EO(12/31/2022)

No matter how deep into cinema you get, there will always be reminders of how much you haven’t seen yet.  One of those recent reminders was when the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by an octogenarian Polish filmmaker named Jerzy Skolimowski, who was very well respected but whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with.  Skolimowski was a contemporary of Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski when they were in Poland, but like Polanski he did most of his work outside of his native country.  His most famous movies were the 1970 movie Deep End and the 1982 film Moonlighting (not to be confused with the Bruce Willis Show), both of which I’ve probably seen on lists but which haven’t been terribly easy to obtain, so I’m really not familiar with this guy’s highly respected career.  In fact the one thing I do know Skolimowski from are various acting jobs he’s taken over the years.  He’s actually in Marvel’s The Avengers of all things for something like five minutes, but more notably he rather memorably plays the father of Naomi Watts’ character in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.  Some of those earlier films did just show up on The Criterion Channel, so I’ll probably be trying to catch up with them, but I had to go into his latest film (possibly a career culmination?) pretty much blind and kind of take it on its own merits removed from that kind of context and I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.

The title EO simply an onomatopoeia for the sound of a donkey braying, what us in the Anglosphere would write as “hee haw.”  That’s because the figure at the center of this movie is in fact a donkey, who is himself named “EO.”  At the beginning of the film EO is working as a beast of burden for a traveling circus under an owner who’s a bit rough and unpleasant but he is well liked by another circus performer named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), but eventually this arrangement falls apart as a group of animal rights activists shut down the circus and EO finds himself sent to some sort of farm.  It would not be accurate to say this makes things better though as he runs away from there and eventually finds himself taken in by a series of owners including a drunken soccer team, a fox fur farmer, a trucker, and a pair of Italian nobles.  EO is not anthropomorphized at all along the way; he doesn’t talk, nor are we privy to his thoughts, and he does not display any sort of abnormal intelligence or emotion as far as one would expect from a jackass.  Our time with each one of EO’s “owners” is quite brief and we aren’t always privy to what transaction led him from one person to the next.  In some cases this feels like it’s a simple matter of us not being privy to something that the donkey himself didn’t witness, but the film is not always strict about this and there are several places where we are indeed shown things that the animal didn’t witness.

Anyone who knows their film history will pretty quickly recognize this as being heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, which also followed a donkey around as it moved between people, which I think was supposed to be some kind of religious parable.  To be perfectly honest, I watched that movie pretty early on in my journey into classic world cinema and I don’t think I ever really “got” it and can’t say I’m a fan.  In my defense, that movie also had another high profile hater: Ingmar Bergman.  In an interview Bergman once said “I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring” and then elaborated by saying “A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting… I have a completely natural aversion for [animals].”  I also seem to have a bit of an aversion to animals and when I see these movies like Andrea Arnold’s Cow which expect me to get a whole lot out of watching a dumb animal walking around I tend not to really connect in the way I think I’m supposed to.  And I don’t think EO is exactly an exception to that but this is not to say I hated or even particularly disliked the movie.

I think EO is ultimately supposed to be making a bigger statement about the humans as observed by this donkey than it is about the donkey itself, though some of these messages are a little unclear but the overall picture is plainly negative.  In many cases the human misbehavior is rather obvious like when EO is owned by a man who breeds and harvests foxes for their fur or when the donkey becomes a pawn in a struggle between a pair of drunken amateur soccer teams but the movie doesn’t necessarily valorize the “good” people that EO encounters either.  From the perspective of the donkey the people who look to pet and coo at him do not necessarily have their “love” reciprocated and they come off as kind of intrusive pests.  Similarly, the animal rights people who “free” him from the circus ultimately prove to be rather short-sighted people whose actions end up simply landing him in other more socially accepted jobs for donkeys that are not really in his best interests.  The thing is his stay with each of these people are really brief, which on the upside means that the film clocks in at a tight 88 minutes which is probably for the best, but they don’t always build on each other and don’t always have the connective tissue you expect as an audience.  So, I guess this movie was an experience that interested me but didn’t really move me, and no matter what it’s always going to live in the shadow of Bresson’s donkey movie so I can’t say it really feels like that singular of an accomplishment to me.
***1/2 out of Five

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The Whale(12/26/2022)

I must say, “Brendan Fraser comeback” is not something I had on my prediction card for the 2020s and it’s also frankly not something I particularly desired either.  Fraser’s careers in the late 90s and early 2000s was something that at least theoretically happened at a time that was right in the window for millennials like myself to have a lot of nostalgia for the guy but outside of The Mummy his movies were never really my thing.  He was essentially a comic actor, but he wasn’t really a “comedian” per se; he didn’t come from the worlds of stand-up or sketch comedy and I never got the idea that he wrote or improvised jokes.  Instead he seemed to just fall into that comedic milieu just because he had kind of a funny looking face and a bit of a childlike aura around him and that seemed to appeal to kids.  He also had a foot in the action movie genre through those Mummy movies, where he was kind of a precursor to what Dwayne Johnson does, but without the buff physique.  That might be why I don’t have the world’s most positive memories of the guy, I don’t think his influence on mainsteam film acting is entirely positive and his occasional dips into straight drama like his work in Crash is definitely not well remembered.  When he disappeared from movie stardom somewhere in the late aughts I can’t say I really missed him and I certainly didn’t see the groundswell of goodwill toward him as he re-emerges coming.  Some of it is nostalgia, some of it is public sympathy for some issues in his personal life, but people really want this comeback to happen and now it seems to be coming together through an unlikely project: a Darren Aronofsky movie that’s serious as cancer called The Whale.

