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Review: Cosmos

Andrzej Zulawski’s film experiment ranks somewhere between captivatingly off the wall and utterly exhausting.




Photo: Kino Lorber

Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos opens with a double dose of Dante, as young, befuddled Witold (Jonathan Genet) rushes headlong into a dark wood, reciting the opening lines from The Inferno. What follows isn’t quite a journey into hell, but a dash past the ordinary limits of human behavior that attempts to break down the logical foundations of existence, making for a madcap, erudite escapade packed with cinematic and literary quotations and references. Set primarily in a rustic country cottage, the film overflows its simple setting with a sustained eruption of actorly and directorial bombast, full of elastic facial acrobatics, furious screaming, and unchecked verbal vomit. The result at times recalls late-period Godard, only operating at double speed and with half as much consideration of its own cumulative meaning, an experiment that ranks somewhere between captivatingly off the wall and utterly exhausting.

An adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel, Cosmos retains the idea of its main character losing his mind through his attempts to account for a single irrational occurrence, which swells to overtake the entire story. In recreating this scenario, Zulawski beats a similar path from controlled exploration to outright chaos, employing a classic farce structure as the characters trade romantic partners and their destines are reshuffled, reverberating with the manic, unsettling eccentricity for which the late Polish director was known.

In many ways, however, the final product is less akin to the concentrated, circumscribed madness of Possession than the disturbing fish-out-of-water dramas of Zulawski’s countryman Jerzy Skolimowski, Deep-End and King, Queen, Knave in particular. This is especially evident in the spectacle of a lost innocent pushed into a wild world beyond his comprehension, in which his narrow and simplistic worldview is destined to be torturously expanded.

As imagined here, young Witold is a former law student now committed to a career as a novelist, and his move from the rigorous study of legal precedent to free-form fiction parallels the film’s passage from order to anarchy. The young man’s creative process generally seems to involve working up a lunatic lather: He stomps across his bedroom or around the cottage’s pastoral environs, then engages in hysterical shouting at his laptop while typing the words tumbling from his mouth. Meanwhile, the action is moved from the Polish woodlands of the novel to an off-season French resort town, an atmosphere of icy waves and foggy gloom providing a chilly tonal counterpoint to the character’s frantic, hot-blooded enthusiasm.

After finding a dead sparrow hanging from a tree, Witold begins to question what this puzzling occurrence has to do with the seemingly peaceful bed and breakfast run by Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma) and her husband, Léon (Jean-François Balmer), with the help of their two adult daughters. While investigating this mystery, Witold becomes obsessed with the married older daughter, Lena (Victória Guerra), and as the hangings continue, multiplying in size and strangeness, there are few leads as to which of these increasingly unhinged weirdoes might be the perpetrator.

This mission is really only a narrative excuse for Witold to steadily go batshit, and Cosmos enthusiastically follows suit, as the supporting characters all transform into increasingly grotesque expressions of his solipsistic headspace, a fitting choice considering the story’s adaptation from a novel by an identically named author. Crushing the cramped house and its confined seaside surroundings into a single interlinked space, Zulawski utilizes it as a performative stage for these frenzied transformations, the plot’s finely drawn social mechanics collapsing into a ragged mess.

This type of structure, in which farce is taken to its extreme endpoint, utilized as a conduit for detailing the disintegration of an initially ordered narrative arrangement, at times draws close to Raúl Ruiz’s perplexing dream worlds, though Zulawski’s shooting style is too stolid, and his approach too unrepentantly unrestrained, to match the Chilean master’s elegant surrealism. The whole thing either gives way to noisy, belabored absurdity or splays out into a beautiful spread of vibrant senselessness, depending on your tolerance for overwrought, tongue-in-cheek inquisitions into the essence of being.

Throughout all this, Cosmos remains blithe and more than a bit silly, while offering scattered commentary on Witold’s myopic fixation with illogical minutiae. The repeated appearance of battle scenes on television sets points to a world whose convulsive self-destruction contrasts grimly with the insignificant personal fugues occurring here, reflecting the transposition of the original novel’s setting from 1939 Poland to the present day.

It’s hard, however, to keep track of subtext as Witold’s insanity consumes the rest of the story. A Tolstoy quote about confusing beauty with greatness seems significant, especially if one is willing to consider the film’s strange formal wrinkles and refusal to properly play out its core mystery as purposeful defects. And imperfection is further embodied by Madame Woytis and Léon’s youngest daughter, Catherette (Clémentine Pons), who acts as the cottage’s maid—clad in full traditional attire. She bears a distinct facial deformity, resembling a garden slug, that she refuses to remedy—an obstinacy that draws in Witold’s friend, Fuchs (Johan Libéreau).

