Recommend movies for us to watch using this form, which is also embedded at the bottom of our article.
Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“Groundhog Day” (Released in 1993; watched by us on April 8, 2020)
A fantasy comedy film by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin. We watched it on Netflix!
Heavy spoilers ahead!
I might argue, dear reader, that out of all the movies we have seen in our marathon, “Groundhog Day” is the most influential.
Well alright, I imagine more official film buffs (cough, Nitish) have plenty of evidence to dispute my claims, but this movie is at least iconic. It practically invented one of my favorite storytelling tropes in all of fiction. Nearly every fantasy television show has, at some point, an episode in which our heroes are stuck in some sort of time loop, from pop-culture goliaths like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Doctor Who” to, of all things, the Dungeons & Dragons podcast “Adventure Zone.” Even “Phineas and Ferb” threw their hat in the ring … or perhaps, it is more accurate to say they shoved said hat into the groundhog hole.
These stock premises are generally referred to as “that ‘Groundhog Day’ episode” — even when said episode is otherwise totally distinct from the movie in question. I, for one, love them.
However, unlike protagonist Phil Conners, I do not have infinite time at my fingertips, therefore I never before got around to actually watching “Groundhog Day.” But now I understand full well why the concept took off. “Groundhog Day” is the perfect example of a movie that knows and loves its premise. It does the seemingly impossible job of making the most out of a good idea.
“Groundhog Day” follows an obnoxious and ego-centric weatherman who is coerced by his producer into covering Groundhog Day festivities in the small town of Punxsutawney. He spends one day there, only he wakes up the next to find that Feb. 2 has repeated itself. And he is the only one who realizes this. We follow Phil Conners as he is stuck in the same town, experiencing the same events, for what feels like years.
Nearly everything about this movie is in service of the premise. “Groundhog Day” dedicates itself to both the roses and the thorns of experiencing the same events over and over, exhausting its many applications. Phil, being an extreme personality, is the perfect protagonist to allow for creative, over-the-top and varied scenarios, leaving seemingly no stone unturned by the movie’s end. This is all in conjunction with his character arc.
Phil, before his development, uses the time loop for purely selfish means … one-night stands, punching people out, committing felonies. However, the movie forces him to become a better person in order to find any sense of fulfillment. By the end of the film, Phil saves people, learns new skills and dedicates himself to improving the lives of the town’s residents — or at the very least, he will treat them to a swanky party. Our protagonist undergoes such an extreme transformation, but it is entirely believable because we feel the length of the journey. Like Phil, we leave the movie knowing this small town inside and out.
“Groundhog Day” is delightfully extreme, as well as funny. But I was especially surprised by its solemn moments. Ramis and Rubin do not shy away from the darker implications of Phil’s situation, and in hindsight, the movie would have felt incomplete otherwise. The most obvious instance is Phil, having delved into a depressive rut, attempting to die by suicide day after day to try and break away from the loop. While it is initially played for dark laughs (and the image of Phil driving off a cliff with the famous groundhog is indeed wacky) the montage gets progressively darker and more subdued, to the point where it really isn’t funny anymore. And still, Phil wakes up, being denied even death. This feels more like the stuff of Greek tragedy than a Bill Murray comedy. However, the scene that most lingers to me is Phil’s attempts toward the end of the movie to save the life of an old homeless man. No matter how many times he tries, the man is fated to die. It is simply his time. Even with the powers of a god, there are things Phil can’t do.
Living constantly in a world without change and consequence might seem cool on the surface, but it is also horrific. Eggers’s “The VVitch” should take notes. While “Groundhog Day” is still very much a comedy, it delves deep into even the ugly sides of its premise, and that is something I greatly admire from a narrative standpoint. Better yet, the movie does not entrap itself in darkness and nihilism. When denied meaning, Phil makes his own, and these trials all feed into making him a better person. His character journey and the supernatural elements of the plot feed into each other equally. This is all just such tight writing!
