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LETTERBOXD LITTER: Endgame / Border / Moonlight


Marvel is pretty savvy to keep making movies as gigantic as this, because they sort of defy criticism. With so much going on in its 3 hours, movies like Endgame are almost statistically guaranteed to contain something that will please everyone, and are therefore reliably insured against anyone hating them. But are they great? And, in particular, is Endgame really the superhero apotheosis we’ve all been waiting for?

Well, probably, but I’ve decided I’m the wrong person to ask. The more of these sorts of movies I watch, the more I feel like I’m incapable of fully engaging with them on their own terms. I just can’t stop asking myself dumb questions throughout like “wait wtf, can Iron Man just instantly materialize any weapon he needs, is that part of the deal?” or “ok but actually wouldn’t Ant-Man be squashing tons of his comrades just stomping around like that when he’s the size of a skyscraper?”

Again, these are dumb questions. Real MCU fans are able to just accept these and other absurdities as part of the territory. I say that without a trace of sarcasm: I love horror films myself, which means I’m able to accept the often-idiotic behavior of their protagonists without batting an eye. But for some reason, man — I just can’t seem to get over the fact that Black Widow should be super duper dead after getting thrown around like that, I don’t care how much of a ninja she is. And so on.

Did I enjoy Endgame? Yes, quite a bit. Did I cry? Very nearly. Did I freak out like everyone else when Cap did that one thing? Not really. But I think that’s ok, and I’m glad that so many other people got such a big kick out of it. 3.5/5

BORDER, 2018

Border had me on its side before I even saw it, because it’s a movie that has the balls to actually be about ugly people. As in literally, physically ugly people. It’s not about people who are narratively supposed to be “ugly” but are in fact still cute and relatably quirky; nor does it present ugliness as a sideshow curiosity without actually engaging its humanity. This is what turned off a lot of people to this film, and I think this is its greatest virtue.

That “one scene,” for example, is so distasteful to so many viewers because it flies in the face of what we expect from a sex scene. Regardless of their narrative or dramatic significance, sex scenes give audiences a vicarious erotic thrill four times out of five because, four times out of five, they involve people who are by at least some measure attractive. To have a sex scene utterly devoid of that feature feels wrong.

But ultimately I think it’s better this way, because then it is purely about the connection between the two characters. Being a devout Catholic, I of course have other qualms about sexual ethics that come into play here — both about the acts themselves, and about how they’re portrayed onscreen. But that almost goes without saying; and in the meantime, if we have to have sex scenes in films, I’d honestly prefer they be more like “that one scene” in Border.

And that one subplot involving some really depraved criminal activity is so distasteful to so many viewers because it disturbingly implicates a character that we’ve come to sympathize with. No matter how woke we are, we really don’t like to find ourselves sympathizing with a villain; especially this kind of villain, who crosses one of the few moral boundaries that pretty much everyone still holds sacred. A line from another dark postmodern fairy tale comes to mind here: “there are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we just pretend they don’t exist.”

Ok, I’m not saying this particular character’s actions aren’t unambiguously reprehensible. They are. But unfortunately for us, that doesn’t mean that our total emotional reaction to him/her is one of repugnance. Border is very clever, and very wise, in getting us to sympathize with this character before making its horrific revelations, and so we have to face the reality that people who do horrible things are still people… sometimes even people we like.

I don’t think this movie is just a fable about marginalized populations, although that’s definitely part of it. More broadly, it’s a movie about human ugliness — physical, psychological and moral — and it forces us to face both the reality of that ugliness and also the possibility of redemption within it. A tough pill to swallow. 3.5/5


Thank you, Netflix, for enabling me to finally see this movie.

As I was nearing the end of Moonlight and reflecting on what I’d seen so far, I was tempted to consider it kind of boring. Lovely throughout, yes, and very impactful at moments (definitely rewatched the part with the chair like four times), but I tend to get squirrely with meandering dramas. Their lack of clear narrative structure makes me suspect that they don’t actually know what they’re doing, and are trying to conceal that fact with hushed dialogue and painterly compositions.

I was wrong to jump to that conclusion, though. In the last ten minutes, everything suddenly snapped together, which isn’t to say that the denouement just managed a lucky eleventh-hour save. Rather, as sometimes happens in life (imagine that), the later events gave retroactive clarity and context to what had come before. What had previously appeared a bit aimless became, suddenly and simply, true.

Among other things, this makes me appreciate the unorthodox story structure a lot more. We’re accustomed to stories that proceed on an… exponential curve, I guess (??), where events gradually snowball and then peak with the third act’s climax. Moonlight, though, is built around more of a bell curve, if that makes any sense. The first/third acts are slow and contemplative, while the second is shorter and much more intense. The “climax,” such as it is, happens near the middle of the film.

Since each act corresponds to a different period in the protagonist’s life, this ends up mimicking the general structure of, well… life. We suffer subtle (or not-so-subtle) but debilitating wounds as children, which tend to be viciously reinforced in adolescence, and then we spend adulthood drifting through the fallout. It’s a long, slow process…but if we’re lucky, the persistent soreness we experience as adults will be punctuated by moments of unexpected healing, which is what Moonlight offers in lieu of a traditional climax. It wasn’t necessarily the ending I wanted — but I realized, after the fact, that it was the ending I really needed. 4/5

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