Most dedicated film lovers are familiar with the elegiac â50s family dramas of YasujirĂŽ Ozu, classics like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). Much as they are cherished and respected, even his most fervent admirers have admitted the sameness of these films, in which a constantly smiling Setsuko Hara beams from her tatami mat and says, âLife is certainly disappointing!â After her pronouncement, Ozu cuts to a boat chugging along a river; he then cuts back to Hara, who has a measured shot/reverse shot conversation with one of her parents. Mom or Dad smiles finally, then reflects, âMy dreams of youth are gone!â Then Ozu cuts to laundry flapping in the breeze against a mackerel sky, etc. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Ozu prefers to suffer and understand rather than to fight and enjoy. His Zen resignation is like a drug to some, but it must be said that Ozuâs basic attitude can seem complacent, even maddening, especially to American viewers whose birthright has always been the urge to tell someone off, make a change, start again. Of course, this âanything is possibleâ point of view has led to a lot of pain for most of our ambitious American strivers, so a pinch or more of Ozuâs philosophy can be beneficial to us.
Ozu made a lot of films in the â30s, many of which are silent, some of which are lost, and these early films are seldom screened, so the new Eclipse series release, âSilent OzuâThree Family Comediesâ, is valuable in that it lets us see the genesis of his refined late style. The initial movie in the set, Tokyo Chorus (1931) has been identified by some writers as Ozuâs first really mature work, and it does have a cohesiveness that some of his other â30s films lack. Chorus opens with a bunch of schoolboys being drilled in marching formation; one of the boys is rebellious, sticking his tongue out at the headmaster and making a face at him. This boy is also dreamy and contemplative: we see him sitting and staring at trees shivering in the wind, an image that haunts the rest of the movie. Then thereâs a jump ahead in time, and the boy (Tokihiko Okada) is now an office drone with a wife and two small children. Okadaâs daughter is played by a seven-year old Hideko Takamine, who grew up into a major actress for Mikio Naruse and other Japanese directors in the fifties. Takamine is instantly recognizable here; itâs startling to see her famously pinched, wary face on top of a little girl body. And sheâs already a nag: âDaddyâs a liar!â baby Takamine whines, at one point.
Thereâs an earthy, even scatological humor in Tokyo Chorus that Ozu would gradually pare away from his films, by and large, but his sense of resignation was present from the beginning. As Okada sits in a park, at loose ends and out of a job, a friend tells him that a bear has escaped from a nearby zoo. Okada smiles at his excited pal and says, âA bear getting out isnât going to change our lives.â This âwhat will be will beâ vibe is fine for some situations, but Ozu always takes it too far. After all, the bear might be right behind Okada and ready to eat him; the least he could do would be to get up and leave the area, but no, it doesnât matter, he says, for nothing matters to him at this moment. At its worst, Ozuâs seemingly serene acceptance of life is actually close to do-nothing, harmful nihilism. Still, itâs hard to argue with the long scene where the desolate family tries to forget their problems with an extended game of patty cake; we can actually see Ozuâs anxious cheerfulness visibly burning away his charactersâ worries. In the end, though, Ozu asks us to weep for his hero, forced to take a demeaning job with his old schoolmaster. Naruse also knew that his people had to make sacrifices to go on, but Iâll take the grown-up Takamineâs wry, almost humorous confrontation with her hated job at the end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) over Ozuâs more adolescent and not at all funny look at defeat in Tokyo Chorus.
I Was Born, ButâŠ (1932) is Ozuâs best-known early film, and it fully deserves its reputation. We watch two young boys doing ordinary things like cutting school and playing with other kids for a while before the real subject of the movie rears its ugly head. About an hour in, the boys sit and watch their wage slave father, Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), make the same dumb faces and gestures over and over again, in movies that are being projected for some of his co-workers. Watching the co-workersâ reactions, Yoshiiâs sons understand instinctively that their father is a figure of fun to the other adults. To a kid, especially a boy, thereâs nothing worse than a realization like that, and their violent reaction at home later on is both grueling and fair. âYou tell us to become somebody, but youâre nobody!â one of them shouts at Yoshii. Their father doesnât defend himself, and their mother is an even weaker presence. âI give up,â says Yoshii, grabbing a bottle of liquor, as many Ozu men will do in later films. This scene of fatherly self-deprecation is unthinkable in an American movie, and it says a lot about Ozuâs essential despair, just as the final, small act of kindness on the part of one of the boysâ friends, which ends the film, says a lot about his appreciation of lifeâs small mercies.
