Beau is Afraid(4/22/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

What does a director do when they’ve been tagged as a “horror filmmaker” but then want to start doing something else?  That’s kind of the predicament that a whole generation of indie auteurs seem to be running into after many of them found themselves making “elevated horror” and then had to decide if they want to keep doing that or move on to something else that maybe isn’t going to be as commercial.  Robert Eggers probably pulled this off the best by focusing in on the historical rather than suspense elements of his debut film The Witch, transitioned into the hothouse suspense effort The Lighthouse, and then into a borderline action film with The Northman.  Then there’s Jennifer Kent, who went from making The Babadook to making The Nightingale, which wasn’t really a horror movie but was a violent revenge movie that would provide some interest to the genre crowd.  On the other end of the spectrum though there’s David Robert Mitchell, who followed up his “elevated horror” film It Follows by taking whatever clout that gave him and using it to make an outlandishly weird go-for-broke follow-up devoid of horror called Under the Silver Lake.  Some people love it, personally I’m not much of a fan but I admire the effort.  It would seem that Ari Aster has gone the same route by, following up his twin A24 horror triumphs, Hereditary and Midsommar, by having that buzzy studio give him $35 million dollars to make a wild three hour surreal tragicomedy called Beau is Afraid which is… quite the gamble.

Beau is Afraid starts off feeling like a movie that takes its title very literally.  The film’s first section we’re introduced to our subject, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a highly neurotic middle aged man who’s on psychiatric medication and lives in an incredibly dumpy bordering on dangerous apartment in New York.  Or does he?  As the movie started we see Beau encounter threatening person after threatening person in New York, learn from a new report about a knife wielding nude man who’s been murdering people, and even hear that there’s a venomous spider loose in Beau’s building.  Is Beau really living in a world that’s this comically dangerous, or is much of this not actually happening and what we’re actually seeing on screen are manifestations of his delusional paranoia about the world and its many dangers.   Anyway, we learn that he soon plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) only to have that trip derailed by a series of misadventures.  He then gets a phone call telling him that Mona may have been killed in a freak accident, leading him to spiral a bit, and much of the rest of the film is his often interrupted journey to reach his hometown to attend her funeral, which leads to a sort of picaresque story along the way that will also dig into his psychology and paranoia.

If the first quarter of the film is about everything that leaves Beau unsettled and frightened in the city, the second quarter is about how the suburban life hardly leaves him any more comfortable.  In this section he’s being nursed to health following an accident by a rather strange couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane despite feeling immense pressure to leave and attend his mother’s funeral as quickly as possible.  The couple are seemingly as polite as they can be at all times, and yet there does seem to be something threatening about them just the same and you empathize with Beau’s paranoia about possible secondary motives they may have to hold him there.  Meanwhile their home also features a traumatized soldier who served with their dead son and appears to be about as dangerous as the nude stabber back in New York, and also a teenage daughter who seems to represent everything that scares people Beau’s age about the next generation (teenage apathy, rebellion, phone addiction, suicidal tendencies, and also the fear that a man his age could be accused of predatory feelings towards them).  So clearly Beau’s paranoia is not contained to New York, it seems all encompassing.

Once that section of the film ends we’ve been pretty well introduced to everything driving Beau mad and we spend the second half of the film trying to get to the bottom of why he’s such a basket case.  Short answer: his mother fucked him up, and continues to fuck him up… or does she?  We get a number of flashbacks to Beau’s teen years which tell a story of a young man whose father allegedly died before he was born from a heart murmur that killed him on his wedding night right as he conceived this son, leaving him to be raised by his high achieving but over-bearing mother who may well have latched onto him a bit too strongly to the point where there may have been some sort of incestuous feelings or abuse going on.  But this is hard to really determine definitively because Beau is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: he’s a guy who seems to view the entire world as a surreal hellscape filled with people who want to kill him for no particular reason and we have no real way of knowing if he’s viewing his own past and his mother any more or less objectively in these various flashbacks.  And of course with one exception nothing scares Beau more than sex, something he thinks will literally kill him like it allegedly killed his father, though it’s hard to know if that story isn’t just another manifestation of his paranoia and flashbacks to his time on a cruise ship where he makes a fleeting connection to a girl his own age seem to mark some sort of turning point where he definitively set himself in his ways.

