“I’d have to go to the Ordovician, about 470 million years ago, to see giant straight-shelled cephalopods–the planet’s very first monsters, who ruled the seas long before dinosaurs evolved!” – Author Danna Staaf discusses Squid Empire

“Cephalopods are not aliens from outer space, but they are the closest we’ve got. They’ve been on an independent evolutionary path from ours for over five hundred million years.”

Before there were mammals on land, there were dinosaurs. And before there were fish in the sea, there were cephalopods―the ancestors of modern squid and Earth’s first truly substantial animals. Cephalopods became the first creatures to rise from the seafloor, essentially inventing the act of swimming. With dozens of tentacles and formidable shells, they presided over an undersea empire for millions of years. But when fish evolved jaws, the ocean’s former top predator became its most delicious snack. Cephalopods had to step up their game.

Many species streamlined their shells and added defensive spines, but these enhancements only provided a brief advantage. Some cephalopods then abandoned the shell entirely, which opened the gates to a flood of evolutionary innovations: masterful camouflage, fin-supplemented jet propulsion, perhaps even dolphin-like intelligence.

Squid Empire is an epic adventure spanning hundreds of millions of years, from the marine life of the primordial ocean to the calamari on tonight’s menu. Anyone who enjoys the undersea world―along with all those obsessed with things prehistoric―will be interested in the sometimes enormous, often bizarre creatures that ruled the seas long before the first dinosaurs.

Danna Staaf is a freelance writer and science communicator with special expertise in cephalopods. Her writing has appeared in ScienceKQEDEarther, and io9, and her first book, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, was named one of the best science books of 2017 by NPR. She holds a PhD in biology from Stanford University and has spoken at dozens of venues, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the main Google campus in Mountain View, public libraries, universities and schools at every grade level. She lives in San Jose with her husband and an unruly collection of kids, cats, and plants.

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods was published in November 2017 by University Press of New England. To find out more click here.


Why cephalopods?

Seriously, you have to ask? All right, fine: Cephalopods are not aliens from outer space, but they are the closest we’ve got. They’ve been on an independent evolutionary path from ours for over five hundred million years. They’ve arrived in the modern world with features that seem incredibly weird to us–elastic tentacles, color-changing skin, suction cups and ink sacs–as well as features that are astonishingly convergent. An octopus eye, for example, has an iris, a lens, and a retina just like yours. Unlike yours, it has no blind spot, no color vision, and it can detect the polarization of light.

Without cephalopods, we would have just one kind of nervous system to study. A mouse, a frog, and even a fish are all so closely related to humans that you could say we all have the same kind of brain. Comparing our brain to an octopus’ brain, however, illuminates a great deal more about how nervous systems work, helping us ask new questions and look for new answers. If you’re at all interested in weird stuff, nothing beats cephalopods for raw coolness. If you’re just interested in humans and how we got to be the way we are–still, nothing beats cephalopods for a truly comparative system.

Cephalopods are remarkably intelligent. Should we feel bad about eating them?

My first impulse is to say “yes.” But that’s too glib, and I’m not into making people feel bad. I am a vegetarian, and I don’t eat cephalopods for the same reason I don’t eat cows or chickens or tuna. I don’t think they need to be considered separately from other animals in that regard. For a lucid and compassionate take on this topic, check out Barbara J. King’s “Calling Team Cephalopod: Why Octopuses Could Never Disappoint.” (link: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2018/03/08/591530441/calling-team-cephalopod-why-octopuses-could-never-disappoint)

What advice would you give to a James Bond supervillain wanting to know which deadly cephalopod species they should restock their lair’s plunge pool trap with?

Blue-ringed octopuses. Despite their small size, these are the only cephalopods that have caused documented human deaths. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin that can kill a grown human. But then I’d also say to this hypothetical supervillain: don’t bother. Don’t bother yourself, and don’t bother the poor blue-ringed octopuses. They only bite people when they feel really threatened–they’d much rather camouflage themselves and hide–and it’s shoddy supervillainy to make a bunch of innocent octopuses feel threatened all the time. Anyway, you know what’s more deadly than even a blue-ringed octopus? Water. Yeah, all the water that’s already in your plunge pool, because people can’t breathe it. Way more people die by drowning every year than by bites from any kind of wild animal. And with all the time you save by not trying to maintain a finicky venomous animal in a salt-water aquarium, you can get on with some really super supervillainy.

