Overlooked: Love Jones

Representation is important: Love Jones is the first Black romcom that feels more indie than commercial

Overlooked: <i>Love Jones</i>

I am a hopeless romantic. I love watching love, hearing about love, and reading about love.

My favourite type of romantic content are romantic dramas with heavy dialogue: movies that not only explore love, but the human condition in a meaningful way. From Before Sunrise to Under the Tuscan Sun, I can revel forever.

One such movie that is underrated is Love Jones, which follows the story of Darius Lovehall, played by Larenz Tate, and Nina Mosley, played by Nia Long. Nina is a photographer who has just left a long-term relationship with a neglectful boyfriend, while Darius is a poet and a hopeless romantic.

They meet at a nightclub where Darius is performing poetry and, unbeknownst to Nina, he dedicates a poem to her. From there, a relationship begins to bloom.

Although the premise is simple, the film is monumental.

While movies such as The Wood and The Best Man do explore the love lives of Black people, Love Jones is absolutely the first popular Black film that truly feels more indie than commercial.

Unlike the heavy dialogue, artistic shots, and meditation on the lives of twenty-somethings living in a big city in Before Sunrise, Love Jones has no big scenes or dramatic arcs.

Instead, this film is about love in all stages.

It demonstrates the ebb and flow of two people who love each other but struggle to be on the same page. They want to love and to know what love is, but they are torn by their professional pursuits. Watching this as a teenager, I did not understand the beauty of the film. I thought it was just about two people who couldn’t make up their minds.

But after rewatching it in my twenties, my perspective shifted. It’s now painfully familiar.

On top of that, the film has an incredible soundtrack with Lauryn Hill, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. If you really like that jazz club episode from The Proud Family or enjoy a beautifully filmed romantic drama, this film is for you.

Overlooked: Lord Huron’s Vide Noir

Lord Huron commands the heart with their combination of vocals, instrumentals, and lyrics

Overlooked:  Lord Huron’s <i>Vide Noir </i>

Love, in all its forms, tends to dominate popular music. The highs of a passionate new relationship create bombastic celebration tunes, while lost loves produce heart-wrenching ballads.  Yet much of the music we hear fails to capture the sheer power of love and the intensity of the feelings it brings us.  Lord Huron’s speciality is capturing such emotion.

Their latest album, Vide Noir, tells the tale of a lost soul, seeking the love who left him ages ago. Consumed by memory, he travels our world and uses drugs to ascend to another one of magic and deep, all-encompassing emotion. It is the latter world which Lord Huron hails from, each song exploring a facet of our narrator’s beautiful, perhaps mad, devotion to his love.

The best song on the album is “Wait by the River,” a sombre ballad delving into our narrator’s feelings: “If we can’t be together / I will leave this world behind / If I can’t touch your body / Can I touch the sky?”

Singer-songwriter Ben Schneider lays his emotions bare through every crescendo as he begs to the heavens; the girl means everything to him.  To touch the sky is a mere consolation prize, for the world means nothing without love.  His delivery strikes a chord with me, capturing the intensity of the love.

The instruments are as passionate as our narrator. The light guitar and upbeat drums  in “Moonbeam” couple with Schneider’s vocals, capturing the pure joy of seeing his love again, even as a hallucination. The bass features prominently, its melodies carrying us to another plane of existence. It guides the soulful laments in “Emerald Star” and “Wait by the River,” while capturing the raw energy of a high, whether from drugs or passion, in “Vide Noir” and “Never Ever.”

It is this combination of poignant vocals and meticulous instrumentals that conveys everything perfectly, from the magic behind the world to the emotions that govern it all.  Lord Huron commands the heart, drawing out our deepest feelings and letting us relive them in their songs.  By the time the sorrowful guitar of “Emerald Star” crackled through my headphones, I was nearly in tears.

I implore anyone and everyone who has ever felt a deep sorrow, a great happiness, or a love that encompassed their being to give Lord Huron the attention they deserve.

TIFF 2018: Wildlife

Overlooked – except this time a TIFF special

TIFF 2018: <i> Wildlife </i>

Unlike many of the other films that played at TIFF this year, Wildlife has been making the festival rounds since Sundance in January. Since then, it has received rapturous reviews, but nowhere near the level of praise that films like Roma and A Star Is Born are receiving. While I have not seen those films yet, Wildlife is certainly not to be underestimated. Though somewhat overlooked by the festival circuit, Wildlife is one of the best films of the year so far.

Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, the film is the directorial debut of Paul Dano. Having worked under directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners, and Steve McQueen on 12 Years a Slave, Dano has seen incredible formalist filmmaking firsthand, and it shows in his work. His debut is assured and consistent, taking up a sombre, almost dread-filled emotional tone from the beginning and never wavering.

The plot is astonishingly bare for a movie that’s an hour and 45 minutes long. In 1960, a family of three moves to Montana, seeking to improve their lives. As told through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) encounters complications with his job. Each member of the family, most notably Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Joe’s mother, must do what they can to survive, physically and emotionally. That’s it.

While it has beats of both a coming-of-age drama and a deep tragedy, Wildlife is ultimately a very simple drama, recounted with heartbreaking detail and craft. Working in the rich tradition of quiet Midwestern American dramas and taking influence from movies like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, Dano tells this story with remarkable self-assurance. The camera moves only when it needs to; the tightly controlled colour palette is made up of wonderfully muted pastel greys, greens, and blues; and Dano picks up on every smile, glance, and sigh that his actors give out.

What may be most remarkable about Wildlife is its sense of empathy. This comes from the feminist lens through which Dano and Zoe Kazan, his partner and co-writer, view the film’s events. Jeanette, in addition to working and coping with the loss of her own dreams, must deal with both her husband moving away and her son growing older.

A lesser film would present the actions that Jeanette takes to cope, and live with some hope of happiness as morally reprehensible, but Dano and Kazan understand not just what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by men, but also what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by feminine performativity.

Wildlife is a sobering depiction of what it means to live under the American Dream, and what it takes away from you — it’s the empathy that Dano and Kazan lend the characters that makes this portrait so effective.

Overlooked: The Fall

BBC drama is not your typical psychological thriller

Overlooked: <i>The Fall</i>

Recently, in mainstream media, the portrayal of sensitive topics — such as sexual assault and suicide — has fueled the ongoing debate about whether dramatizing these issues creates a platform for discussion, or rather illustrates them in a glorified manner.

One lesser-known British TV show, The Fall, is a stellar example of TV tackling complex issues in a sensitive manner, without oversimplifying them.

The Fall stars Gillian Anderson, who plays the ice-cold police superintendent Stella Gibson, pitted against the charming Jamie Dornan, who plays Paul Spector — a family man by day and serial killer by night.

The three-season series is set up to seem like a typical good versus evil manhunt, but quickly evolves into a criticism of the use of such dichotomies in mainstream television.

It takes on issues such as sexual assault, consent, consent among minors, views on female promiscuity, and the problems women face in male-dominated work forces, carefully dissecting them in a way that reveals the danger of approaching anything as black and white.

In addition to exploring such difficult topics, the show is refreshing in its diversion from a typical whodunit storyline, instead favouring the psychological aspects behind the behaviourisms of the killer.

In fact, much of the third season focuses on the serial killer’s past, instilling doubt about the origins of evil and where to cast blame. It completely destroys the notions of ‘good guy, bad guy’ that were so carefully built up in the first two seasons, effectively forcing the viewer to confront their own beliefs about good and evil, morality, and the justice system.

The show is a must watch for anyone interested in the functions of the human mind or the relationship between moral and legal culpability. It culminates in a shocking finale that leaves the viewer with virtually no answers — with the story lingering in the mind for weeks afterward.

However, this show is most certainly not for everyone. As expected, it leaves little to the imagination — so anyone who cannot make it through an episode of Criminal Minds should probably steer clear.

Moreover, although the plot reads like a drama, the British show stays true to its nature by being almost entirely devoid of over-the-top demonstrations of emotion, instead letting the viewer interpret a character’s inner thoughts for themselves.

However, if you prefer to skip cheesy love triangles and get right to the good stuff, I’d add The Fall to the list.

Overlooked: Peaky Blinders

Lose yourself in 1920s Birmingham with only the Shelbies as your guides

Overlooked: <i>Peaky Blinders</i>

I started watching Peaky Blinders a year ago on two separate recommendations from two friends, whose opinions on such things I value implicitly.

From the first shot of Thomas Shelby slowly riding through the grim streets of Birmingham on a dark horse, I knew that I had stumbled upon a cinematic masterpiece. I raved on and on about it to anyone who would listen — and to many who would not. As I watched more of the series, I began to feel that even my own glowing commentary on the show was an understatement.

At its simplest, Peaky Blinders follows the lives and antics of 1920s English gangsters. But even at its simplest, Peaky Blinders is anything but simple.

Though the show’s focus on organized crime may seem trite after the success of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, Peaky Blinders provides insight into a period and a place where the topic has not yet been explored, doubling down on themes of skewed family dynamics and post traumatic stress disorder after the First World War.

