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LETTERBOXD LITTER: The Farewell / Taxi Driver / Cloverfield


I had an unusually powerful dream the night after watching The Farewell. Details are fuzzy now, but it had something to do with being back in my parents’ house, and finding myself tasked with emptying the place of all their (and the rest of my family’s) stuff. For some reason I was on my own, and quite distraught, as I tried to organize boxes and furniture pieces and shovel them all into the back of Dad’s truck.

I had to be fast, because there was also the ticking clock of mysterious new tenants arriving at the house at any moment. But that wasn’t really what had me upset. This wasn’t a stress dream; it felt more like a “grief dream,” I guess. The grief of losing a piece of the place you came from.

The Farewell didn’t blow me away as much as all the hype had me expecting. It was sweet, funny, genuine, and wonderfully acted, but not the most engaging thing I’ve ever seen. I felt a little guilty for walking out of the theater and not finding myself more moved.

But something about its portrayal of family, heritage and grief must have struck me in a profound way. As much as I love movies, they don’t seem to affect my dreams that much; yet this one did. I think that says something, though I’m not sure exactly what. 3/5


I’ve been putting off writing about this film because a) I’m not sure what to say about it, and b) I don’t want to look stupid as a result. As a sort of poster child for the American New Wave, Taxi Driver is grimy, coarse, emotionally distant and kind of boring. I’m realizing that a common theme in my taste is a dislike for directors who favor objectivity and hold their characters at arm’s length.

Not that there’s anything wrong with objectivity as such, but it’s easy for films that favor it to feel like they’re talking down to their audience, like they’re trying to make you feel stupid for wanting emotional investment. Travis Bickle feels a bit more like a math problem than a human, and while I know such people exist and have met some of them, personally I’m interested in understanding them better, not just watching them as a curiosity.

Taxi Driver doesn’t seem particularly interested in understanding its protagonist. It’s more interested in evoking a potent atmosphere of philosophical and moral malaise, and — perhaps — exposing the hypocrisy of those who purport to stand against such things.

It’s beautifully staged and shot, and young DeNiro is unnerving. But his character is just kind of a dick, and the movie spends its two hours just telling you that he’s kind of a dick, without offering much insight into the how or why or consequences of his dickness.

Not that I was necessarily promised anything more. But as far as dark New Wave character studies go, I much prefer Raging Bull. 2.5/5


A studio production marrying the big-budget monster movie to a scrappy found footage aesthetic sounds a bit delusional on paper. And yes, there are times when you’re distinctly aware of the fact that found footage should never look or sound this good. There’s also plenty of moments that illustrate the inherent weakness of found footage movies in terms of believability — “just put down the camera and run you dumbass!” But overall, Cloverfield works really well, at least if you can roll with the overall genre.

The incorporation of visual and creature effects into a found footage conceit is great. I’ve seen this movie a number of times and the monster always holds up. Its bizarre shape has a really gripping and eerie effect in the setting; a mass of limbs bending in and out of the canyons of Manhattan, never really letting you get the full scope of the thing. You just know that it’s huge and strange and terrifying.

On that note, I also love how the film fully commits to its characters’ utterly bewildered perspective. We never get to see inside some war room where the President and his generals deliver exposition about the monster’s origin, nature and weaknesses. Rather, we spend the whole time locked in on a handful of normal civilians who are at the mercy of something incomprehensible. All we know is what they see, and what happens to them; even the film’s enigmatic title reinforces this.

This is especially refreshing to revisit now that we’re in an era of ever-expanding cinematic universes, where every spare cranny of world-building and characterization has to be fleshed out in sequels and spinoffs. Because if the studio doesn’t do it, the fans will wiki it to death themselves.

And Cloverfield probably has been wiki-ed to death too; idk, I haven’t really looked. But the icing on the cake is that this franchise, such as it is, refused to pander to this impulse. Sure, we got sequels (one great, the other awful), but neither really elaborated on or clarified the original film, choosing instead to branch out in entirely new directions. Which allows its audience the pleasure of a mystery, of imagining the possible connections themselves. 4/5

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