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Plastic Bag (Ramin Bahrani, 2010)

There is some fantastic staging at work here.

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Plastic Bag

Ben Begins:

After all the praise I’ve lavished on Ramin Bahrani’s three feature films, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that this short is just as great. But pretend for a moment that I’d never even seen Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Or, that I didn’t know beforehand that Plastic Bag was by Bahrani. The excellence of it would have spoken to me regardless. It just so happens for me personally that I was feeling a little sad and vulnerable when I watched it, which only made me that much more receptive to the artistry of this less-than-twenty-minutes of outstanding cinema. It made me cry. Hard.

There is some fantastic staging at work here. It might look easy to move a bag around on location, but there are moments in Plastic Bag when the thing takes on an organic visual presence. It sometimes appears to travel with muscular intention and even to gesture. The romantic interaction with the other bag is airborne ballet. The theatrical level approaches that of genuine puppetry. I make note of this upfront because obviously it is the audio narrative that literally gives voice to the bag, so I mean to acknowledge the contribution of the cinematography to the entire anthropomorphic fabrication. The thing often looks alive.

That it always sounds alive is a tribute to the uniquely affecting quality of hearing Werner Herzog deliver English lines. Much has been made of him interjecting his own personality in his documentaries. Regardless of how one feels about this either way, it cannot be denied that his speaking voice is a kind of aesthetic artifact in its own right. Setting aside Herzog’s reputation as an artist and, even more, his cultural celebrity, it was a stroke of genius by Bahrani to cast him in this role. The timbre and cadences of Herzog’s speech are absolutely perfect for the forlorn pathos of the character.

And the characterization is there to perform in the first place. Plastic Bag is nothing if not a brilliant screenplay. The text achieves poetic concreteness. What might have seemed little more than a gimmick—yet another brave little toaster (hey, Plastic Bag starts off cute and funny enough)—soon takes on truly tragic proportions when we seriously contemplate what the protagonist is saying. His words make us pay attention to the setting as he is situated in it. We are made to confront the environmental crisis as it is experienced by him. Hello—we’re talking about empathetic dramatic identification with a plastic bag. A plastic bag people! Brilliantly shot, brilliantly read, brilliantly written. Yes, the music really works too. The whole tone of the piece changes when it enters.

Thematically, the level of profundity achieved by Plastic Bag is staggering. At first glance, it might seem that the personification of a lifeless object must necessarily advocate spirituality. To animate the inanimate certainly has the potential to point in this direction; and further, to give self-consciousness and voice to a thing is to positively humanize it with those attributes of cognition most commonly equated with soulfulness.

Meanwhile, the plot of Plastic Bag is all about the bag seeking the source of his origin. The bag is searching for “my Maker.” He had a personal relationship with an entity that he conceived to be God or at least a demiurge. He believes he has been forsaken. He searches for reunification. Even in the depths of his despair and doubt, he is able to overcome the worldly utopian misguidance that is the pantheistic cult of the Vortex and hold true to his journey to return to The Creator. How can this not be a religious parable?

It isn’t because Plastic Bag makes it plain that the bag is operating according to bogus mythology. He holds that life was breathed into him when he was separated from the bunch at the grocery till, but this was actually not his birth. The individual who activated him and subsequently engaged with him just enough for him to idealize his own telos did not, in fact, create him. Towards the end, when he questions if his Maker was ever real and wonders if he just dreamed her up—this is him reflecting critically on his own mythology and considering that it may very well be bogus.

At the very end, when he states that if he ever re-encounters his Maker he will proclaim that he should have been made mortal—for the audience this definitively points beyond the individual consumer who once used him for various domestic functions to his true creator, the collective social structures of industrial science and technological production that really did make him never to rot. What is more to the ecological intelligence, the bag’s desire for mortality is the highest expression of common sense, truly no nonsense materialism. Rust never sleeps but plastic doesn’t rust. Hence, the gyre now swirling in the Pacific, a mass of jelly two times the size of Texas.

