Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

little-miss-sunshineMost comedy movies today rely heavily on shock value and gross-out humor to draw crowds and laughs. When it comes to visual media, subtle humor has found its recent home on television shows rather than the big screen. But Little Miss Sunshine treats and transcends the genre with nuance.

Little Miss Sunshine is both fresh and familiar. It tells the story of a white, suburban, dysfunctional family that carries with it the blood-is-thicker-than-water motif. However, it’s one of the darkest feel-good movies to come out the ‘00s. At the beginning of the movie, the cheery title is displayed over the defeated face of a suicidal gay man portrayed by Steve Carell. This contrast foreshadows a disconnect between the aesthetic and tone of the rest of the film. It’s hard to make southern California look dreary.

The plot centers around a road trip to Redondo Beach, California so that youngest daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), can compete in a beauty pageant. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette portray goofy dad Richard and stay-at-home mom Sheryl. They are accompanied by Richard’s irreverent father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), Sheryl’s suicidal brother, Frank, and the couple’s son, Dwayne (Paul Dano).

Carrying a façade of optimism and self-confidence, Richard Hoover quickly becomes the most despised character of the story. As someone who feels deeply hopeless, he imposes his can-do attitude vicariously upon his children, even when it’s unhealthy or insulting. His nihilist son, Dwayne, has taken a vow of silence until he’s able to be an Air Force test pilot. Sheryl is concernedly unsupportive, and while Dwayne clearly couldn’t care less, Richard subtly credits himself as being the driving motivation for Dwayne’s determination.

The Volkswagen Bus they drive to the event is just as dysfunctional as the family, but it’s used as a unifier for the family early on in the film. Because the van breaks down, they can’t get it into gear unless it’s moving at least 20 mph. There’s something satisfying about seeing nihilist Dwayne and suicidal Frank being the last ones to jump in after pushing the van up to speed. They have no personal investment in the beauty pageant and are openly disgusted by it later in the film, but there’s something almost primal about supporting a family member that they seemingly can’t overcome.

When the cosmic mentor Edwin dies on the way, it seems like all hope is lost. But the family once again works together to sneak his body out of the hospital and into their trunk. The scene is endearing, dark, and hilarious all at the same time.

Probably the most touching scene is when Dwayne learns that he’s colorblind, meaning that he wouldn’t be able to fly. He breaks his vow of silence to scream obscenities in the middle of the desert. He names the individual dysfunctions of the family members out loud—suicide, divorce, etc.—and declares his hatred for them. While everyone wracks their brains trying to think of something to say to get him back in the van, Olive goes down to him and hugs him for just a moment in silence. Dwayne walks back up with Olive, picks her up when she gets stuck, and apologizes to his family. Richard’s job requires him to know the right words and the right formulas to get the right outcome. And maybe the best solution isn’t in words or actions, but in silence.

All of these ups and downs culminate to Olive’s borderline obscene dance number during the talent portion of the pageant. It’s sloppy and poorly choreographed, and she’s is nearly booted off the stage when Richard is asked to get her off the stage. Instead he joins her. Then the rest of the family joins her, and in one fell swoop the family subverts the image-obsessed pageant culture and their image-obsessed family culture. They embrace their dysfunction together.

The film ends with somewhat of a resurrection narrative as Richard opens the back door and rolls up the sheet that once hid his father’s body. It’s an atonement and ascension of sorts. They’ve laid to rest the facades and hopelessness.

This film follows all the beats of a feel-good family movie, but subverts the genre in over-the-top ridiculous ways. Perhaps the shock factor isn’t lost on this dark comedy after all.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pans-Labyrinth-wallpaperSome of the most interesting literature I’ve ever read was in my Spanish V class in high school. For example, in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Aleph”, he describes a singularity that contains every perspective of the universe in every time. The concept was dreamlike as we read it in Spanish. We pored over each individual word in order to construct in our minds Borges’ abstract meaning. It was like becoming a child again and thinking about heaven for the first time: boring unless you know how to play a harp.

Like the two films I’ve written about before, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth mixes reality with fantasy. Birdman is a movie that adores subjectivity, and Steve Jobs plays out more like a mythology than a biopic. Pan’s Labyrinth stands out as blending reality and fantasy to portray the theme of eternal life.

Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944 after the Spanish Civil War. A young girl named Ofelia and her mother are taken in by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Vidal’s child. Vidal is a typical villain, however. Being a leader in the Spanish fascist regime, he kills without feeling or remorse anyone who opposes him.

Vidal is a foil to Ofelia. Both characters are seeking control in the film. Throughout the story, Ofelia is seeking control over a hopeless situation. She can’t escape her stepfather. She can’t help her dying mother. And she can’t save her unborn brother from being raised by evil. So she escapes into a fantasy that gives her control and allows her to search for solutions.

Vidal also has the illusion of control because in this morally black-and-white tale, his fate is already sealed. He’s seeking eternal life by having a son who will carry on his legacy. His hope for eternal life isn’t shattered just by death, but also by the fact that his son will never know his name.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a coming-of-age film that both affirms and subverts fairytale storytelling. It takes place in a world of objective morality, but shows that objective, religious morality can be very ugly. Trying to gain control, Ofelia blindly follows the Faun until she makes the fatal mistake of disobeying. As a real-world result of her disobedience, Vidal throws the mandrake concoction she was making to save her dying mother into the fire. Her fairytale ending is thwarted by the reality she’s trying to avoid.

