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Monday, August 7, 2017

Ingrid Goes West - A Film Review



Ingrid Goes West – A Film Review



           
            Social media can be deceptive in that its users often present themselves in their best possible light, carefully curating the good in their life without nuance. It can appear as if life is always positive and carefree, and for lonely, socially awkward people, it can exacerbate depression and feelings of inadequacy. For Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), the character in Matt Spicer's thriller meets comedy Ingrid Goes West, her idyllic self is informed by Instagram “influencers,” sun-kissed, L.A. boho-chic blonde women who post filtered images of sunsets, vintage boutiques, avocado toast, and their equally handsome husbands, peppered with hashtags like #blessed or #livelaughlove.

            Ingrid's eyes, reflected by the glow of her smartphone, light up at the thought of becoming friends with these women and entering their world, and she habitually stalks social media stars, infiltrating their lives, and lashing out when she is rejected by her dream “best friend.” When the film opens, she crashes the wedding reception of a social media star, pepper-sprays her, and is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Ingrid doesn't understand the extent to which she hurt people, thinking that she was being misunderstood. Upon release from the hospital to the quiet home of her recently deceased mother, Ingrid's only companion is her smartphone, with which she scrolls through Instagram profiles similar to her target, beginning the cycle all over again.

            After discovering the profile of Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a photographer with L.A. upscale hippie tastes, Ingrid works on being seen by Taylor and receiving acknowledgment. Ingrid clearly struggles with social awkwardness and possibly being on the autism spectrum. She works harder to mimic the socially accepted cues of likable women and seem off-the-cuff and charming.

           She crafts the perfect comment on a post about avocado toast, re-writing it several times, including ways of expressing laughter on the Internet (“heh-heh-heh” vs. “hahahaha”), and revising her own social boundaries.Through these superficial connections, Ingrid ends up cashing out her mother's large inheritance, flying to L.A., and conniving her way into Taylor's life through “chance” encounters and, Single White Female-style, dyeing her hair to match Taylor's.


           
Plaza excels at simultaneously mixing both vulnerability and intensity. Her eyes have this sharp focus to them, whether she is reading a favorite author of Taylor's, memorizing Taylor's preferences on social media, lighting up whenever Taylor acknowledges her as being “the best” or posting a photo of them together on Instagram (and letting out an excited squeal upon seeing it go live). Plaza highlighted similar traits in the indie comedy The To-Do List, in which she plays a perfectionist teen trying to become more sexually experienced in the summer between high school and college. Plaza has this very particular strength in playing tightly wound and awkward people trying hard to act confident and casual, while mentally checking themselves on the right things to say and do. With Ingrid, she mirrors Taylor's California vocal fry voice, laughing in a forced attempt to sound carefree, and claiming that her landlord (O'Shea Jackson, Jr., in a scene-stealing performance as an sweet and kind aspiring screenwriter and a lover of Batman) is her boyfriend.

            While Plaza is the heart of the film, the rest of the characters aren't as well-developed or as complex. Olsen, as a character actress known for both indie dramas and Marvel films, is believable as a superficial photographer who seems friendly on the surface, but treats people as if they are the backdrop to her curated life. This is especially distasteful in a scene where she makes a gas station employee take multiple photos of her and Ingrid in posed shots for Instagram, goading the man to lie on the dusty ground to take glamour shots of them from below while affecting a patronizing and disingenuously sweet tone with him. Taylor may have been Ingrid's idol, but to the audience, she often came off as very ordinary and indistinct from many other upwardly mobile L.A. women. Her fatal flaw is that she talks in a hyperbolic manner, saying that everything is the best and amazing, and Ingrid takes it literally, believing that if Taylor says that she is the best, that she truly is Taylor's one and only best friend.

            Jackson, Jr., as Ingrid's landlord turned boyfriend Danny, is a standout. Billy Magnussen plays Taylor's reckless, supposedly sober brother Nicky, a rich trust fund baby with frat boy looks.

           Both actors infused a lot of energy and charisma at different levels. Jackson, Jr., best known for portraying real-life father Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, brought a chill, laid-back vibe to Danny, whose Batman fandom gives him a lot of heart as a nerd. At times, Danny did seem too forgiving of Ingrid's egregious behavior, and it felt unrealistic that he would be this trusting or understanding of a woman that he barely knows. He compliments Ingrid by saying, “You have a different kind of ring to you,” which is a large understatement.

            Magnussen, meanwhile, brings to Nicky a fast-talking arrogance and a disregard for other people. He has a scorched earth view of life, only seeing ahead to the next moment. He is a terrible person, but shakes up Ingrid's life. He is, perhaps, the complication that Ingrid needs to have in her life to end her dangerous cycle of stalking and emulating social media stars.