In the film’s third quarter we get something of a highlight in which Beau stumbles into this elaborate outdoor theater where  a troupe is putting on some sort of makeshift play that Beau seems to connect with and start envision as his own story.  At this point the set decoration of the stage becomes cinematic and combines with animation to become this story within a story that’s meant to really probe into the hopes and dreams of this guy who can only dream of having something resembling a normal life in a sort biblical parable about a man who goes through nearly Job like trials.  That digression is eventually rather violently interrupted and from there things just become increasingly bleak as the film’s final fourth focuses on the real or imagined logical endpoint of all Beau’s worries and tries to find definitive answers to what made him the way he is.  I said before that nothing scares Beau more than sex, but that maybe isn’t quite true, the thing that really scares him above all is the disapproval of his mother and the film’s final episode is meant to represent the logical endpoint of this.  Where there may be some grain of logic in being afraid of urban crime or traumatized soldiers there isn’t really any mortal danger to be found in maternal disapproval is there?  After all, what is Mona Wasserman going to do if she’s angry at him?  Fake her death in order to entrap him failing to appear at her funeral in time as revenge for missing a visit and then publicly reveal him as a bad son in front of a kangaroo court before drowning him under a capsized boat?  Seems like a pretty far-fetched dander to be in fear of but is it any more or less likely to happen than getting bitten by a brown recluse spider in a New York apartment?

Alright, so that covers much of the film’s runtime but maybe it’s time to take a step back and talk about what this movie even is.  The film feels almost entirely different from the pair of horror movies that Ari Aster built his career on.  I guess there are similar “mother issues” at the center of Hereditary and some of Patti LuPone’s line deliveries did remind me a bit of Toni Collette’s performance in that, but otherwise they’re pretty different.  This isn’t a horror movie and it doesn’t have the tone of something like Midsommer at all.  Instead this actually reminded me a lot more of the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly his more “out there” directorial efforts like Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, not just in the film’s batshit audacity but also in that it is very interested in getting in the head of a lonely and kind of schlubby middle aged protagonist who maybe has a bit of a screw loose.  That is perhaps a bit of a surprise coming from the 36 year old Aster, who’s at least a decade younger than his protagonist.  How personal any of this is is going to be a bit of a mystery as Beau doesn’t really seem like that much of a self-insert given what we know about Aster personally.  He’s plainly more successful than Beau, he didn’t have a single mother, and his parents were by all accounts artsy types rather than successful business people… but all of this has to be coming from somewhere right?

One thing that Beau does seem to have in common with Aster is Jewish identity, which is something the film doesn’t make too big of a deal out of but given the name I’m pretty sure that the Wassermanns are supposed to be Jewish and there is a pretty key reference to Jewish burial ritual.  That would by extension make Mona Wassermann a Jewish mother, which is of course something of a loaded stock figure and stereotype, which can make this a bit of a touchy subject for a goyim like me to talk about but it’s definitely something that’s embedded in the film.  The Wikipedia page on “Jewish stenotypes” describes this archetype as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering which she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”  Think of the nagging woman at the center of Woody Allen’s New York Stories short “Oedipus Wrecks” in which the protagonist’s mother is such a nag that she continues to criticize him as a supernatural apparition after she disappears in a magic trick accident.  But where Allen and other Jewish entertainers have harnessed this stereotype as a source of humor over the years Aster seems to be painting this tendency as a more serious bordering on abusive tendencies that have left Beau with genuine scars, especially given his other paranoid tendencies.

On the other hand, given how much of an unreliable narrator Beau is it’s entirely possible that his mother isn’t really anything close to the manipulative and conniving bitch she’s depicted as being in Beau’s head.  In fact I think it’s entirely plausible that nothing we see of this woman beyond the initial phone call to her “actually” happened outside of Beau’s head.  In fact the movie is so aggressively surreal that most of what happens in it can be said to be in Beau’s head and it’s unclear how much if anything on screen is “real,” and that could likely be a source of frustration for many.  Three hours is a very long time to expect people to live in the head of a paranoid weirdo so the movie is kind of asking a lot of its viewers and some of its abstractions are a little hard to swallow.  The animatronic killer cock monster, for example, was probably a bit much.  But the bigger issue is that the movie somehow manages to be both cinematically cryptic while also being kind of blatantly obvious and unsubtle at the same time.  It asks you to dig through this guy’s psyche and what you find at the center are in many ways just Freudian clichés about mommy issues and sexual hang-ups.

So is the movie even any good?  I don’t know, this kind of feels like a ridiculous movie to boil down to a simple “thumbs up or thumbs down” and even as I write the final paragraph of this I don’t really know what star rating I’m going to give the damn thing.  It’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average moviegoer, and even among the more dedicated cinephilles I’m pretty sure this one is going to be divisive, including among fans of Aster’s previous work.  Personally, I don’t know, it’s hard for me not to at least be intrigued by something that’s this ambitious and adventurous being put up on the screen and there were definitely moments of cinematic invention in it like that “play within a film” scene that had me riveted.  On the other hand I do think the running time is legitimately out of control and I’m not sure the psychology underpinning all of this really holds up.  Insomuch as it does hold up I think there’s something interesting being said about what a state of perpetual fear does to people.  As I’m writing this we’re going through a wave of high profile news stories about people getting shot at for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving into the wrong driveway, and the Fox Newses of the world are going out of their way to cause a state of maximum paranoia in this country and in that context something like this could be useful, but in this movie the paranoia is so directly personalized to this one dude’s baggage that I’m not sure it really says much about fear within the wider society like that.  But I’ve been talking about this movie for well over 2000 words at this point so clearly it provoked thoughts and I do think this is a movie that should be seen even if only for everyone to compare notes.
***1/2 out of Five



