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

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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

Blonde(9/25/2022)

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 

The Batman(3/7/2021)

Remember when Batman movies were rare and each new film seemed like an event?  I remember that, and I must say I’m coming to kind of miss it.  In theory the newest Batman reboot, The Batman, is the first solo movie about the caped crusader since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises but in-between we’ve gotten two major movies with Batman fighting as part of a team (one of them released in two different forms), one high profile movie about his greatest villain, three movies in the Suicide Squad-verse (which is fairly intertwined with Gotham), a live action TV series (“Gotham”), several animated films and shows, several video games, a Lego movie… there’s been a lot.  On some level maybe it’s my fault for watching all this stuff, like someone who gorges on a ridiculous amount of ice cream for a week and then lashes out when someone invites them to go get more ice cream, but at the same time Warner Brothers has been pushing all this stuff and I’m not going to apologize for taking them up on it.  It’s a bit of a contrast with what Marvel does, which is certainly culturally omnipresent in terms of the overall brand but they are pretty diligent about carefully doling out their specific characters in reasonable portions so that you don’t get sick of them individually as quickly.  By contrast Warner Brothers/DC seems to know Batman is their one most consistent performer so they just give us version after version of Gotham over and over.  Of course it kind of sucks that I’m coming to feel this way right when one of their most ambitious Batman films hits theaters, and that movie’s trailer was just cool enough to make be pretty pumped to give it a chance.

This is not a sequel to any previous iteration of Batman but it’s also not exactly another origin story.  In comics parlance this is a “year two” story that begins with Batman (Robert Pattinson) already being an established vigilante in Gotham City but still early in his crime fighting career and the public isn’t really sure what to make of him.  He faces his greatest challenge as the film starts when Gotham’s mayor, Don Mitchell Jr. ( Rupert Penry-Jones), is assassinated by an elusive killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) who leaves intentional clues at the scene to taunt the police and Batman.  Soon other officials start being killed as well and Riddler starts releasing videos to the public suggesting his victims were all part of some sort of vast citywide conspiracy.  This will force Batman to coordinate with Detective Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate some of the mob leaders running crime in the city like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right hand man Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) to figure out what this conspiracy is and cut off Riddler and one of the strongest leads is the suspected murder of a woman named Annika Koslov (Hana Hrzic), whose roommate just happens to be a skilled cat bugler named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) who while investigating that death finds she has common cause with Batman.

At this point it is perhaps a bit stale to compliment a Batman movie for taking a “dark” and “gritty” approach to the character but… this movie is certainly pretty damn dark though perhaps a bit less gritty than some of the previous adaptations.  Where The Dark Knight trilogy leaned into trying to make some of the comic book insanity of the character fit within the template of more familiar action movie tropes this one leans a bit more into giving the movie the feel of a comic book.  Not necessarily a silver age comic book like what the Marvel movies are drawing on or the edgelord comics of the 80s but more like the feel of contemporary comic books that are a bit more nonchalant with their darkness and are characterized by a bit of glossiness in the art.  In terms of story this is plainly drawing on the classic comic book limited series “The Long Halloween.”  It doesn’t have the holiday jumping element of that book and doesn’t involve the two-face character, but like that series it’s a “year two” story that sort of explains how Gotham’s mob families lost control giving way to the criminal supervillains Batman would become more famous for fighting and like that series it delves into the question of whether Thomas Wayne was everything he was cracked up to be.

In place of Two Face the film uses a version of The Riddler who is depicted as a sort of serial killer with delusions of fomenting revolution by revealing Gotham’s dark secrets.  I… have some mixed feelings about this take on the character.  The Riddler is historically a character about the dark side of intelligence, a sort of dark mirror image of the “nerd” comic book reader who has become so smug about his own intelligence that he builds these elaborate crime plans to prove how smart he is to the world.  On some level this Riddler has shades of that but he’s a lot angrier and his scheme is more of a sincere if twisted crusade than an exercise in ego presentation.  Also, while the traditional Riddler is not above killing it’s not his raison d’etre while this guy is rather actively targeting murdering people in fairly sadistic and attention getting ways to start off his crime spree which is presented as a sort of PG-13 version of a Saw movie and once we learn more about him he starts to resemble the killer from Se7en almost to the point of plagiarism and by the end of the film he’s almost just a barking lunatic who does not exactly seem capable of the elaborate planning and coordination that’s required to bring about the evil scheme that eventually unfolds.

Having said all that I mostly did like Paul Dano’s performance in that role, which is saying something because I’m usually not that into Dano’s work.  Dude certainly dedicates himself to what he’s doing.  In fact I’d say a lot of the acting in this is quite good.  Colin Ferrell is really fun as this mobbed up take on The Penguin where he’s caked in makeup to the point of near unrecognizability but does manage to make some real energy come out from under all that just the same.  The villains are rounded out by John Turturro as the gangster Carmine Falcone, who isn’t exactly stretching himself here but is certainly has some nice touches, particularly his understated delivery of a key speech late in the film.  On the other side of the law I quite dug Jeffrey Wright as Gordon and Peter Sarsgaard does some good work as Gotham’s not very trustworthy district attorney.  Andy Serkis is here as the film’s version of Alfred, who does a good job but I wouldn’t say it’s the most interesting or memorable take on this familiar character.  Then there’s Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman who is just incredibly striking pretty much every time you see her on screen.  Her take on the character is well in line to the antihero quasi-love interest version of the character that’s been in vogue as of late.  We saw a similar take from Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises but this version is a bit more “punk rock” down to Kravitz’ short Halsey-esque haircut and general body language.

Having said that, I’m not exactly sure that catwoman was entirely necessary to this story.  I would miss Kravitz’ take on the character but we’re dealing with a movie that’s nearly three hours and while I’m not inherently opposed to that I do think this particular movie does feel a tad bloated, which is exacerbated by having something of a false ending about forty minutes from the end and it’s the Catwoman material that, more than anything else, feels like a needless appendage on top of the story rather than an intrinsic element within it. I would also say that I’m not sure I can get behind the political undercurrents of all this.  On the positive side, I think there’s value to a movie about questioning the histories of certain heroes (in this case Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne) and whether they were as virtuous as they claimed, which is useful in a time when the legacies of so many past historical figures are having their legacies re-evaluated.  On the other hand I’m less interested in getting behind something that argues that the entire establishment is corrupt and all the “elites” are colluding, as The Riddler is trying to expose given how much damage similar outlandish populist conspiracy theories (like the one involving the seventeenth letter of the alphabet) have done as of late.  Obviously this attitude is being put into the mouth of a villain, but the movie only really questions his methods, not his mission and he’s more or less vindicated as correct about most of what he’s trying to expose.

So, I have some issues with this movie but I kind of knew when I started this review that it was going to end up seeming more negative sounding than my overall feelings about the movie actually are.  My the record show that I do in fact like this movie quite a bit, if this had come out before superhero and specifically Batman movies were overexposed beyond belief (say, in the summer of 2008) I would have probably been over the moon about it.  But I think I’ve become a bit jaded through overexposure and I may well have just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw it because I just do not have that palpable sense of excitement that this should theoretically be giving me.  Minute to minute much of Matt Reeves’ filmmaking here is extremely impressive.  Some of the action scenes are a bit choppily editing, but they’re accentuated by some really cool moments that make up for this.  Gotham looks better than ever between Greig Fraser nicely amber brown cinematography and production design that gives the city more of a modern New York appearance than what we’ve mostly gotten out of modern Batman adaptations.  I also appreciated what Robert Pattinson was able to do with the character, especially when he was in costume and taking part in fights.  I think if they had just given Batman a bit more of a break before making this I would have been more excited but Warner Brothers apparently can’t afford breaks anymore.

**** out of Five