Why is it a big deal that nautiluses are being added to the endangered list?

Nautiluses are the only living cephalopods that still have external shells, and people have been collecting these shells and turning them into jewelry or simply displaying them for hundreds of years (at least). But eventually demand outstripped supply and now many populations of nautiluses are nearly gone. At one location in the Philippines, fishers have to set out a hundred traps to catch a single nautilus, in the same place where their grandparents would catch several nautiluses in each trap. The 2017 inclusion of nautiluses in CITES, the treaty that protects high-profile animals like elephants, is the first legal protection these strange, beautiful cephalopods have ever had. Keeping nautiluses around gives us a living window into 500 million years of evolutionary history–and also preserves the most laughably awkward yet astonishingly efficient swimmers on the planet.

If you could vacation in and around a prehistoric sea, when and where would you go?

I’d have to go to the Ordovician, about 470 million years ago, to see giant straight-shelled cephalopods–the planet’s very first monsters, who ruled the seas long before dinosaurs evolved! The arrangement of the continents was so dramatically different back then that it’s hard to describe exactly “where” I would go. This was pre-Pangaea; most land was glommed together in the southern hemisphere so I guess I’d plop myself somewhere in the watery northern hemisphere and hope for the best.

To be clear, “best” means that I would get to see Cameroceras, a horizonal ice-cream cone over twenty feet long, close enough to count its tentacles, look it in the eye, and find out whether or not it had a beak. Does that mean my vacation would be cut short by entering the digestive system of the earliest giant cephalopod? Maybe, but time machines are notoriously unreliable, and death by Cameroceras could be a better end than trying to make it back home.

If you could Jurrasic Park an extinct species of cephalopod which would you bring back to life?

Nice verbing! I’d bring back one of the heteromorph ammonites for sure. The heteromorphs were a bizarre and diverse group of cephalopods with external shells that lived in the Cretaceous. Most ammonites had spiral shells that looked superficially similar to modern nautilus shells, but heteromorphs broke all the rules. There were heteromorphs with corkscrew shells and totally straight shells, with shells bent like paper clips and shells twisted into knots. No one really knows how or why their shells grew in such strange shapes. I’d probably pick Nipponites, because seriously, friend, what are you doing with a shell like that? (link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nipponites)

You’re an expert writing for a lay audience. What’s the biggest tip you have for someone attempting to persuade others of the value of their particular field of specialist study?

Let your enthusiasm show.

You write about the individual scientists who inspired you in your early career. Who are you most excited by today? What are they working on?

Last summer I visited Robyn Crook’s lab at San Francisco State University and was completely captivated. (link: http://crooklab.org/) She and her students study pain in cephalopods, which might sound awful, like poking squid with sticks. But in fact, they were able to use noninvasive techniques to find the first evidence that cephalopod anesthesia actually cuts off sensation, instead of simply immobilizing the animals–a pretty important thing to know for ethical research! Crook is the one who turned me on to the idea of cephalopods as the only truly comparative systems for vertebrates. Since the perception of pain evolved separately in cephalopods, they provide an opportunity to study the evolutionary roots of this sensation, the ways in which it’s useful and the ways in which it can be problematic.

I’m also fascinated by the work of Bret Grasse and his team at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. (link: http://www.mbl.edu/cephalopod-program/) Grasse pioneered the aquaculture of pajama squid and flamboyant cuttlefish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and now he’s working with a tremendous array of cephalopod species at Woods Hole to make them available for all kinds of research. I admire his team’s focus on the welfare of the animals, and I can’t wait to see what unexpected discoveries will come from scientists being able to work with so many cephalopods that were considered too finicky to handle before. It may seem weird to make such a big deal out of these “niche” animals, but we should remember that modern neuroscience grew almost entirely from breakthrough research on the giant axon of squid. Cephalopods really do offer unique research opportunities, not just in neuroscience but in robotics (all those flexible arms!), medicine (all those arms can regenerate!) and more.

Where is the best place to go diving with cephalopods?

One of my fellow squid scientists once saw six different cephalopod species while snorkeling off Okinawa–so that’s now on my dream dive list! I’ve always wanted to see the giant cuttlefish matting off Southern Australia, too, and then there are the sites off Seattle where you can see giant Pacific octopus (just don’t try to hunt them, link: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/magazine/the-octopus-that-almost-ate-seattle.html). One of my favorite cephalopods to watch underwater is the Caribbean reef squid, which can be seen in many places throughout the Caribbean, even just snorkeling. They’re relatively easy to find and follow around, so scientists use them for a lot of the most interesting research on cephalopod communication and social behavior.

