Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Author Archive

Wednesday

15

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Zalava

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Some horror films captivate their audiences with gruesome cinematography that inspires genuine terror. Others get by on a far subtler current, like the realization that paranoia is a living breathing entity, capable of evolution and decimation. An idea doesn’t need to be tangible or rational to flex its might, a concept that director Arsalan Amiri wrestles with in his gripping film Zalava.

Set in Kurdistan amidst the 1978 Iranian Revolution, the film follows Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj), a Gendarmerie sergeant with a low tolerance for the superstitions of the village where he’s stationed, ostensibly to keep the peace. The locals are angry with Masoud for confiscating their firearms, believing that his actions caused the death of a local woman at the hands of a supernatural plague. The town puts its faith in Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), a local shaman, to capture the demon in a glass jar, an act that brings about mixed emotions in Masoud, pleased to appease the villagers but frustrated by their baffling hysteria.

Masoud is an unusual choice for a lead character. Pourfaraj possesses a commanding stage presence, a devil-may-care attitude that endears his fairly unlikeable character to the audience. As the film goes on, Amiri reveals the genius of this dynamic, a non-believer slowly giving in to the possibility that his reality has in fact succumbed to madness.

Amiri has such fun with ambiguity, a delectably subtle treatise on the power of paranoia that relies on a glass jar as its foremost antagonist. The real villain of the narrative is fear, unseen hysteria that radiates through the screen. Disinterested in showing his cards, Amiri crafts his narrative in a way that doesn’t press the need for answers. One can quite comfortably let the mystery be.

You don’t really to see a giant demon eating people to feel the horror of a bunch of villagers resorting to shooting perceived victims in the legs as a form of crude bloodletting. Too many people possess a natural inclination toward conspiracy theories, wreaking great havoc even in spite of their breathtaking absurdity. The villagers aren’t even necessarily wrong to be fearful, Amiri leaves that question up in the air, but their decision-making process remains deeply unhinged from any rational thought.

Amiri’s feature debut is a very impressive effort. There are plenty of films that deploy unseen antagonists or narratives that grapple with the idea that humanity is its own worst enemy. The film’s crowning achievement is the way a remote village in 1978 Kurdistan completely captured the zeitgeist of our paranoia-riddled world.

Share Button

Wednesday

15

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Farha

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

There’s a natural point in many young people’s lives when we first feel the pain of being away from home. Sleepaway camp, college, or a new job in a faraway land brings natural anxiety. Leaving the nest is certainly far more challenging when your home is quite literally under siege from hostile forces, surfacing unthinkably tragic emotions. Based on a true story, the film Fahra centers its narrative on a young girl who defied all natural inclinations to run, and clung to her childhood home as her world crumbled around her.

Fahra (Karam Taher) is a fourteen-year old girl with much the same ambitions as any of her peers across the world. She wants an education and a bit of relief from the persistent boys of her village, constantly pounding at her door with intentions of marriage. 1948 Palestine doesn’t have the same opportunities for Muslim girls as boys, but Fahra’s father (Ashraf Barhom), the head of their village, begrudgingly approves of her plans to further her studies in a big city.

With British rule of Palestine reaching its end, local villages around Fahra’s are being increasingly displaced. As Israeli forces move on Fahra’s home, she defies her father’s wishes to evacuate with a family friend. Fahra’s father locks her in their basement, promising to return once he got a handle of the burgeoning warzone around them. Of course, war has little regard for promises, leaving Fahra to fend for herself under the worst possible circumstances.

Director Darin J. Sallam’s delivers a powerful debut brimming with confidence and compassion. Perhaps most impressive is the way she completely entrusts the film to Taher, who gives an absolutely superb performance. Fahra is almost always the only performer on screen, her house serving as the primary setting, yet Sallam takes such an effective approach to worldbuilding that you feel the entire tension of the region. The 92-minute runtime flies by in the blink of an eye.

Sallam beautifully captures the conflicting emotions between a girl with quite literally nothing left to stay for, a bright future elsewhere firmly in her grasp, yet still clinging to the remnants of home. There are points where you naturally want to yell at the screen for Fahra to be sensible, but there’s nothing sensible about invaders coming to take wreck your village and take your home. Taher has such a firm grasp on the human heart in conflict with reality.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Fahra is Sallam’s quiet approach to the narrative. The narrative does contain some gruesome displays of violence, but Sallam declines to show the brutality on screen. The result is no less traumatic, but fundamentally centered on its subject’s reaction. It’s one thing to show the audience the horrors of war, but the reaction of a young girl to such carnage all around hits so much harder.

