. Marta’s good heart never wavered and that is what was rewarded in the end. She was honest to Det. Blanc throughout the film and saved Fran, even though it was against her best interest. This shows that sometimes it pays to be truthful in a world of deceit and lies.

In the words of the lady in back of me at the movie theater: “Pure moviegoing entertainment” – ⭐⭐⭐⭐½

RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK REVIEW

A watered down regurgitation of Woody Allen tropes from his “Manhattan” era. With this movie, he folds in on himself and becomes a caricature of what he once was.

CONTEXT

Let’s start with the most talked about. Amazon Studios did not release the film in the US because of the the allegations held against Woody Allen. Though the allegations of assault on his adoptive daughter Dylan date back to 1992; the Me Too movement, and the fact that his son (Dylan Farrow) uncovered the Harvey Weinstein scandal, brought the allegations back to the surface. Even though it was common knowledge for many years, the resurfacing made Amazon cut ties with the director and most of the cast donated their earnings from the movie (surely out of the goodness of their hearts and not simply out of fear of bad PR).

All allegations aside, Woody Allen has a problematic history with writing in predatory behavior towards women. This bothersome pattern dates back to Manhattan, where Woody Allen’s character (in his 40’s) dates a 17 year old girl and complains that she’s not deep enough. Even if the attitude towards dating younger women might have been different back then, it doesn’t change the fact that Woody Allen wrote in the script that his love interest was 17. It was in his power to make her 18, and not a minor. It’s just a year, but it makes a big difference. A Rainy Day in New York adds to that list of problematic storylines. In this film, a 21 year-old girl (legal! Phew..) is chased around by THREE separate middle aged men (Oof…). Now, if Woody Allen is trying to distance himself from the sexually predatory image he says is being unfairly pushed onto him, his movies aren’t helping his cause, though granted, they are not confessions or proof of any wrongdoing either.


WOODY ALLEN(S)

This whole movie can be boiled down to: “out of touch”. Out of touch director, for an out of touch increasingly niche audience, played out by out of touch characters. (Who else is sick of upper class New Yorkers in film?). The evolution of Woody Allen’s directorial style seems to be rather stagnant if he is doing the same things he did 40 years ago, like showing the Empire State Building in Black and White and making the protagonist an ersatz embodiment of himself. This seems more like the work of a legacy act rather than an artist seeking to create engaging content.

Equally, the characters are far from realistic and compose a dialogue never before heard in real life, unless all characters are a foil for Woody Allen himself (eg. “I shouldn’t imbibe so copiously” – uttered by a 21 year old college student from Arizona). This seems to be the issue with Woody Allen(s). Each main character becomes a Woody Allen impersonation and over the years, the quality has declined.

The worst part is that the old fashioned dialogue is spoken by actors as fresh faced as pre-pubescent teens.

These are the faces of 12 year olds.

These characters, Gatsby and Ashleigh, are a college couple whose lives have been uninterrupted boulevards of green lights and unending streams of wealth. Gatsby is supposed to be a fusion of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby while remaining bumbly and neurotic, naturally. Ashleigh is a sweet ingenue enamored by Hollywood. These are not very original characters.

SPOILERS!!!!!

NB. There was a moment of hope where’s Gatsby’s mother reveals she was once a prostitute in Indiana. Even though that tugged at an element of real struggle and brought the story from the dizzying heights of wealth the characters display, (eg. Let’s get the suite at the Carlyle because betting money is “fake money”) this remains a passing moment. A movie with her as the central character might have been more compelling. Seeing her climb the echelons of class – only to be misunderstood by her own wealthy kids, would have been rich as a subject.

Instead we get the ramblings of a boy who’s known nothing but operas and Ivy League schools.


STUCK IN TIME

Largely, there were many gaps in understanding. A couple in their 20s that doesn’t text each other with updates? Come on. Either I missed it or it was unclear, but they seem rather involved to the point of taking a trip together, discussing marriage and wanting to meet the family. So that was hard to believe, especially considering that the whole film could have been changed with a minimum of texting or the incalculable social media platforms people contact each other with nowadays.

Another moment that seemed dated was whenever Gatsby talk about Jazz as if it were an alternative lifestyle- this is hardly the 1920s. Jazz has been accepted as an iconic movement and grown to become a century defining musical genre. In his musical upbringing, I’m sure he was even taught (by the mother he so despises) to play jazz.

The music in the film was mostly good, the highlight being a rendition by Gatsby of “Everything happens to Me” though – try as he might – T. Chalamet can’t grasp the intense sorrow put forth by Chet Baker, the clear inspiration for this interpratation of the standard.