The third film in the set, Passing Fancy (1933), is nowhere near as good as the first two movies. It really wants to be a talkie; there are too many titles for all the conversation scenes, and the setpiece sequence, a confrontation between a boy and his drunken, good-for-nothing father, suffers in comparison with the tougher, similar scene in I Was Born, ButâŠ; what was true and moving in that film seems maudlin here. Passing Fancy ends with the contemplation of some trees, bringing us full circle back to the daydreaming image at the beginning of Tokyo Chorus. This was a director who stressed such continuity: Ozuâs technical skills are already impressive in these three early films, and his way of looking at life and people is as firm at age thirty as it would be at age fifty. Let us enjoy and even learn from Ozu, but letâs not accept all of his ideas about human forbearance without a dash or two of our own American âget up and go,â seasoned heavily with Naruseâs hardboiled black humor.
Image/Sound/Extras: Tokyo Chorus is the most visually innovative of the films, so itâs unfortunate that the image is so badly damaged; the entire movie is fighting against a veil of print decay. Donald Sosinâs piano score for Chorus is upbeat and sprightly even when things look bleakest for the characters, which works well at first, but begins to seem strange as the film goes on. I Was Born, ButâŠ and Passing Fancy look fine, and Sosinâs scores for both are excellent. No extras, since this is an Eclipse no-frills release.
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This yearâs selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isnât seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, itâs a vital supplement to itâa program that compresses many of the festival seasonâs essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Storyâs The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of âorganized spontaneity,â per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York Cityâs five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the countryâs most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their streetâs rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term âracismâ as âresentmentâ in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnsonâs Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someoneâs thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subjectâs response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film thatâs constantly âthinking,â and that thought isnât fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isnât setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsaâs Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk Peopleâs Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesnât so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, theyâre portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the filmâs bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, weâre repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scĂšne, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbassâs most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsaâs camera circles the action, the hecklerâs phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the manâs suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsaâs preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isnât intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognarâs American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue thatâs equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers donât appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognarâs documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attentionâa woman living in her relativeâs basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-workerâoften get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on Chinaâs pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the countryâs shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the filmâs occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isnât an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nearsâfluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosityâgives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If itâs any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but itâs a testament to the Maryland Film Festivalâs outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this yearâs selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8â12.
Downton Abbey Trailer Sees the Crawley Clan Prepping for a Royal Arrival
Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithinâs Day already? No, it ainât, dear. âTis Downtown Abbey Day.
Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithinâs Day already? No, it ainât, dear. âTis Downton Abbey Dayâthat is, the release of the official trailer for the Downton Abbey movie. Itâs been some three years since weâve gotten to sip tea with the Crawley clan and hang out downstairs with the servants making sure that the biscuits are placed just right on the proper fine bone china tea set. And from the looks of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, it would appear that nothing has changed at Downton Abbey since the seriesâs finale.
In the tradition of Mad Menâs episode-ending ânext week on AMCâs Mad Menâ teasers, itâs just a series of snappy snippets that suggest weâre in for more of the same, from Maggie Smithâs Dowager Countess of Grantham snarking up a storm to Robert James-Collierâs Thomas Barrow getting his gay on. And we are here for it. The cherry on top? The king and queen are coming to Downton! And as everything must be in tip-top shape for their arrival, the Crawleyâs must enlist the help of the one and only Charles Carson (Jim Carter), who is treated here with the reverence of a god, or a superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Downton Abbey is directed by Michael Engler and written by Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. And in addition to the aforementioned actors, the film stars Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, David Haig, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lesley Nicol, Kate Phillips, Imelda Staunton, and Penelope Wilton.
Watch the official trailer below:
Focus Features will release Downton Abbey on September 20.