Musically, the show uses Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s “Red Right Hand” to introduce and define the lead character. This is emblematic of ’90s theme songs, and stands out uniquely in a world where most shows only bother to toss out a quick title card.

The rest of the show’s soundtrack — heavily dominated by Arctic Monkeys records — feels like an extension of the opening theme, conveying the same grittiness with every beat, and almost acting as an additional cast member.

Speaking of the cast, Peaky Blinders features top-tier actors and actresses in every facet of the Shelby narrative. Christopher Nolan’s own personal muse of unquestionable talent, Cillian Murphy, plays the show’s lead. Helen McCrory of Penny Dreadful and the Harry Potter franchise plays his aunt. Even Tom Hardy and his wife, Charlotte Riley, play crucial roles in this BBC drama.

So why doesn’t Peaky Blinders pull in the viewership and attention of other shows like, say, Riverdale? Audiences may have a difficult time investing in a show that isn’t always selling itself to us through social media and memes.

This isn’t because millennials are superficial, but because these social interactions are so normalized that they’ve become expected. Without them surrounding a show, we might not see what’s really out there.

Even so, I encourage everyone to lose themselves in the Birmingham of the ’20s, with only the Shelbies and company as your designated tour guides.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section that puts the spotlight on underappreciated pieces of pop culture. To participate, email arts@thevarsity.ca.

Overlooked: The Florida Project

Another year, another awards season snub

Overlooked: <i>The Florida Project</i>

Perhaps by now I should be used to the fact that some of the greatest films will go unappreciated by the Academy. However, this year, I could no longer sit idly by as another movie joined the ranks of undeserved Oscar snubs. The Florida Project does everything a great movie is supposed to do, but its contribution was unjustly overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards.

A dreamy visual experience that at least warranted a nomination for Best Cinematography, The Florida Project puts you in the shoes of Moonee, a six-year-old girl living in a rundown motel on the outskirts of Disney World with her young mother, who is in many ways a child herself. Moonee is mischievous, carefree, a bit of a brat, and part of a demographic in America known as the ‘hidden homeless’ — those who live in temporary housing and are often forgotten by society.

While Moonee’s situation may be heartbreaking to many, the film is not made to make you feel hopeless. Instead, it’s a celebration of childhood, friendship, and family — just not in a context that many of us have experienced.

But through the genius of writer and director Sean Baker, you almost feel like you’ve lived through what Moonee is experiencing. Baker fully immerses you into her world, one in which the adults loom over the camera and the sky is shot as a wide, open expanse. The world seems so vast from the perspective of a child, and, through Baker’s talent with the camera, that’s exactly how the viewer sees it.

Beyond the visual elements of the film, Baker also manages to blend perfect childhood innocence with the realities of poverty in America. Moonee plays in abandoned houses with her friends, which to them seem like a playground, but to us are yet more failed housing developments in post-recession America.

It’s little signs like these, the bittersweet notes that surface throughout the film, that give an indication of what lies just beyond the periphery of Moonee’s world. You come to love Moonee, with all her sass and charm, but you know what hardship lies in her future and in the futures of all the real children who live a life like hers.

Movies are made to take you out of your own life and open your eyes to the different lived experiences of others. When a film truly does its job, you come out of it as a changed person with a better understanding of a small part of the world.

A good movie makes you empathize, not just sympathize — The Florida Project succeeded in doing this in every way, and it doesn’t need an Academy Award to tell me that.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section where writers make the case for pieces of culture that don’t get the attention they deserve. To contribute, email arts@thevarsity.ca.

Overlooked: Youth

The Chinese drama is an introspective look at the lives of youth during the Cultural Revolution

Overlooked: Youth

It was the ’70s: teenagers embraced bell bottoms, sunglasses, and love songs — all behind closed doors. In the newly established People’s Republic of China, the decade was not a period marked by hippie movements and music festivals but by tumultuous social reform and impending war.

The Chinese film Youth, directed by Feng Xiaogang, who is dubbed the ‘Steven Spielberg of China,’ premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. It debuted at North American theatres in mid-December, and while it found tremendous success with domestic Chinese audiences, it may have been perceived as too foreign for other viewers.

Youth follows the lives of two young dancers in the People’s Liberation Army dance troupe. Liu Feng, whose name mimics the Communist party martyr Lei Feng, performs acts of unhindered and naïve kindness in the hopes of fulfilling the prophecy of his name. He Xiaoping is an outcast who wishes to abandon her background and start anew by contributing to the army.

