P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 43: Ikiru (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Ikiru (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 160 of the first edition hardback, Ebert remarks that “Home video is both the best and the worst thing that has happened on the movie beat since I’ve been a critic.” He appreciates home video’s increased access to older films and its economic incentive for film restoration & preservation, but he also believes it to be inferior to a proper theatrical experience, especially for film students. He explains, “Viewing via video has destroyed the campus film societies, which were like little shrines to cinema. If the film society were showing Kurosawa’s Ikiru for a dollar and there was nothing else playing except the new releases at first-run prices, you went to Ikiru and then it was forever inside of you, a great film. Today, students rent videos, stream them online, or watch them on TV, and even if they watch a great movie, they do it alone or with a few friends. There is no sense of audience, and yet an important factor in learning to be literate about movies is to be part of an audience that is sophisticated about them.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five times or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is most respected for the scale of his ambition. In the sprawling, large-cast samurai epics that typify his work, Kurosawa commands a calm, sure-headed confidence that makes full use of the scope & budget afforded him. What’s really impressive about the director to me so far, as someone who’s just getting acquainted with his work, is seeing how that confidence & control translated to more contained works. The twisty, 90-minute samurai thriller Rashomon is limited in cast & budget in a way Kurosawa’s more sprawling epics aren’t, but he explores a cyclical, experimentally subjective story structure through that small number of players to create an ambitious work so iconic it’s been parodied in every long-running TV sitcom you can name (not to mention the innovations cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is allowed to play with in the film). Even more staggeringly, the philosophical drama Ikiru is on its surface a minor drama about an anonymous government bureaucrat’s struggles with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but Kurosawa uses that minor platform to attempt to answer, in all sincerity, what it truly means to be alive. Ikiru’s title even translates to “To Live” (or, in tandem with Ebert’s own writing, “Life Itself”), declaring upfront its intention to identify & define the very essence of existence. Its personal story of one man’s search for a sense of purpose & self-fulfillment in his final months as a government drone may not immediately seem to operate on the scale of a samurai epic that spans decades of narrative over a cast of hundreds, but Ikiru’s larger purpose of defining the nature & meaning of existence might just be the most ambitious goal of his entire career, which was defined by ambition. If nothing else, it’s a subject that covers the entire scope of Philosophy as a practice.

In order to define what it means to live, Kurosawa (and writing partner Hideo Oguni) start with what existence isn’t. Here’s where the film becomes personally insulting to me and how I’ve been wasting my own life. An alarming portion of Ikiru is dedicated to satirizing the boring, ineffective, passionless lives of government bureaucrats as they waste away behind desks affecting no measurable change in the world. As a professional bureaucrat who is currently wasting away behind a desk stacked with paperwork as I write this, my instinct is to balk at the accusation, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Any truthful movie about my life would be too boring to sit though and this film indeed initially finds its bureaucrat protagonist too tedious to directly bother with. After declaring “He might as well be a corpse,” and explaining that his job keeps him “terribly busy but, in reality, doing nothing at all except protecting his position,” the film drifts away from its declared protagonist to detail the Kafkaesque innerworkings of his office. While “his only distinguishing feature is that he has none,” the larger government agency he serves is sketched out to be an exceedingly silly organism with a personality of its own, albeit an absurdly ineffective one. Predating bureaucratic satires like Office Space, Shin Godzilla, and Sorry to Bother You, Ikiru amuses itself following the circular path of a simple citizens’ request as it’s presented to a city government desk and subsequently spirals into a needlessly complex farce that accomplishes nothing. It isn’t until our central bureaucrat learns that he has approximately six months to live before he will die of stomach cancer (a diagnosis we’re introduced to in medical x-rays before we even see his face) that the film bothers being interested in his own personal story. Who could blame it? I can barely stand looking in the mirror for more than a moment without getting bored, so I can’t imagine watching a dutiful bureaucrat go about his business for the full 143min runtime of this satirical drama.

Curiously enough, Ikiru doesn’t define what it means to truly live as being the opposite of those bureaucratic doldrums either. Our cancer-doomed protagonist initially makes the mistake of assuming that in order to imbue his life with meaning he must flee to its exact polar opposite. He struggles to reveal his existential crisis to his greedy, unloving son, but he does find youthful companionship in strangers who help him remember the vitality & hedonism of the world outside his stuffy office. A drunken rake he meets at a bar (who shares a certain swagger with Richard E. Grant’s sidekick character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) “helps” him spend his now useless retirement money on night clubs, strip joints, and other fleeting frivolities. A young coworker whose boundless amusement he envies also briefly takes him under her wing to help recontextualize a life he’s stubbornly come to see as pointless & drab, when it is actually full of possibilities to anyone who keeps an open mind. Our protagonist’s immediate instinct to find meaning in frivolous hedonism when confronted with the question “What would you do if you only had six months left to live?” is eventually shown to be just as foolish as his lifelong dedication to dutiful deskwork. His newfound rebellious spirit is only meaningful when he applies it to the life he was already living as his true bureaucratic self. When he returns to his city government desk to get creative with the tools offered him and to think outside the box on how to organize & facilitate active government projects, he affects a real-world change in his immediate surroundings – creating meaning in his own life instead of sleepwalking through it or running away from it. Essentially, I’m a boring coward for writing this movie blog on my work breaks while otherwise drifting through the paperwork that defines my schedule. Hopefully, a terminal illness diagnosis will shock me into action to do some good around this office before it’s too late and I die having lived a life without meaning. Grim!