The Whale is set somewhere in rural Idaho and looks at the life of a man named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), and we learn pretty much from the beginning that he probably only has a week to live.  Charlie is a man who has become morbidly obese: he weighs over six hundred pounds and can only barely stand up and walk with the assistance of a mobility walker and is largely confined to his small apartment where he works from home as an English professor for online colleges.  Over time we come to learn that he wasn’t always like this and meet various people from his past and present including his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who was the sister of his former boyfriend, who had passed away several years earlier and we come to learn this loss is what pushed him into his current self-destructive cycle.  We also come to meet Ellie (Sadie Sink), his seventeen year old daughter from a marriage he had much earlier in his life which ended when he had an affair with the aforementioned boyfriend (it’s not clear if Charlie is bi or if his hetero marriage was the result of closeted denial).  As such his ex-wife hates him and he can only meet Ellie secretly and she’s not terribly interested in interacting with him herself for the same reasons but will humor him as she learns he has some money he’s willing to give to her if she visits.  During her visits he comes to learn that she’s extremely rebellious bordering on being a juvenile delinquent and is close to flunking out of high school, though he still enjoys her presence just the same but the end is approaching and it’s not clear if he’s going to get all his affairs in order in time.

The Whale is a movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing but kind of dreading talking about and reading about.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing it in large part because it’s the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker who takes big swings and while I don’t love all of his movies he never fails to makes something memorable.  He is not, however, exactly a filmmaker who I’d call “sensitive.”  On the contrary, he tends to put his characters through the ringer in order to make larger, almost cosmic, statements about the world and about the extremes of the human experience, and though it’s less technically and stylistically audacious than some of his work The Whale is absolutely a Darren Aronofsky movie.  It’s about a recluse in an apartment like his very first movie Pi was, Charlie’s food urges could be viewed as a form of addiction like Requiem for a Dream depicted, religion is a theme in the film like it was in Noah and mother!, but the movie it most resembles is probably The Wrestler, which was another movie about a middle aged man who has hit something of a personal rock bottom and has kind of given up on his own health in the pursuit of other goals.  In fact you could probably put this, The Wrestler, and Black Swan into a trilogy of bodily self-destruction.

This is where I think the critics of the film’s depiction of “fatness” are, frankly, not engaging with the work in the way it was intended.  This is not a film that’s trying to be an “issue movie” and isn’t looking at a case that is “representative,” it’s instead looking at a very extreme case of obesity and doing so to dramatic ends.  And I would argue that the film presents some pretty searing drama.  The film is an adaptation of a stage play and doesn’t try to hide it, taking place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment and built largely around dialogue between him, his friend, his daughter, and a strange teenage missionary who has made it his mission to “save” Charlie.  Fraser has been getting a lot of the press for his performance in the movie but these co-stars more than hold their own in his presence and over the course of his interactions with all of them you get a pretty strong portrait of what kind of guy Charlie is and the portrait painted is largely positive; criticisms that Aronofsky somehow “hates” this man are plainly off base.  This isn’t to say the movie is perfect by any means, I think the ending is a touch histrionic and it’s not as cinematically adventurous as some of Aronofsky’s best movies and never really fully transcends its stage origins, but it caught my attention early and had me interested in all of these characters and their respective plights the whole way through and that’s not easy.
**** out of Five

December Round-Up 2022

The Menu(12/4/2022)

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Menu pre-release.  The trailers more or less made it look like a mainstream horror movie, albeit one with a tinge of a post-Get Out social commentary.  But I’m not sure “horror movie” is really the right term for this.  It’s not really trying to scare its audience or even really be much in the way of tense suspense.  I’d maybe call it more of a satire, but it’s also not really trying to be laugh out loud funny, though perhaps senses of humor vary.  And despite the difficulties in classifying it, this is hardly some kind of mold busting experimental work, on the contrary, it’s pretty straightforwardly understandable.  The film revolves around a dinner service at an extremely high end restaurant located on an island that the customers are ferried to, but this is no ordinary dinner, rather it’s a trap that the chef (played by Ralph Fiennes) has set in order to lure in and get revenge on his enemies over the course of a night.  So, it’s kind of like a riff on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” but without any pretense of being a mystery as the responsible party is apparent from the start.

Of course, all of this is rooted in a sort of extreme exaggeration of “foodie” culture, in ways that seem pretty authentic from where I sit but I’m quite the outsider to all of this.  I’ve never eaten at a restaurant anywhere near as fancy as the one in the movie and for that matter rarely go to overly nice restaurants at all so any recognition I have of all this stuff is basically third hand.  In addition to not loving food enough to be enticed by some of the food things that go on here I also kind of don’t really care enough to be angered by a number of the things this movie is raging against and very few of the things that the evil central chef is angry about really strike me as offenses worthy of violent retribution.  And if looked at more as a statement about capitalism writ large I still find the message here pretty muddled.  The rich customers here are dicks, but the chef raging against them strikes me as plainly a bigger dick so this could just as easily be seen as a vilification of anti-capitalism as capitalism.  So, as a social satire I find this muddled but I did enjoy myself just the same.  Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy are both very strong here as is much of the rest of the cast and the production design of the restaurant is quite effective.  The movie kept me interested the whole time, though I must say it maybe shows its hand pretty early and has trouble escalating the tension in its second half and doesn’t really deliver on any stunning revelation at the end.  As a neat little genre exercise you can do worse but the film itself never really elevated past that for me.
*** out of Five

Empire of Light(12/8/2022)

I will say, I went into Empire of Light not expecting much.  The phrase “Oscar bait” gets overused a lot but this certainly seemed to fit the bill and it’s been damned with faint praise by pretty much anyone who’s seen it since it debuted at Telluride.  The film is about the goings on at a beautiful old movie theater in coastal England during the early 1980s.  At its best that could give us a sort of British Cinema Paradiso and at worst it could lead to an overwrought rhapsody for “the magic of the cinema” that basically plays like a feature length version of Nicole Kidman’s “We Make Movies Better” AMC ad. The actual movie lies somewhere between those two things.  Director Sam Mendes has a palpable nostalgia for this era which can be contagious and intoxicating but he also feels compelled to acknowledge that this was in fact a very bad era for people who weren’t white men, which isn’t an inherently bad instinct but it means the movie tries to take on themes of racism, sexual harassment, and mental health that it really cannot sustain and sort of feels like a social realist square peg trying to be inserted into a gooey nostalgic round hole.