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

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths(11/20/2022)

            More often than not my tastes are fairly in line with the critical consensus, so usually when I hear early buzz that a movie is a bit of a dud I’m usually willing to believe that.  But when it came to the latest film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu I was skeptical.  It probably wouldn’t be true to say that “critics” hate Iñárritu, on the contrary, if you look at his Rotten Tomatoes page you will find almost all of his previous films are considered “fresh” and the dude just won back to back Best Director Oscars.  But, the people who hate him really seem to hate him… often for reasons that don’t really make a lot of sense to me, and a lot of these critics tend to be the ones with the biggest megaphones and many of them are big on “film twitter.”  This has always been baffling to me as I kind of love Iñárritu.  I don’t know that I’d go to bat for all of his movies but the guy has shown plain talent over the years, often does bold and interesting things, and has also varied his output quite a bit.  People talk about him like everything he’s made is a remake of Babel, but that plainly isn’t true.  Birdman was a comedy!  The Revenant was an adventure film!  The other accusation that gets thrown his way is “pretentious,” and I can kind of get why the guy seems a little snooty in interviews, but that’s one of the most widely abused words in the English language when analyzing film, one that seems to be more of a judgement of intention than an actual work.  So I must say, when the word coming out of Venice was fairly negative I didn’t really know whether or not to trust it.  I’d been cried wolf to about this guy too many times.  So when the film opened in theaters about a month before its Netflix run I needed to go see it for myself.

            The central figure of the film is Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a documentary filmmaker from Mexico who has been living in Los Angeles for several years to advance his career and has… feelings… about the way he lives between these two worlds.  He feels a certain degree of guilt over the fact that he was welcomed into the country on a red carpet while many of his countrymen have to go through hell to cross the border but at the same time he has pretty mixed feelings about Mexico as well.  As the film opens Gama has been tapped to receive a prestigious journalism award and would be the first Mexican to be so honored and suspects that this is largely a gesture on the part of certain pockets to send a message about the immigration conflicts between the two countries and he’s not too sure how he feels about that as well.  The film follows a handful of days in Gama’s life as he contemplates that and we see various visions of the world kind of impressionistically reflecting these thoughts.

The comically extended title of Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths clearly seems to invoke the similarly lengthy full name of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), implying that this is something of a companion piece to that movie, which to some extent it is.  It’s set in a different place and lacks that movie’s “one shot” gimmick but both films are essentially social satires which play out in the minds of creative/media types who are going through a sort of existential crisis.  This time though we’re dealing with a protagonist who more closely resembles Iñárritu biographically and Daniel Giménez Cacho even physically resembles him, at least in the way the film decks him out with a beard and longish somewhat disheveled hair.  Like Iñárritu, Gama is a Mexican who found fame and fortune working in Hollywood even while making films about his home country and like Iñárritu he seems to win a whole bunch of awards while still constantly having to contend with a bunch of critics and watching the movie you get the distinct impression that the haters are get in his head and bug him more than the awards satisfy him. 

Many of the film’s most successful moments come from simply allowing this character to hash out these feelings with various other characters.  There’s a really interesting scene about midway through the film where he gets into an argument with his teenage son, who was largely raised in Los Angeles and seems (to Gama’s eyes) frustratingly irreverent about Mexico.  This leads Gama’s wife to point out his tendency to respond to any disparagement of Mexico with a staunch defense about everything great about the country while also responding to any praise of the country by saying how it’s actually a rather impoverished and struggling place.  We also get some pretty vivid arguments between him and talk show host who seems to be an avatar for Iñárritu’s critics both generally but especially in Mexico.  This starts with an odd appearance on the talk show itself but really gets good when the two meet at a party later and really hash things out.  This is one element of the film that I feel a bit from the outside looking in on because it feels like this talk show host is a subtweet for some specific person or type of person in the Mexican media that I’m not really privy to, but I think I got the gist of it just the same

These elements of the film work well enough that I kind of wish it had just “played straight” more than it does, but instead it has a lot of these surreal symbolic elements that are meant to reflect the character’s headspace and I must say these elements strike me as a rather mixed bag.  For example, the opening sequence has a woman giving birth only to have the doctor tell her the baby wants to go back in “because the world is too fucked up,” at which point the doctor casually reinserts the infant into the womb and the parents leave the hospital dragging the umbilical cord.  Now, eventually it becomes clear that this whole bit is an elaborate symbol for a miscarriage or stillbirth that the lead character and his wife experienced (I have no idea if this mirrors anything in Iñárritu’s real life) but that doesn’t change the fact that this whole skit is off-putting, especially coming this early in the film and kind of seeming to be disconnected from the themes most of the rest of the film is dealing with.  Later on we also get this lengthy scene where the protagonist has an imaginary conversation with his deceased father and on top of being a discussion with a dead person the film also employs a rather unappealing CGI effect to put Daniel Giménez Cacho’s head on the body of a child to show how small this character’s father made him feel and it just doesn’t really work.