The relative non-biodegradability of a plastic bag is practically—according to any time scale we can honestly fathom—an absolute indestructibility. In other words, an eternal life. Contra the entire history of metaphysical longing, in Plastic Bag it turns out that living forever is a bad thing. Eternal life is necessarily Hell for those of us who see no supernatural escape hatch from our corporeal being. The protagonist of Plastic Bag makes it to the massive mess of Jell-O in the sea, only to discover that it is not the Heaven for plastic it was made out to be by the secular priests self-crucified on the fence. Following this, he knows he should have been made not to last. He wants to die. He wants to recycle himself in the metabolism of nature.

A ghost is a disembodied spirit unable to reside in the hereafter because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth. Unable to rest in peace, the spectre haunts the living. The bag in Plastic Bag is an inverted apparition, an embodied ghost. Forever trapped in an undead body, he is a kind of zombie; except mindful, oh so mindful. All too corporeal yet cursed with immortality, the bag also cannot rest in peace. Unable to pass away on this planet, he is haunted by a memory of the living, a sole survivor because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth.

And Dan:

Plastic Bag held me rapt from its opening to its closing frame, sunrise to sunset. I have seldom been held in such thrall by a film; I have never been so moved by a film about an inanimate object. Plastic Bag is among the best short films I have ever seen. And I really enjoyed your study of the aesthetic at work—the poetry and ballet of the bag traveling through this world both ugly and beautiful—as it was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the film. Bahrani seems to have literally breathed life into this bag. It becomes he as he appears to inhale and exhale, applauding and adoring the movements of his personal god while she summons and interacts with his life, then dancing like a ballerino over what can only be the post-apocalyptic surface of the earth. Bahrani here confirms his position—well struck in his feature films, which are chock full of subtle and affecting lyrical imagery—as a master poet of the ordinary. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrows and white chickens.

Furthermore, your examination of the bag’s heart of green was something I was particularly tuned into and connected with. However, I was also drawn to this sole survivor as a lost soul. In highlighting the “ecological intelligence” of Plastic Bag, you glossed over the striving of the bag to reunite with his Maker as “bogus mythology.” But the bag’s spiritual journey touched something deep inside of me.

While I enjoy a good walk as much as the next guy, I do not climb mountains. Yet, I am riveted by stories of mountain climbers who strike me as setting out to reach a place in nature where God is somehow more obvious to them. I could not put down Jon Krakauer’s study of a famously doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air; likewise, I was completely absorbed by the troubled Andean expedition recounted in Touching the Void. Any attempt to find God in this earthly realm is compelling for me. I really dig the metaphysical poetry of John Donne because of this. The Passion of Joan of Arc is among my favorite films of all time, and not just for its formal brilliance; I am captivated by Joan’s mysterious adoration of a God who appears to have abandoned her.

Plastic Bag is tapping into this as well. I am not a religious person. Forget about a church of any kind, I do not even have a particularly spiritual bent. Nevertheless, I feel it is valid to appreciate the spiritual striving of others in broad terms of existentialism. A specific search for God is a case of the general search for The Meaning of Life, or at least a meaningful life. I relate to the bag’s spiritual journey on this basic level. He is a seeker.

In focusing on the quest of the bag to find his Maker, I feel it is valid to see this in broad existential terms because of the plainly allegorical approach taken by the film. Just as the bag searches for meaning, so too do we. At first, the bag is content, finding meaning—and even joy—in servitude to his perceived Maker. Secure in his initial religious faith, the bag is an inspired utilitarian, believing his life has meaning only if he is being slavishly useful to his Maker. This leads to the ultimate degradation of being a dog’s pooper scooper, perhaps an inevitable outcome for anyone who seeks meaning through vassalage to a lord. Once he is cast aside, abandoned to the landfill and deprived of his previous mission in life, the bag can only embark on a lifelong journey to fill his existential void.