At the film’s center is a middle aged theater manager played by Olivia Colman who suffers form mental illness and is also having a not very consensual affair with the theater’s owner, played by Colin Firth, and finds solace in another theater employee in his early twenties played by Michael Ward.  The film frankly doesn’t sell this relationship very well.  The fact that she is in just as much of a power imbalance with him as she is with her boss is an irony that’s not very well explored and even without that issue the movie just does not really make it terribly clear what he sees in this older and seemingly not very well adjusted woman.  Frankly, if the genders were reversed this would feel like somewhat creepy wish fulfilment for some old sad sack writer.  It also doesn’t help that Sam Mendes does not seem to have the slightest clue how to write this black character and makes him into a rather awkward “model minority” rather than a three dimensional character and its interest in exploring the racism of the Thatcher era feels slight compared to something like “Small Axe” or even Blinded by the Light.  Having said all that, the film is not without its charms.  The film also has some really slick cinematography by Roger Deakins, a good score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s generally pretty well acted by its cast as well and all of this generally makes the film a perfectly watchable experience but there isn’t really a lot of substance beneath the surface despite pretentions of import.
**1/2 out of Five

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio(12/9/2022)

I must say, for whatever reason animation really hasn’t been doing it for me this year.  Not even when it comes from otherwise strong voices in the medium like Pixar (Turning Red), Cartoon Saloon (My Father’s Dragon), or Henry Selick (Wendell & Wild).  Not sure if that’s just a “me” problem or if it really has just been a weak year on that front, or maybe a combination of the two.  For a while the film that looks like the best bet to break this streak has been Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, a stop motion adaptation of Pinocchio, but while I did indeed admire a lot about the film I’m not sure even it got me truly excited, possibly because I’ve never had much use for Pinocchio as a story in any of its forms.  Del Toro’s adaptation has most of the usual elements like a talking cricket, a blue fairy, and a whale sequence at the end but he moves the action of Carlo Collodi’s late 19th Century story and places the action in Italy during the fascist period and puts less of an emphasis on the title character becoming a flesh and blood human and more on questions of his mortality or lack thereof.

That’s not a bad idea for where to take this at all and it also fits within many of the director’s usual theme.  In fact he’s made a plausible case that this finishes a trilogy started by The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (much to the chagrin of Criterion, who have been pretending that Cronos has anything to do with those other movies for some reason), but I must say I didn’t like this nearly as much as those other films.  Part of that is that I’m not sure I was entirely sold on the movie’s visual style.  On a technical level the stop motion animation is solid, but not quite as detailed and articulated as what Laika has been doing recently.  From a design perspective I think it’s more of a mixed bag.  There are certainly some creatures and sets in this that are straight out of Del Toro’s imagination and are quite cool looking, but Del Toro has been so effective in the past of bringing similar designs to life in his live action films that I maybe expected him to be even more next level when unmoored from even the limitations of modern visual effects here and I’m not sure that really happened.  I would also say that the design for Pinocchio himself never quite worked for me.  This is actually one of the least human designs for the character we’ve ever gotten, making him look less like a puppet that would actually be put on a stage and more like a misshapen wood creation that Geppetto threw together in a moment of grief induced drunkenness.  The resulting puppet looks a little odd to me, especially as he starts becoming a war asset they’re trying to exploit late in the film.

Oddly enough the movie is actually a full blown musical, but I’m not sure that was a smart move, firstly because the songs themselves are kind of mid and secondly because the movie sort of doesn’t commits to this and just quits bursting into song around the halfway point.  I also thought the side characters like the cricket and the film’s villain were kind of questionable and also that the film’s voice cast including the kid they got to voice Pinocchio wasn’t top notch.  In general the movie starts well and ends well but sags a bit in the middle, but I don’t want to come off too negative about it.  Truth be told this is probably the best version of this story to date unless you want to count Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  It certainly blows Robert Zemeckis’ live action remake of the Disney version out of the water and for that matter it’s a clear improvement over the original Disney version, at least outside of that movie’s animation innovations, and let’s not even speak of Roberto Benigni’s misguided disaster of an adaptation.  But fairy tales are generally not my thing and this is still basically a fairy tale and while it’s a darker version of one than you’re going to get out of Disney it’s still nothing close to the cool fusion of wonder and grit that Del Toro achieved with Pan’s Labyrinth.
*** out of Five

The Eternal Daughter(12/11/2022)

In recent memory there aren’t many examples of a larger disconnect between me and critics more broadly than there was with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II.  Granted these are relatively small movies so it’s not like this disconnect was to widely discussed, but the people who did like them were absolutely rapturous about them and I just didn’t get it.  I mean, I think I understood intellectually exactly what the movies were doing but I didn’t exactly understand why I should care.  But believe me, I tried, I even made a point of seeing Part II in theaters so I could watch it with perfect focus but it all never really clicked.  But there was at least something there, they weren’t movies I wanted to completely dismiss and with that in mind I did want to give Joanna Hogg another shot, this time outside of the “franchise” that made her “famous.”  Her new film The Eternal Daughter shares a similar deliberate slowness and tone to it, but it’s also noticeably more psychological and overtly weird than its predecessors.  If those movies were like memories, this is more like a chronical of someone while they’re in the process of remembering and are getting lost in those not always happy thoughts.

The film is set in a hotel somewhere in the English countryside that feels rather dark and sparsely populated when the film’s protagonist arrives.  This protagonist, played by Tilda Swinton appears to be something of an alter ego for the director and has planned to spend a week at this hotel with her aging mother (also played by Swinton) in hopes of bonding with her a bit more than before while also getting some material for a screenplay she’s working on that will in part be based on her mother and her relationship to her.  The mother, on the other hand, thinks the daughter is a bit of a “fussbucket” and tends to deflect a lot of this plan, preferring to just relax through the vacation.  Something seems “off” about this whole setup.  Obviously the fact that Swinton is doing a double role is part of this, and the timeline being laid out in the film doesn’t seem to entirely line up with the dates we’re being given from the mother’s life.  Additionally, this whole hotel seems oddly creepy.  I don’t want to give the impression that this is a horror movie, because it absolutely isn’t and the film would disappoint anyone coming to it expecting to be scared, but the mood at this hotel does make it seem like a place that literal ghosts might exist in.  The film is leading up to a reveal, one that isn’t terribly hard to guess, but it doesn’t really feel like a true “rug pull” twist ending despite technically being one.