This isn’t to say that all of the film’s fantasy sequences don’t work because some of them are kind of neat.  The problem is just that there are so many of them and the ones that don’t work feel increasingly superfluous.  And this all just plays into the film’s overarching problem, which is that the movie just generally bites off way more than it can chew.  This character’s complicated feelings about nationality was enough to fill a movie but we also need to get his daddy issues, his mourning a miscarriage, and a handful of other weird personal quirks about him and this leads to the film’s rather bloated 160 minute runtime, and it was apparently twenty two minutes longer than that when it premiered at Venice.  Even in this shortened form there just feel like way too much going on here, it doesn’t just need tightening up it needs entire sub-plots to get out of the way. 

The thing is, the movie does actually start coming together really late in its runtime.  It we get some explanations for imagery that seem inscrutable early in the film and it kind of bookends itself in an interesting way, but by then the movie had already kind of lost me.  That said, I have actually warmed to the movie a little since leaving the theater as I mull over some of its accomplishments while not being stuck confused by some of the odder moments for the duration of the film, it might improve on future viewings.  Of course I’m not really sure if I’m compelled enough to give it that second viewing but there is some good stuff and it’s not something I can entirely dismiss even if I can’t fully endorse it either.  I don’t know, it seems like the kind of movie that will frustrate many but will really hit perfectly with a very specific group of people who jive with it and there were certain moments when I felt like I could have been one of them… and then it would do some weird thing I didn’t like and that would set it back.  But there is a good movie in there somewhere and if Iñárritu had just calibrated it all a little bit better he would have had another film I would have been happy to be a defender of.
**1/2 out of Five

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever(11/10/2022)

On August 28th 2022 we all learned the shocking news about the untimely passing of actor Chadwick Boseman, who had apparently managed to hide a cancer diagnosis from the public eye while finishing a handful of movies before taking a turn for the worse.  This was of course first and foremost a human tragedy and the cause of mourning, but of course for better or worse one of the first questions to cross many people’s minds was “what are they going to do about the sequel to Black Panther?”  Do they recast the role or do they make a Black Panther film without the Black Panther?  And even without this massive challenge to overcome there were probably other reasons to be a little worried about following up 2018’s Oscar nominated sensation, which was just generally going to be a hard act to follow.  It was a similar challenge faced by the film Wonder Woman 1984, which sort of displayed how a franchise that once seemed like a cultural touchstone “first” could suddenly just feel like another flawed superhero sequel once it was no longer a “first.”  But then the trailer dropped.  That advertisement, which I’ve seen in front of basically every movie I’ve seen since July, was a real master class in generating excitement and really pointed to how this thing could well thread the needle in terms of mourning Chadwick Boseman and his iconic character while also moving ahead with an interesting Wakandan story… of course trailers are by definition advertisements and you can’t always rely on them.  So I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I showed up on opening day to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever appears to be set several years after the last film and as it opens we learn that like the actor who plays him, T’Challa has died of an illness that is never specified and this cause of death does not come back as a plot point later on, it’s just a blunt fact at the opening to move us along.  Because Killmonger destroyed the last of the herb needed to create a new Black Panther in the previous movie there isn’t really a way to replace the fallen king.  Meanwhile, somewhere in the open ocean, a U.S. navy ship that’s attempting to find a vibranium deposit on the ocean floor suddenly finds itself under attack by a race of strange blue-skinned water breathing people who are able to sonically hypnotize people in to drowning themselves.  The rest of the world suspects Wakanda to be the culprit of this attack but the Wakandans first learn about it when the leader of these aquatic people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), slips past the Wakandan defenses to meet with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett).  He says he thinks the Wakandans are responsible for the “surface dwellers” having almost found their underwater city because the Wakandans told them about vibranium, leading said surface dwellers to invent a vibranium detector that led the ship from the opening scene to them.  He tells them that for peace to exist between his people and the Wakandans they would need to go to the United States and kidnap the scientist responsible for the creation of the vibranium detector, a task that sure seems like it won’t be the end of all of this.