            Ingrid Goes West is a solid film that largely rests on the success of Plaza's nuanced performance as a vulnerable and lonely young woman who does terrible things to people in order to feel loved and accepted. People quickly accept Ingrid into their lives without doing any Google searches or social media searches on her, which is odd considering the characters' frequent use of social media. It does stretch the suspension of disbelief that other people wouldn't become more suspicious or more cautious of Ingrid's obsessive behavior, and wouldn't just block her number or ghost her with a slow fade. While Ingrid is able to manipulate people through a charming persona, it seems unlikely that it would last very long. She would likely be shunned from social circles. Plaza's performance is great, as she is truly a gifted actress that, who, while a capable comic improviser, can  find the dramatic center of a deeply troubled individual.
           

Friday, July 28, 2017

Thoughts on Parents

I enjoyed going to the Film Society of Lincoln Center last week and seeing a weird horror comedy from 1989 directed by Bob Balaban called Parents, about a 1950s suburban family in which the sullen little boy suspects that his parents are cannibals. It was enjoyably messed up to watch, and Randy Quaid was excellent as the strict and unsettling father, he had this slow and measured way of speaking that always just barely hid a psychoticness below the surface. I also adored Sandy Dennis as the school social worker who was funny in a quirky way and had a more 70's hippie look in a 1950s-set film. The score by Angelo Badalamenti gave it that eerie vibe that he used in David Lynch films, of a creeping horror score set amongst ordinary suburban life.

Balaban did a Q&A after the film, and has a funny mix of a quiet voice with a dry sense of humor. The film was a heightened version of his own 1950s childhood, where family secrets were kept hidden from him until adulthood, where he didn't know what his parents' lives were like when he wasn't around, and he felt small and repressed in a environment where everything has to look perfect on the outside. He told a lot of interesting anecdotes about his career, like directing episodes of genre shows like Tales from the Darkside, Eerie, Indiana, and Amazing Stories. He surprisingly did not like directing My Boyfriend's Back (the next film showing after Parents) due to studio restraints, though he enjoyed working with the cast, including an eager and young Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was cast as a bullying jock, but assured Balaban that he could play any role and do it well. It was a good evening of seeing a really odd movie and listening to a pleasant chat with a renowned comedic actor and director.

Thoughts on Still/Born

Last week, I saw a pretty blah horror movie at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, called Still/Born, directed by Brandon Christensen. It is a 2017 Canadian horror film where a woman named Mary (Christie Burke) gives birth to twins, but one is stillborn. She suffers from postpartum depression while taking care of her son while her concerned husband Jack is away being a lawyer. She starts seeing weird visions of a demon that is trying to steal her baby, and begins losing her mind as the demon messes with her life in her empty giant house, and she looks crazy to everyone else.

This film had the potential to be a horror film where the demon is a metaphor for her postpartum depression, and that she battles the demon to save herself and her baby. Instead, it became a pretty formulaic film of predictable jump scares, the woman losing her shit all the time and freaking out her loved ones, the actress turning on the serious crazy eyes and overacting when she is trying to convince people about the demon, and the demon looking like a Samara ripoff from The Ring with a laughable "devil" voice. I thought that the Film Society would have better taste than to include this predictable crap in with their Scary Movies festival. It was pretty mediocre to watch, and a missed opportunity to make a good horror film about postpartum depression.

Thoughts on Girls Trip

I really liked Girls Trip, directed by Malcolm Lee. It was a fun movie with a lot of heart, and I liked watching a film about women's friendships and supporting one another and having fun at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.

As has been noted, Tiffany Haddish likely will be a breakout star from this. Her character was raw and hilarious, with a a sex-positive attitude and great loyalty towards her friends. I heard of her last year through The Carmichael Show and Keanu, and while I thought her character was poorly written on The Carmichael Show and acted hammy, she showed a lot more charisma and screen presence in Keanu, and I wanted to see more of her, and we likely will after this movie, since it came in second place this past weekend at the box office.

I mostly enjoyed the film, though I didn't like a few gross out gags, but it's just not my bag. I also thought that the film's subplot involving the husband of Regina Hall's character (played by Mike Holter, aka Luke Cage) went on for way too long, and I was getting tired of the relationship melodrama, even though it ultimately has a point.

How is it that Larenz Tate is likely 45 and still has youthful looks like from the 90's? I know, melanin, but still.

Because this film reunites Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith from Set it Off, I made a couple of Set it Off jokes in my head, and was elated when the film did their own knowing reference in one scene, I adored that.

The actresses (Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish) all had great chemistry with one another, and I felt happy watching the film and seeing all the female love and positivity onscreen, even whenever the characters were arguing with each other. So I am glad that I saw it this week.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thoughts on Spider-Man: Homecoming

I really enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was witty and well-paced, with interesting characters, and was a lot of fun to watch. I did think the battle in the finale was messily shot and was boring to watch, and I didn't want to see so much shaky cam and wanted to see Holland's acrobatic skills without CGI, but I don't have many complaints about the film. Tom Holland was likable as Peter Parker/Spider-Man (his awkward high voice and boyish enthusiasm reminded me a lot of a young Michael J. Fox), and Michael Keaton was great as the villain, he was really intimidating and menacing with just his acting alone, never mind any supervillain additions, just his voice alone was chilling.