A pleasant and welcoming surprise was Selena Gomez’s acting chops.

The stylistic choices that once shot Woody Allen to fame have now become out of touch, tired and dated – ⭐

JOKER REVIEW

Character driven movie which follows the descent of a troubled man into becoming an urban, albeit violent, robin hood-esque persona and a counter culture emblem set to shake the hierarchic social structure status quo.


A CHARACTER STUDY

In the traditional origin story, one event serves as a trigger that changes the hero’s life forever. Whether it’s for a super hero, such as Peter Parker who gets bit by spider, gains powers, discovers how to use them (responsibly) or whether it’s with a villain. The villain arc usually goes like this: “brilliant scientist gets overwhelmed by own creation, falls into vat of toxic waste, gains superpowers”. This keeps the genre very much in the make believe world because we understand the actual consequences of those actions. We understand that a spider bite just leaves a nasty bump in real life or if it’s venomous it might hurt us, but ultimately not give us powers. Just like we understand that a toxic waste vat will kill or seriously injure us and not give us the power to harness electricity for example. This cements these stories in the world of make believe, fiction, fantasy. What’s interesting about Joker is how real it is. This movie is grounded in a believable setting and the hero (or rather villain’s) descent evolves through a collection of moments rather than a single spark igniting a character switch. There is no one traumatic incident Arthur Fleck (Joker) can harken back to when he decided to be bad, but rather a series of little moments that build up, amalgamating and eventually crescendoing into a chaotic and overwhelming drive towards violence that pushes our protagonist into crime and murder. This take offers a more subtle, perhaps more nuanced, (dare I say poetic?) and intimate portrait of how a man turns into a monster.


INFLUENCES

Set in the 1970s, Joker shows a grim, gritty picture of Gotham City, a city that serves as a substitute New York. It’s New York because we know of the lore and also because Batman (or Batman canon) films are usually filmed in NY (sometimes Chicago too). We also know it’s supposed to represent New York because in the movie because Arthur Fleck refers to finance bros as “Wall Street guys”. Now that we’ve established that Gotham is a fictionalized New York, it’s easy to draw comparisons to earlier cinematic works that take place in the actual New York, namely Scorsese films.

Two Scorsese films come to mind while watching Joker and they are Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Taxi Driver is set in a similar timeframe as Joker and has a familiar backdrop in the gritty New York or New York like cityscapes. Whether it’s the porno movie theaters or the dirty metro lines these two movies bear a visual resemblance in their settings. Not only that, but the themes are also pretty analogous. Chasing after a politician (or politician to-be in Joker), these movies follow an unhinged protagonist as they turn to violence for liberation and more. There is even a scene where Joaquin Phoenix dances shirtless around the room with his pistol in his hand à la Robert de Niro playing Travis Bickle in the supremely famous “you talking to me?” scene. Perhaps the most compelling similarity is both movies toying with our perception of what actually is happening.

There are some moments in Joker where we as an audience are not sure what is actually happening in the story or if what we are seeing is a story concocted by Arthur Fleck’s imagination. We are sometimes led to believe it’s happening one way, but then later shown that it was all a fantasy stemming from twisted mind of our eponymous protagonist. The play between what’s real and what’s imagined leaves a lot of scenes open for interpretation. We are not sure what to follow and the confabulation of Arthur Fleck as an unreliable narrator makes him twist reality or manipulate the images we see on the screen. This storytelling tactic serves to heighten the feeling of chaos that permeates throughout this movie. This situation is similar to the ending of Taxi Driver and the debate as to whether Travis Bickle actually acted like we saw in the movie and lived to look back on it or whether it was the hopeful fantasy happening inside of his deranged mind.

Now that we’ve explored the similarity between themes, let’s look at the similarity between story and content, which is where The King of Comedy comes in. The first obvious connection is the presence of Robert de Niro the actor, who plays a character in the late night TV world. The second connection is the tale of the persistence and delusion of a would-be comedian who’s sure he’s destined for great things. Both Rupert Pupkin (the main character of The King of Comedy, played by Robert de Niro) and Arthur Fleck are mentally unstable and will go to great lengths to become famous. They both share a fascination for a late night TV host and resort to violent actions when dealing with rejection. While Rupert remains obstinate about achieving success in the comedy world, Arthur is more disillusioned with the way things are and decides that the confines of TV are too small for his character, proclaiming instead that his “life is a comedy”.