“Groundhog Day” benefits from an ingenious premise, but it avoids relying solely on it; instead, it uses good storytelling to make its premise even better. And clearly, looking at many similar stories, I am not the only one who thought so. I definitely recommend checking it out.
And hey, this could be a good boost of motivation for quarantine too. I mean, we are all stuck in the same setting, and while the clock might be ticking it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Maybe we, too, can make something out of this experience!
I’m hardly a film buff (cough, Mark), but I think that “Groundhog Day” is an iconic, wonderful film. I don’t have a lot of thoughts on the regular stuff–acting, direction, score, etc. “Groundhog Day,” in terms of these standard metrics, is nothing remarkable. So instead, I think I’ll wax philosophical for a moment.
In Book II of the Republic, Glaucon argues that our notions of justice are fundamentally self-interested. He does this by bringing up the example of Ring of Gyges — basically, it grants the wearer invisibility. Gyges then uses his newfound invisibility to commit a variety of evil acts. He seduces the queen, kills the king, etc., and he escapes consequence from all his actions using his ring.
The Ring of Gyges shows that when I don’t have to worry that Mark will punch me in the face if I shamelessly crib his writing, then I’ll plagiarize away. Our highfalutin concepts of justice and morality are just dress codes in the era of Zoom; if no one can see my pants, why wear any?
This is the predicament that Bill Murray’s Phil finds himself in in “Groundhog Day.” He is put in a situation where there are no consequences to his actions. Depending on which consequentialist you ask, it’s either a hellscape or paradise — actions have pretty much no ethical cost. He can commit felonies, stalk his coworker to try and convince her to sleep with him, pretty much whatever he wants.
But Phil soon finds himself listless and depressed. Nothing is bringing him satisfaction. He continues to try and cheat and steal his way to happiness, but nothing works. His disinterest in life soon turns into a detest for it, and he tries, repeatedly, to commit suicide. I echo Mark’s sentiment that this movie is unexpectedly dark. The standard consequentialist pleasure-pain matrix is thrown out the window. What now?
The answer is deceptively simple: virtue. Happiness isn’t the result of eating too many calories, or sleeping around or anything like that. Following Aristotle, Happiness is living in accordance with perfect virtue. And Phil tries his best to get there. He gets kinder, he shows empathy to everyone he meets. He helps people, even when it’s thankless. He reads poetry, he does ice sculptures, he learns how to play the piano. From a consequentialist perspective, Phil still isn’t getting anything good done. The whole day resets, the people who he helped fall right back into the same predicaments they did the day before. The tire is still flat; the man still chokes. But “Groundhog Day” understands what Glaucon didn’t. Things are good not if they give pleasure or remove pain but if they are innately good, in that they make you a better person. And if they are good, true happiness will follow. In a meaningful sense, Phil isn’t saving the boy from falling out of the tree. But there is still a good internal to the practice of catching him anyway.
In that vein, I didn’t particularly like the ending of “Groundhog Day.” If the idea is that doing the right thing and helping others is what can bring lasting happiness, then I think it would have been far more powerful if Phil simply persisted in his loop until infinity, doing the right thing over and over again. The ending, where Phil breaks out of the loop, makes Phil’s revelation seem a bit instrumental, as if the consequences of his good deeds justified them, when the good deeds should have justified themselves. As a result, I think the movie gives us a bit of a philosophically mixed message, but I think it’s not mixed enough to distract from the core moral argument.
Nevertheless, I think that “Groundhog Day” uses a clever premise to reveal something pretty important about the human condition. It can be a bit trite at times, but I still quite enjoyed it.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Released in 2019; watched by us on April 10, 2020)
A French historical drama by Céline Sciamma. We watched it on Hulu!
Ah, will you look at that — our first reader recommendation. And you have great taste, dear readers.