Farha is the kind of film that leaves you emotionally exhausted. Sallam’s debut is well-worth the effort. There is such beauty in the way she makes her small-scale production come to life, a powerful tour de force of indie filmmaking.

 

Share Button

Tuesday

14

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: I’m Your Man

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Humanity is still a ways away from crafting artificial intelligence suited for our complex emotional needs. It’s hard enough to get a Spotify algorithm to play something good, or for Siri to understand directions on the first try. We’re close enough to that reality that the thought becomes more tantalizing than narratives about Pinocchio-style objects yearning to be human. The pitfalls of online dating can make drinks with Pinocchio sound pretty appealing.

The film I’m Your Man (original title Ich bin dein Mensch) follows Alma Felser (Maren Eggert), a scientist taking part in a unique experiment. A local company has designed seemingly sentient cyborgs capable of flirting, dancing, and the ability to modify their behavior to the specific needs of an individual. Alma is paired with Tom (Dan Stevens) for a three-week trial aimed at testing the cyborg’s effectiveness. Sworn to secrecy, Alma brings Tom out into the world, society at large blissfully unaware that the charming English-accented individual lacks an actual soul.

Director Maria Schrader’s work is brimming with heart, a touching meditation on loneliness. Alma lives a fairly restrained, borderline nihilistic existence, unhappy with both her home life and her professional trajectory. Eggert’s reserved demeanor is a perfect foil to Stevens’ unrelenting optimism, charming chemistry that buoys the narrative through predictable waters. Underneath the surface, Stevens looks like he’s having the time of his life in this entirely German-language role, though Tom maintains a blissfully unaware sense of awe and wonder toward the world.

While Tom is up and away the film’s most interesting character, Schrader wisely avoids letting the narrative fall into Pinocchio territory, never really posing the question of what it would mean if Tom felt human. Cyborgs are here to help ease our suffering, not add to it by taking over the world. Schrader is firmly focused on the humanity of the actual human in the narrative.

There isn’t a lot to the world-building, a dynamic that works quite well without constantly making you wonder if the cyborgs need to use the toilet or might malfunction if someone poured a glass of wine in their face. The one area where Schrader stumbles a bit is a subplot involving Alma’s academic work. While studying a cuneiform tablet, Tom reveals that his internal supercomputer uncovered similar findings in Buenos Aires, rendering Alma’s years of research worthless.

Schrader could reasonably expect a suspension of disbelief to apply to basic questions of Tom’s functionality, but it’s a much greater stretch to bestow a genius-caliber analytical intellect upon the Siri-enhanced sex doll without ever addressing why these cyborgs weren’t being deployed in scientific capacities rather than romantic ones. It’s a question the audience is bound to wonder, a door that Schrader opened up herself. Those kinds of situations are pretty rare throughout the narrative, but the dynamic leaves a nagging sensation that really didn’t need to be there.

The first act stumbles a bit out of the gate, Alma being pigeonholed into a predictable rom-com trope. It’s one thing for her to be skeptical of Tom or his ability to make her happy, but Schrader piles on top of that an unnecessary level of reluctance by the scientist to even take part in the study. It’s a crutch that the narrative doesn’t need, the story improving greatly once Alma ditches her baseline apprehension. The film is hardly well-served by having such a fascinating experiment centered around a participant who wants nothing to do with it, countless audience members undoubtedly eager to take her place.

Schrader thoroughly wrestles with the film’s themes, finding fresh perspectives in a well-trodden genre. Stevens has never been better. Most impressive about I’m Your Man is the way that Schrader defends Alma’s outlook on life while leaving the audience room to arrive at a different destination.

A world where we go to bed at night comforted by a machine like Tom is likely not that far off in the horizon. At its core, that reality is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, another tool for humanity to find some peace in life, or a crutch to shield one from the potential pain of the outside world. Schrader gives both perspectives some breathing room while still making her own stance known. I’m Your Man is well worth the effort, crafted with such obvious love.