Whats next for you?

I wrote a couple of essays for an anthology coming out in October called Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres (link: https://pages.e2ma.net/pages/1887808/9576). It’ll have lots more useful information for that Bond supervillain! I’m also finishing up a novel set in a post-sea level rise future where squid racing has replaced horse racing as a high-stakes, high-adrenaline jockey sport. And of course, I’m always writing short science stories here, there, and everywhere.


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EIFF: “Swimming With Men” (30 June ’18)

“Fun performances and sweet turns of narrative … Swimming With Men is a comedic success”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Imagine The Full Monty, in Speedos. That’s the long and short of Swimming With Men. But despite some predictable setups, Oliver Parker’s new film is charming, sweet, and genuinely quite funny, mostly due to a delightful-as-ever performance by Rob Brydon. It is not a rush-to-the-theatre type of film, but as a nice way to spend an hour and a half, it does not disappoint.

Brydon plays Eric Scott, a bit of a loser who finds himself out of step with his own life. His accounting job is a monotonous waste of his time and talent, and he is growing apart from his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) due to his own jealousy at her success as a local politician. The only place he finds peace is in the local pool, where he meets a motley crew of men who have banded together as a synchronized swimming team. Led by the charming Luke (Rupert Graves), the men decide to incorporate Eric into their routine, and so begins a series of amusing training sessions and actually quite impressive swimming stunt work. Played by various British comedy talents such as Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays, Thomas Turgoose, and the excellent Jim Carter, the team is a fun group to watch, and their onscreen chemistry is a highlight.

The story is a classic one, where Eric finds not only his own worth in his connection to these men, but the worth of self-expression and all that; credit again to Brydon that he makes this simplistic path far more pleasant than predictable. Charlotte Riley is notably fun as Susan, a swimmer who is drawn into being the team’s coach, and gets them good enough to complete in the international men’s championships in Milan for a rousing, very fun finale. The film is quite sweet, but not without its conflicts, as old habits, lost loves, and personal differences come to derail some of the team’s momentum over and over. But overall, this is an agreeable and satisfying film with something to say about male friendship and trust, which is very well suited to Brydon’s charm and talent as an Everyman with real presence. One scene of his in an elevator late in the film is a particular standout; perhaps it’s a shame he does not get more to do over the course of the film.

Parker’s aesthetic choices are unexceptional, yet liven up when the men are in and around the pool, a clever reflection of the freeing possibilities of the team and their routines. Some sequences are filmed quite creatively, especially the hypnotic boredom of Eric’s office and certain dreamlike shots of the men twirling and floating around underwater.

(Outside of the film itself, it is an intriguing coincidence that this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival featured a French film called Le grand bain [or Sink or Swim], directed by Gilles Lellouche and starring Mathieu Amalric, which seems to have the exact same plot. Perhaps synchronized men’s swimming has become the choice cinematic metaphor for rethinking the mechanics of team-based masculinities of today.)

For Brydon’s commendable turn in the lead role, plus some fun performances and sweet turns of the narrative, Swimming With Men is a comedic success, and well worth a rainy-day watch. (So, perfect for Scottish audiences.)

This enjoyable film brought the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival to a close, and my coverage ends with it. It has been a truly fun and informative time watching and waxing about all these films and seeing film history made-in-Edinburgh. I hope my writing has been useful and thank you for reading!

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Swimming with Men at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Piercing” (30 June ’18)

“A trippy, entertaining, & masterfully nightmarish romp.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

For a completely bonkers, aesthetically anarchic, sonically and visually unnerving nightmare thrill ride, Piercing has a lot of humor, heart, and fabulous artistry beneath its hood. The film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, creator of well-liked arthouse horror The Eyes of My Mother, and based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the mind behind some of Japanese cinema’s most twisted and depraved screenplays. This film is very much in the same vein, but swaps its Japanese influences for Italian Giallo and a charming 70s setting. While it is revoltingly violent and demented, somehow everything in Pesce’s film just works, and it is a truly outstanding genre film.