This is the kind of movie that makes me feel like a more sophisticated person. Indeed, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a very fancy movie. It is an 18th century French period piece about a forbidden love, and its title is quite long. Can you not see a movie like that playing in an opera house? I realize that does not make much sense but bear with me.
“Portrait” follows Marianne, a painter commissioned to paint the portrait of bride-to-be Héloïse. Her subject has a reputation of being uncooperative to all previous painters, as she never wanted to be wed in the first place. The two women eventually warm up to each other and bond, beginning a secret, spicy but temporary love affair.
From the outside, the movie feels like a followup of classic romantic literature, where such an affair is typically painted with rosy strokes, and the whims of the human heart are ultimately celebrated. This is the kind of stuff that drove authors like Gustave Flaubert insane. I’ve read my fair share of deconstructions of the romance genre — this stuff gets freakin’ wild. Flaubert, for instance, was angry enough to have his main couple make love during a manure festival. The romance era of storytelling was eventually left behind, dismissed as shallow and perhaps a bit annoying, and if you’re one of those people who complain about there being “too many superhero movies” you probably get why.
I feel as though “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a love letter to this abandoned movement. Though in other ways, it is just as much of a disillusioned take on the romance genre as the works of Flaubert. But, those are two opposites — which is it?
Somehow, this movie manages to be both.
That is what I find so fascinating about this story. The movie does not dismiss the delightful sweets and spices of the main romance — great care is placed into making the audience believe these two belong with one another. Even though the relationship does not even kick off until two-thirds into the movie, I was made aware of the source of this romantic tension. While I could practically hear Kenny G’s “Songbird” throughout a good chunk of the movie, “Portrait” does more than that, distinguishing the two’s interests and histories. The start of their relationship feels inevitable but so does its end.
The fleeting nature of the present moment drives our protagonist near mad, and it ends, of course, in heartbreaking tears. But, even in finality this story brings out hope. Though fate has pushed them apart, there are lingerings of their love in many different ways, following our protagonist about. She does not find these signs haunting, however; they are beautiful. Because they, for one grand summer, existed. Nay, they thrived. It is a level of optimism that nearly seems above the likes of Flaubert (though I still love “Madame Bovary” greatly).
Similarly, I believe “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will follow me too. While I didn’t think much of the movie at first, I could not stop thinking about it, and the message — the surgical balance between romanticism and reality it manages to strike — began to stand out. This story grew on me, and I believe it could do the same for you this quarantine season.
Our first reader recommendation comes by way of Elizabeth Swanson, and jeez, I am grateful. “Portrait of Lady on Fire” is a French movie directed by Céline Sciamma about a young painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, who is charged to paint a portrait of Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse as a sort of advertisement for a potential husband. Feelings between the artist and the subject soon develop, and we are held in rapture as we watch a fleeting romance develop and fade like a campfire in a downpour. This is an incredible film, and it might just be my favorite movie of this little project. It features strong writing, outstanding performances from the leads, and direction that will be studied in film schools for years to come.
“Portrait” is anchored by a powerfully written romance between Héloïse and Marianne. Each character is painstakingly constructed. Marianne is travelled and cultured, and has a love for art. She loves books, the orchestra and her painting. Héloïse was instead fed on a sparse diet of hymns and nunnery as her mother attempted to rear her into the ideal bride for a suitor in Milan. But gradually, with Marianne’s assistance, Héloïse manages to break out of her shell. Their friendship is first forged over a book, then a piano piece. Their romance is totally convincing. Even the stale tropes of other romance movies, like the ‘you bite your lip when you frown and that I have noticed this means that I love you,’ feel fresh here. The relationship is doomed to be fleeting, and there’s a clock in the background that’s constantly ticking away. “Portrait” has so many wonderfully written moments that I couldn’t paint a full picture (god, I’m funny) even if I was willing to give away spoilers. You will certainly walk away moved. But pay close attention, and you will walk away astonished at the careful construction of the plot.