 

Share Button

Tuesday

14

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Jagged

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

It barely takes a second into any of Alanis Morissette’s songs to understand her abounding success. As a musician, Morissette wields this acute ability to speak universal truths to audiences who may know nothing about rainy wedding days or movie theatre hookups. When she tells you that you ought to know, you believe her.

Alison Klayman’s documentary Jagged unpacks the layers of Morissette’s smash hit Jagged Little Pill, the twelfth best-selling album of all time and second-best by a female artist. Powered by iconic anthems such as “You Ought to Know,” “Hand in My Pocket” and “Ironic,” the album grew to become one of the 90s defining pieces of popular culture, inspiring a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2019. While the album’s success seems like destiny in hindsight given Morissette’s commanding talent, the documentary presents a more sobering look at the challenges she faced in her early career.

Breaking into the music industry while barely a teenager, Morissette ran into no shortage of powerful men who viewed her as little more than a commodity. Klayman reveals Morissette’s struggles with sexual harassment just after puberty, developing an eating disorder as at the urging of those in the business ostensibly there to safeguard her interests. Morissette is open and generous with her testimonies, a damning and deeply moving indictment on the industry as a whole.

The choice to confront the heavy stuff early on gives Klayman the runway to achieve Jagged’s primary objective as an unadulterated celebration of Morissette and all her glory. Most of the documentary’s 97-minute runtime is upbeat in nature, a narrative full of anecdotes from the making of the album and its subsequent 18-month tour. By keeping the narrative mostly confined to the Jagged Little Pill era, Klayman manages to present what feels like a pretty complete perspective on the definitive period of her subject’s career, a pretty gargantuan task for any single film.

While most of the interview footage comes from Morissette, Klayman does include testimony from music journalists and 90s icons like director Kevin Smith, speaking to Alanis’ star power and the impact it had on music as a whole. Interviews with two former members of her touring band, bassist Chris Chaney and drummer Taylor Hawkins, supply some of the film’s meatiest material. A broader theme in Jagged is the rampant sexism throughout the industry, decades before events like the #MeToo movement started to shine a spotlight on the need for reform.

The Jagged Little Pill tour presented a unique situation for Morissette’s all-male backing band, musicians with close proximity to one of the biggest stars on the planet, able to reap the benefits of “being in the band,” swarms of groupies in all. That kind of chauvinistic mindset runs countercurrent to the underlying feminism powering her whole career. A few interviews hint at some strife between Morissette and her employees over their behavior, but Klayman is a bit too conflict-adverse to pursue this narrative strand very far.

Jagged is essentially a victory lap for one of the most talented female musicians of all time. It’s hard to go more than a few minutes without some music putting a smile on your face, the kind of film that begs you to sing along. Klayman understands the magic of Morissette, leaving the audience with the kind of feel-good feature that’s perfect for a pandemic-plagued nation in need of some comfort.

 

Share Button

Tuesday

14

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: The Power of the Dog

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The past twenty years have seen the rise of the antihero, protagonists who are easy to love in spite of their moral ambiguity. With that narrative trope firmly played out, Jane Campion ups the ante with The Power of the Dog, a film that largely operates without any specific character for the audience to identify with. The picturesque queer Western is a remarkable return to feature films for the director after a twelve-year absence.

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a colorful yet highly unpleasant rancher, working with his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), raising cattle and horses 1925 Montana. George is the opposite of Phil, polite and soft-spoken, determined to not let his brother’s rude demeanor soil their family name. It is during one of these image rehabilitation tours that George makes the acquaintance of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), quickly falling in love. The two marry, bringing Rose and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), permanently into Phil’s orbit.

Structured with numbered chapter markers breaking up the film, Campion untethers her narrative from any set anchor point. Cumberbatch is the closest thing the film has to a true lead, but much of the first half is spent focusing on Rose, before setting up the eventual pairing of Peter of Phil, the latter of whom spends much of the narrative mocking the former’s awkwardness and fragrant homosexuality. Phil is pretty gay too, a reality that clearly rips him apart.

Campion’s slow-burn refuses to conform to any conventions of narrative, backed by a career-best performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. Phil is not a protagonist, giving the audience nothing to root for, existing for nothing other than cruelty. There is also a sweet side to Phil, with Cumberbatch finding easy chemistry with Smit-McPhee. Campion assigns no ulterior motive to Phil’s softer demeanor for story purposes, instead of giving Cumberbatch the floor to use his ample acting talents.