In this sense the movie could almost be a good double bill partner with another A24 distributed British movie with a female director focusing on a parent-child relationship over the course of a vacation: Aftersun.  And I say that both for better or worse, because another thing the two films share is that they could feel a bit like movies where nothing really happens for much of their runtime leading up to an emotional revelation that reframes much of what came before.  And patience with that will vary in both cases.  I think the details of the vacation in Aftersun has more to offer in terms of nostalgic detail and has characters that I generally found more relatable.  But I’d say The Eternal Daughter does a better job of foreshadowing where it’s going and builds more in the way of offbeat tension through the mood of the hotel.  I don’t think either of these movies are quite my cup of tea, but I will say that I think I got more out of this one than I did out of either The Souvenir films, possibly just because I found the feel of the location more interesting and found its psychological trickery to be a bit more interesting overall.  That said this is all relative and I would only recommend the film to a very certain kind of person and warn them a lot that this is not going to be a movie that’s what you’d call “conventionally entertaining.”
*** out of Five

White Noise(12/18/2022)

I’m not usually one to root for Netflix given that they seem hell bent on destroying movie theaters among other potentially malignant effects they have on cinema culture, but still I do feel kind of sorry for them this year.  They put a lot of big investments in certain auteurs to deliver award season triumphs for them and basically all the horses they bet on seemed to trip before even leaving the gates with both critics and audiences.  Blonde seemingly enraged more people than it entertained, Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) was declared “pretentious” and dismissed right from its festival premiere, and even Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio hasn’t really lit the world on fire.  Damn near the only thing that seems to be working out for them is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which being a sequel filled with stars is almost certainly the least ambitious of the projects I named.  On some level I should be happy that these filmmakers somehow conned the deep pocketed streamer into funding their weird-ass visions, but the truth is that if Netflix doesn’t get rewarded for these investments even with award season soft power they’re going to stop making investments like this at all, which is kind of dire since they’re some of the only ones left funding these things.  And perhaps the least lucrative of all these investments is the one they saved for last: Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise,” which reportedly cost $80 million to make and will likely annoy and befuddle the majority of their customers who stumble upon it.

I actually did read the Don DeLillo book this is based on about ten years ago when I was exploring some of the canonical 20th Century novelists like Phillip Roth and John Updike and I must say I didn’t really “get it” at the time and revisiting the subject matter via this film (which is pretty faithful in both tone and text) I’m not much more impressed.  That novel is a highly postmodernist and is meant to be a social satire about various broad cultural trends in the mid-eighties more so than a straightforward story or character study.  It follows a college professor who’s the head of the Hitler Studies department at a fictional university who has a strained relationship with his wife and the plot so much as it exists looks at the fallout (literal and otherwise) of what happens to the family after a nearby chemical spill leads to a “toxic airborne event that forces them to evacuate their home rather abruptly and the aftermath of this.  The film maintains the 1980s setting of the original and that novel has aged… interestingly.  Certain ideas in it, like the supermarket as a symbol of everything wrong with modern consumerism, feel dated and passé.  Meanwhile other aspects of the novel like the frenzied and misinformation fueled response to a big emergency in the second act, feels like they could at least theoretically take on a new life in a modern post-Covid context but I’m not sure Baumbach really had the time to make that connection fully.

Honestly I’m not sure Baumbach was the best fit for this material to begin with.  Upper class ennui and academic pretentions have certainly been themes in his work before, but he usually handles this through lightly comic but ultimately pretty naturalistic film styling.  By contrast this movie is heightened to the nth degree.  Basically no one hear speaks or acts like normal real world people, rather, pretty much everything that happens here is meant to make some satirical point.  The main character is comically stubborn and inept in the real world while engaging in an inherently ridiculous field of study and much of his wife’s arc is based around an absurd literalization of the intellectual and spiritual decay of the intellectual classs, a situation that frankly looks like quite the first world problem from where I sit.  The movie (and novel) kind of wants to make a point about every issue under the sun and ends up not making many of them very well and as a simple movie-going experience the whole thing is just rather alienating and disconnected from reality more than it’s plugged into it.  These kinds of outlandish and over-ambitious statements about “everything” do work sometimes when you get someone like Charlie Kaufman making something like Synecdoche, New York, but more often you end up with something like White Noise where you have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea.
** out of Five

Emancipation(12/25/2022)

Emancipation is probably a movie that’s forever going to be known as the first Will Smith film to be released after the publicity hit he took in the wake of “the slap,” which maybe speaks to the fact that it’s not really a movie that’s good enough to transcend that situation despite certainly being a movie that aspires to be.  The film is set during the civil war and follows a slave named Peter who is requisitioned by the confederate army to help build a base five miles away from the plantation he had been stuck in, separating him from his family.  There he mounts an escape and must move across five miles of swamp while being pursued by a brutal slave hunter played by Ben Foster.  From there the film feels almost more like an adventure movie than it does a more somber slavery drama like 12 Years a Slave, in fact it rather strongly resembles Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto more than anything.  The morality of making such a wilderness survival film out of what is a pretty sensitive historical subject matter is… kind of dubious, and on some level I think director Antoine Fuqua knows this because he and cinematographer Robert Richardson saturate the colors in the film down almost to the point of being black and white.  That’s an interesting decision but one that ultimately feels kind of gimmicky and frankly it’s not fooling anyone into making this feel more serious than it really is at its core.  Fuqua has always primarily been someone who makes action movies and is usually at his best when he’s elevating B-movie hokum, and here he probably would have been better off just letting the carnage here look good on screen instead of trying to fool us into thinking this was a prestige project.
**1/2 out of Five

Strange World(12/27/2022)

Though it isn’t quite the nexus of discussion that Babylon and Amsterdam were, the box office failures of Strange World are perhaps among the most ominous for the future of cinema out of any of this year’s “bombs.”  This is in large part because there’s basically nothing wrong with the movie and its failure basically suggests that no big budget animated movie that doesn’t star a Minion is ever going to be viable in theaters again.  That isn’t to say that the movie is great exactly, but it’s a solid adventure movie with a lot of neat visuals.  The film looks at three generations of a family as they meet in a “Journey to the Center of the Earth”-esque pulpy adventure into the core of the film’s fantasy world.  The world building both on the world’s surface and in the core look really cool and while the characters and their conflict is a bit stock, they work well enough.  It’s also possibly the most progressive movie Disney has ever made in terms of representation and has a simplistic but strongly stated environmental message, and with Disney having gotten zero credit or profit from this decision it may well lead to them being a lot more cautious and conservative about such themes, which is unfortunate.   I do worry I’m over-defending this thing a little because of its box office woes, but there was clearly some love put into this particularly in the animation and it kind of feels weird that this is the one that was fully and unambiguously rejected by audiences.  But for what it is I think this is pretty solid Disney, so, I guess this is the Treasure Planet of the 2020s.
***1/2 out of Five 

Babylon(12/24/2022)

It’s probably not a coincidence that so many directors seem to have chosen 2022 to be the year they make their epic ruminations on value and importance of movies and movie making.  I mean, there isn’t exactly a shortage of those in any given year, but the fact they’re showing up in large numbers this year is likely a response to all the “death of movies” articles we’re constantly reading combined with how hard it is to make anything this year.  Truthfully the timing was a bit unfortunate, the same audiences that are letting movie theaters flounder are apparently also the same audiences who aren’t filled with reverence for cinema as an artform so maybe this was a bit of a tactical error from a box office perspective but maybe it was something the filmmakers needed to do regardless.  And truth be told a lot of these movies are actually coming at the topic of “the movies” from very different directions.  The Fabelmans is very specifically about movie-making more than the movies themselves, conversely Empire of Light is pretty specifically about movie watching and theaters.  Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is mostly about the mind of a creator while Blonde is more about the cultural impact of a life in the spotlight.  So far the only ones to really hit a poplar homerun with movies about movies this year were the ones hiding their message deep in the subtext like Jordan Peele’s Nope and I’ve even seen readings of Top Gun: Maverick as being an allegory for blockbuster filmmaking.  But aside from those it’s been brutal out here for rhapsody’s to cinema, so I’m pretty worried about the box office prospects of Damien Chazelle’s epic opus of Hollywood and its debauched past: Babylon.

The film begins in 1926 at an outlandishly wild party at a Hollywood mansion where we meet most of our principal characters.  One of the most prominent invitees is a movie star named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who manages to annoy his fourth wife into leaving him behind as he walks into the hedonistic proceedings.  A less prominent attendees is an unknown starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who crashes the party both for networking and just to get buck wild with the rest of the attendees.  Meanwhile behind the scenes is Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), a fixer who was hired to help coordinate the party but who has dreams of breaking into work at one of the studios.  We also meet one of the performers in the house band, a jazz trumpet player named Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who seems separated from some of this craziness but still needs a place to play his music, and the cabaret singer Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) who does a bawdy routine at the party and seems to be able to move through these circles more effortlessly than most.  After the party we follow these people into their workdays shortly after and from there we follow them through about five years in Hollywood history as the introduction of “the talkies” and the enforcement of the Production Code will dramatically change everything for all of them.

The title of Babylon was almost certainly inspired by Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was written in 1959 and republished to greater success in 1974, which (with varying degrees of accuracy) dished out the dirt on all the debauched goings on in Hollywood during its golden age.  Though the book wasn’t necessarily revealing anything that hadn’t been public knowledge for those looking for it, there was still something rather subversive in the way the book still provided a collected and easy to digest account of how the silver screen stars of this much sentimentalized era were in fact just as wild as Dennis Hopper and Janis Joplin ever were.  The film is not a direct adaptation of that non-fiction book by any means and all the characters here are in fact fictional characters but if you’re in the know it’s not too hard to guess which real figures inspired the people we see here.  Margot Robbie’s character is basically Clara Bow, Brad Pitt’s character has a lot of Douglas Fairbanks to him, and Li Jun Li’s character has Anna May Wong written all over her, but you probably shouldn’t look at these people as one to one equivalents so much as composites of various film stars of the era and you don’t need to go in with that much prior knowledge in order to decode the movie.

So, like that Kenneth Anger book this movie is very much interested in pointing out to audiences that during the roaring twenties the stars of silent cinema used to get lit and fuck like bunnies and this is established pretty much right away as we witness these crowded bacchanalias that feel like something out of The Wolf of Wall Street or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby but even more X-rated and energetic in some ways.  The staging of these scenes is really exciting with Justin Hurwitz’ music being played at full volume by live on screen bands, large crowds of extras going wild on screen, and various floor entertainers just kind of shocking audience sensibilities.  Occasionally I think this does go a little too far into downright gross scatological territory, particularly in the film’s much discussed opening scene in which workers delivering an elephant to one of these parties gets shat upon by said quadruped, soaking them and even the camera filming them and by implication the audience.  It’s a moment that seems to be trying to tell the audience upfront that “this won’t be your daddy’s Hollywood movie” but like a lot of the movie there is another layer there for people who know their Hollywood lore, particularly the old joke about the guy who gives enemas to elephants, whose punchline is “what, and quit show business?”  I get the joke, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wanted to see this grossness or similar grossness elsewhere, and I think Damien Chazelle got a little carried away in trying to shock people in a few places like that.

And the thing is, while there’s plenty of crassness to go around here it’s not necessarily a nonstop party scene, in fact there are really only two scenes set at parties, the rest is more about these characters’ personal and professional lives, though there’s certainly plenty of wildness to be found there as well.  There are two particularly well done scenes in the first half looking at the chaotic filming of a silent film and later a sound film respectively which together show just how much of a painful transition that was for filmmaking.  Then late in the film there is an absolutely insane scene in which a deranged gangster played by Toby Maguire takes us into some sort of bizarre underground geek show that’s rife with tension.  The story itself is rather sprawling with three separate main protagonists as well as a network of small and mid-sized characters and this almost makes it feel like a sort of Robert Altman ensemble kind of thing, but ultimately the stories do mostly converge around its three leads though this can be a bit structurally messy at times.  The characters played by Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li are both interesting, but their screen time is definitely less than those of Pitt, Robbie, and Calva and that makes things feel a little unbalanced.  I’m also not quite sure that the Pitt story ever quite connects perfectly with the Robbie/Calva story and I think if Chazelle had made them intersect just a little more that might have made the balance a little clearer.

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, in Chazelle’s viewing the Hollywood of 1927 was an industry facing technological revolutions that were going to leave a lot of people in the dust while also struggling with how they’re going to incorporate diverse performers into their work all while having their own off screen conduct increasingly scrutinized and judged by outside observers… he sees some parallels to today is what I’m saying.  These aren’t exactly original observations in the case of the whole “introduction of the talkies” thing; the movie references Singing in the Rain overtly on multiple occasions and The Artist also covered similar territory as a metaphor for modern Hollywood some ten years ago.  There’s also definitely a healthy dose of the various versions of A Star is Born to be found in the various careers chronicled here.  As for the potential comparison the movie is making between #MeToo and the wave of house cleaning that Hollywood needed to do in response to the bad press that the Fatty Arbuckle scandal gave the industry.  That particular scandal is kind of echoed in a moment early in the film but otherwise isn’t really discussed and I almost wonder if material along those lines was left on the cutting room floor because it does feel like a bit of context that would be missing for the non-film historians in the audience.  The comparison is a bit fraught because in introduction of the production code is generally viewed as the doing of a bunch of puritanical prigs who ruined everyone’s fun, but this movie suggests that maybe there was a bit of a rot in Hollywood at the time and while it might not have been corrupting the youth it was surely leading to a lot of self-destruction and maybe a bit of a cleaning house was in order.

If that’s what Chazelle is saying here, at least on some level, it’s a little ironic because, well… this is a movie with at least four different scenes that wouldn’t have been completely out of place in a Jackass movie.  It’s… very much a movie that could not exist if the Production Code were still in place and while it might concede that Hollywood’s decadence in this era went too far it isn’t really judgmental about the characters themselves.  If anything the movie could almost be seen as something of a western: a movie about a bunch of pioneers in an untamed land who eventually had to be discarded as civilization came in.  As for Babylon itself, well, it’s not going to be for everyone.  It’s kind of a movie meant for people who watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies but who also aren’t going to be offended by a scenes that occasionally feel like something out of Motley Crue’s “The Dirt.”  Frankly I think that’s a Venn Diagram that doesn’t have a whole ton of overlap and I’m not sure even I fit in it entirely, but the filmmaking craft on display here really sells the movie in a way that’s too invigorating to deny.  I don’t know how Damien Chazelle conned a major studio into funding this thing, but I’m sure glad he did.
**** out of Five

Women Talking(10/28/2022)

Sarah Polly is one of those directors who seems to have a giant reputation despite having kind of a small body of work.  Prior to 2022 she had only directed three movies, one of them a documentary, and there was a long ten year gap in there as well leading into her new project.  Her first movie, Away From Her, was likely her strongest work up to this point, albeit not necessarily a movie that lingers in my memory.  I don’t know, it’s a movie I watched on a Netflix DVD in my sophomore dorm room, which is maybe not the best environment to empathize with an elderly woman’s battles with Alzheimer’s but I remember it having solid performances among other strong qualities.  I missed her follow-up Take this Waltz, whose reputation is of a movie that’s good but inessential.  Then there’s Stories We Tell, her documentary about her own parents and an affair one of them had.  People talk about that documentary in absolutely rapturous terms and I’ve got to say I really don’t get it.  The situation at its center does not strike me as being overly exceptional or interesting beyond the fact that a moderately famous actress/director is involved in it and its attempt to turn it all into some Rashomon-esque delve into the nature of subjectivity over the most minor of discrepancies in peoples stories did not connect with me at all.  So, I guess I’m a bit of a Polly skeptic, but that’s not to say I’d given up on her.  Away From Her alone was a well-crafted enough film that I felt like she had the potential to give us something special, and finally I think she just might have with her new film Women Talking.

The film is set in more or less modern day, but in a remote Mennonite community (seemingly) somewhere in North America, and given the Mennonite’s traditions this essentially makes the film look like a 19th Century period piece for much of its runtime.  The film begins when it’s revealed that a large number of the women in the community had been drugged and sexually assaulted by various men in the community and had been for several years with the women’s concerns being dismissed as the actions of ghosts or devils or “feeble-mindedness.”  This time though, the perpetrators were caught red handed and were arrested by the outside police force.  The most of the community’s men, however, seem to be standing by the perpetrators and have gone to town in order to bail them out under some religious conviction that anyone cast out of the community will be damned to hell.  With them gone, the town’s women convene to try to figure out what they’ll do: will they stay as if nothing happened, stay and “fight,” or will they leave and try to found some new colony elsewhere.  Much of the film then, aside from some flashbacks, consists of the deliberations certain representative women have when making this decision and leads to some pretty tense debates.

Sarah Polly has long been something of an “actor’s director” and that certainly carries over to the impressive ensemble here but with this movie she also takes a noticeable step up as a visual stylist.  She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the film in an ultrawide 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio that Quentin Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight and like that movie it’s a choice that is intriguing given that this is a movie that ostensibly takes place primarily in one large room.  In fact one could easily mistake this for having been an adaptation of a play, but it’s not, it’s based on a novel by Miriam Toews.  Toews is a woman who was herself raised in a Mennonite community but left the community when she was eighteen.  The novel, though fictionalized, is inspired by real events that transpired at a Mennonite community in Bolivia.  That community (which, like most Mennonite communities, is largely populated by European emigres who speak a form of German rather than the local tongue) experienced a very similar set of attacks which led to a similar reckoning.  However, it does not take a genius to realize very soon into Women Talking that Sarah Polly does not view it as truly a movie about Mennonites and instead views the conversations they’re having as being extremely relevant to women around the world, especially in the wake of #MeToo.  And as the title implies, it kind of exists as a medium by which its authors can write very direct conversations around the kind of conversations survivors could have when facing systemic abuse and trying to find solutions.

The decision at the film’s center is whether to stay and maintain the status-quo (the anti-feminist solution), stay and “fight” (the feminist solution), or leave the compound entirely (the radical solution, at least within the logic of this society).  The basic practicalities of these solutions, while not entirely ignored, are not necessarily the emphasis.  The film is a touch vague about what “stay and fight” means.  It isn’t clear if that just means trying to change the society through some sort of peaceful resistance or if they intend to literally take up arms.  If it’s the former then they don’t really get into the exact methods and if it’s the latter they aren’t exactly stockpiling weapons or anything.  The film also doesn’t necessarily go into every logistical challenge of leaving; these women are depicted as illiterate and are said to have not even seen a map of the (unspecified) area they’re in and needless to say they don’t appear to have money saved up for some sort of real estate purchase that would allow them to set up a new compound.  But this is not emphasized in large part because these aren’t really conversations about logistics; they’re conversations about philosophy and about feelings around this situation, especially given that many of the people talking are traumatized victims of violence and abuse.  That trauma is central, some of the women here are very angry and vengeful, some are just mournful about the whole situation and some kind of go back and forth between different attitudes in a sort of complex stew of emotions.

On the periphery is Ben Wishaw’s character, the one man in the film with a speaking role and someone that the women in question basically seem to view as being apart from the other men that they’re essentially in opposition to.  He’s the town’s school teacher and apparently does have some university education and he’s been invited to take minutes for this deliberation as the one literate character present.  As such he’s kind of a point of view character and observer but occasionally speaks up in the deliberations, in ways that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not by the various women.  You can tell he’s rather conflicted about his place there, as are the women and to some extent so is the movie.  That is likely appropriate given that society in general is kind of not sure what role male allies are supposed to have in the wake of #MeToo.  This probably isn’t the only thing the film is willingly conflicted about as it’s kind of a movie that’s asking a lot of questions that society hasn’t really answered and is about characters who are left with a similarly uncertain future.

This is in many ways a film that feels like it could be in dialogue with another of the year’s high profile releases, Todd Field’s Tár, which also sort of comments on #MeToo if not by name though from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than from victims.  The women here are in many ways more conflicted and thoughtful that the title character of that film, in part because they care about people besides themselves.  Though Tár is perhaps a bit more directly about #MeToo as it existed between 2017 and 2022, I think that movie is going to be a little more universally recognizable as long as powerful abusers continue to exist.  Women Talking, by contrast, feels to me much more directly reflective of this very moment of widespread reckoning and all the messy feelings and conflicting arguments that it conjures up.  But as it does this it never loses track of the fact that this is a movie about specific people in a specific circumstance whose situation is not always going to be one hundred percent applicable to the wider conversation.  It tells a very human story above all else and it does it in a milieu that’s pretty unique and while I would exactly call the movie a one-of-a-kind revolution or anything it is a movie that doesn’t follow an overly familiar template and makes for a lean and intense drama that’s staged in a strong and appealing fashion.  In short it’s the major work that I’ve been waiting for Sarah Polley to make and really live up to all the praise she’s been lavished with.
****1/2 out of Five

Avatar: The Way of Water(12/15/2022)

            You know, it seems quaint today, but even back in 2009 it seemed like Avatar becoming a box office success would be of essential importance in fighting back against franchise tyranny and allowing for original IPs to have a shot in Hollywood.  Then it did succeed beyond anyone’s wildest hopes and yet thirteen years later here we are, franchises dominate the box office beyond even the most dire fears back then and a sequel to a prior success can’t even claim to be a threat to that trend.  And yet the box office success of this sequel seems far more important to cinema (and far more uncertain) than that first movie ever was.  At stake isn’t even a kind of blockbuster so much as the notion of the theatrical blockbuster itself.  We’ve just lived through what sure seems like a disastrous year of box office performance where even the MCU seemed to be slipping and outside of the weird fluke of Top Gun Maverick basically nothing seemed to capture the imaginations of audiences in any kind of lasting way.  That’s… a lot of pressure for any one movie, but especially for a movie in this weird of a position.  Avatar was of course a phenomenon but it was also kind of divisive; its visual and technological prowess was undeniable but its new agey sincerity wasn’t going to be for everyone and there were legitimate criticisms to be made about the film’s adherence to archetypes and formulas as well as its sometimes questionable dialogue.  Personally, I really liked Avatar, in fact I was positively giddy leaving the theater when I saw it but there were limits to how much I could defend it and I’d be lying if the years of “dances with smurfs” mockery hasn’t gotten to me a little.  It may or may not be a great movie but it certainly doesn’t seem like a cool movie to me in 2022, so even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d make of the long awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water but it’s finally here and I was there day one for sure.

            This sequel picks up about fifteen years or so after the events of the first movie and we get something of an exposition dump at the beginning.  We learn that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permenantly a Na’vi has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and the two have had three children: The responsible older son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the more impulsive younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and much younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).  Additionally, we learn that the deceased avatar of Grace Augustine mysteriously gave birth to a daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who Sully and Neytiri adopted as their own who is now a young teenager, and they have also essentially taken in a human child named Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind after the humans left and has taken on the Na’vi culture for the most part.  We learn early on that Spider’s biological father is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first movie, and we apparently haven’t seen the last of him either.  Though he was killed in the first movie, we learn that the humans had a backup plan in which they had a copy of many of the consciousness and memories of Quaritch and other soldiers on the Pandoran front on file and implanted them into avatar bodies as part of their plans to reconquer Pandora, plans we see them begin to implement early on in the movie as they violently land back on the planet and build up another beachhead.  From there we flash forward a year to when the Na’vi are once again taking part in a guerrilla war against these colonizers.