And I do mean void. The bag is literally hollow. But of course, he is also metaphorically hollow. The bag’s hollowness is a reflection of his lost utility. The bag felt fulfilled when he was actually filled; used by his Maker to carry tennis balls, hold ice, wrap dog crap, whatever. Once he is disposed of, he finds himself fired from the job he was made for, by the very Maker that supposedly made him for it. He is able to travel the world because of this—not weighed down by her needs/uses—but rather than embracing this freedom, he feels a desperate lack of purpose. He wants to return to his Maker so he can feel useful again. So he seeks her out.

There are profound distractions along the way. In one of the film’s most visually affecting passages, he engages in a momentary flirtation with love. The brevity of the encounter suggests the impossibility of maintaining a bond with another without a bond with the Maker to sustain it. In any case, he is compelled to keep moving, continue seeking. The journey proves fruitless until he finds his way to The Vortex, symbol of shared faith. He is converted to The Vortex by other bags martyred on barbed wire, becomes a pilgrim and is baptized upon leaving the land for the ocean.

At first, he believes he has been reborn. Mixed in with all the rest of the rotating plastic, he feels that his journey is finally over, he is happy at home, swirling around in the sea—like the religious masses circling the Black Stone in Mecca—in this continent of like-minded, similarly-bodied types. But faith comes with a price. Consciousness must be left behind. These similarly-bodied types have become no-minded. Eventually, the bag leaves because, “no one thought about anything.” He must set out again independently.

The solitary nature of the bag’s quest is central to my existential reading. The bag rarely meets up with his own kind. More essential, even when he does, he is unable to establish a lasting connection. Exactly why he cannot master the wind enough to stay together with the other single bag he loves for an instant is not clear, but his passing incorporation into The Vortex leads to a loss of self he cannot abide. He leaves before becoming gelatinous himself and forever stuck in the collective glop. There may be solace in the mass of the group, but there is no enlightenment for the individual in The Vortex, so he quickly returns to his solitary position. He remains a stranger in a strange land to the extraordinarily bitter end, surrounded by Otherness he cannot transcend.

The bag remains, above all else, an intelligent, sentient being whose ongoing survival necessarily makes him curious about what it is he is surviving for. He could be any one of us. It is not enough to simply believe, he wants to understand that his life has meaning. He begins to question if his Maker exists, or if he has created her out of his own imagination. He wonders why his moments of choice have proven so rare over the course of his long life. His inspired utilitarianism has proven futile. His romantic love fleeting. His experience with alternative religion unsatisfying. And in the end, reunion with the Maker appears unattainable.

The bag reaches the point of absolutely solitary crisis. He desires his own death. This is a completely understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning, such existential torment. I cannot help but feel sad at the film’s close because the bag begs for a death he cannot have.

What Bahrani has accomplished here is no mean feat. He has personified a piece of plastic and in the process made me care deeply about an otherwise insignificant man-made object. Credit must certainly be shared with fellow writer (and newcomer) Jenni Jenkins, Bahrani’s regular cinematographer Michael Simmonds and composer Kjartan Sveinsson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but the truly vital collaboration is that with Werner Herzog. There is such a gravitas to Herzog’s voice, borne out of a life of questing and uncertainty, of searching and not finding, that I cannot imagine a better fit for the existential subject matter of this piece.

Then Ben:

Your existentialist appreciation of the bag’s changing consciousness of himself is fine by me as long as we are analytically clear that my ecological take on the film rests exclusively on the material substance of the protagonist’s body, whereas you only touch on this in the course of mostly attending to the form of his body. Everything I argue has to do with the elementary physical fact of his plasticity as it relates to his theoretical conception of himself. You are far more concerned with his bag-ness as a narrative phenomenology or lived personal experience. I acknowledge that the dramatic personification of the character through the plot fundamentally resides in his bag-ness and I am open to suggestion about how to interpret this, but not at the expense of my understanding of his understanding of his plastic materiality.

I fear you do contravene my ecological take insofar as you treat his death wish as the consequence of him reaching the point of crisis as a bag, rather than what I take it to be—the crisis itself that he undergoes as a piece of plastic. When you say his death wish is the “understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning,” I hear you saying that he cannot bear to live anymore, that he is suicidal for his own tortured sake as a bag. That’s not what I hear the character/Herzog/Bahrani saying at all. Rather than a negation of the world, I hear the piece of plastic positively embracing the world. He has figured out that it would have been better for all concerned if he had been made to biodegrade. His crisis is that he is physically incapable of acting on his will to do so.

I don’t know about him and his search for his God, but he’s certainly on to the truth of the matter. His existential suffering as a bag may take a number of twists and turns but in the end, his tragedy is as a piece of plastic and his pain in being one is profoundly practical. His growing knowledge is connected to his decreasing alienation from the material world, his increasing sense of belonging in nature. Your concern for the bag’s Otherness notwithstanding, he steadily comes to embrace the organic. Let me sketch some detail onto this contour I have just drawn.

His initial contact with life and its messy waste makes him simultaneously repulsed and envious of biological being. He is jealous of his Maker’s dog for the affection she shows to the pet and revolted by his slobber and his feces. After he escapes the landfill and travels the planet, however, he is completely past these petty, self-centered first approximations. No longer repulsed at all, he is attracted. The bag has come to be comfortable with the “monsters.” No longer envious of this or that particular biological stuff, he wishes to become that stuff in general.

Indeed, he wants to become the most general sort of that stuff, what he once picked up after the pet of his Maker so long ago. The fish nibble away little bits of him and he can only wonder what will happen to those bits, but WE know that that’s as close as he’s going to get to becoming real shit returned to the life cycle. Yes, he remains inorganic. So yes, unable to die and become compost he “remains a stranger in a strange land.” But no, not “to the extraordinarily bitter end.” The bag is not bitter. He is full of tragic passion. He has a practical desire. It’s the exact opposite goal of Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner. LESS life fucker! That is what he will demand of his Maker should he ever find her.

What you aptly called the bag’s green heart is no doubt beating loudly in your ear, but you run the risk of becoming deaf to it when you stare so long at the existential contortions of his shape. Hence, you are much bleaker about the message of the film than me. I get the impression from you that you get the impression from the film that our situation is hopeless. But I take the allegorical dimension of Plastic Bag to be more actively engaged in the material world, more critically didactic, more a challenge to invent synthetic materials that do biodegrade. I believe it is a film that any elementary school teacher could show to the class. Nay, I believe it is a film that every elementary school teacher should show to the class.

And Dan:

I am not so full of angst as it may appear. I hear what you are saying about the protagonist’s positive passion. I neglected to address that. You are too strict about only applying this to him as a piece of plastic though. You acknowledge that his bag-ness is the fictional vehicle for him being a person in the first place, but then you refuse to see how it must therefore be implicated in this passion he feels and the tragedy it entails.

It is his bag-ness that allows him to travel as he does and change his mind about the “monsters.” He acknowledges the beauty of things as he flies overhead. After he submerges himself in the sea, he feels familiarity with a jelly-fish. They look enough alike for him to experience a hint of kinship. By the last act of the film, when he has returned to the sky and is flying higher than ever, there is a wonderful moment where he is floating above the whole earth and sees that he looks just like it, then he turns to the sun and notes that he looks just like it too.

So, he certainly does come to positively recognize himself in everything, to see his body as belonging in nature. The point is that this identification he feels is all about his form as a bag. But his quest ends up proving his sense of Otherness, not eliminating it, because no matter how much the bag-like appearance of those around him resembles his bag-ness, his elemental substance—his plasticity—is still alien. In fact, he is not part of anything and nothing is part of him.

I feel for the bag—as a bag—because he wants to trade his material substance for a different material substance, transform from inorganic to organic. That transformation is allegorical for the human aspiration to seek a similar transformation at the end of life—from material mortality to spiritual immortality—which is just as hopeless a quest as the bag’s desire to die as an organic being. Is it really that much of a stretch to see human beings as plastic bags? That is, we view ourselves as separate from the world around us, and hence have a quest to escape our bodily existence (that which connects us to the world around us) by achieving non-corporeal everlasting life. And there is definite irony in the fact that we are equally doomed to frustration and failure. The bag gets what so many humans desire—immortality—while humans are doomed to mortality, because of the very organic nature that the bag can never achieve.

But even without the religious impulse, all of us experience certain expressions of alienation from existence that push us to seek transcendence in material ways that are just as hopeless a quest as what spiritualism chases. I return to the hollowness of the bag as representative of the inner vacancy experienced by modern individuals, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Just as the bag in order to feel fulfilled needs to fill up his emptiness again and again with stuff assigned to him as worthwhile by his Maker, people—falling prey to the advertisers who insist that this will make it so—fill the emotional hole inside themselves by consuming more and more stuff, thereby creating the ecological crisis that the plastic bag adds to, much to his anguish. The emptiness remains. Which pretty much boils down to him being existentially all by himself. This is much of what makes me sad. He is so very alone.

Then Ben:

I grasp that your existential reading of the film hinges on the falsity of Cartesian dualism for the plastic bag and the human being analogously. Hence, you expend considerable effort to expose the substance/form contradiction in both generally and you compare the specifics of how this plays out for each respectively. This is all very well. But the pronounced materialist interpretation I bring to Plastic Bag compels me grasp the substance/form contradiction of the plastic bag as asymmetrical. I prioritize substance over form when it comes to deciding which side of the contradiction is the essential source of the protagonist’s problem.

As far as I can see, a very similar story could be told about a plastic package or a plastic cup or a plastic bathing cap. Or the same point from the opposite direction, the story simply could not be told about a bag made of paper. You claim to feel the pain of the bag—as a bag—and no doubt you do over the course of the story. But the pain we feel at the very end of the tale—you know, when the moral of the allegory as a whole is finally delivered—this is his pain at being synthetically ripped from the womb of Mother Nature, his anguish about being born a piece of plastic. And there is not one, single, comparable moment in the film where he regrets being born a bag.

This registered, I grant that the essential manifestation of the protagonist’s problem is registered on his form as a bag, about which you have made some provocative statements. I like the general connection you are making between the bag, consumerism and ecological degradation. This is astute. For the bag is first and foremost a shopping bag. This is the activity that he was created for and this is indeed his original activation.

But then the woman moves from shopping to other domestic endeavours and in so doing re-uses the bag for all sorts of jobs. This is soundly ecological on her part and, by association, on his part too. But even if it somehow wasn’t, I cannot see any of the tasks performed by the bag as analogous with recreational shopping conducted by people out to fill their existential emptiness by consuming more and more. This is because the bag is not a consumer, recreational or otherwise. The bag is a producer, a worker.

In keeping with this, I do not view the hollowness of the bag as so much nothingness as you do, negative space that only borrows the value of the objects that fill it. I see it rather as a site of contained potential, which the bag realizes with his labor. Because he is not a closed shape but rather an open one, he has an orifice. This “mouth” is what enables him to work with his “gut” in which he holds and carries things, his particular skill.

Listen though, you can still see him as existentially burdened in accordance with this if you’d like. Instead of a recreational consumer, the bag would be a type of workaholic. You are quite disparaging about the bag’s sense of self being based on his duty to service, associating this with a vulgar instrumentalism and serf-like status. I am not so bothered about this and could just as easily find nice what you find nasty. But either way, you are right to regard the bag as having a utilitarian ego upheld by a metaphysic. No doubt, the bag has a kind of Protestant work ethic, which I referred to before as “bogus mythology” insofar as the bag labors under the misconception that his human employer is his creator. And I think it’s just great that in the end he begins to transfer his allegiance from his Maker to matter. Instead of the Lord, he wants to work for Mother Nature. His tragedy is that he can’t do it. But admittedly, up until this agonizing epiphany, he suffers from a sort of Stakhanovist productivism, underwritten by the myth of the Maker.

Dan Again:

I think you turned me into your straw man here. If you review the discussion up to this point, I am confident that you will observe that I never countered your assertion that the bag’s plasticity is the more elemental aspect of his tragic existence. Furthermore, while I find your suggestion to view the bag as a workaholic reasonable enough, I am not especially moved by it. You put too much of a happy face on the bag’s form in the first place. Even if I agree with you that he has an orifice, I do not agree with you that this “mouth” is a productive appendage as much as I see it as constantly needing to be fed. Hunger is as good a metaphor as any to describe the bag’s terrible longing.

You seem to think this hunger goes away at the end of the film because the bag is on the verge of some sort of enlightened atheist conversion. But his realism is cold comfort. And it is hardly confirmed. It remains true that the bag never feels as content as when his contents came from his Maker. You speak of his tragedy, but you refuse to extend this to include his incapability of self-fulfilment; as a bag he has the potential to be filled, but he necessarily needs to be filled from without. Yet nothing from without can fill him. All things blow out, wash away.

Despite making a mental connection with the biosphere, he recognizes that he cannot keep it inside of him and put himself inside of it; or if you prefer, he is only IN this world, not OF it. However the point is verbalized, he is existentially on the outside looking to get in, pining for a physical transformation that will take away his emptiness. A transformation that will not—hell, cannot—occur. Hence, my overwhelming feeling of great sorrow at the finish of the film is not just about him as a piece of plastic but also about him as a bag.

But Ben:

No, not a “transformation” Not a transFORMation. What he pines for in the very end is transubstantiation. Please forgive my pedantry, but my disagreement with you completely comes down to this difference between sideshow shape-shifting and miraculous substantive change. I employ this Catholic concept in order to insist on the ontological guts of the matter. At the same time, it serves to support your analogous treatment and comparison of the substance/form contradiction for the plastic bag and the Christian believer. But the price you pay for this support is the priority on substance shared by me and the church, even though the Pope and I are diametrically opposed when it comes to choosing between natural matter and divine spirit as substance.

Enough scholasticism though. Maybe you are right when you say that I put too much of a happy face around the bag’s orifice, give his life a spin too positive. But as far as I can tell, the guy gets around and it’s not all bad. That mouth of his never shuts up and the tourism its openness facilitates leads him to conclude that the world is worth saving. You are definitely right that I reckon our plastic hero is on the verge of an enlightened conversion; not necessarily atheistic but certainly secular, in the etymological root sense of the term—OF the world. Or should I just trust that you at least agree with me that he is FOR it? Jesus, he’s for it body and soul. In that order. And there’s the pathos. Personally, I’m hoping the fish eat him all up. I know it’s not the answer in the real world, but it is the happiest possible ending in the reel world.

And Finally Dan:

The bag’s movement is definitely moving, his journey is wondrous and terrible, his joy real but ephemeral. The tragedy is, the bag will have an eternity to contemplate those fleeting moments of happiness and fulfillment.

Having seen what he has done so far in his relatively young life, I find it hard to predict exactly where Ramin Bahrani is going to take us next, but one thing is certain; he is as accomplished and important a filmmaker as there is in America today. Made us talk and talk for hours and hours—that’s right ladies and gentlemen, this is the abridged version—with only 18 minutes of celluloid.

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.

1.5

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The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.

The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.

We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.

And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.

Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom

The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.

2.5

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Greed
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.

Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.

While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.

Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.

With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”

Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues

It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

2.5

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Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.

Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.

Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.

In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.

Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.

Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller

What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.

Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.

Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.

Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.

When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.

Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.

Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.

2

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.

Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)

It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.

Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.

Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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