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TIFF 2017: ‘Bodied’ Takes The Gloves Off

‘Bodied’ is an important film, but a deeply flawed one.

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While people may best know Joseph Kahn from his work on music videos — including many of Taylor Swift’s most popular videos — the director has made a name for himself in the film world for directing abrasive and audacious films like Torque and Detention. If you didn’t like any of those films, it’s fairly unlikely you’ll enjoy his newest film, Bodied. Showing no signs of subtlety or restraint, Kahn has somehow crafted his most interesting film while still falling into many of the pitfalls that the music video director has always indulged in with his film career.

Bodied takes the audience into the world of battle rap, as Caucasian university student Adam (Calum Worthy) goes from positing about the use of the ‘N-word’ in his thesis paper to becoming the next great battle rapper. Going under the wing of Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), Adam struggles with keeping his personal and private lives separate. One of Bodied’s most interesting elements is its forcing of battle rap into Adam’s social life as he tries his best to explain the poetic value of the craft to his white, vegan, politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). While conversations between Adam and Maya often devolve into redundant arguments about what’s okay to say and what’s not, it’s the slow unraveling of a deep-seated racism within Adam that makes the film both timely and important.

The actual battle rapping within Bodied is presented much like an action sequence. Music rises as the tension escalates and the wordplay at use becomes increasingly more involved. Kahn does an incredible job using special effects and claustrophobic shots to drive home the savagery that can come out of an insult-throwing competition. The lyrics can be both funny and subversive, but at all times they go straight for the jugular. Camaraderie between fellow rappers is both strengthened and broken by what is said in their verses, but the best part is seeing where that line is drawn and how Adam perceives the importance of that line. Today there are often articles written about whether it’s okay for someone to talk about rape on stage, or speak racial and homophobic slurs if it’s under the guise of artistic intent — Bodied explores that idea fully, and without pulling any punches.

Bodied

This comes at a cost, though. Pretty much every conversation between Adam and Maya or her friends feels redundantly pretentious. Everyone is a stereotype, and Adam feels like a juvenile version of an Aaron Sorkin character — always talking as if he’s the smartest guy in the room. While it gets the point of the film across, it does it in the simplest way possible. Writer Alex Larsen’s screenplay is the perfect match to Kahn’s unrestrained style of directing, but at two hours, it’s grating to hear some characters talk after a while.

The fact that Kahn and Larsen do not pull any punches is a blessing and a curse. On one hand they get to make a film that approaches notions of cultural appropriation and racism within a subject (rap) that features those elements so prominently. At the same time, the movie becomes oppressive and difficult to enjoy because it focuses on a main character who is insufferably racist and thinks that he’s better than everyone, puts him in situations where the outcome can only increase his insufferable nature, and then proceeds with his journey. As a character study, it’s not even close to great, because its one opinion on Adam isn’t even followed through by the end. As an exploration of racism in White America though, it’s a goddamn treasure.

Bodied will be a huge hit with rap fans, and I think its troublesome how much the actual message of the film might not get across because of how painful the dialogue can be. I would want every character to stop talking when the rapping had ended, with the exception of the other rappers in Adam’s crew, who speak like regular human beings and offer interesting insight into their own plights as rappers. It’s such an important conversation to have, but Bodied is frustratingly dedicated to presenting its message in a style that is jarring to the ideas it holds. We can try and talk about cultural appropriation, but it’s hard to do so when the entire film is centered around a character appropriating black culture and turning into a racist monster, without much condemnation in the end. Bodied is an important film, but a deeply flawed one.

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Toronto, Ontario. His favorite films include The Big Lebowski, The Raid 2, Alien, and The Thing. You will often find him with a drink in his hand yelling about movies.

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TIFF

The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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In Defense of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

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Star Wars The Last Jedi

The anger and vitriol directed at Rian Johnson’s 2017 film is misplaced, as it’s actually the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the original trilogy

Over the course of the last few years, a tiresome debate has been had, over and over again, over whether certain popular blockbuster movies have become too politically correct, too inclusive, too “woke.” 

This debate has touched just about every piece of mass entertainment, from Marvel to Terminator to Watchmen to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s often used as a cudgel to gloat over negative box office results. 