Ikiru is not adorned with the samurai swordfights, expansive landscapes, or intense Toshiro Milfune performances that typify Kurosawa’s work, but the director does his best to blow this personal story of one man’s existential crisis up to the same epic scale he’s used to working on. The camera work is complex in its depth, framing, and movements despite the interior spaces it tends to occupy. The themes surrounding this personal crisis are similarly ambitious despite the cramped borders of their scope, using one man’s wasted life to define the meaning & purpose of all human life everywhere. Structurally, the movie also experiments with the boundaries of its medium – not only declaring disinterest in its own protagonist in the opening sequence, but also refusing to conclude once he is deceased. A Westernized version of this story would almost certainly conclude with the protagonist’s death, with maybe only a brief coda allowing his surviving friends & family to remark upon his last-minute turnaround. There’s a distinctly Eastern philosophy to how this film refuses to register death as the logical end of the story – stretching out his memorial to what feels like a full hour of acquaintances detailing his life’s continued impact. This is a masterful, impressively ambitious work from a legendary filmmaker known for delivering masterful, impressively ambitious works. I can’t even fault the flick for calling me out as a life-wasting bureaucrat and “a walking corpse.” It was a direct burn, but an accurate one.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Icaros: A Vision (2017)

It’s usually preferable to enter a movie devoid of background context & extratextual information, but the recent psychedelic drama Icaros: A Vision is one of those major exceptions that benefit greatly from knowing their production history. Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics, specifically the infamous Anaconda Cosmica, to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death and returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who retreat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism. Unfortunately, Caraballo did not live to see the completion of her own film; she guided much if its post-production decision making from her death bed with the help of her co-director Matteo Norzi. What she left behind, though, is a visually striking, peacefully meditative look at the culture surrounding ayahuasca rituals, something much more significant than the humorous take on the yuppie adoption of its use depicted in comedies like While We’re Young.

An American woman arrives at Anaconda Cosmica unsure of how ayahuasca rituals can help her process her fear of death and whether she even has the courage to find out. Other patients paying for the privilege of the retreat are addressing issues varying in severity from addiction & self harm to alleviating a stutter to improve an acting career. The mood of the retreat is decidedly peaceful, a tone commanded by the always-present sounds of the jungle. Invading thoughts of technology, particularly MRI scans of the American woman’s cancer, interrupt the reverie on occasion, but don’t fully elbow out the serenity of the jungle until the night time ayahuasca rituals start & end. During the routine ceremonies, a shaman-in-training peers into the various hallucinations of his patients (or “passengers,” in the movie’s parlance) as if he were literally switching channels on a television. The spiritual difference between natural & technological imagery could not be clearer, as the young shaman attempts (through the ritual of meditative breathing & song) to save the paying customers from invading dark thoughts that could spoil their trip. Early on, the film is about his efforts to save the protagonist from the crippling fear of death sparked by her cancer diagnosis. However, at some point that dynamic flips. The American woman, now strengthened by the psychedelic therapy sessions, helps the shaman face his own fears of an incurable medical diagnosis. It’s interesting to see the service industry aspect of their relationships subvert itself as they naturally become better acquainted through the deeply intimate ritual of ayahuasca ingestion, but more importantly the film uses their tender interactions as a purposefully humanist window into a culture that could be depicted as all meditative chants and visual hallucination if not treated with enough open-minded empathy.

