Coming Up In This Column: Rachel Getting Married; Body of Lies; Beverly Hills Chihuahua; How I Met Your Mother; Boston Legal; ER; Crash; Mad Men; First Middle Passage of TV Season, but first…
Fan Mail: Just a brief word on Randy’s comment about Mad Men’s “recontextualizing” of the Carousel projector. Most good shows and films do that all the time. It becomes apparent when you watch something a second time and see how well the filmmakers (yes, I would include directors here) have set elements up that pay off in later ways, such as adding to the meaning of a later scene. See below for some examples in this column’s items.
Rachel Getting Married (2008. Written by Jenny Lumet. 113 minutes): An unpleasant woman shows up for her sister’s wedding and causes all kinds of—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called Margot at the Wedding? Well, this one has more music in it. Which is not necessarily a good thing.
The good news is that Lumet has created a terrific main character, Kym, who has been let out of rehab to go to the wedding. She is played by Anne Hathaway. Yes, the cute sweety of The Princess Diaries. But there is nothing sweet about her Kym, and Hathaway tears into the part the way Halle Berry and Charlize Theron tore into their de-glamorized roles in Monster’s Ball and Monster, respectively. Maybe they should have titled this one Monster at the Wedding. What is it anyway about ugly that brings out the most ferocious sides of beautiful actresses?
The first problem with the script is that Lumet does not know what to do with Kym after she has several disruptive scenes with her family. In the second half of the film I think we are supposed to believe that she has come to terms with her family, but that is not really worked out in scenes.
The second problem is that the other characterizations in the script are variable. Rachel, the sister getting married, is strong and has several good scenes with Kym, and Paul, their father, has some nice moments. But Sidney, the groom, is a complete blank, as are his parents. O.K., the film is about Rachel and her family, but Lumet could give the others at least a line or two to define them. Look at Sabrina Dhawan’s screenplay for Monsoon Wedding as an example of how to do it. Carol, the girls’ stepmom, is a nothing part, although since she is played by the great Anna Deavere Smith you keep expecting a great scene with her. There may have been one that got cut. Abby, the girls’ birth mother, is a tricky part, since it appears she walked out on the girls and her husband, as she seems to again here at the end. But Debra Winger is playing Abby, and she has always been one of the most present actresses on film, so she is miscast as someone who keeps fading away.
Because the characterizations are not as sharp as they need to be, scenes that might work don’t. At one point Paul and Sidney get into a discussion of how to load a dishwasher and have a contest to see whose way is faster. Since Paul has not been established as competitive and Sidney has not been established at all, the scene just sits there. According to interviews with Lumet, the scene was inspired by a real life incident in which her father and a friend of his got into that discussion. You know the scene was more interesting in real life when you realize her father is director Sidney Lumet and his friend was Bob Fosse.
Because the script runs out of steam in the last third, the director Jonathan Demme has loaded up the film with a variety of musicians. Watching the last third is like going to a movie and having a concert break out. The music takes us away from the story and the characters.
As does the camerawork. Demme, to give it a “home movie”/documentary feel, has overused a handheld camera. Two problems: first, the shaky-cam look is something that direct cinema filmmakers gave up on in the late sixties. Look at Albert Maysles’s camerawork in the 1969 documentary Salesman, where you can hardly tell it is handheld. Fiction film and television makers continued to use it (Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and Homicide: Life on the Street), but it is simply annoying. They should have handed out Dramamine at screenings of Rodger Dodger in 2003. The second problem is that the shaky-cam distracts from the performances. In several shots in Rachel, I was so busy trying to find Hathaway’s face in the frame that I missed the emotion she was expressing.
Body of Lies (2008. Screenplay by William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius. 128 minutes): The C.I.A. mucking about in the Middle East, dealing with terrorist and suave local security people—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called The Kingdom? No, totally different. That was about the F.B.I. mucking about, etc. and this one is about the C.I.A..
Body of Lies starts out with a rousing scene: British police try to capture terrorists in their home, but one of the terrorists blows up himself, his family, his house, and several of the British police. Action movies these days tend to start off with BIG action sequences, and since this film is directed by Ridley Scott, who directed Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, you can bet he makes it very rousing. But then the story turns conventional: C.I.A. guy on the ground in the Middle East, Ferris, is trying to track down the biggest terrorist of them all. No, not bin Laden, but a fictional one. After all, you don’t spend several million dollars and a year or so of production on a real person who might be caught or killed while you are spending the time and money.
You can see why the C.I.A. wants to get this guy. On the basis of the first hour of the film, he is a lot more efficient than Al Qaeda has turned out to be. He pulls off as many terrorist attacks in Europe in a month than actual terrorists have pulled off in the last eight years. Since there are only a couple of minor mentions of Iraq, this may the first post-Iraq War movie. The focus is entirely on the terrorists, or at least this James Bond villain super-terrorist.
The first hour is mostly conventional stuff, with Ferris running around various countries. His boss at the C.I.A. is Ed Hoffman, whose first scene, briefing some unnamed politicians, suggests he and the film understand asymmetrical warfare: we are high tech and the terrorists are low tech, which means they can get the better of us by very simple means. The film only comes back to that in one of the best scenes in the second half: a character in the middle of the desert is kidnapped by people in four cars, who drive around him so much they create a dust cloud. Our cameras in a spy plane cannot see what happens in the dust, and the four cars drive off in different directions, leaving Hoffman and us to wonder which car the victim is in, and recontextualizing Hoffman’s first scene. If only the rest of the script was that smart and inventive.
I wrote in my last column about American Gangster, also directed by Ridley Scott, and mentioned how it spends way too much time setting up the story and not enough time developing the most interesting narrative elements. There is a similar problem here. About an hour into the picture Ferris comes up with a great idea (that would probably not work in real life, but this is the movies, so…): Set up a completely bogus terrorist ring that will bring the super-terrorist out to confront them. That is the story the picture should have been about. As it stands, it gets rushed into the third quarter of the film, and you can watch all the opportunities that story has just fly by, with Monahan not having the time to develop that story line properly.
Now what if they had told that story? It would have been a better film, but would it have made the film a commercial hit? Probably not, since there has been no indication at the box office in the last year or so that more than a small minority of the movie-going community wants to see films about the Middle East. Which is why Body of Lies, with its hotshot director and two BIG stars (Di Caprio and Crowe) was outgrossed in its first weekend by the second weekend of … Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua(2008. Screenplay by Analisa LaBianco and Jeff Bushell, story by Jeff Bushell. 91 minutes): Why do we go to see a movie?
I mentioned in US#3 that I had liked the trailers for Tropic Thunder, but then was put off by the scenes I saw on talk shows. The Beverly Hills Chihuahua trailer made it look like a silly movie, with what were probably the only good jokes in the film in the trailer. The reviews were generally awful. It was the top of the box office its first weekend, but that can be accounted for by people simply wanting to get away from all the bad financial news and the never-ending presidential campaign. But then it topped its second weekend. OK, the financial news was still bad, and the campaign was still never-ending, although they are rumors the latter will stop soon. Sometimes I’ll see a movie I hadn’t planned to because it turns out to be a big hit, but I was not yet convinced by this one. Then Drew Barrymore, who voices the title character, Chloe, showed up on Leno with a clip. It was not just jokes, but the movie seem to have developed … characters.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a silly movie. But it is not a stupid silly movie. It’s a smart silly movie. The characters, yes, even, or especially, the dogs are well drawn. Chloe is the pampered pet of cosmetics tycoon Vivian, who leaves her in the care of her scatterbrained niece Rachel, who manages to lose her on a trip to Mexico. Chloe is established as spoiled, but early on in the Mexico section he watches part of a Day of the Dead celebration and likes it. Well, yes, it would appeal to her love of the gaudy, but it also suggests she may be more open to another culture than her human owners. One problem with American indie films like Rachel Getting Married is that the characters are hermetically sealed in their own little universe and never get out of it. And when they do, as in Body of Lies, they screw up. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a little cheerier than that.
Chloe is rescued by Delgado, another dog. He is Charlie Alnutt to her Rose Sayer. He is an ex-police dog with a secret and a very gruff manner. LaBianco and Bushell have written some good reactions for him, and good scenes with Chloe. One sharp scene, in a train yard, riffs on Brief Encounter, The Defiant Ones, and In the Line of Fire in the course of about a minute without being obvious about it. Delgado is such a strong character that an unspoken triangle develops between him, Chloe, and Papi, the dog belonging to Vivian’s landscaper who ends up in Mexico hunting for Chloe with Rachel. Papi is feisty and smart-mouthed, getting one of the best lines in the picture. When the Mexican police are reluctant to swing into action, he says, “We are Mexicans, not Mexican’ts.”
One complaint critics had was that the film was demeaning to Mexico and Mexicans. It isn’t. The film loves Mexico and Mexican culture. The Mexicans, both human and canine, are no sillier than the gringos, both human and canine, and some of them, like Delgado and Monte, are smarter. Monte is the chief of a Wild Bunch of Chihuahuas who rescue Chloe and Delgado, and instill pride in Chloe for being a Chihuahua. That sounds funny, and it is, because the word “Chihuahua” is essentially funny, but the scene is also touching. Having Plácido Domingo doing the voice helps. I will not tell you, by the way, who does the voice of Delgado. You could look it up, but see the film without knowing and see if you can guess. Amazing what an actor can do if he does not have to be seen.
OK, I will admit this is not a great movie, but it is a much better one than other critics have told you. It is yet another example, along with Chaplin and Eastwood where the public was way ahead of the critics.
How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episode “Intervention” written by Stephen Lloyd. 30 minutes): Every good show eventually has an episode everyone connected with it would just like to forget. This will be one of those.
Lily and Marshall are moving out of the apartment they share with Ted, who is also moving out. He is going to Jersey to live with Stella, who does not appear in this episode at all. The gang begins to have memories of interventions they have had for each other: an alcoholic friend, Lily’s fake English accent, Robin’s bad tan. None of these connect, nor are particularly funny in themselves. The discussion leads to the discovery that the gang had planned an intervention with Ted about his marrying Stella, but decided not to do it. His persuades them to have the intervention now. See the problem the showrunners have by jumping ahead at the beginning of the season? We are seeing something semi-re-created that we should have seen “live” when the idea came to the gang. Ted and Marshall decide to stay in the apartment, which makes sense only in keeping the cast in enough proximity they can continue to interact. Robin decides not to move to Japan. Then they all go to their bar and decide to go. Not exactly firm decision makers, are they? But they decide to meet back at the bar a year later. We jump ahead a year and they are back at the bar, but say they are going back up to their apartment. That’s a lot of dancing around just to keep everything the same.
And there is still no additional development of the Barney-loves-Robin storyline.
Boston Legal (2008. Episode “True Love” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): Remember Phoebe from two weeks ago? The lawyer Alan Shore was once truly in love with? You don’t think a smart writer like David E. Kelley would let her get away, do you? She’s ba-a-a-ck.
She shows up in the middle of an Alan-Denny sleepover with the distressing news that her husband, “the best cardiologist in Boston,” as she tells Alan several times, has been arrested for murder. He agrees to take the case, although Denny, in one his more lucid moments, tells him to get out of it. Denny says that if he loses the case, he will embarrass himself in front of the woman he loves. If he wins, he will lose Phoebe. Alan continues on the case, of course. Phoebe tells Alan he still loves her, and that she loves him, but she is staying with her husband no matter the outcome.
In Act III (of the five acts Kelley uses; see what I told in US#6 about dividing up stories into however many acts you want?), Alan tells Phoebe he will not call her husband to the stand, since he is so cold and unsympathetic. He will call Phoebe, and he hopes that she will be more convincing to the jury than she is to him. What Kelley does is make us uncertain about Phoebe, but also about Alan, given Denny’s warning. Phoebe seems cold, but not as much as her husband. We don’t know what her motives are. All of this gives Ally Walker, who plays Phoebe, a lot to work with, which she does beautifully.
In Act IV, Phoebe tells the jury that her husband did leave the house the night of the murder, which she had been denying. She later tells Alan she was afraid of perjury. Is she lying? On the stand? To Alan? Alan talks to the husband, and then attacks Phoebe on the stand, asking her if she had had treatment for mental illness and had pulled a knife on her daughter. She denies this, but Alan plants the seed that she might have committed the murder.
Act V: the verdict is Not Guilty. Phoebe shows up in Alan’s office and admits she planned the defense, especially after he told her she was not convincing. She told her husband to tell Alan the “bad” things about her. The husband cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy, and there is no physical evidence linking her to the murder. She denied on the stand all the charges Alan made, which Alan presented in court, so she is technically not guilty of perjury. She and her husband get away free, and Alan is devastated, which we have not often seen in this show. In their final patio scene Denny tells Alan he knew she was guilty all along, but did not tell Alan. He had to find it out for himself.
This is not a typical Boston Legal episode. None of the law firm’s other characters show up, and we are focused only the one case. This gives Kelley and his cast a chance to get into the main characters with more depth than usual, as well as giving us a femme fatale in the great film noir tradition. Because of the time spent with her, we get the plot twists and turns as part of her character. And because she means so much to Alan, we get greater insight into him. By the end we actually feel sorry for him, not something that usually occurs on this show.
ER (2008. Episode “The Book of Abby” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): How do you send off Abby Lockhart?
She has been a character on ER for ten years. She has gone from being a nurse to a doctor, had relapses as an alcoholic, dealt with a totally wacko mother, got pregnant and married, had marital difficulties, and who remembers what else? So you want to do right by her, and by Maura Tierney, the actress playing her. But this is the final season and there are going to be a lot of good-byes (they killed Pratt a few weeks before, and as I have said, nobody is safe).
The solution Zabel, who has been writing on the show since 2001, finds is to make it a typical day at County for her. We see her first in her apartment, which has been cleaned out, then coming to work, going to the locker with her nametag on it, and dealing immediately with a gunshot victim. She tells Neela that she does not want a big goodbye party, and Zabel manages to avoid one. Abby has to deal with the new Dr. Banfield, but even that is low key, although you could make the scene in which Banfield assumes Abby is new on the job into something bigger. It is more in keeping with the tone of the episode not to make it bigger.
Abby does take time to go up to surgery to watch Neela operate on the gunshot victim, and she comments on the new furniture in the observation room, a nice counterpoint to the drama. Abby goes with Sam to a hearing in which Sam may be disciplined. Abby tells off the administrators in a very conventional “on the nose” speech that tells us and them everything we already know about the ER and the people who work there. But her exit line, as she leaves the meeting, is great. She turns at the door and says, “Don’t make me come back here.”
Zabel has found another nice moment closer to the end. Abby takes the nametag over her locker and is about to leave with it when nurse Haleh says she cannot take it with her. Haleh then reveals a wall where the nametags of former doctors and nurses have been placed. We recognize many of the names. Nice detail. Nice finish for Abby and Tierney.
Crash (2008. “Episode One” written by Glenn Mazzara and Ted Mann & Randy Huggins. 52 minutes): And yes, it is based on or inspired by the 2005 film Crash, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco, story by Paul Haggis, but they somehow leave that out of the credits. One can see why.
Crash was one of the worst screenplays ever to win an Academy Award. Its view of race in Los Angeles was incredibly simplistic: everybody in LA is racist and all it takes to erupt in racist behavior is a slight shove. The view of race was that of the white, liberal, Westide of LA, NYMBY (Not in my back yard) crowd: there is a lot of racism out there and I am not guilty of it, but I may be and I certainly don’t want any of those Terminally Swarthy (in Joe Morgenstern’s great phrase) people coming to my neighborhood and robbing and killing me, raping my wife, forcing my kids to listen to rap and eat tacos and lowering property values.
Race in LA is a lot more complex and nuanced than the movie Crash captured. There are people who are obsessed with race, people who don’t think about it at all (and not just white people in this category), and people who think about it on certain occasions, just to name the major categories. Sometimes race is very much part of the public discussion (the first O.J. Simpson trial), sometimes not (the Lakers). Sometimes it is just an undercurrent, without rising to the level of public discussion. Race in LA is not as often seen in terms of the emotional violence as the movie Crash shows.
The focus of the television series has been shifted away from race as an issue, which is all to the good. The cast, at least as of the pilot, is multi-racial, although so far none of the recurring characters are Latino, which right away makes it unreal. What takes the place of race is a more general form of anger. Everybody ends up yelling at everybody else. Which is not LA. We tend to be very laid back, polite, and pleasant. Before we stick the knife in your back.
Obviously what the series needs is the sociological sophistication of Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
Mad Men (2008. Episode “The Mountain King” written by Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith. 60 minutes): As I have mentioned before, one of the recurring themes in this series is the relationships between men and women, and Weiner and Veith pull off a beaut in this episode. Through a flashback, we find that Don has been approached by the widow of the “real” Don Draper. So we assume there will be legal and emotional complications. Guess again. She is the person he went to see after he skipped out on the convention in Los Angeles, and she lives in San Pedro, one of working class areas of the Los Angeles area. What we see is that our Don and Anna developed a relationship over the years. But not a romantic relationship. She is almost like a big sister to him, and freely gave him a “divorce” so that as Don Draper he can marry Betty. He is more open with Anna than he is with anybody else on the show. We learn a lot about Don (and her) in a series of beautifully written flashbacks. Perhaps what has been bothering Don the first two seasons, especially in his relationship with Betty, is that he does not have the warm relationship with anybody else that he has had with Anna.
The First Middle Passage of the 2008-2009 Television Season: Last season’s cliffhangers have been dealt with and shows are now being prepared for their November sweeps episodes. As we saw above, Phoebe is gone from Boston Legal and Abby has left ER. In Ugly Betty’s “Betty Suarez Land” they ended the Hilda and Troy romance and sent Alexis off to Europe, ending the storyline about her son. In CSI’s “The Happy Place” the CSIs are back investigating regular, i.e., weird, cases, with Sara leaving and Grissom thinking about what that means for him. Two and a Half Men still has not yet come to grips with Jake’s adolescence, and How I Met Your Mother’s “Shelter Island” episode broke up Ted and Stella and brought Robin back from Japan, while Barney has been reduced to merely wanting to sleep with Robin.
Meanwhile The Ex-List’s “Protect and Serve” (which still has Dianne Ruggiero’s name attached as executive producer, although not as the writer of this episode) has reduced the raunch element. Bella’s friend (and not her roommate, as I wrote in the last column) Vivian is now not talking about shaving her private parts. She is wearing a bikini at the beach, and her male high school students flirt with her, which leads to the school principal giving her a hard time. Bikinis for the CSI: Miami crowd, but God forbid anybody should talk about anything sexual. And Bella did not sleep with the ex-boyfriend she meets in this episode. God forbid a network series should have a really sexually active woman in the lead rather than as the kooky best friend.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
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
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
Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study
Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.2
Bruno 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
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
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
Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe
The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.2.5
Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of 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
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.2
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
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.2
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
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
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
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.1
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
Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions
In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.2
Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.
In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.
Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.
Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.
Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.
But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma
After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.2
The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.
The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.
In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.
In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.
There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.
That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.
It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.
Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love
Review: The Professor Is a Diverting Yet Disingenuously Virtuous Time Killer
Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels
Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows
Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study
Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy
Review: Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe
- Film1 week ago
Review: The Hustle Doesn’t Even Try to Con You Into Thinking It’s Funny
- TV6 days ago
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”
- Music6 days ago
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
- Music4 days ago
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love