On top of Scorsese there are other allusions, the most notable being to Charlie Chaplin. When Arthur Fleck covertly enters a movie screening, it’s “Modern Times”, a movie is about a man having trouble keeping up with modernization. Arthur Fleck equally describes the world he’s living in as getting “crazier out there”, a sign he feels he can’t keep up with the change he feels is happening. Subsequently, not coincidentally the Charlie Chaplin penned “Smile” plays in the Joker soundtrack. This serves two purposes. The first is the allusion to Charlie Chaplin, arguably the iconic figure of comedy of the 20th century, which Arthur Fleck certainly studied when trying to become a comedian (there’s a scene where he transcribes acts, jokes and moments of performances at a comedy club, so we know he takes notes and does his research). This ties into the whole comedian/clown/joker aspect. The second purpose is to use this song contrapuntally. This ties into the brilliantly contrapuntal soundtrack, packed with optimistic songs set to sombre moments of the movie. When a song is used as a counterpoint the general feeling or emotion derived from the song is in direct contrast with what’s happening on the screen (ie happy song, sad scene). The opening lyrics to the song go as follows: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking”. The intention of the song is wait and “You’ll see the sun come shining through for you” one day. The Arthur Fleck-ian interpretation of the song (if we assume he heard it) would be to smile, no matter what. But it is not a genuine smile, which adds to an eerie feeling of confusion about the character and how we are supposed to feel about him.

“I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a comedy.” – Arthur Fleck (Joker)


HERO VS. VILLAIN

We live in an era where the line between hero and villain is marred. The distinction has become more and more blurry and hard to define. One of the latest DC movies shows Batman and Superman fighting against each other. Instead of good versus bad, it seems the public is more interested in psychologically rich characters. Though that’s been the case with TV for the last few years (Walter White in Breaking Bad, Don Draper in Mad Men and Dexter in Dexter…) the movie superhero genre is gently swaying in that direction. Venom last year, Joker this year and the aforementioned Batman vs. Superman to name a few.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!

As a film, Joker plays with our sensibilities and our allegiances to the protagonist. We know he’s a villain but we also feel for the guy. The only life he’s ever known has been a lie, he was adopted unbeknownst to him, he was terribly abused as a child, he laughs when it’s inappropriate and has a card to explain (but sometimes fails to take it out in time), people see him as a freak, he gets beaten regularly, he loses his job and so on…

This man was in a mental institution and once he left, the funding for his social work gets cut, meaning he is no longer able to receive medical treatment. These are serious issues which are approached with great sadness and empathy. We see Arthur Fleck trying to fit in and failing and being left behind by a society that doesn’t take care for its poor or its sick and is scared of mental illness. I started to feel bad for Arthur and I was inadvertently rooting for him.

Only after Arthur Fleck shot the three Wall Street men on the subway did I realize I was rooting for him. It almost felt good to see the finance bros/bullies get taken down, but why? Of course they were assholes, but even assholes and bullies deserve the right to live (and hopefully have time to learn to become better people). It seems as though this moment was a release for Arthur and we were seeing him unfolding in front us. We were exploring the darkness of the character with empathetic eyes. As if he were the answer to disrupt the power dynamics of a big city like Gotham. Even the city’s people responded to the killing and having the lens of a dissatisfied populace ripe for an uprising gives sense as to how a leader like the Joker could rise up in the vacuum and be, in some sort, the leader or face (or mask?) of the movement.

Batman is not a big part of the movie. Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) is a central figure and he is seen in opposition to Arthur Fleck. We inevitably see the parents death scene (shot by a random killer from the mob) but never see a tête-à-tête with Batman the superhero. Since Batman is such a beloved hero, I wonder (if a sequel were ever to be made) how they would juggle the conflict between Joker and Batman and who becomes the central character, the person we empathize with and in some sense the hero, or antihero.

A bold take on a classic superhero villain with efforts to shine a different light on a well known character. Many cinematic influences and an absence of a traditional origin story arc make for a compelling look into the descent into madness and create a tone of uneasiness and chaos. Worth a look – ⭐⭐⭐½

YASSA REVIEW

A colorful setting with a tasty menu, Yassa brings West African cuisine to Chicago.

Located in the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville, this South Side eatery serves Senegalese fare. This includes traditional stews, meat and fish dishes and my favorite- djolof rice!


RECOMMENDATION:

DRINK: PINEAPPLE JUICE

Pictured on the left

The drinks are a hit or miss, sometimes edging on the overly sweet. The pineapple juice is just right and serves as a good complement to the savory dishes.