Icaros: A Vision is a quiet, still, meditative piece that fully lives up to the visual focus indicated by its title. Everything from muscular river dolphins & the green of the Peruvian jungle to video game imagery & bright florescent piss shape the film’s all-encompassing meditations on life & death. Somehow, the overall effect is more hypnotic than it is showy or gimmicky. Leonor Caraballo’s background as a visual artist shows in the way she carefully frames each isolated hallucination, but her vulnerability & ultimate mortality as a human being is what affords the work a solemn, but rewarding purpose. Humor at the expense of “passengers” who treat the Anaconda Cosmica like a luxury hotel and its (non-actor) employees/residents like servants are slyly made fun of in a social politics-minded undercurrent of humor. That comedy is just one thread in a larger tapestry, though, and the overall picture includes a hypnotic, but encyclopedic catalog of plants that are important to Peruvian culture, an ethnographic documentation of ayahuasca rituals’ adoption as tourist industry fodder, visual attempts to capture the vivid hallucinations triggered by those rituals, etc. Caraballo clearly intended to encompass the entirety of ayahuasca’s cultural & (to her) personal significance in what ended up being her sole feature film. She was smart to tackle an idea that ambitious by centering the story on an intimate two-person partnership within that larger culture, an act of humility in what easily could have been a (justifiably) self-centered film about her her own internal dread & grief. Ayahuasca is a drug that directly invites humility. Those who trip hardest on it often experience immediate attacks of vomiting & diarrhea (the cleaning of which is addressed by the film’s service industry critique), which leaves little room for huffy self-importance. Maybe that humility & small-scale, intimate empathy that come through so strongly in Icaros is something Caraballo learned in her own therapeutic sessions of ayahuasca ingestion. It’s sad that she’s not around to answer questions like that, but the work she left behind is remarkably dense, complex stuff. I doubt we’ll ever see a better film on the subject.

-Brandon Ledet

A Monster Calls (2016)

fourstar

It’s difficult to say objectively if A Monster Calls is likely to resonate with most audiences the way it did with me at the exact moment I happened to catch it in theaters. The very same week the fantasy-leaning cancer drama reached New Orleans I had lost my grandmother to an aggressive form of cancer and, at the time I’m writing this review, she still has not yet been memorialized with a funeral. The wounds are still fresh in a lot of ways, so I don’t have enough critical distance to say if this dark children’s fantasy about “a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man” struggling with the gradual loss of his young mother to failed chemotherapy treatments is truly the emotionally impactful, thematically complex filmgoing experience I found it to be. I can only say for sure that A Monster Calls is admirable in the brave ways it tackles issues of frustration, resentment, and self-conflict that wreak havoc on families who are hit with this kind of loss through prolonged illness. The film’s multi-faceted, sugarcoat-free discussion of how grief can be destructive long before it’s cathartic is not the thematic territory typically expected of a kids’ movie featuring a talking tree, but A Monster Calls fearlessly dives head first into those troubled waters and emerges as a hauntingly beautiful experience for taking that leap, one that arrived at the exact moment I needed it.

Liam Neeson voices the titular monster in this dark fantasy drama, a talking tree that visits a young boy each time he wakes from the recurring nightmare of physically letting his mother go while holding her hand at the edge of a cliff. The mother (Felicity Jones, who in all honesty gets just as little character development here as she does in Rogue One) is losing her battle with a rapidly progressing cancer; the boy is being physically bullied at school by the one kid who bothers to notice him; and the rest of the family struggles to figure out what to do with him now that his only attentive parent is at the verge of death. The tree monster solves none of these problems. He only awakes to tell the boy three seemingly unrelated stories (illustrated in beautiful watercolor-style animation) about dragons, kings, suicide, magic . . . pretty much nothing to do with his current predicament. Instead of smiting the boy’s enemies and bringing his mother back from the brink of death, the tree monster merely teaches him a few harsh life lessons: that sometimes life is a cheat, that sometimes good people do horrifically bad things, that sometimes “bad” people can do good, that terrible things often happen for no reason at all. The monster coaches the child through a tough moral gray area and, in the process, allows him to admit & accept some less-than-honorable feelings he’d been repressing about his mother’s impending death before it’s too late.

Besides the obvious reasons why I would connect with this kind of a cancer-themed familial drama at this time in my life, A Monster Calls also appeals to me directly by evoking the same brutal honesty & melancholy tone I found solace in with the similar dark children’s fantasies Paperhouse & MirrorMask. In all three films, young British children process real world emotional grief in a harsh dream space of their own artistic design. A Monster Calls joins this tradition, which unfortunately has a bad critical & financial track record, with a morally ambiguous tale of how there are no easy answers to the ways we process loss and how you’re not always going to be proud of the things you do, say, or feel in your worst moments of grief. It’s the exact kind of thoughtful, morally complex narratives I look for in my children’s media combined with a distinct visual palette (complete with a muscular tree butt for some reason) and impeccable timing, arriving just when I needed to wrestle with my own conflicted modes of grief. I may not be able to discuss A Monster Calls objectively due to my own recent familial loss, but I can say that it’s a deeply relevant & revelatory experience when you’re in that very particular, very fragile state of grief & mourning. There’s just some things about life that you need to hear from Liam Neeson dressed up like a talking tree to fully grasp, I suppose. It worked for me, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet