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Sucker Punch and the Fetishized Image

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Sucker Punch and the Fetishized Image

Sucker Punch has received widespread dismissal from film critics, many of whom have used their reviews as opportunities to crack jokes about teenage boys, masturbation, or masturbating teenage boys—or to make puns about the film’s title. A.O. Scott at The New York Times slammed the film’s “pretense that this fantasia of misogyny is really a feminist fable of empowerment,” while Sady Doyle at The Atlantic declared that director “Zack Snyder’s gooey mix of fetish gear, rape fantasies, and girls-with-guns action sequences represents the nadir of a long, slow, steady decline in action films starring women.”

This critical paroxysm against Sucker Punch is quite possibly the most colossal collective misreading of satire since Paul Verhoeven was accused of being a fascist for Starship Troopers. With this film, critics are making the same mistake of confusing depiction for endorsement, but more importantly, they seem continually befuddled by Snyder’s manipulation of one of the most powerful cornerstones of mainstream cinema—the fetishized image.

Snyder has shown himself to be one of Hollywood’s most effective big-budget satirists: Dawn of the Dead (2004) updates George A. Romero’s zombified skewering of consumerism for a digitized, hyperreal era, while 300 deconstructs the tactics of propaganda and fascism so neatly that he put audiences in the uncomfortable position of having to identify with, in the words of one Internet message board post, “gleaming musclemen slaughtering their racial inferiors in glorious red, black, and white.” Snyder’s translation of the comic book Watchmen into cinematic space is built on the same lines, depicting the grotesque qualities of violence in such a stylized and artificial way that it demands to be seen as self-parody, and yet there is such great resistance to reading political critique into a film that features a costumed vigilante who guns down peace protesters in the streets, assassinates JFK, and wins the Vietnam War alongside a personification of American atomic power.

Snyder’s sources all contained the kernel of their own self-criticism, but in each case he amplified the satirical qualities of the material rather than attempt to blunt them for mass appeal. Each of these films understands the psychological power of the stylized image, but rather than Michael Bay-style cynical pandering, they give the audience what it desires while highlighting the problems of that desire. Sucker Punch is Snyder’s first original script (written with Steve Shibuya), and in examining how it operates, the most helpful comparison can be found in 300. Read straight, that propagandistic retelling of Thermopylae is highly problematic, but the film pursues strategies that fracture the narrative. It depicts events in a way that not only questions the ethics of those events, but questions the ethics of the way they are depicted and how that depiction translates into political action. (Maybe America is like Sparta; maybe it’s like Persia. The point is that the obfuscating qualities of propaganda can be deployed to support either stance.) This strategy is the same one that Snyder pursues in Sucker Punch, which takes on the complicated relationship between the audience and the cinematic image—specifically, the images of women.

The fetishized image

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch follows institutionalized mental patient Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who has five days to escape before she is lobotomized. Other patients help with her plan, and the film imagines the group on one level as victimized prostitutes in a dreamworld brothel and on a deeper level as battle-hardened commandos in a series of frenzied military action setpieces. Most criticism of the film fixates on how these women are presented in these fantasy sequences: in heels, stockings, leather, and uniforms—molded into objects of visual titillation. Some reviews dismiss this presentation as PG-13 pornographic indulgence. Others identify it as skewering the trope of the action heroine who kicks ass yet is primarily defined by her sex appeal, but the claim becomes that the critique in Sucker Punch falls apart because the film still presents the girls as sex objects. Neither stance addresses how this fetishized imagery actually operates within the narrative.

The primary tactic in Snyder’s repertoire is decontextualization—stripping an image’s connection to other images and concepts, and working purely within the realm of the surface. When his films make heavy use of slow motion (as in the opening titles of Watchmen), it flattens the characters into icons, charged with emotional power on the surface but emptied of internal complexity. A similar emptying occurs when fetishized imagery is deployed: both uniforms and eroticized costumes contain all their meaning on the surface, and these kinds of images often crop up in propaganda and pornography, which this film invokes in equal measure. As Sucker Punch strays further from the “reality” of the asylum, everything about the world becomes fetishized and iconic. The girls’ actions morph from mundane acts of subterfuge in the asylum to the sexualized abstraction of dancing in the brothel, and further still to the visceral destruction of armed combat on the battlefield. A stuffed animal becomes a war machine, and everyday objects become totems invested with the aura of life-or-death desperation.

The irony is that this oppressive deluge of iconic imagery creates a fracture in the narrative: while these epic, bombastic war scenes are seemingly charged with great significance, they have a hollow, constructed feel to them. Because they exist purely as a collection of fetishized icons, they appear to be detached and disconnected from the events happening in the film’s “reality.” At the same time, so much of the cluttered iconography in these scenes—gun battles against steam-powered zombies, the “sexy schoolgirl” cutting through armies of fantasy orcs with a katana—doesn’t feel psychologically organic to the character of Baby Doll. This appears to contradict the primary conceit that much of the film represents the workings of her imagination. However, both of these incongruities are crucial to the film’s overall strategy.

Implicating the audience

The recent spate of films which investigate dream space, such as Inception and Avatar, take great pains to build their foundations in the “real world” of their films; they use exposition and technology to explain how the consciousness of a character shifts between layers and how the events we’re seeing have consequences in the overall plot. That kind of justification is crucial to a story driven by suspense and tension, but Sucker Punch utterly rejects this, preferring to move through layers primarily by manipulating the form and style of the film. In this way, it’s more akin to Charlie Kaufman’s exploration of drama and delusion in Synecdoche, New York, but because of the fetishized content of Sucker Punch’s imagery, Snyder manages to sneak this story into the multiplex rather than the art house.

There are three layers to Sucker Punch: the asylum, where the girls are nameless and marginalized; the brothel, where the girls are on display for the entertainment of their audience; and the battlefield, where the girls are all-powerful, goal-driven warriors. For the majority of the film we’re in the second layer, where the relationship between audience and performer is most clearly defined—and this relationship is what the film wants to explore. It does so by (1) introducing breaches into the narrative on a stylistic level, (2) creating awareness of those breaches through its dialogue and plot progression, and (3) situating the entire story in a framework where the audience watching the film is implicated in the events they see unfold.

Music and dance as narrative breach

Sucker Punch

Beyond its deployment of fetishized imagery, Sucker Punch reveals its artificial narrative via other channels, such as in its soundtrack. The film mostly rejects the conventional use of music as an unobtrusive tactic to accentuate the emotional register of events. It also eschews the tactics used by musicals, in which the unrealistic performances are granted a kind of realism by pushing the plot forward and revealing the psychology of the characters. Both strategies aim to give coherence and a sense of progression to a narrative, while Sucker Punch strives for the opposite.

The film’s introduction is practically a music video to a cover of the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, and it’s almost immediately followed by a sequence backed by a cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” Not only are both songs covers (echoes of an original), but they also blatantly announce the film’s themes in a way usually reserved for the end credits. Both also feature vocals by Emily Browning, injecting the main actor’s voice into the film in a non-diagetic, immersion-breaking way. Music continually reveals the film’s constructed nature every time anachronistic cover songs and remixes blare from tape recorders and are transformed into the backing track for the next action setpiece.

The film’s use of music is intimately tied to the film’s use of dance, which is primarily notable for its invisibility. The driving force in the film’s brothel sequences is that Baby Doll’s dancing has the power to mesmerize its audience, and it’s by dancing that she and her compatriots are able to distract their captors and then steal the items they need to escape. But pointedly, no dancing is actually ever shown; every time Baby Doll begins to dance, it signals the start of an action setpiece that the film presents as symbolic of the dance. This substitution of sexuality for violence creates a massive incongruity in which we see Baby Doll sway a little to the music, then immediately jump to an entirely disconnected hyperkinetic military battle, and then just as quickly return to a stationary Baby Doll receiving applause from the brothel’s denizens. This is another fracture point where the film most transparently announces how it operates; the effect is disorienting and forces disengagement from the flow of the story while making a thematic connection between the CG pyrotechnics and the girls performing in the brothel. Drawing attention to this disconnect, fellow patient/prostitute/commando Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) comments that Baby Doll’s first dance (in place of which we watch a sequence—borrowing from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil—where she fights a trio of giant samurai) looks like meaningless “gyrating and moaning” that’s nothing but titillation.

Leveraging the cliché

Sweet Pea’s comment is just one of many examples where the film reveals its awareness of its own tactics. Another critical point of attack against Sucker Punch has been its dialogue, dismissed as hokey, clichéd and incoherent. Yet the film leverages these clichés the same way it uses its fetishized iconic imagery: like those images, clichés contain all their meaning (and thus their pleasure) on the surface, and as we progress deeper into the fantasy, those clichés become more visible. In the battlefield sequences, The General (Scott Glenn) speaks almost entirely in platitudes like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and any dialogue that doesn’t directly drive the action forward is the type of one-liner audiences have heard in countless action films before this one. Like the fetishized imagery, the dialogue is pushed to such an artificial extreme that it approaches self-parody, detached from concerns of narrative tension—just like how the battle sequences mostly dispense with the labored process that many action films go through to justify why the heroes need to slaughter their enemies, and instead relies on the audience recognizing that zombies and orcs need to be destroyed because that’s what happens in these sequences. The battlefield layer is pure decontextualization composed of setpieces extracted from other action stories and sutured into this one, worlds constructed entirely of surfaces.

This tactic extends to the brothel layer, which cycles through a pastiche of other genres, ranging from melodrama to the women-in-prison film to the war film. We jump from plot point to plot point by whipsawing through genre clichés, from maniacal brothel owner Blue (Oscar Isaac) executing two of his girls while cackling, “We hate snitches!” to Sweet Pea cradling her fallen sister/comrade Rocket (Jena Malone) as she says with her dying breath, “Tell Mom I love her.” In these scenes where the characters are fully enmeshed in their own drama, moments which should be powerful are sapped of that power by an ironic distance. These moments are clichés because they have been deployed in countless other stories which built their plots around justifying those moments—and Sucker Punch brazenly deploys them like it deploys its cover songs, removing the context and thus revealing the artificiality. On the other hand, when the film speaks with self-awareness, it speaks with clarity, as when Rocket explains the workings of the brothel to Baby Doll: “We, my dear, are the main attractions…we’ve got to make them feel special.”

The Gorski reversal

Of course, a film breaking its narrative and being self-aware about it is not automatically significant; at its worst it can lead to Meet the Spartans-level filmmaking. To understand Sucker Punch’s endgame with these tactics, we need to examine the character of Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). Gorski is significant in that she is the only character to have a real name in the asylum and brothel layers, rather than the diminutive nicknames given to the women and the generic descriptors of power given to the men—making her perhaps the closest thing to a “real” character in the story. (Blue may have a name in the brothel, but in the asylum he’s merely a nameless orderly.) Gorski’s name is repeated throughout the film and becomes central to the plot, as her forged signature authorizes Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

While for most of the characters the process of fetishization through the layers of the film amplifies existing traits (the predatory stepfather becomes a predatory priest, the women’s resistance becomes more explicit and visible), in Gorski it produces a reversal. In the asylum, Doctor Gorski is at the top of the visible hierarchy, and as soon as she discovers her authority is being subverted, she brings power to bear and punishes the offender. However, in the brothel Madam Gorski is just as victimized as the other women. She’s utterly dominated by Blue and accedes to all his demands; he tells her that she’s just as complicit in exploiting the girls, and yet Gorski is sexualized and put on display for the brothel audience as well. This reversal makes the function of the brothel layer clear: it’s the realm of artificial representation, where reality is distorted and manipulated to craft images that give pleasure to the audience.

Implicating the audience, part II

Sucker Punch

As mentioned earlier, the content of those images—fetish wardrobe, military gunporn, sci-fi and fantasy clichés—aren’t organic to Baby Doll’s character. They’re not organic to any of the film’s characters; they’re being imposed from the outside, and they’re the implied and assumed desires of the film’s target audience. When the audience in the brothel sits and watches a sexy dance, the audience in the movie theater sits and watches a frenetic, fetishized action sequence. Like the nested sets that appear on the stage of the asylum/brothel, Emily Browning is Baby Doll is Sucker Punch, working to perform for the pleasure of the audience and to mesmerize that audience with an illusion—and when that illusion breaks, it inspires alienation and even revulsion in an audience that begins to question what it sees.

It’s one of the first things that Sweet Pea announces: “Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient; that can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sake?” Because of all the stylistic and narrative roadblocks thrown up between the audience and the characters, it’s nearly impossible to identify with them as “real” people. This leaves only one significant way to identify with anything in the film: the act of watching a spectacle.

This is how Sucker Punch implicates the audience that watches it; in the film, the people who are doing the same thing that we’re doing are a parade of predatory men and powerless women. The satire resides here, in that the reviews that claim these images represent false empowerment are merely repeating what the film is already saying. We see the mechanisms of how exploitative cinema works because this film pushes forward an example where all the breaks and the seams are showing, and it ends with the belief that in the face of that kind of exploitation, the tendency is for people to lobotomize themselves, to turn off their brains and just go along for the ride. It’s a deeply tragic message driven by the knowledge of the true power of the fetishized image. Sucker Punch knows that these images, seemingly charged with significance, have the power to turn brains off—which seems to include the brains of most critics.

Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.

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Cannes Review: A Hidden Life Lyrically Attests to a Man’s Quest for Moral Purity

Terrence Malick’s film means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current.

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A Hidden Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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 Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.

Malick makes Diehl’s 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. Franz’s path from forceful rejection of his nation’s shifting values to his questioning of the church isn’t only A Hidden Life’s most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malick’s signature thematic fixations.

Franz’s crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register that’s of a piece with Malick’s prior work. This is evident right away in the film’s 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 don’t offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malick’s 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 couple’s 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 director’s form verges on the monotonous.

Malick’s working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach that’s 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 Malick’s 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 he’s drafted, and later to Berlin, where he’s imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film he’s 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 movie—a war film about the battle between one man’s mind, heart, and soul—that 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 conviction—the refusal to comply with the German’s Oath of the Leader—is 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 that’s 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 there’s nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reich—an earnest extension of Malick’s boundless commitment to humanism—the scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.

The film’s strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malick’s most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. It’s also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franz’s struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germany’s conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if he’s put to death. Malick renders Franz’s final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imagery—such as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyond—carries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.

The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: “We thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.” If Malick’s art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, it’s that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmaker’s work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isn’t 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. It’s a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malick’s 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 Neuhäuser, Ulrich Matthes Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 174 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure

As a musical, Dexter Fletcher’s film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

2.5

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s 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 comeback—with 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 we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re 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 he’s 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 Lennon—improvising 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 Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll 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, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s 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. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)

Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, 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 doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.

There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s 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, Elton’s 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 “Crocodile Rock” 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 film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène 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 isn’t 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, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” 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

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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 Almodóvar. 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 Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t 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 we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s 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 there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s 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 Glory’s 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 Almodóvar’s 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, Almodóvar 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, Almodóvar’s 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. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s 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 Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s 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 they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s 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, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s 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 Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s 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 it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s 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 “voices” 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 Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy 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.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather 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 Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s 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 Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which 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 filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and 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 Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s 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 isn’t 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 Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s 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-François 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

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s 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 Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s 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 Bonello’s 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. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s 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 “zombified” 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 Mélissa 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.

Clairvius’s 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 men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” 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 Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, 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, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s 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, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s 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 Bonello’s 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 creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve 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 that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s 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 Diamantino’s 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 family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s 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 core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s 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 family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s 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 Diamantino’s 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 player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s 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. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s 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 “Pexit” 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 figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s 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 world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s 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 world’s 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. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s 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

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s 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 can’t 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.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s 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 Ed’s 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 Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ 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 Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ 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 “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve 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

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s 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 filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t 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 doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s 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. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t 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 Cliff’s 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 Cliff’s 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 faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t 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 film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s 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 irreverence—even 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 diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s 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 Don’t Die manages to be when it’s 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, Chloë 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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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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