It’s all both exceedingly tiresome and not the slightest bit new, as it’s just a different name for what used to be called “liberal bias” analysis, back in the 1990s. But the worst thing of all about it the modern version of this is that “woke” is often merely another word for “this movie has women and minorities in prominent roles.” 

“Every word of what you just said was wrong”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Probably the apotheosis of the recent version of this was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson’s film that came out in December of 2017. The Last Jedi received positive reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score in the 90s, and made $1.3 billion worldwide, good for 13th all time. It was the #1 movie at the domestic box office in 2017, even though it was released two weeks before the end of the year. 

However, since the time of the film’s release, there’s been a bitter, angry backlash against The Last Jedi, against director Rian Johnson, and in favor of a counter-narrative that says the film “ruined” Star Wars. 

Yes, there are other arguments, about the film not being true to the character of Luke Skywalker, about Star Wars not being what it used to be following its 2012 acquisition by Disney, and other specious contentions that The Last Jedi “ruined” characters Star Wars fans used to like. 

Nevermind that a certain subset of Star Wars fans has reacted with seething anger to just about every new Star Wars project, going back as far as Return of the Jedi. (The Mandalorian seems to have escaped this, through its first few episodes, but give it time.) Or that many of the complaints about The Last Jedi, from its hamfisted dialogue to its overly cute characters to the slowness at times of its plot, is true of just about every Star Wars movie. 

Things get ugly 

Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi has taken on even uglier tones. There were death threats against Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose. Trolls admitted to manipulating the movie’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That petition to strike the film from the Star Wars canon.  The film has been the subject of way too many angry, ranting, three-hour YouTube videos. 

Nasty as all of that stuff is, these people are just plain on the wrong side. That’s because The Last Jedi is a beautiful, special film, one that holds up on repeated viewings, and is by a pretty significant margin the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. 

There are many great things about The Last Jedi, starting with the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. The film centers Luke in a way that one hadn’t since Return of the Jedi, and explores the character in a fascinating way that is, contrary to what Last Jedi haters say, true to what may become of Luke. 

There’s also a ten-minute sequence in the middle of The Last Jedi that’s up there with the very best of the Star Wars saga. That throne room scene, followed by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo slamming into the ship -which Johnson shot as a knowing 2001: A Space Odyssey homage – is such a thrilling succession of events that I rewound and watched it again the last time I watched the movie. This part, in particular, made everyone in my critics’ screening gasp: 

Then there’s the final scene, in which kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy. 

The silly thing at all is that the film doesn’t even have much of a political agenda, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that women and people of color having prominent roles in a movie is, by its very nature, problematically political. 

It really can’t be emphasized enough that Star Wars has now been around for over 40 years. If you’re part of the original generation of fans, that saw the original movies in the theater and collected the original toys and everything else, you’re not only not the entirety of the Star Wars fan base anymore, but you’re not even the majority. And when it comes to Star Wars today, I care a lot more about what kids think than about what 45-year-olds think. 

Rian Johnson

The director speaks

For Rian Johnson’s part, he’s found a way to often cleverly retort to trolls who still harass him regularly for directing a movie they didn’t like. 

“The key to being on Twitter is like anything else- you have to enjoy it,” Johnson told me in a red carpet interview when his new film, Knives Out, showed at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. “If you’re not enjoying being on there, there’s no reason to be on there.. if you’re having fun, and you’re getting more out of it than you’re putting more into it- and I do, in all the interactions with the fans. 

“The bad stuff gets written up a lot, but 95% of my interactions on there are wonderful and lovely,” he added. “And the stuff that’s bad, I’ve seen so much of it, I see the patterns it falls into, you don’t want to engage with it too much, but once in awhile it’s fun to just kind of play with it a bit.” 

Too many Star Wars fans seem to think, despite everything, that they’re part of a small subculture of nerds and outcasts, as opposed to the closest thing to a worldwide monoculture that still exists. 

It’s part of the ugly trend towards fandoms taking on the properties of identity politics. No, liking Star Wars doesn’t make you part of a marginalized, persecuted minority. You just didn’t like a movie, that’s it. George Lucas didn’t “rape” your “childhood,” and no, neither did Rian Johnson.  All Johnson did was make a great film that took risks and saw nearly all of them pay off.

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