            This first half-hour to forty five minutes of the movie does feel very expository and kind of exists to bridge the first Avatar and its sequel as quickly as possible and is probably when the film is at its weakest.  It sort of yadda-yadda-yadda’s the existence of Sigourney Weaver as a teenage Na’vi in this movie a bit too quickly and other odd little connections like making Spider the literal son of the last movie’s villain also seems a touch convenient, as does the return of that villain as a Na’vi in the first place given that I’m not sure that was a character the masses were really demanding more of.  All of this is leading to a moment that will finally drive the Sully family to run away from their war against the “sky people” and go into hiding amongst a different group of Na’vi that dwell in the ocean/reef area of the planet, a motivation I never quite bought given Sully’s warrior chief ways, nor do I exactly understand why the humans are so hell bent on targeting him even after he has ceased to be an active leader of the resistance.  It’s all a bit too convenient, all there basically to bring the characters do a different milieu where the movie wants to take place.  However, once the movie does get to where it wants to go it really starts to sing.

            James Cameron is rather famously fond of oceans and ocean life and oceanic preservation is a cause close to his heart so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he went in the direction of looking at Pandora’s ocean life and unsurprisingly he’s really good at it.  This new seaside village that the family embeds themselves in is an interesting new side of Na’vi culture that we haven’t seen before and the flora and fauna around them is about as imaginative and colorful in its own way as anything we saw in the first film and this is where much of that big screen 3D awe factor we remember from that first movie comes into place.  The movie also finds interesting ways to depict the sci-fi boats and hunting strategies that the human villains come up with in order to exploit these sections and the eventual conflict between the two sides are very well rendered.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this but… the action scenes in this totally rule.  The film’s trailers I think kind of oddly undersell that aspect of it, especially in the beginning and the end, when this does function as a war movie that is very interested in showing open warfare between the Na’vi and the humans.  The climactic battle scene in particular goes on for nearly an hour but also manages to be something more interesting than simply being two CGI armies smashing into each other and is choreographed pretty beautifully.

            Beyond all of that the movie has its ups and downs to be sure.  Like the first movie this is definitely a work that brokers in archetypes and its dialogue is at best straightforward and workmanlike.  Jake Sully probably remains the most boring part in his own movie, sort of a bland male hero, but he feels less like a central figure here so much as a figure within the greater ensemble with his immediate family taking over more as a collective protagonist.  The Sully kids are, like their parents, essentially archetypes.  Cameron probably would have done well to differentiate the family’s older brothers both physically and personality-wise because to be honest I couldn’t really tell them apart a lot of the times (yeah, I’ll admit it, all blue people kind of look the same to me), and the youngest sister is mostly there to be an adorable moppet.  I also kind of went back and forth on the character of Spider, who had a lot of potential but who I’m not sure entirely worked in execution and the “daddy issues” aspect of this character doesn’t work and frankly overestimates how much of an impression that Stephen Lang character left on audiences.  I was pretty interested by the teenage Sigourney Weaver character despite the relative oddness of the character’s creation and the casting of a seventy three year old woman in as this adolescent character.  She seems to be taking over for Sully as the series’ central “chosen one,” which is probably a smart move and I think that’s the character that Cameron was most able to tap into an authentic vain of moody teenager-ness to.

            Of course the film’s general focus on “family” feels a bit like a concession to popular tastes and despite James Cameron’s recent surly interviews, he’s absolutely trying to tailor these movies to be one-size-fits-all blockbusters that will appeal to a very wide range of audiences around the world.  An uncharitable way of saying that would be to say that he’s dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator, but that does not mean that he’s chasing all the trends that Hollywood obsesses over.  Rather, this Avatar sequel like its predecessor is defiantly sincere in its outlook in a way that most Hollywood blockbusters are not.  It’s certainly not devoid of humor but it isn’t a movie that’s interested in being self-reverential and hip and it sort of wears its tree hugging heart on its sleeve.  It remains to be determined how that will be received in 2022.  The original Avatar turned out to be pretty well timed coming out in the first year of the Obama administration when people were looking for escape from the Great Recession but still had a lot of hope and optimism for the future.  I’m not sure we’re really in the same place in 2022 and political division may make certain audiences less tolerant of even a visual effect spectacular with some badass action scenes if it’s also something of an environmental screed that wants to save the whales (even though the whales have already kind of been saved in the real world).  This isn’t like Top Gun: Maverick, which had its glorification of the military to rope those audiences in despite its own apolitical apathy and absence of cynicism.

On some level it feels kind of gross to turn a review into a work of box office prognostication like I kind of have at this point, but on some level a movie like this sort of invites that, it’s a movie that exists to entertain the masses and it wears that on its sleeve.  There are things about this that I think will help it quite a bit in that regard.  The new child and teenage characters in this one will probably appeal to younger audiences pretty well, so expect there to be more fanfiction about this one than there was about the first.  I also think if people looking for an action movie give this a chance they will likely be impressed by what they get, because some of these battle scenes are indeed quite cool.  But it’s also possible that people won’t be willing to give this a chance and that people will continue their agoraphobic refusal to leave their homes for entertainment and that kids today just won’t be impressed by the giant screens and 3D effects without some elaborate continuity driving them.  I had a blast with it though, and thought it found canny ways to leave things open for future sequels without feeling unnatural about it.  I suspect that the reason this took so long to make is that, unlike the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, Cameron really wanted to hammer out his franchise sequel plans without writing himself into more corners with the first sequel and I hope that doesn’t backfire because I do think he has more very cool things to show us in the future if we keep this train going.
**** out of Five