This excellent script is brought to life by incredible performances by the two leads, Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant. Héloïse’s excitement at a few bars on a piano is wonderfully pure and it draws the viewer in instantly. The anguish on Marianne’s face as she says her goodbye to Héloïse is palpable, and you’ll feel it in your throat. The final shot of the film is commanded by Adèle Haenel in one of the best performances that I’ve seen on screen in quite a long time. The script is good enough that it would have made an engaging sock puppet show, but it is turned into a resounding artistic achievement by Haenel and Merlant.
The true star of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is director Céline Sciamma’s eye. This is, nominally, a movie about portraiture — the word ‘portrait’ is even in the name of the movie. In that spirit, so many of Sciamma’s shots double as portraits, elegant and simple in composition, executed with the meticulousness of a Renaissance master. Backgrounds are sparse and keep the focus on one or two characters that Sciamma has chosen to highlight for a moment. This allows the actors to shine, but it also has the effect of creating one of the most visually distinctive movies that I’ve ever seen. This movie is breathtakingly beautiful. I’m writing this review two or three weeks after I saw the movie but if I close my eyes I can still see Héloïse’s dress catch on fire as she stares at the camera, see her give an anguished goodbye to Marianne.
One of portraiture’s best features is its strange capacity to capture the internal lives of the characters. Sciamma uses her approach in “Portrait” to explicate the internal lives of women who were cloistered and controlled in her chosen time period. There’s a side plot about a young maid who has to get an abortion. It’s difficult for me to go into detail without just showing you a bunch of frames from the movie, but it is directed really, really well. Sciamma treats her subjects with dark colors, a beautiful score and an empathy that’s difficult to describe as the product of filmmaking techniques.
Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is simply one of the greatest pieces of art I have ever seen. I can’t recommend it enough. Watch it!
“Atlantics” (Released in 2019; watched by us on April 13, 2020)
An internationally co-produced supernatural romance by Mati Diop. We watched it on Netflix!
The bonfire is ready, dear reader. So prepare your blankets, your s’mores, and your bear spray as we gather around the fire pit and talk about ghost stories.
Hm … I fear I made this sound way more interesting than it actually ended up being. “Atlantics” follows a forbidden couple (this seems to be a theme this week), construction worker Souleiman and Ada, the latter being betrothed already to a wealthy man, so it goes. However, Souleiman’s construction team has not been paid in months, so the workers hop on board to Spain in search of a better future. The ship capsizes — as ships tend to do in movies like these — and later, strange occurrences begin to pop up. A mysterious illness spreads among the residents, and by night, the spirits of the deceased workers possess them in order to demand their unpaid money. Souleiman, however, only wants to be united with Ada.
It is an engaging premise, resembling something like a modern fable or an industrial ghost story — this is a combination of words and genres that I love to see, and want to see more stories do. Yet, there are issues in presentation that keep me from truly embracing “Atlantics.”
I will be blunt: I cannot stand how this movie was paced. Each shot appears to linger a bit too long, each scene appears to be a bit too lengthy, and unlike in “The Lobster” (our first film in this lengthy quarantine marathon) where the slow pace adds to the uncomfortable environment inherent to its world, it does not work here. I had to take breaks watching this movie, even though it is only about a hundred minutes in length. Though ultimately, this movie could have finished in half that time.
I realize this is a fairly petty complaint, but it is a gripe I take seriously. There is nothing inherently wrong with a film taking its time, or even being slowly paced so long as there is a purpose to it. In “The Lobster,” it was to play up that weird, high-school prom sexual tension that makes its world so nightmarish. In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” it was to build up to our main couple falling in love, and to let the present moment sink in before it inevitably ends. In “Atlantics,” I can only imagine it is to build up tension, but these long shots happen too often and too sporadically for me to take any meaning or feeling from it. I grew numb to these extra minutes, and ended up just counting down impatiently.