Piercing continues a pleasing trend in many of the films this year: performers who traditionally fill supporting roles getting a shot at the lead. Take, for example, Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, Natalie Dormer in In Darkness, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Rob Brydon in Swimming With Men, Steven Ogg in Solis. And now, Christopher Abbott as Reed, the enigmatic, bizarre focus of Pesce’s surreal tale. Abbott has turned in fascinating, unsettling, always capable performances in films like Sweet Virginia and Tyrel, (plus his lead role in the small James White), and it is lovely to see him stretch out as the protagonist in a film so odd. He is joined by the always entertaining Mia Wasikowska, and the charming Laia Costa, all of whom get their share of fascinating chances to shine and bend the audience’s minds.

The film follows Reed as he decides to take some time away from his wife (Costa) and child, so he can indulge his twisted murderous fantasies. He meticulously plans to lure and dispatch an unsuspecting prostitute, and in true jet-black humor fashion, Pesce has the camera follow Reed around the room he has rented as he walks through the steps of exactly how he will administer the necessary sedatives, do the deed, and dispose of the body. The clincher is, Pesce includes all the implied sound effects of the execution, and as Reed mimes the sawing, hacking, and gruesome handling of the various parts and bits, the squelches and drips are heard in full. This is a stylistic highlight, yet Piercing features many more sequences of filmmaking just as delightfully twisted. 

Wasikowska plays Jackie, the prostitute he eventually lures into his plan, but needless to say it does not go according to plan. The story twists and turns with gleeful insanity, with Reed and Jackie taking it in turns to torment the other with horrifying weapons and substances. It all spirals into hallucinogenic madness, perfectly contrasted against remarkable production design and music. Delirious grotesqueries are frequently performed on and around plush 70s interior design, while stupendously odd themes from classic Giallo films play above them. The film intermittently cuts to an uncanny miniature set meant to evoke the heights and depths of the New York City skyline, evoking a maze or a puzzle akin to the disorienting content of Reed’s story. 

It’s a trippy, entertaining, masterfully nightmarish romp, with an unlikely balance of class and cruelty, harrowing scenes and hilarious horror, and a hellishly sadomasochistic partnership for the ages in Abbott and Wasikowska’s characters. If you enjoy stylish craftiness and chills down the spine, plus some captivating costume work and musical dexterity, pick Piercing, and have fun with it.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Piercing at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “In Darkness” (28 June ’18)

“A daringly twisty, commendably unpredictable erotic thriller with much more to it than meets the eye.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

If and when you watch In Darkness, you will think a lot of thoughts. Many of them might go something like “What just happened?” or “What am I watching?” or “Is this all the same movie?” but suffice it to say that this daringly twisty, commendably unpredictable erotic thriller has much, much more to it than meets the eye. That is not always a good thing, as the film spends most of its runtime running off the rails of its supposed ‘plot,’ but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an entertaining trip.

The film was written by real-life partners Anthony Byrne and Natalie Dormer; Byrne directs, Dormer stars. If you are fan of Ms. Dormer’s, possibly from her star turns in Game of Thrones or the Hunger Games franchise, then you will enjoy this film. It is a star-vehicle through and through, with nearly every shot focusing on some part of Dormer, whether her striking face or nimble physicality. Notably, Dormer proves her mettle as a very capable lead actress, and this film makes a solid case for more female-led stories written by the actresses themselves; Dormer’s character, Sofia, is a well-rounded and trustworthy focal point of the story, flitting through classy and dangerous scenarios with grace and thrilling movement. 

If only the story was as well-rounded and trustworthy. Heavens, what a license Dormer and Byrne’s story takes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief! After a striking, standout title sequence (which sets the stage excellently for a slick, exciting thriller to come), we are introduced to Sofia, a blind musician who glides around London with remarkable street smarts and style. The first 20-25 minutes continue like this, with a rich aesthetic palette and a fun, knife-edge sense of building danger. Her upstairs neighbor Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) is clearly wrapped up in some nasty business, and when she turns up dead on the pavement outside their building, the plot thickens with Hitchcockian craftiness. Who killed her and why are the setup for the rest of the film’s twists and turns, but without spoiling anything, let me forewarn you that Veronique quickly becomes old news in favor of a much scummier, more complicated spider’s web of crime and revenge. 