There’s no real getting around it, killing off a major character like T’Challa off screen like they had to here, is pretty awkward.  It may well have been the best choice out of several bad options given the circumstances, but I’m not going to say they 100% pulled it off.  If you lived under a rock and somehow went to this Black Panther sequel having not heard about Boseman’s real life passing you would almost certainly find that to be a very peculiar storytelling decision and you may similarly find the film’s highly reverent, almost wake-like tone going forward a little odd as well (some future Marvel fan watching this for the first time in 2070 may well find the exercise rather tedious).  But MCU movies, even more so than normal movies, do not exist in a vacuum and audiences probably did need this.  And I’ll also say, and this is a bit morbid, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in some ways benefits from this turn of events because in many ways it kind of makes this a Marvel movie that isn’t actually a superhero movie for much of its runtime (because the actual superhero isn’t at the center of it).

That said, there’s a lot about this screenplay that’s kind of messy.  For one it’s kind of premised on this notion that the people of the world somehow view Wakanda as particularly vulnerable at that time because they don’t have a Black Panther, which is… odd.  Presumably Wakanda derives its strength from the fact that vibranium has made them technologically, economically, and militarily advanced… not because they had one superhero.  But the country that really seems to be making all the worst assessments here are the Talokans, who just seem to botch everything about this whole situation from the jump.  Ostensibly Namor wants an alliance with the Wakandans, which certainly seems like a natural partnership, but he gets off on the wrong foot pretty much from the beginning by immediately engaging in threats and ultimatums and demands rather than anything resembling good diplomacy.  They claim their ultimate goal is to conceal their existence from the wider world and specifically the United States but do so through violent actions that would almost certainly make them more of a target rather than less of one, at least if the CIA was halfway competent (which they plainly aren’t, there’s a whole subplot with Martin Freeman’s character that goes nowhere and feels like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay) while also getting the Wakandans to kidnap an American national despite seemingly being able to do so themselves.

Of course the Talokans here aren’t just fish people, they’re origins and iconography plainly make them an analog for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica if spared from the legacy of colonialism in the same way that Wakanda is an analog for the African culture when removed from the its legacy of colonial rule and I think the ultimate goal is to make this an extended metaphor about the way different sets of marginalized communities interact with one another and how all too often they find themselves pitted against one another instead of working together for a common goal.  Unfortunately I’m not sure the execution of this quite works.  One way to do this would have been to make the CIA, or barring that some sort of supervillain, the true villain in all of this who’s manipulating the two nations into their conflict.  In some ways that would be the easy way out, but the movie doesn’t really go there, the western powers end up being almost implausibly ignorant about the whole conflict for much of the runtime.  The other way is to make the conflict a result of bad actions on one or both sides that lead to this conflict, as tends to happen when major powers have conflicting interest, but I’m not sure Ryan Coogler quite had it in him to make Wakanda even somewhat responsible for this whole mess through their own malfeasance so he ends up making Namor quite the hothead and puts most of the responsibility for all this and the Talokans even though the movie does seem to want us to sympathize with them more than they really do.

Namor’s casus belli against the United States is that they had the gall to search for natural resources on what they had assumed to be uninhabited international waters leading to a rather disproportional retaliation that leaves a whole lot of innocent workers dead.  He then more or less blames the Wakandans for this for making the wider world aware that said resource exists, something they would have had no reason to think would affect anyone aside from themselves given that they don’t even know Talokan exists and then later for engaging in a rescue operation that’s pretty plainly justified.  So, really Wakanda is basically blameless in all this and I’m not sure they even really have that legitimate a beef with the rest of the surface world and that just makes this whole conflict seem like the act of a super villain, which I guess it is, but the movie doesn’t really act like that.  Midway through the movie we get something of an origin story for the Talokans which I think the movie expects to go a lot further in justifying their temperament, additionally once it’s shown I think the movie expects us to be a lot more wowed by their underwater society than we actually are in part because our look at it is really brief and cursory and in part just because it doesn’t really pull off the vision.  DC’s Atlantis did the whole concept more vividly and frankly James Cameron probably doesn’t need to worry too much about this movie eating his lunch once he takes us to Pandora’s oceans next month.

However, whatever shortcomings this script has, I will give it credit for at the very least not being a total slave to the MCU formula.  I don’t want to oversell this and make it seem like it’s some kind of revolutionary bit of storytelling that totally breaks the Marvel mold because it most certainly isn’t and there are other MCU movies like Eternals that have gone even further in subverting the tropes, but Coogler has clearly been given some latitude that other MCU projects haven’t and when it does get involved in crossover stuff it does it in ways that mostly feel natural and it’s not an MCU film that feels like it needs to insert one-liners into every page (which isn’t to say its humorless).  The action scenes here are a bit of a mixed bag with some of the sequences here maybe working a bit better in conception than in execution.  The visual effects work is generally stronger than they are in the first film (which seems to have been the victim of some of Marvel’s famous effects rush crunches) but they aren’t “next level shit” if you will and I’m not sure that these large scale CGI heavy battle scenes are quite Ryan Coogler’s forte, but the costumes and art direction remain very strong and there are some standout sequences that do work quite well.