Ofelia’s disobedience to blind orders doesn’t lead to her ultimate downfall. It forces her back into the real world where she has the tools to overcome. This is a story that reminds us that there is some strange, paradoxical connection between surrender and victory. Self-sacrifice is somehow the way to life. When every fiber of our human nature tells us we must fight to get to the top, narratives like this one and countless others throughout history say humility is the way.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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In one scene in the 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman, the protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) ends up locking himself out the theater in his underwear. In the theater is his creation, his catharsis, and his supposed salvation. Outside is his reluctant home.

Birdman is a good not just because of its impressive gimmick — the camera never cuts away for almost the entire film to make it look like one continuous shot — but because it’s truly a post-modern film. The viewer plays a role in telling the story. When I look deeper at a movie, I never try to infer more than it has to offer. Yes, the ending is left opened, and we’re tempted to try to understand what probably happened. But the reality is that nothing probably happened because Riggan Thomson’s world doesn’t exist outside of the two hours it took to create it.

The question isn’t what happened, but why did the story get told that way? Why didn’t all the loose ends get tied up?

Birdman explores a lot of themes, and every time I watch it (which it’s been probably five times by now), I learn something completely new from it. It’s about the tragedy of celebrity. No, it’s about our obsession with technology. No, it’s critique of Hollywood blockbusters. No, it’s a critique of criticism. I think it’s all of those things and probably more. But simply, it’s the story of one man’s search for transcendence.

Getting back to the infamous underwear scene, Riggan Thomson rushes through the streets of Broadway where a comical amount of activity is taking place. There’s a marching band for Pete’s sake! But many, many people recognize Riggan from his iconic role as blockbuster superhero Birdman. He’s welcome on those streets, being exactly who he’s supposed to be: a lunatic celebrity who we exploit to make ourselves feel normal.

It’s when he gets back into the theater that he’s a stranger. The box office clerk and the ushers all try to stop him from going back into the theater. His search for transcendence doesn’t end through creating some new piece of art. Transcendence, in Riggan’s case, is unobtainable.

Throughout the film is a meshing of reality and art. Perhaps that’s why it appears the camera doesn’t cut away. Reality doesn’t cut away. Edward Norton’s character can only experience reality through his art. Reality is blurred by media and interpretation and criticism because perhaps we take art too seriously. So seriously that it truly damages people.

The theater critic only gives Riggan’s play a good review because he shot himself in the face, “super-realism”. Would she have given him the same review if he had killed himself? The demands of our entertainment is so high that we’re truly wrecking people. Ironic, considering the torment director Alejandro Iñárritu put his crew through for his upcoming film The Revenant.

In the final scene of Birdman, Riggan Thomson jumped out of the window, and we’re supposed to assume he either fell to his death or flew away. But like I said, there’s a reason we’re left in the dark: it’s because both events happened. He didn’t either die or live, he both died and live. Falling to his death and flying away are one and the same.

Consider how much we forgive a celebrity for after they die. Consider how we can abuse someone, exploit someone, dehumanize someone, but then worship them once they’ve passed away. It seems as though, for those who we most idolize, death and transcendence are the same thing.

For the rest of us, I guess ignorance really is a virtue.

Steve Jobs (2015)

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Never trust a biopic. They’ll bend the truth, romanticize their subjects, and enforce the conventions of filmmaking until it no longer looks like reality. I’ve never seen the 2013 film Jobs, but judging from the fact that it was so quickly released after its subject’s death, I think it’s safe to assume that the movie worships him. We like the narrative of our heroes overcoming adversity by being a little crazy.

The refreshing part about Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is that Steve isn’t a little crazy. He’s really crazy.

Aaron Sorkin’s scripts tend to be brilliant, but heavy-handed and unrealistic. The screenplay for Steve Jobs isn’t an exception, but there’s a sense that heavy-handed and unrealistic are conventional in this movie’s universe. This isn’t a biopic, and people who are looking to learn about Steve Jobs’ life story are only going to get nuggets from this movie.

What this film is is a painting of three moments in this Steve Jobs fantasy. The Mac isn’t the main character. Steve is, and he is far from romanticized. Michael Fassbender’s Steve is flawed, distant, manipulative, but also very dynamic. He isn’t redeemed from the beginning, which is something we’d expect from a piece that would like to eulogize him.

This movie is about Steve Jobs’ relationships with several people. Business partners, friends, and family. These stories take center stage, and watching Steve navigate these relationships incorrectly becomes frustrating but invigorating. We long for simplicity, i.e. ease of use. When Steve can’t manipulate those around him, at least he can create something with one button. Technology gives him control

What we can learn from Steve Jobs is that the best way to honor someone’s memory is honestly. No, this movie is not accurate. But it is honest.

And honesty, vulnerability, is where redemption comes from. In the final moments of the film, Steve is redeemed not through his own efforts, but through surrender. This motif of surrender is counterintuitive to us as humans, especially as Americans, but in many of life’s most important moments, surrender is harder and more fruitful than fighting.