Fuchs is, admittedly, also an unapologetic hedonist with irons in several other fires, his wide-ranging obsessions offering a contrasting belief system to compete with Witold’s monomaniacal focus on Lena, his laser-focused fascination with forbidden beauty pitched against Fuchs’s riotous openness to all forms of experience. Both viewpoints appear to be presented by Zulawski as indicators of a neurotic culture on the cusp of disappearing up its own ass, and while the filmmaker goes to colorful lengths in portraying this scenario, Cosmos eventually falls victim to the same sort of navel-gazing fecklessness.

Zulawski offers some moments of inspired folly, a few instances of striking tranquility, and more than a few good ideas, but his depiction of humans undone by the inherent illogicality of existence gets caught up in that same sense of futility. The film flounders by not providing serious stakes or fully elucidating actual consequences of this type of behavior. It’s appropriate that an illustration of an irrational world would make for such a monumentally irrational work, but Cosmos never explicates its worldview in any coherent manner, ending up as an arduous example of outré gonzo weirdness.

Cast: Jonathan Genet, Johan Libéreau, Sabine Azéma, Jean-François Balmer, Andy Gillet, Victória Guerra, Clémentine Pons, Ricardo Pereira Director: Andrzej Zulawski Screenwriter: Andrzej Zulawski Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2015 Buy: Video



Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.



Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Makes the Most of Growing Up

The film is noteworthy for its rumination on the subtle costs of its characters’ newfound prosperity.




How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World
Photo: Universal Pictures

Time plays a key role in the How to Train Your Dragon films, with each successive entry following up on the characters after several years in order to trace the impact of actions they took. The third film in the series, The Hidden World, sees these characters and their island in the sky greatly transformed from their humble beginnings. Berk, once a barren village inundated with brutal dragon hunters, is now practically impregnable, a haven for the endangered dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is also now its chief, and his companion, Toothless, is the reigning alpha male of all dragons. As a result, The Hidden World doesn’t lend itself as easily to the showstopping spectacle of its predecessors, which saw Hiccup and Toothless doing battle against stronger and often bigger enemies, but it remains noteworthy for its rumination on the subtler costs of these characters’ newfound prosperity.

Early in Dean DeBlois’s film, much is made of the way that Hiccup and his friends have come to take their dragons for granted; raids to free captured dragons only succeed as a result of the enormity of the freed dragons compensating for sloppy human error. Complacency has made the film’s heroes prone to negligence, and the holes left in their security are quickly exploited by Grimmel the Grisley (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who, having almost single-handedly brought the Night Fury species to extinction, is now targeting Toothless. Not unlike that of other villains in the series, Grimmel’s motivation is simple, but he differentiates himself from, say, Drago Bludvist in his calm, eerily playful demeanor. He easily slips through Hiccup’s lax defenses, and while he could easily kill Toothless within the film’s first act, he spares the creature for the purposes of playing mind games on humans and dragons alike.

Grimmel’s psychological torment results in short bursts of guerrilla warfare, and much of the film’s action scenes tend to revolve around the heroes contending with Grimmel’s own dragons, garish creatures with retractable tusks, scorpion-like tails, and an equal ability to breathe acid and flame. Their attacks feel truly frightening, in no small part for the way the camera tumbles along with these creatures’ skittering and rapacious lunges. Seeing such vicious, disorienting fights play out amid the vividly colorful world of The Hidden World is jarring, exacerbating the sense that Grimmel has completely upended the characters’ usual understanding of conflict and badly exposed their inability to adapt to new situations.

That struggle to evolve also marks the film’s secondary conflict: the internal debate that Hiccup comes to have over his and other humans’ relationships to dragons. The film’s title refers to a mythical realm of dragons that Hiccup seeks in order to build a new, more secure Berk in perfect harmony with dragons. Gradually, however, his notion of utopia is challenged by the increasing realization that even the well-meaning, dragon-loving citizens of Berk still treat their beasts as subordinates rather than as equals. This comes to a head when Toothless, thought to be the last of his kind, comes into contact with a radiant, white-colored female Light Fury and his erstwhile devotion to Hiccup takes a back seat to his biological drive to hook up. Much of the film concerns Toothless attempting to perform courtship rituals to impress his potential mate and increasingly pulling away from his human master in order to spend time with his love interest. Scenes of Toothless clumsily performing dances and other mating rituals are humorous, but underneath his stumbles is a mildly tragic reminder of how alone he’s felt despite living among so many other kinds of dragons.

The difficulty that Hiccup has in accepting his companion’s independence exposes that, for all that the character has evolved as a leader across this series, he’s yet to fully mature. The Hidden World, not unlike Toy Story 3, is fundamentally about the act of growing up and letting go, of coming to terms with the impermanence of relationships. If the film sometimes feels too small in comparison to its predecessors, it manages to make the most of its quietest moments, acknowledging that some aspects of getting older are scary, and that accepting the sacrifices of growing up is as much an achievement as overcoming any living, breathing villain.

Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, David Tennant Director: Dean DeBlois Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child

The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.




Photo: Netflix

Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.

Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.

Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.

Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.

Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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