What really saves this movie ultimately are the characters.  The original Black Panther is almost certainly the only MCU hero origin movie that had a strong enough supporting cast to have allowed them to carry sequel without the central hero.  Had, say, Benedict Cumberbatch been hit by a bus sometime after making the first Doctor Strange it is highly unlikely that anyone would have even considered making a sequel focused around the half formed side characters played by Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor but here we actually do have a pretty impressive cast and world to fall back on.  Interestingly this also means that this follow-up to Black Panther is a rather female dominated film with Letitia Wright’s Shuri ultimately becoming the film’s protagonist by the end but with Angela Bassett’s Ramonda and Danai Gurira’s Okoye essentially feeling like co-leads for much of the film and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia eventually also playing a big role and Winston Duke’s M’Baku also having an expanded role.  Dominique Thorne also comes into the movie in winning form and while I have some misgivings about his character’s arc Tenoch Huerta Mejía is quite the casting “find” in the role of Namor and he kind of elevates that character beyond what’s there on the page.  Really the only true weak link is Martin Freeman, who does the best he can with what feels like a really forced sub-plot that doesn’t really work.

So, when coming up with a final judgement on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever I’m a bit conflicted.  I definitely think it’s a step down from the first movie and that it won’t have the same crossover appeal to people who aren’t normally interested in superhero movies.  It manages to feel distinct from some Marvel movies simply by being something of an ensemble piece but that can also be a double edged swords.  There are certainly highlights to the film that really work and it carries over a lot of the first film’s craft triumphs, but its screenplay is perhaps not as complex as it could have been or wants to be and I just kind of feel like it could have been a lot more if certain things had been handled a bit better on the script level.  Frankly I suspect that the rush to re-shape the movie after Boseman’s death while maintaining a release date took a toll on the movie.  All that having been said, I do think the movie has more than enough going for it to make it enjoyable despite the flaws.  The film’s rather lengthy 161 minute runtime actually flies by pretty quickly and the scenes where the film stops to mourn Boseman and his character are in fact pretty affecting, and even if I don’t think they pull it off there is intrigue to be found in this conflict with Namor.  So I’m going to ultimately say I like this more than a lot of my complaining in this review would suggest, but those reservations are deep.
***1/2 out of Five

The Banshees of Inisherin(11/5/2022)

It seems like every year “Film Twitter” sees a movie that they suspect could win the Academy Award that year despite being unworthy and proceed to lash out at it out of all proportion in an attempt to prevent that.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they have it coming (everything that was said about Green Book is true) but all too often it means a lot of silly hyperbole gets thrown at perfectly decent movies like La La Land, Belfast, or The Trial of the Chicago Seven.  But the movie that I think received some of the most savagely unfair criticism that will seem bizarre in retrospect might be Martin McDonagh’s last film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  I don’t want to re-litigate the whole thing here but the extent to which that movie seemed to get distorted in “the discourse” bordered on the ridiculous and what was a really sly tragicomedy just turned into an argument about whether it’s broken idiot side character was sufficiently punished at the end as if this were subject to some sort of Production Code restriction where everyone has to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” with the bad guys are killed off or put in prison before the credits roll.  One of the strangest turns this discourse took was to throw around the notion that as a foreigner McDonagh somehow “botched” his take on the United States, as if this absurdist dark comedy was supposed to be a super literal documentary of what life in the Show-Me state was like.  But perhaps he took this criticism to heart as his new movie, The Banshees of Inisherin, is (as the title might suggest) one of the more aggressively Irish films to come along in a while.

The Inisherin of the film’s title is a fictional island somewhere off the coast of Ireland which seems to be a very modest agricultural community.  It’s 1923 and the Irish Civil War is going on nearby, but does not seem to have spread to Inisherin itself, so most of the population is pretty disconnected from it.  Our main point of view character is Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), a not very bright but mostly well-meaning farmer who lives with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a bookish lady who seems to mostly hang around to help her brother out.  It would seem that his main means of passing time for a while has been to hang around with his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a solitary man who plays the violin and seems to be in something of a depressive phase.  One day Pádraic tries to sit down with Colm at a pub to have a drink when Colm rather abruptly tells him he no longer wants to hang out with him or be his friend.  He says he’s come to realize he was wasting his life away listening to Pádraic’s inane stories and the he just simply does not like him anymore.  Distraught, Pádraic keeps trying to interact with Colm until Colm finally snaps and issues an ultimatum: if Pádraic tries to talk to him one more time he’ll use a pair of sheers and cut off one of his own fingers and will keep mutilating himself this way until he’s left with no fingers left to play his violin with.

The whole situation at the center of the film is kind of an interesting bit of a moral quandary as you contemplate how much you sympathize with what Colm is doing here.  On one hand, Colm has a right to hang out with whoever he wants to and Pádraic is not somehow entitled to continued friendship with Colm or with anyone else.  On the other hand, Colm is being awfully cold about all of this and while a friendship isn’t exactly a marriage there is a point where if you willingly build an identity around hanging out with someone it sure seems hurtful to just leave them hanging like this, especially when you live on some desolate island in a time before mass communication where there aren’t many other people to hang out with and not much else to do.  That Pádraic is also “dull,” possibly to the point of having some sort of undiagnosed mental disability, and generally doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life also makes you increasingly feel like he has some increased duty to be his brother’s keeper here.  As a priest tells Colm in the movie at one point, what he’s doing is “not a sin, but it’s not very nice either.”

At the end of the day, what Colm is doing is plainly not reasonable.  He may well have logical reasons to not indulge Pádraic at all times but there’s a lot of middle ground between listening to this guy talk about literal horse ship for two solid hours and cutting him off completely under threat of self-mutilation.  A reasonable person would have simply set off some boundaries with which he would remain somewhat amiable with Pádraic without hanging out for hours with him for hours on end, or at least more slowly ween Pádraic off of this friendship.  And of course the self-mutilation threats are just deranged.  This is, at the end of the day a movie about unreasonable people, and I think this is where the Irish Civil War that’s happening on the film’s periphery comes into it, which I think this whole thing is meant to be something of a metaphor for.  I’m not an expert about that conflict and I don’t think the specifics necessarily matter, you could probably replace it for any other intractable conflict of that sort where former comrades have a falling out over something that doesn’t seem terribly important to outsiders and things start to get bloody and painful quickly.

Amidst all of this, Martin McDonagh’s dark wit is still very much on display here.  The film is perhaps a bit closer to his stage roots than some of the other films he’s made, in part because it’s ultimately a story about interactions between a small handful of characters and it’s in the kind of contained universe of Inisherin, but that isn’t to say that the movie feels “stagebound” and it was definitely written for the screen.  Perhaps more importantly it he’s displaying a playwrights skill for turning the interpersonal conflict of a few people into something representative of much larger and more universal themes.  And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is a bit of a reunion for McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson after the three made In Bruges together and clearly all of them have a strong rapport with each other. That said the movie is a bit less commercial than In Burges, and for that matter it’s also less experimental than Seven Psychopaths and also feels a bit smaller scale and less topical than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so I’m not sure I’d say this is a real leap forward for McDonagh, but it will likely be less divisive than some of his previous work and stands on its own pretty well.
**** out of Five


Trying to make thematic connections between a set or even a pair of films released in a given year is probably a fool’s errand that’s mostly a game of coincidence spotting.  Zeitgeists exist, but years are arbitrary and especially these days production schedules and release calendars are fickle.  That said, it sure is crazy that in 2022 we’ve managed to get outlandish and fairly large scale biopics of the two wildly entertainers that represented sex in popular culture for men and women respectively in the otherwise rather repressed 1950s.  Of course the first of these was Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy if wildly uneven Elvis Presley biopic simply titled Elvis and now Andrew Dominik’s harrowing and provocative Marylyn Monroe biopic Blonde.  This is interesting to me because I think both of these subjects are notable for being undeniable cultural icons but also for being people whose full appeal can sort of be lost if you don’t have a certain amount of context.  One has to understand what culture was like before Elvis to understand why his simple rockabilly tunes and pelvic gyrations would cause such a sensation.  Similarly, while it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marylyn Monroe was a great screen presence with some legitimate performance chops to boot, in a vacuum it would be hard to tell just how much her particular brand of sexuality was missing from screens before and why it was so enticing to people encountering such a type for the first time.  So there’s a comparison to be made between these movies, but Blonde is a much more prickly item than Elvis and one that is likely to divide people.

Blonde was originally written as a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which was published in the year 2000.  That book was explicitly marketed as a work of fiction rather than a biography even though the character at its center was explicitly Marilyn Monroe and the identities of various side characters like “the ex-athlete” and “the playwright” were not exactly hard to suss out.  Essentially it was a book interested in “printing the legend” of Monroe’s life and it tells her story under the assumption that every rumor and conspiracy theory about her life is true, including her dalliances with the Kennedys.  This film adaptation mostly follows in that tradition; it begins with a preteen Norma Jean (Lily Fisher) being raised by a mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson) before being separated from her after a particularly dangerous situation.  From there we transition to an adult Monroe (Ana de Armas) as she begins a career in Hollywood that is abusive on several levels and her personal life will lead her to several high profile names including but not limited to Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody).

The real Marilyn Monroe is someone whose legacy has largely been built on a certain duality.  Onscreen she played lighthearted sexy roles in what were mostly comedies, but everyone now knows that she actually lived a very complicated and sad life and her early death gives her something of that “27 club dead rock star” martyr aura.  In fact she’s become something of a patron saint of female suffering and her life’s story has come to represent the pain that can lie beneath beauty.  And this is very much the Monroe iconography that Joyce Carol Oates was exploring in her novel and by extension what Andrew Dominik is trying to get at and the approach is to depict everything that was wrong and painful about Monroe’s experience in all their extremity.  So, this definitely isn’t what you’d call a “feel good” biopic or movie… at all.  Monroe’s experiences of child abuse and abandonment early in life are pretty harrowing right up front and kind of establish her as something of a psychological time bomb right from the beginning, and Hollywood (and the rest of society) very much fails to treat her with the kind of sensitivity required given that.  Instead her every relationship kind of represents different kinds of ways that men can hurt women from the manipulations of Cass Chaplin, to the outright domestic violence exhibited by Joe DiMaggio, to the condescension of Arthur Miller, to… the whole swath of issues with the Kennedy relationship.  It all adds up into something of an extended explanation for why Monroe finally took her own life in the end.

So, there’s definitely a lot to be said about what this movie is trying to do in the aggregate but there are some things about the film’s approach that maybe undermine the message a little.  For one, Andrew Dominik is a bold director but I’m not necessarily sure he’s the most sensitive soul in the world, there’s a touch of the edgelord to him.  This is after all the guy who ended his last movie with someone saying “America’s not a country, it’s just a business, now fucking pay me!” and then playing that “I need money, that’s what I want” song over the credits.  He can be a little blunt, is what I’m saying and I’m not sure that “bluntness” is exactly the perfect approach for a story about an abused and suicidal woman.  Much has been made of the fact that the film is rather sexually explicit, which I suppose is true by Hollywood standards though there is a bit less skin than I was perhaps expecting given some of the pre-release buzz.  That sort of thing doesn’t necessarily bother me though there is perhaps a certain tone deafness inherent in taking the life of someone defined by the male gaze and then being a bit, shall we say unshy about literally and figuratively exposing them.  Additionally there’s a bit of an unpleasant irony in how little the movie seems to care about Monroe’s actual acting process given that she was someone who in life was so often dismissed as untalented eye candy.  I also think I kind of hated the extent to which a desire for children seems to define Monroe here and Dominik is at his most blunt and crude in depicting this aspect of the film in ways that border on the offensive and slanderous.

For these reasons and others I’m not sure I can say that the movie fits easily within modern feminist storytelling ideals or typical sensibilities generally, but there is something to be said for great art needing to provoke rather than fitting easily with sensibilities generally and there are elements of this film which certainly feel like great art alongside other moments that maybe feel a bit misjudged.  The film shifts between black and white and color as well as between various aspect ratios throughout its running time and there didn’t seem to be any particular pattern or logic to this that I could discern.  It kind of just seemed like Dominik chose whatever format felt right for any given scene or shot and went with it, which is an approach that we’ve seen more and more of in recent years and I’m coming to kind of question the wisdom of it but there are definitely times when it works here.  There are individual scenes here which are kind of brilliant and other scenes that are kind of crazy but are certainly rendered brilliantly, but then occasionally the film will indulge an idea or two that just seems kind of daft.  Then there are scenes that kind of blend both of the film’s instincts, like a late sequence in the film depicting a Kennedy related conspiracy theory that’s incredibly well shot and creepily rendered… but is also basically outlandish slander.  I wonder if I might have found the film easier to defend if it had taken on an additional layer of overt fictionalization, even something as minor as changing the protagonist’s name and a couple of other identifying details.

So did I like this movie?  Well, that’s a hard question.  I was completely engaged while watching it, usually for the right reasons.  The movie kept me guessing as to where it was going to go stylistically and was quite impressed with some of its stronger sequences, but I also watched it never quite knowing if I could entirely get behind what it was doing with the bigger picture.  It’s a mix of concerns that leaves me feeling a little silly trying to reduce my feelings about the film down to a star rating or some pat little tagline.  One thing I do know is that I certainly preferred it to Elvis, the film I was comparing it to at the beginning.  That certainly wasn’t a movie with a “take” that required me to work out the ethics of and its stylistic risks weren’t nearly as successful, but there is a certain recklessness at the center of both films that I do think makes the comparison legitimate.  Blonde maybe could have stood to be as interested in Monroe’s actual acting as Elvis was in Presley’s actual musical talents, and Elvis could have stood to be a bit more hard hitting about its subject’s messy personal life and flaws like Blonde is but Blonde’s worst element (the fetus shit) is not as omnipresent as Elvis’ worst element (the Tom Hanks performance) so I think my preference is pretty clear.  I don’t think I’m done making up my mind about this one and will probably revisit it someday; such is the nature of material that’s challenging and provocative.  For now I do view this as something that is if nothing else more than worth fighting through some discomfort with in order to reckon with even if I do ultimately decide I’m not on board with its biographical ethics.
***1/2 out of Five