Despite their occasional and hidden experimentation with counterrevolutionary fashion and music, the dance team remains optimistic about the revolution and expresses their patriotism through dance. Their morale is short-lived, however, after the protagonists are sent to the frontlines of the Sino-Vietnamese War.

Without overemphasizing politically sensitive topics, Feng is able to portray the ups and downs of young adulthood in a devastating period for China. Accompanied by washes of sepia, each dance scene evokes feelings of nostalgia and romanticism. The protagonists have dedicated the peak of their life to their profession, and only through the fantasy of performance can they live out the hopeful dreams of their youth.

There is a change of tone toward the end of the film. Liu Feng, now a jobless veteran, finds himself standing in front of a red Coca-Cola billboard in the wake of China expanding its economy. The protagonists’ former teammates are now successful business owners abroad while they, the most dedicated of them all, struggle to make a living. Cold reality sets into the scene while Liu Feng and He Xiaoping reminisce — they have finally achieved martyrdom by sacrificing their idealism and youth to the revolution.

Youth is a melancholy story about the fragility of youth and the failures of a revolution meant to eliminate the elite. Though its execution does sometimes fall short with respect to its overly sentimental acting, it offers a different perspective on the coming-of-age genre. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air in Chinese cinema.

While the movie is strictly in Mandarin with English subtitles, the experience of youth is universal, and Youth should be seen by everyone.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section where writers make the case for pieces of culture that don’t get the attention they deserve. To contribute, email arts@thevarsity.ca.

Overlooked: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin

Alongside its staple of superhero shows, The CW network’s stronger series have gone under the radar

Overlooked: <i>Crazy Ex-Girlfriend</i>, <i>Jane the Virgin</i>

The merged successor to The WB and UPN, The CW is a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros. Since its debut in 2006, the network has had its growing pains, but it was still at the forefront of the teen melodrama with shows such as Gossip Girl90210, and The Vampire Diaries.

In recent years, though, the network might as well have been known as the superhero show channel, home to DC comic adaptations including ArrowSupergirl, and The Flash. Yet aside from these anchors, in addition to the blockbuster Supernatural, the network’s lineup also currently includes a number of compelling series that are not getting the attention they deserve.

Every so often, there is a piece of pop culture that makes you feel truly seen. For me, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one such show. Its depiction of Jewish female anxiety is part of my favourite growing niche in media, alongside the hysterical Broad City, Amazon’s recent The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as well as elements of other shows like Transparent and unREAL.

Co-creator Rachel Bloom, previously best-known for the viral YouTube parody song “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” is wonderful as Rebecca Bunch, a New York corporate lawyer who moves to West Covina, California in pursuit of a former summer camp fling. Rebecca’s delusional pursuit of happiness, in the form of Josh Chan, is initially both cringe-worthy and riveting, but the viewer soon begins to feel real empathy for the show’s clearly damaged protagonist.

Despite being a critical darling, CXG is one of the lowest-rated shows on television, having taken the bottom spot in fall rankings for each of the three years it’s been on the air. The show is simply not reaching enough people — a true shame, since it includes a brilliant ensemble cast, clever musical numbers, and one of the best portrayals of mental illness on television.

CXG effortlessly moves between genres to pursue its ultimate goal: a deconstruction of the societal norms of romance. I could write essays on its use of musical parodies, but instead I will direct you to a couple of my recent favorites: “Let’s Have Intercourse,” a pitch-perfect Ed Sheeran mockery, and “The End of the Movie,” which warns against treating your life as a straightforward narrative — with the use of a killer cameo. To say nothing of classics like “Friendtopia,” “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too,” and “Let’s Generalize About Men.”

Not far ahead of CXG in the ratings is Jane the Virgin, my go-to recommendation anytime someone asks me what they should watch next.

Jane the Virgin begins with a ridiculous premise — literally ‘straight out of a telenovela’ — as Jane, who planned on waiting until marriage to have sex, is accidentally artificially inseminated.

Despite this absurd starting point, I haven’t seen anything else on TV that can compare in terms of heart. The show’s quirks, such as its omniscient narrator known as the Latin Lover and its tendency to indulge in plot twists like evil twins and child kidnappings, belie its core: a smart and often touching portrayal of love, life, and family.

I haven’t even mentioned the post-apocalyptic drama The 100, or Riverdale, the show we are all growing to love to hate. Suffice it to say that treating The CW as solely the domain of Greg Berlanti is both an incorrect assumption and one that’s a shame. Behind the archery, capes, and lightning bolts are a handful of series that are well worth the watch.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section where writers make the case for pieces of culture that don’t get the attention they deserve. To contribute, email arts@thevarsity.ca.