The Power of the Dog is reluctant to fully commit to any single narrative strand. Much of Rose’s arc follows her gradual decline into alcoholism, but Campion seems to lose interest in exploring this story, sidelining George for most of the second half. Filmed in her native New Zealand, its breathtaking beauty constantly on display through the luscious cinematography, the ranch essentially functions as a character in its own right.

The loneliness of rural living is well-documented. Adding a layer of repressed homosexuality in 1925 into the equation, it’s easy to see how isolation can warp one’s entire existence until there’s nothing left but bitter resentment. As Phil, Cumberbatch so beautifully embodies that angst. He’s easy to hate because he’s a pretty bad person, but neither Campion nor Cumberbatch are super invested in making you feel otherwise.

Many may find Campion’s approach to storytelling off-putting, a singular approach to pacing that’s never in a hurry to get anyway in particular. The story leaves a bit to be desired by the time the credits roll, but with the top-notch acting and beautiful cinematography, it’s hard to care. Few films so abundantly translate the message of a director who takes such joy in her craft.

Share Button

Tuesday

14

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Benediction

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

There are future generations of LGBTQ coming that will grow up never knowing life in the closet. A once universal sensation for gay people will fade from our collective consciousness, the passing of time blunting the pain of old wounds. The English poet Siegfried Sassoon carried with him not only the burden of the closet, but also the scars of service in World War I, later becoming a vocal dissenter of the prolonged conflict.

Terence Davies’ film Benediction captures the complicated, tragic life of Sassoon. Played predominantly by Jack Lowden, with a brief appearance by Peter Capaldi covering the last chapter of the poet’s life, the narrative delicately explores the emotional turmoil that came to define Sassoon’s career. For a man who experienced such sadness so early on in his life, Davies narrows in on the metastasized trauma and the way its evolution became his subject’s defining characteristic.

Lowden’s Sassoon is deliberately stoic, a man in constant conflict between his repressed emotions and the natural desire of the artist for free expression. The pressure valve has long seen its bursting people, with the poet often carrying himself more like a ghost than a functioning member of society. Sassoon is a very sad man, a notion reaffirmed by Davies at every turn. Lowden keeps the audience at a distance, demonstrating almost no range in his character’s demeanor until late in the third act. It’s unwelcoming but not necessarily off-putting, a strong performance hindered by the narrative’s brutal confines.

Davies is his own worst enemy, dragging out Benediction for so long that the payoff loses all its muster. The narrative has no idea what to do with its untenable runtime, a 137-minute slog. As a biopic, Benediction covers decades-worth of its subject’s life, but Davies is not really concerned with showing history or biography. He’s almost entirely preoccupied with Sassoon’s inner sense of turmoil, an exercise that would have been better suited by a more intimate scope.

The production appears to have been impacted by the pandemic, with a few scenes looking like their audiences were green-screened into the background. The actors almost always keep their distance, much of the narrative confined to conversations between two or three people in isolated spaces. Without much variety in its settings, the scenes often feel repetitive, hindered by Lowden’s reserved performance.

Gay people of faith will undoubtedly find much to contemplate. A convert to Catholicism late in his life, Davies finds much beauty in Sassoon’s sense of spirituality without trying to speak for him. The screenplay does an excellent job blending poetry into the narrative’s progression.

Davies’ cause is not exactly helped by the broader abundance of closet narratives. The director doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about being gay in a time when homosexuality was illegal, though he does have some fun with Sassoon’s voyeuristic male companions. For a film with so many gay characters, it feels oddly prudish, like Davies is holding out on the audience.

Benediction is a frustrating experience, strands of brilliance that never manage to come together. Davies doesn’t give his audience enough reason to sit through his overstuffed, meandering work. There’s so much talent on display here that seldom operates in sync.

Share Button

Sunday

12

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: The Electric Life of Louis Wain

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Cat pictures are one of life’s great simple pleasures. The artist Louis Wain helped popularize portraits of adorable felines in the 1800s, a time when they were regarded as nuisances, good for little other than mice control. The film The Electric Life of Louis Wain presents a colorful yet deeply sad perspective of his troubled career.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a solid yet abundantly predictable take on the eccentric artist, institutionalized late in his life with schizophrenia, a widely disputed diagnosis. The death of their father left Wain as the reluctant patriarch of his family, using his ability to draw at breakneck speed to find employment at The Illustrated London News working under Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), a kind man with a heavy tolerance for Wain’s often outlandish behavior. Wain is under great pressure to provide for his mother and overbearing sisters.