For the first leg of In Darkness, the film makes a truly riveting imitation of classic Hitchcock and Wait Until Dark-esque blind-character craftwork — especially in a tense, nail-biting scene where assassin Marc (Ed Skrein) intends to kill Sofia for what she has seen, but notices her blindness and decides to follow her around her apartment in silence. Scenes like these are so fun and well crafted that the later dramatic shifts in tone and focus are more unfortunate than thrilling — there is a notable shift from Hitchcock to Jason Bourne all of a sudden that undoes a great deal of the film’s accomplishments with head-scratching intensity. 

Ultimately, that is the central problem of In Darkness — it has so many fetching elements to it, from the compelling star to the vintage first chapter to the stupendous use of music (again, only up until the tone change), yet it keeps undoing all that commendable work with silly plot twists. Twists, plural, mind you — each of which edge the film closer to completely undoing itself. As a fan of twists myself, I commend Dormer and Byrne’s ballsiness in their final few reveals, but I came out of the theatre feeling played for a fool, rather than hoodwinked by a clever storyteller. 

In Darkness is amusing genre excitement, and has potential as a twist-film highlight among those who enjoy just being confused, but it will mostly remind you how much better a straight-shooting classic crime thriller treats its own plot. Credit belongs to Natalie Dormer, however, for rooting it all in a fascinating lead — I can honestly say I would watch whatever she writes and stars in next. 

nae bad_blue

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)

Go to In Darkness at the EIFF

EIFF: “Hearts Beat Loud” (30 June ’18)

Credit: courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“A sweet, caring hug of a movie.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Baristas. Beard oil. Acoustic sessions. Obscure pastries. Brooklyn. Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud has no shortage of any of these. It is a sweet, caring hug of a movie. If you would like a nice time, and do not mind drowning in sweetness, you might enjoy it. If you find acoustic guitar soliloquies somewhat overrated, then you might want to spend your time some other way.

Haley’s film was supposedly crafted as a “response” to all the disgusting behavior coming out of the White House and other assorted American institutions — to his credit, the film bathes itself in the loveliest versions of American city life it can imagine, from an adorable record store to a biracial family to a deeply loving father-daughter dynamic to a healthy dose of LGBT positivity. These are all, don’t get me wrong, very good things, and especially in these times when calls for more diversity in the film world are met with pathetically backwards ignorance. Haley has done very well to color his film the way he has. Thankfully, Hearts Beat Loud does show more darkly realistic sides as well, for example: the record store, owned by father Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), is running out of money and time; Frank has had to raise his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) alone as his wife passed away in a bike accident years before; Sam is going to UCLA, on the other side of the country, which means her fledgling summer love is destined to come to an unfortunately early end. All these are solid plot points, yet despite them, the film just cannot quite graduate out of the sickly-sweet genre into genuine character drama at any point. 

The plot follows Frank as he decides he has to close his store, Red Hook Records, in order to pay for Sam’s college. In a cute attempt to cheer himself and his daughter up, Frank drags Sam to their “jam sesh” room, where Sam plays a few lines from a song she wrote earlier that day. They record the song with their inexplicably state-of-the-art home studio (this, from a man who later claims to ‘not have a penny’ to his name), and Frank covertly uploads it to Spotify. It becomes an overnight sensation, and although Sam would rather go to college than be in a band with her dad, Frank is torn whether they should try and go for success in the industry or continue living their local lives. 

Offerman and Clemons are the lifeblood of this film; without them it would truly have been an unremarkable experience. Offerman in particular taps into his talent for hilariously giddy facial expressions very well, and imbues Frank with serious charm and kindness. Clemons, after blowing us all away with her scene-stealing turn in Rick Famuyiwa’s mini-masterpiece Dope, is captivating as ever as Sam, particularly when she plays music and sings so darn well — mark my words, Clemons can seriously sing. Supporting them is a nice cast of characters with mostly nice performances; Blythe Danner is charming as Frank’s mischievous mother Marianne, Toni Collette and Ted Danson are fine as Frank’s adult friends, and Sasha Lane is alright but a little morose as Sam’s girlfriend Rose.

The hit song itself, titled, of course, “Hearts Beat Loud,” is a fun and catchy indie pop number that will probably get your toe tapping, and is genuinely well-written, but so like every other fun, catchy indie pop number that the effect is somewhat limited. Other than this track, however, the songs are either overwrought or twee as hell. One unintentionally funny scene comes when Frank tries to convince Sam they should play more music together by getting out his acoustic guitar and moaning out one of his old songs he wrote back in the day; the scene ends with Sam in tears at what a moving performance her father just gave, but, gosh, what a dull and unremarkable tune it was.

This is part of the issue with Hearts Beat Loud: it gives you nice feelings here and there, but a lot of the themes and plot beats are just not as ‘important’ as Haley seems to think they are. Take the way the script handles music itself: sure, artists like Mitski and Animal Collective are exceedingly talented musicians, but two scenes each featuring different characters describing how great they are is too much. Look at it this way: you know that feeling when someone describes a band to you that you don’t know all that well, and won’t stop telling you about them anyway? This film sounds like that, for 97 minutes. Couple that with an insufferable amount of Brooklyn-specific references and a pretty lame sense of humor, and that is the base of Hearts Beat Loud’s approach. (Side note: Haley seems to have inadvertently created a personification of what The Guardian called ‘The New Boring‘ – referring to perfectly harmless tunes and ‘beige pop’ tendencies that has taken over the music scene of the last few years – this is essentially the movie version.)

To be fair, there are moments that are compelling through and through. Offerman is on top form during the scene where he realizes the band has gone viral, the true comedic highlight of the film. The final performance has energy and style to spare. And yes, the central question of how Sam and Frank are going to handle their potential for transcendent music-making is quite interesting. (Although, it is a little insulting from time to time that the film seems to suggest Sam is considering not going to the medical school she has dreamed of since childhood to pursue playing indie pop with her dad instead … an infuriatingly stupid plot point that, if the film had ended a certain way, would have lowered this even farther in my regard.)

Overall, this is a forgettable film with some pleasant performances and a truly nice heart, for better or worse.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Hearts Beat Loud at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Humor Me” (28 June ’18)

Image courtesy of LA Film Festival

“Explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A warning to all who see this film: you will be telling and re-telling all the giddily awful jokes and one-liners within it to yourself and whoever will listen for days to come. Sam Hoffman’s Humor Me is a mixed bag of thin plotting, some uneven performances, and a few touching moments, but its elaborate jests are a laudable standout. As a relatively well-crafted, harmless dramedy, it satisfies.

The film stars New Zealand comedy goldmine Jemaine Clement as Nate, a self-doubting playwright, who hits rock bottom all at once and must move in to a retirement home community with his father Bob, played by the legendary Elliott Gould. Lowbrow yet brilliant jokes are Bob’s stock and trade, and Hoffman must be commended for the reverent way he realizes the elaborate scenarios the setups describe. Humor Me opens in striking monochrome, with vintage music and sound, all amusingly presented as if it is meant for a different film entirely, until Gould’s voiceover begins and it becomes clear this is all leading towards an elaborate punchline. These visuals return every time a particularly long-winded joke is delivered, and the effect is far and away the most memorable and creative aspect Humor Me has to offer. Not to imply that the film is otherwise dithering, far from it, yet nothing quite fits together as well as these scenes.

Clement is a pleasant lead, albeit with a slightly strangled delivery here and there, which can be forgiven as his American accent is not his natural lilt. Gould is certainly a standout for his layered portrayal of the aging jokester, especially in later scenes of conflict; two quite moving examples can be found in moments where Nate questions how Bob has moved on after his wife’s passing, for one, and most notably when they re-watch a VHS of Nate’s first play, which includes, and indicts, an all-too-familiar joking father who seems to ignore pressing problems within his own family. In scenes like these, the film explores the relationship between fatherhood, responsibility, and humor with grace. 

However, the weaker sides of the film are unfortunately hard to overlook. While the monochrome joke-telling segments are delightful, most of the rest of the comedic lines are just not all that funny. To paraphrase an ‘SNL’ (NBC’s Saturday Night Live) zinger, the lines are funny, but not “ha-ha” funny. The whole script is reminiscent of the kind of neurotic-chic off-Broadway play that Nate himself works on within the film, yet it is unclear whether Hoffman finds this style laughable or laudable. The title of Nate’s first play, A Crack In the Clouds, and the way he speaks about theatre in general, are so pretentious that one would think Hoffman is making a joke about derivative, self-important writing, yet the film itself has lines and scenarios just as irritatingly overwrought as the plays he seems to be mocking. One montage in particular, set to the song “Be Ok” by Ingrid Michaelson (who plays supporting love interest Allison fairly well) is just so twee I thought I would implode. Michaelson’s character, and the character of Nate’s ex-wife (played by Maria Dizzia), are also low points in the script; with the exception of some very amusing old ladies, most of the female characters are complete afterthoughts or stereotypes, particularly the ‘heartless ex-wife’ schtick, personified in a character so unbelievably cold and uncaring that one might reasonably think Hoffman has a serious hang-up about ex-wives. 

Hoffman, previous to his filmmaking career, was well-known as the creator of popular podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes, which is everything it says on the tin. It comes as no surprise then that this, his feature debut, is basically Old Jews Telling Jokes: The Movie, but if that sounds up your street, then by all means give the overall pleasant Humor Me a go. 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 28 June)

Go to Humor Me at the EIFF

EIFF: “The Gospel According to André” (27 June ’18)

Gospel according to andre

“A captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I don’t think biographical documentaries get any more delightful than this. The latest unsung cultural icon to get the documentary treatment is gentle giant and “Black superhero” André Leon Talley, a true larger-than-life figure. Director Kate Novack has wisely just let Talley’s remarkable story tell itself, through a combination of interviews with the man, his friends, and his colleagues, and a period of simply following him around his daily life over 2016 and 2017. Along the way, The Gospel According to André reveals a captivating, unique form of ‘The American Dream’ that is both inspiring and honest, and not afraid to examine the darker, crueler sides of fame, success, fashion, and race. 

Talley is known the world over as a fashion writer with a flamboyant pen and a deeply knowledgable eye. He rose high in the ranks of Vogue magazine, at one point leading its Paris edition, and has in many ways come to represent the diverse possibilities of the fashion world. Talley is a tall, wide Black man from Durham, North Carolina, raised in a conservative household by his loving but stern grandmother. From an early age he was fascinated by accounts of the fashion world, such as John Fairchild’s novel The Fashionable Savages, and of course, the covers and contents of Vogue and its ilk. From there, his story just grows more and more awe-inspiring, as he climbed higher and higher in the fashion industry through his unique eye and captivating personality. Editor-and-chief of Vogue at the time, Diana Vreeland, took one look at the way he had assembled a vintage Hollywood costume for an exhibition and selected him to be her right-hand-man on the spot. He worked with Warhol at Interview Magazine, he befriended Karl Lagerfeld and just about every other designer and model since the early 70s with ease and charm. The film captures all this miraculous story with clever montages of clips, magazine pages, archival footage, and, best of all, long stretches where the film just lets the inimitable Talley talk. 

 

And talk he does. This may go down as one of the best individual-focused documentaries where the individual in focus tells their own story. Unlike the recent head-in-hands bore that was Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Novack’s film does not resort to hagiographic worship of the protagonist as if the viewers are automatically joining in from the off, but instead convinces you, remarkably quickly, that Talley is a figure worth exploring, understanding, and uplifting. The murderer’s row of stylish interviewees seem to agree: everyone from Anna Wintour to Marc Jacobs to Tom Ford to Fran Lebowitz to Whoopi Goldberg has something lovely to say about Mr. Talley, both about his work and his character – and his importance. These interviews and Novack’s framing, in a way that reminded me subtly of Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles, turns the spotlight on the societal implications of the subject’s life and work, and leans heavily into Talley’s groundbreaking achievement as a large, verbose, delightfully charming Black man who became widely beloved and respected by the usually homogeneous, cold fashion world. Though brief, the film’s revisiting of Talley’s progressive work within the pages of Vogue is utterly fascinating — I instantly made a note to look up his “Scarlett in the Hood” series from the 1990s, starring Naomi Campbell as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, which is brilliant and brave in multiple ways. 

The film achieves real gravity at times, in between the celebrations. Aside from the (slightly extraneous) discussions of the 2016 election, as Novack happened to be filming during the lead-up to it and its aftermath, many of the serious aspects are deeply, movingly personal. Talley has moments of great reflection and sombre reckonings with treatment he suffered in his life, from outright racism lobbed at him from ‘dear friends’ in the fashion world, to the overarching question of whether he was so successful simply because of his talent, or possibly because he was considered an ‘exotic’ ornament to keep around for amusement. Talley himself suggests this and more heartbreaking ideas that he has had to grapple with over the course of this remarkable journey, and he deserves immense credit for his honesty and heart.

It is clear that the filmmakers, the assembled guests, his legions of fans, and the majority of the fashion world absolutely love Mr. Talley, and by the end of this film, I expect you will too. See this film as soon as possible. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 27 June)

Go to The Gospel According to Andre at the EIFF