I liked the street scenes in Queens, it felt homey to me, and I liked how Marisa Tomei was made up in large granny glasses and a 70's hippie look with long hair and high-waisted pants, and still looked hip and beautiful.

I also thought it was interesting how the Disney princess Zendaya was essentially characterized to be like Ally Sheedy's character from The Breakfast Club, as the screenwriters clearly seemed influenced by 1980s pop culture in some of the beats they hit with music and stylistic references.

Of this franchise, I have enjoyed Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man the most, but this is a fun addition, too.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thoughts on The Sacrament

I watched The Sacrament, a found footage horror movie directed by Ti West. It is pretty much a recreation of the Jonestown massacre, with the names changed, and following a lot of the events from real life, replacing Congressman Ryan with Vice journalists, and having the journalists come to the cult, interview the leader (who looks just like Jim Jones), and the massacre happening when a few members tried to escape with the journalists.

There were some effectively disturbing parts of the film, and they really worked to capture why people were attracted to the cult, from feeling unappreciated in their lives, and how they were manipulated and brainwashed into believing this was their true family. The leader was very charismatic, and great at gaslighting people and sidestepping uncomfortable questions by twisting the conversation around in his favor.

But sometimes the film would break its own rules with the found footage genre, like switching to a dramatic narrative style with multiple cameras when it was convenient. It took me out of the movie when I would think, "If the journalists aren't in this scene, then who is filming this part now?" It was easy to forget that it was a found footage movie when moments like that would happen.

I like Ti West's throwback style, like with his indie horror film House of the Devil, which has a very early 80's Halloween-style to it, and a slow burn build to a devil possession story. I thought this was good, but really just recreated a famous and horrible event in history while claiming to be fictional with the disclaimer added that any resemblance to real people or events is "coincidental." I probably would have liked the film more if it had been more loosely inspired by the massacre, and told its own story of a tragedy.

Thoughts on Perfect Strangers

In May, I went to the newly reopened Quad Cinema for their weekend tribute to the cult genre director Larry Cohen. I had seen one of his films before, an 80's satirical horror comedy called The Stuff, where people become addicted to a trendy ice cream that, unknown to them, has a parasite in it that uses people as a host and eats them from the inside out. I liked the weirdness and dark comedy of it, as well as its social commentary on commercialism and consumerism, and was happy to watch another one of his films, 1984's Perfect Strangers.

The film is about a hitman named Johnny who has to murder a two-year old boy that witnessed Johnny's contract killing, and he dates the kid's mom to get close to him. It was a really intense thriller, made more so by the fact that the kid recognizes Johnny as the killer, but cannot speak, and there are some great scenes between them where Johnny is conflicted over not wanting to kill a child vs. being pressured by the mob to get rid of him. The boy was so young that his "acting" was more of compiled reaction shots by Cohen, as he explained in the post-film Q&A, and being guided by Cohen and his parents, who all hid behind furniture on set to get the boy to take direction. There were some great reaction shots by the kid timed with the editing and context of a scene, and I could suspend my disbelief that this kid was playing a kid who knew that his mom's boyfriend was a killer but was unable to speak or defend himself, it made it much more intense to watch from that young a perspective.

The film combined being a crime thriller with a surprisingly feminist bent, as the mom had left a bad marriage to an abusive man, was managing well as a single mom, and her friends were involved in feminist activism. There is a scene with a real-life Take Back the Night march, showing a slice of 80's feminist protest work, including protests against pornography, rape, and sexism. However, the actress playing the mom, Anne Carlisle, was really terrible. She had a very wooden and stiff delivery of her lines, and it was a drag to watch her scenes, despite that she was supposed to be the sympathetic heroine of the film.

I also thought she was way too trusting when meeting the guy, like allowing him to carry her son and come to her home a day after meeting him on the street. She knows that her son witnessed a murder, but doesn't know who did it. And while I wouldn't expect her to suspect her boyfriend, he had such a streetwise and seedy look to him that I thought she should have had hesitations about letting him so intimately in her life, since she really didn't know anything about his life, and he looked like he had a shady past. I just thought she was very dense when it came to trusting men in her personal life.

There were some really interesting side characters, like a private detective (hired by the ex-husband to track his ex-wife's boyfriend) who sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger and had a strange, lanky presence; and Ann Magnuson as the heroine's artsy feminist best friend, who was funny, quirky, and reminded me of Annie Potts' character from Pretty in Pink.

The film broke twice while playing, and it was funny, just because it felt like an experience of watching a B-movie in a cheap theatre where films would break mid-reel. Cohen was cracking jokes from the back of the theater when it happened, going "Intermission time!" He was a lot of fun to listen to when he told stories about the making of the film, with a scratchy New Yorker accent of decades past and a salt of the earth sense of humor. I am happy that I got to see this film and see him speak about it, and I would definitely check out more of his films.