The only person in the world who seems to appreciate Wain for all his eccentricities is Emily (Claire Foy), who works as a governess to his sisters. Wain quickly falls in love, despite the scandalous nature of a romance between lovers of differing social statuses, earning the scorn of his whole family. Louis and Emily have a happy, albeit brief marriage, tragically cut short by Emily’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis. It is in the wake of tragedy that Wain finds his greatest successes drawing pictures of cats, inspired by his wife’s love of felines.

Director Will Sharpe bites off more than he can chew with an overstuffed narrative that struggles to build off its whimsical first act. The film does an excellent job capturing the melancholic aura of Wain’s life, fleeting feel-good moments amidst an ocean of tragedies. The biographical nature of the story presents numerous pacing challenges that Sharpe manages to navigate with relative grace.

Sharpe deploys a narration by Olivia Colman that aims to give the narrative the feeling of a fairy tale, a device that feels a bit like a liability as time goes on. Wain’s life is not a good fit for a 111-minute runtime, a series of highs and lows that doesn’t flow well within a three-act structure. By the midway point, the narration feels almost obligatory, a weird reminder that this is all a performance.

Cumberbatch feels almost too comfortable playing yet another eccentric genius, bringing nothing new to the table. It doesn’t help that Cumberbatch’s best scenes are all opposite Foy, whose character dies halfway through the film. 111 minutes is a long time for a narrative that achieves most of it what it set out to achieve before the third act.

Sharpe can be forgiven for not necessarily knowing how to fit Wain’s whole life into a feature film. His biggest fault is in his failure to craft three-dimensional characters out of Wain’s sisters, who essentially function as the film’s antagonists. Wain is distant from his family in a way that feels more like an impediment for the narrative than an organic part of the story.

The Electric Life of Louis Wain is probably not more fun than spending two hours looking at cat pictures on Instagram, but it’s a competent biopic. Sharpe and Cumberbatch don’t exactly impress with their handling of the material, but the two make an admirable effort. Wain lived a tragic life, but there’s much inspiration to be found in the way he channeled his grief into a medium that brought so much joy to many.

Share Button

Sunday

12

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Murina

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

There is a great abundance of film narratives centered on extraordinary people or individuals who achieved great feats in unthinkable circumstances. The same cannot really be said of ordinary people wishing to lead ordinary lives. As children, we’re often told that we’re special, even as the vast majority of us grow up to lead fairly mundane existences.

Antoneta Alaman Kusijanović’s film Murina explores the life of a girl who never received any kind of positive affirmation from her parents. Julija (Gracija Filipović) is a 16-year-old girl living on an isolated Croatian island. Julija is not particularly special, her most noteworthy talent being that she can hold her breath for a long period of time, a skill she puts to good use while spear-fishing with her father, Ante (Leon Lućev), an insufferably mean man who makes life miserable for her and her mother, Nela (Danica Čurčić). Isolated from anyone her own age, Julija spends her time being objectified by the men around her, almost always sporting a one-piece bathing suit.

A visit from Ante’s old friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) reopens old jealousies, Ante nearly driven mad by Javier’s much more successful career. Ante takes out his anger on Julija, getting even more frustrated by the kindness that Javier shows toward his daughter. While quiet and soft-spoken, Julija sees in Javier new possibilities for life beyond her father’s constant abuse.

Kusijanović presents an illuminating portrait of the long-term effects of living under the male gaze, a slow-burn narrative completely in sync with Filipović’s lead performance. Julija begins the narrative seemingly at ease with her underwhelming life prospects, gradually awakened by the possibilities of a world her picturesque purgatory. Filipović captures that moment so beautifully.

An a-ha moment is not a roadmap for life. The real world is a much bumpier ride, a notion that Kusijanović never loses sight of in the narrative. Murina’s narrative takes place over the course of a few days, hardly enough time for a young girl to break a long-standing pattern of abuse and live a happily ever after. Such a payoff wouldn’t hit home as hard.