This makes me sad, dear reader. This would normally be the kind of movie I would look forward to just by the premise alone. And note too that my complaints have little to do with the narrative itself — it is simply the accumulation of little decisions that I do not agree with. Then again, that is what makes filmmaking so hard to begin with — it is precisely these little decisions that can make or break an experience. And there is a little hope to be gleaned from this.
I intend on keeping an eye out for the future works of Mati Diop. While the slow pacing of “Atlantics” kept me from enjoying this particular film, this does not necessarily detract from the creativity and voice infused into it. That had to come from somewhere. And, perhaps in her next work, these little decisions might so happen to line up to my particular — and I should stress, personal — sensibilities. If Bong Joon Ho went from “Snowpiercer” to “Parasite,” I would be a fool to dismiss this possibility.
Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” is a potent tale of inequality, gender, sexuality, migration, religion and identity. But “Atlantics” is also a challenging and at times frustrating movie. The pacing is slow and the movie feels lopsided, and the plot is not always focused.
I sat down to type this review, sort of hoping that my thoughts on “Atlantics” would clarify as I got closer to my deadline. But I’m now quite a bit behind my deadline, and I’m not any closer to a snappy one-liner to summarize my thoughts on this movie.
I’ll start off with the good stuff. This movie provides a detailed slice of life in Dakar, showing us the travails of migrant laborers, inequality, and corruption. We open to a group of workers clamoring for months of lost wages. We soon find out that they have decided to make the daring passage to Spain on the treacherous Atlantic. Later, we find out that they died en route. This movie also shows us the interweaving traps that society has imposed on women through the lens of our protagonist, Mame Sane’s Ada. Her love for one of the departed workers, Ibrahima Traoré’s Soulemani, is smothered by her obligations to chastity and to her soon-to-be husband. Some of Ada’s friends are judgemental of her love for Soulemani, others are judgemental of her inability to forget it in light of her husband’s lavish riches. I counted one that was truly sympathetic. When Ada’s father finds out about her forbidden dalliance, he mandates a virginity test.
There’s so much here. I think one of the most powerful features of filmmaking is that it’s able to inspire in people an empathy for others, to help forge an understanding between people who have never met. Charlemagne said that having a second language is like having a second soul; I’d say the same about a diverse Netflix queue. The struggles that Ada and Soulemani face are real, and so many suffer like them out of view of the Western public. One of Mati Diop’s greatest achievements in “Atlantics” is showing the struggles of people on another continent than us, helping us understand. This is precisely the kind of story that we need more of in Hollywood. Art can be a powerful tool to give a greater platform to those whose voices are drowned out by the cacophony of the modern media, and “Atlantics” is a shining example of this. It is impossible to walk away from “Atlantics” without feeling an empathy for Ada. I’m an IR student, and I read enough news to be familiar with the fact that these struggles are real. But “Atlantics” made them feel realer than a bunch of BBC articles could. Art and fiction can sometimes be realer than the news.
But I think to a certain degree, I echo Mark’s sentiments. This movie felt slow. That seems like a pretty lame critique after everything that I’ve said about it so far. But I felt that the pacing was off, and while I paid close attention, it wasn’t as engaging as I would have liked. Even as I write it, this criticism feels hollow in light of, frankly, the public service that Diop’s work provides. But I think that the pacing of “Atlantics” makes it harder to enjoy, and it probably would be more successful at doing the things that it is trying to do if it were better paced.
I’ve described Tarantino movies as all style, no substance. This movie, although competently directed, well scored, and well-acted feels like the opposite: substance without style. When I write that, it feels super wrong too. This movie has a great soundtrack, and there are tons of shots that are just beautiful. One that stood out to me was the juxtaposition between the tower that the workers were building and the small shack that they returned to. But for how deep it feels, for how glad I am that I watched “Atlantics,” for how grateful I am to everyone involved in the film for making it — it doesn’t feel like I like the movie as much as I should.
So my takeaway: This movie has some problems that may make it a little annoying to watch, but you should still watch it. You will be glad that you did.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.