Cannes Review: A Hidden Life Lyrically Attests to a Manâs Quest for Moral Purity
Terrence Malickâs film means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current.3
With A Hidden Life, the Christian God that Terrence Malick has ordained as omnipotent in so many of his films seems, for the first time, on the verge of defeat. To Malick, the hate and devastation of the Third Reich during World War II brought not only death to the mortal body, but threatened annihilating the moral soul. No less than this weighs on Franz JĂ€gerstĂ€tter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.
Malick makes Diehlâs conscientious objector the human center of A Hidden Life, and the bearer of its two colossal forms of internal torment: a waning fealty to country and the loss of faith in God. Franzâs path from forceful rejection of his nationâs shifting values to his questioning of the church isnât only A Hidden Lifeâs most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malickâs signature thematic fixations.
Franzâs crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register thatâs of a piece with Malickâs prior work. This is evident right away in the filmâs first section, set mostly in Radegund, a small Austrian village surrounded by rolling hills and flowing streams, and throughout which the camera lingers on scythes gliding through cornfields, braying farm animals, afternoon strolls down rough-trod dirt pathways, and silken blankets of fog over acres of forest.
The imagery is predictably gorgeous, but these sequences donât offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malickâs films often do. The Tree of Life spirits us through the birth of a family, its children coming of age, and a world-altering tragedy, all in its first moments. In A Hidden Life, we see, via flashback, how Franz met his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), with usual Malickian hushed and reverent narration accompanying the scene of the coupleâs first encounter and instant infatuation. Malick then launches into a string of scenes that show Franz and Franzi in the throes of domestic bliss, but the sweeping romance of these moments grows repetitive, and for maybe the first time, the directorâs form verges on the monotonous.
Malickâs working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach thatâs yielded profound rewards, as most of the films are set in contemporary times and depict a fast-paced world lacking in human contact. However, A Hidden Life, being Malickâs first historical epic in over a decade, could have greatly benefited from the longer gestation period that a film like The New World was allowed.
A Hidden Life eventually moves past its unhurried opening, as Franz is thrust from his home in the foothills of Radegund, first to a German military base after heâs drafted, and later to Berlin, where heâs imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film heâs made, which is one change that does at least open A Hidden Life up to some unexpectedly impactful dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the need to attend to matters of plot distracts Malick from summoning the sort of grace notes that typically accumulate with such phenomenal ease across his films.
A Hidden Life is a deeply interiorized movieâa war film about the battle between one manâs mind, heart, and soulâthat also functions on a more macro level. At various points, Malick cuts from the personal narrative to black-and-white archival footage, which features Berlin during the war, steam-powered trains, and Hitler in a promo reel playing with a child. Franz himself also facilitates broader implications about the world around him, and its inability to comprehend the damage caused by unmitigated hate and intolerance, through the reverberating effects of his oppression: As society ostracizes him, the intensity of his moral convictionâthe refusal to comply with the Germanâs Oath of the Leaderâis projected outward, imprinted on spaces he occupies, and on the people whom he influences.
Malick stresses this idea at various points in A Hidden Life, especially in a scene thatâs bound to cause controversy: Bruno Ganz, as a high-ranking Nazi officer, conducts a one-on-one meeting with the condemned Franz, trying to understand why he believes his cause is a just one. While thereâs nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reichâan earnest extension of Malickâs boundless commitment to humanismâthe scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.
The filmâs strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malickâs most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. Itâs also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franzâs struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germanyâs conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if heâs put to death. Malick renders Franzâs final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imageryâsuch as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyondâcarries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.
The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: âWe thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.â If Malickâs art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, itâs that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmakerâs work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isnât as sturdy as it used to be. But Malick still dares to push his moral inquiry further than he ever has before. A Hidden Life means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current. Itâs a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malickâs baseline faith in humanity becomes uncomfortable when it resonates on the faces of soldiers throughout a Nazi war camp. But Malick owns that hire-wire risk, and when his filmmaking matches that level of commitment, as it often does here, he reaps the reward.