SIDE DISH: DJOLOF RICE

A personal favorite, this spiced, red rice perfectly accompanies any entree.

MAIN COURSE: GRILLED TILAPIA OR THIOU CURRY

Depending on whether you prefer fish or red meat, provided two options. Both are of same calibre of taste. A blend of flavors with a crispy coating for the fish and a tender slow cooked lamb meat for the curry. Pictured is also Djolof rice.

DESSERT: THIAKRY

Millet, yogurt and cinnamon, need I say more?

Related image
Stock Photo of Tiakry (to give you an idea)

This is the perfect place if you want to expand your ethnic food horizons, a relaxed setting with occasional entertainment or if you want to practice your French. A must!

Tasty and a colorful locale – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Find out more here: https://www.yassarestaurant.com/

Address: 3511 S King Dr, Chicago, IL 60653

Hours: Sunday through Thursday – 11am to 10pm

Friday and Saturday – 11am to 11pm

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT REVIEW

The film is much like a Springsteen song – a refuge for outcasts, people who feel stuck in their situation, and want a change.


MUSICAL(?)

I knew close to nothing going into this movie. I was surprised that it basically functioned as a musical if your definition of musical is a character needing to express their feelings through song. Except this time, it was Bruce Springsteen songs. That made it that the movie created an almost in between realm where some moments were real and dramatic while some were surrealistic and romantic.

Characters start dancing and singing along during a relatively normal scene. The choreography isn’t perfect and the singing sounds pretty normal. It feels like the characters could almost be joining along even if it weren’t a musical. The genre line between musical and not is tiptoed and carefully balanced. This leaves with more of an intimation or suggestion of a musical more than an actual musical. We can then focus on the songs themselves and the lyrics rather than the dancing, the showmanship and the technique.


BEING PAKISTANI IN 80s UK

Javed is a Pakistani boy from Luton (near but NOT London) who felt trapped in his life. Like Springsteen did to him, we were able to understand Javed’s experience because it hit on recognizable feelings of not being good enough, feeling trapped and wanting to break free. I do not know what it is like to be Pakistani in England in the 80s, but I do know the feelings of questioning myself and wanting a release and in that, Javed’s story becomes widely relatable for any who’s experienced those feelings too.

For a little history, the National Front in England is a fascist political party with an anti-Pakistani sentiment, who held riots and consisted of many “skinheads” followers. Pakistanis were treated like lower-class citizens, and Blinded By the Light doesn’t shy away from the abuse Pakistani families received. One scene depicts little boys peeing in mailboxes, something that happened so often [to that Pakistani family] that they splurged for a plastic carpet that was easier to clean the piss off of.

Those feelings, while unique to Javed’s experience, do mirror the Springsteen-ian angst of wanting to get out of their hometown. For the boss it was the ennui of the New Jersey working class lifestyle. For Javed, it was feeling trapped in not only his family but his skin color and roots.

The first song that connects Javed to Springsteen is “Dancing in the Dark”, which makes total sense. Lyrics appear on screen “I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face” “Man, I’m just getting tired, tired and bored of myself” and of course “There’s something happening somewhere”. Javed finds solace in these words, and we find solace in Javed’s solace. He is a writer, holed up in his room, escaping the strict parenting of the household and this music is the first semblance of freedom and independence Javed’s been searching for.

Up till that point, writing has been Javed’s escape, but now it is Bruce Springsteen songs (introduced by a fellow Pakistani friend of his). Javed believes if he follows everything Bruce does, he will be able to extricate himself from the life he knows and become successful, like Bruce. In so, he tears off the sleeves of his shirts, buys jean jackets and adopts an all around denim look. And yet, by pushing his family away and seeing Bruce as his only savior he alienates the people who care about him.


COMING OF AGE

The Springsteen songs serves as a sort of trampoline for Javed to tackle his life and issues head on, fearlessly and energetically. This culminates in a life affirming trip to Asbury Park , NJ while the title song “Blinded by the Light” (the original, not the Manfred Mann version) plays in the background. But at the end of the day, this is a movie where we see the main character mature and see things from everybody’s perspective and not just his own.

He sees how his sister takes time out of the day to dance at a day-only student dance club. He empathizes with his father searching for work and his overworked mother trying to keep the family afloat.

“My dream is to build a bridge to my dreams, but not a wall between my family and me” – Javed

The lesson here is not that music is the answer, the panacea to life’s problems whether it be songs from the Boss or someone else. It’s that music can help guide us and realize our potential. Instead of trying to emulate someone else.

A fun movie with a nice message – ⭐⭐⭐⭐