The 95-minute runtime gives the audience plenty to chew on, a good amount of time to spend within Kusijanović’s world. At its core, Murina is a film about agency, and the difficulties that one has to face in wielding it. Kusijanović makes a strong argument for the power of telling kids that they’re special. It’s a lot harder to reach one’s potential If you’ve never been told there’s any point in trying at all.

Share Button

Saturday

11

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Silent Land

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Foreign travel is supposed to open one’s mind, and potentially heart, to new experiences and empathy for people of different cultures. Going abroad can certainly be scary when faced with trouble from local law enforcement, often operating under different investigative protocols. In general, one is supposed to feel bad when a stranger dies in a swimming pool barely fifty feet away.

Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land (original title Cicha Ziemia) follows a couple, Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agniezska Žulewska), with some pretty rotten vacation luck. Staying at an Italian villa overlooking the ocean, the advertised pool is found empty. After prodding the owner to begrudgingly fill the pool, the maintenance man is found floating lifelessly inside, the couple blissfully ignorant nearby. Indifferent toward the plight of the deceased worker, the couple finds themselves increasingly agitated by the local police.

Throughout the narrative of her feature debut, Woszczyńska finds herself mostly concerned with the nature of empathy. The couple feels no remorse for the plight of the man, largely instead concerned with their own terrible fortunes. Woszczyńska has a knack for dramatic tension, lining up the audience’s sympathies for the tourists handed a raw deal abroad.

The trouble is, her protagonists are pretty insufferable people. Adam is particularly tiresome, his moods ranging from sullen to bothered. Dymecki and Žulewska have no chemistry as a couple. Whether that dynamic was intentional or not feels doesn’t really matter, as their obvious lack of compatibility is a major detriment to the narrative and its insufferable 113-minute runtime.

The real bummer with Woszczyńska’s film is that she does put forth some compelling questions about the nature of empathy, at least initially. She just doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring this as time goes on, spending much of the film’s second half on the nature of the couple’s relationship. Having not put in the work to sell either character, it becomes increasingly challenging to muster up any empathy for them. They seem like pretty terrible people, but not in a way that’s remotely entertaining to watch.

Painfully long, Silent Land squanders an interesting premise with a directionless narrative centered on insufferable people. In an abstract sense, one can relate to a couple merely wanting to enjoy a nice swim on their vacation. It’s another thing entirely to spend a duration of time with people so utterly detestable, instead filling you with the sense that karma served its justice to an odious pair of individuals.

Share Button

Saturday

11

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

TIFF Review: Comala

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The question of nature vs. nurture is an alluring thought experiment that rarely provides any sense of definite conclusions. The past and present work often synchronize in unseen ways, an exercise that’s not really meant to be easily analyzed. The mere act of trying to uncover the various pieces of one’s self can be a more rewarding journey than any idea of a destination.

The documentary Comala follows director Gian Cassini as he explores the life and death of his estranged father El Jimmy, a hitman who was killed in Tijuana in 2010. Cassini travels throughout Mexico and the United States, interviewing members of his father’s extended family that he hadn’t seen in years, people he has little ties to other than through blood. El Jimmy left behind a complicated legacy, beloved by many who knew him in spite of his career choices and shaky sense of morality.

Cassini does a superb job handling his intimate material, conducting himself with the professional aura of an investigative journalist though no one would expect him to be objective. The documentary itself exists to bring its director closer to the subject, but Cassini understands the value of the distance between himself and his father. The outsider sense of perspective that Cassini brings is incredibly valuable toward making the material relatable to the audience.

Perhaps most shocking in Comala is the nonchalant way that Cassini’s subjects speak about their careers in the drug trade. For many, selling cocaine is not all that different from any other line of work, a stable way to make a living if one is smart about their savings. The interviews are both intimate and generous, people opening up about their darkest days, presented in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting at the table with them.

El Jimmy does not seem like the greatest man in the world. As a character study, Comala isn’t interested in rehabilitating its subject. The record is what it is. The son never tries to carry water for the father, instead giving the audience space to draw their own conclusions.

Throughout its 98-minute runtime, Comala consistently impresses with its innate ability to capture the messy nature of family. Few can understand what it’s like to have a hitman as a father, but the desire to discover one’s roots is a far more relatable predicament. Cassini takes his wild story and unpacks its many layers, along the way demonstrating the power of simply engaging in these acts of self-discovery.

Share Button