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin NeuhaÌuser, Ulrich Matthes Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 174 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure
As a musical, Dexter Fletcherâs film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.2.5
Dexter Fletcherâs Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton Johnâs life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comebackâwith his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.
To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that weâre familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesnât abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonistâs family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Eltonâs most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the charactersâ submerged feelings (âI Want Loveâ), transition between Eltonâs childhood and adulthood (âSaturday Nightâs Alright for Fightingâ), link the performative decadence of mid-â70s glam rock to that of mid-â70s sex (âBennie and the Jets,â somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (âCrocodile Rockâ). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, weâre not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.
In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that heâs almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennonâimprovising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.
Rocketman makes clear that Reggieâs adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as heâll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, âKill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.â The irony of Johnâs public imageâthe mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performancesâis expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. Itâs a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.
At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. Thereâs an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duoâs âYour Songâ may have been an outgrowth of this tensionâor, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Eltonâs ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Eltonâs life. (The film concludes in the â80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)
Fletcherâs film is less squeamish about Eltonâs love lifeâincluding sexâthan a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years agoâor, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesnât fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.
There isnât much to Bernie and Eltonâs creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Eltonâs music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which âCrocodile Rockâ makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.
Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the filmâs embrace of Eltonâs loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scĂšne that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isnât Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, âYou write songs millions of people love, and thatâs whatâs important.â Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows
Pedro AlmodĂłvarâs latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.2.5
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro AlmodĂłvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while AlmodĂłvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteurâs part that he hasnât made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.
Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that weâve come to expect from an AlmodĂłvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvadorâs anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. Itâs a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: Thereâs Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and thereâs Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (PenĂ©lope Cruz), until heâs finally sent off to a seminary.
Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if AlmodĂłvar hadnât already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film directorâs relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boyâs life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Gloryâs intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to AlmodĂłvarâs longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, AlmodĂłvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.
Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, AlmodĂłvarâs formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. AlmodĂłvar wouldnât be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and thereâs a sense that Pain and Gloryâs artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvadorâs hard-scrabble early yearsâwhich includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrantsâfeel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.
Still, AlmodĂłvarâs singular use of color as a barometer of charactersâ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. Thereâs also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his characterâs almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an AlmodĂłvar film in some time.
Itâs another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasnât seen since the â80s, that finds AlmodĂłvar delivering on the heightened promise of the filmâs title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvadorâs play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love thatâs fundamental to AlmodĂłvarâs best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federicoâs reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvadorâs apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that theyâll never see each other again.
Salvador and Federicoâs meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much theyâve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior AlmodĂłvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklaterâs Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkinsâs Moonlight, even âLooking for the Future,â the finest episode of Andrew Haighâs Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much AlmodĂłvarâs formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, PenĂ©lope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, CĂ©sar Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro AlmodĂłvar Screenwriter: Pedro AlmodĂłvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study
Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.2
Bruno Dumontâs Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Yearsâ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.
Dumontâs follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the âadultâ years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while itâs almost as surprising as its predecessor, itâs considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and itâs one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joanâs trial, during which sheâs lectured and beratedâlike the child that she physically isâby misogynistic, condescending âgraduates of theology.â
Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the filmâs proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songsâsung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wiseâs Augustin Charnetâthat play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhummeâs armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the âvoicesâ that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.
At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joanâs lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The filmâs first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles PĂ©guyâs play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joanâs trial and punishment, is based on another PĂ©guy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.
Itâs in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authorityâeach drolly introduced in a kind of roll callâgather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.
The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of OrlĂ©ans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. Itâs a pity, then, that Dumontâs film doesnât really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythosâapart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmakerâs effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bressonâs The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyerâs The Passion of Joan of Arcâwhich is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.
Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmakingâthe aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the filmâs composer, French popstar Christopheâand attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bressonâs Mouchette) that concludes 2010âs Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer filmâfor which Bresson infamously voiced his distasteâis rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joanâs fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.
Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isnât nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joanâthe process of her victimizationâisnât as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumontâs similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc canât even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanetteâall of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumontâs influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.
Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-FranĂ§ois Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialismâs Legacy
Bertrand Bonelloâs quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.3.5
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonelloâs Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the directorâs prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee MĂ©lissa (Wislanda Louimat)âclassmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon BonaparteâBonelloâs interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between MĂ©lissa and Fannyâs perspectives in the filmâs present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.
Not unlike Bonelloâs House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. MĂ©lissaâs aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a âmambo,â or voodoo priestess, and sheâs the only surviving member of MĂ©lissaâs family in the wake of Haitiâs 2010 earthquake. MĂ©lissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates MĂ©lissaâs initiation into her tight-knit âliterary sorority.â But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: MĂ©lissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when sheâd rather be listening to music sung in her native CrĂ©ole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into MĂ©lissaâs past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.
The other half of the filmâs time-jumping narrative concerns Fannyâs grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually âzombifiedâ state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and MĂ©lissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.
Clairviusâs death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white menâat least not that weâre made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, thatâs a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of âzombificationâ during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.
Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that MĂ©lissa and Fannyâs relationship seems to be building toward, as heâs interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fannyâs refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of MĂ©lissaâs ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the otherâan undead history rising up to claim a living one. MĂ©lissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, MĂ©lissa delivers an aural history on the subjectâa kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.
The filmâs off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, MĂ©lissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonelloâs fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the filmâs most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneurâs I Walked with a Zombieâas is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palmaâs Carrie.
The filmâs most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonelloâs artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this createsâthrough discursive editing and match cutsâleads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonelloâs idea of there being one historical continuity.
Cast: AdilĂ© David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon FranĂ§ois, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia BentaĂŻeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe
The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.2.5
Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naĂŻve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht thatâs big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, heâs oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.
Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantinoâs self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the familyâs digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesnât exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppiesâplayful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.
Diamantinoâs carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the coreâso much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, heâs too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The filmâs manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantinoâs daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when itâs blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his countryâs spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the familyâs living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.
This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrityâs political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness thatâs disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the filmâs freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantinoâs proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the playerâs innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkleâa lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)âto the filmâs already dense array of plots and themes.
Aisha and Luciaâs presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the filmâs hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aishaâs infiltration of Diamantinoâs home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantinoâs interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his characterâs over-eager treatment of âRahim,â serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the manâs emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Luciaâs petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.
That Diamantino and Aishaâs relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in âPexitâ commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figureâs Islamophobia, though itâs also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.
Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the worldâs best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because itâs impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the worldâs best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. Itâs rich, relevant material for satire, so itâs a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantinoâs relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.
Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness
The film is content to peddle the naĂŻve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.2
The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jonesâs The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isnât meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, heâs posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed canât really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.
Youâd be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannonâs Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nicholsâs film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Edâs protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.
Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Edâs boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that heâs found a kindred spirit, one whoâs equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, thereâs a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnieâs deep, dark secret: that sheâs a hoarder.
Itâs a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnieâs burgeoning love affair and Ronnieâs clumsy efforts at tempering Edâs cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actorsâ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.
But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jonesâs indifference to the more disturbing elements of his charactersâ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that âsometimes people need to be who they are even if they donât want to be who they are.â Itâs a sentiment of acceptance thatâs hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And thatâs because Jones is content to peddle the naĂŻve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.
Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Cannes Review: The Dead Donât Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations
In Jim Jarmuschâs film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.2
Jim Jarmuschâs strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmakerâs latest, The Dead Donât Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.
Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesnât have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. Itâs not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesnât seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.
Or maybe he just doesnât care. Thereâs much evidence here to suggest that Jarmuschâs prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the filmâs zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romeroâs Dawn of the Dead isnât so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message heâs imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.
The Dead Donât Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliffâs air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliffâs sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.
The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh facesâall populating a mosaic of small-town life thatâs pervaded by ethereal dreadâJarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Donât Die and David Lynchâs series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakersâ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.
To that end, The Dead Donât Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the filmâs philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The songâs ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.
That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverenceâeven as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a dinerâbefore gradually succumbing to its anger. That isnât inherently bad, of course, but the filmâs dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Donât Die manages to be when itâs simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.
Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, ChloĂ« Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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