Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery(11/23/2022)

            The 2019 film Knives Out holds a weird spot in my mind in that I basically enjoyed it quite a bit and consider its success to have been a net positive for the film industry, and yet I didn’t really love it or take it terribly seriously and found it odd when I saw people put it on their annual top ten lists and the like.  Honestly I kind of feel that way about the whole “whodunit” genre, which I tend to like more in the aggregate than in its individual examples.  I can, for instance, say that Agatha Christie was a master of her form while not really considering any of her books are some sort of masterpiece of literature.  They tend to be pretty enjoyable while you watch them but they don’t really stick with you and that would certainly be the case with Knives Out.  Additionally, Knives Out was the work of Rian Johnson, a filmmaker who has spent much of his career walking a line between clever and irritating and while he mostly stayed on the clever side of the line with that move he stepped over into “irritating” on occasion.  Despite that, it was a good movie despite some elements that annoyed me and it seemed like a foregone conclusion and I was interested to see them.  But then in a plot twist it was revealed that the sequels would not be made by the original film’s distributor, Lionsgate, but would instead be produced by Netflix.  So now what should be the one successful modern franchise to not involve dudes in capes is only going to spend one week in theaters before spending the rest of its life on a streaming service.

            Though this is ostensibly a sequel, it discards all the characters from the original Knives Out aside from the central detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he becomes embroiled in a new mystery.  This one is set in the spring of 2020 and looks at a party being thrown by the eccentric millionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) at his island estate dubbed “The Glass Onion.”  This party is meant to be a faux murder mystery, which seems to be why Blanc has been summoned but the rest of the guests are old friends of Bron including the governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hahn), the head scientist at Bron’s company Alpha (Leslie Odom Jr.), a rather dimwitted fashion designer (Kate Hudson) along with her long suffering PR head (Jessica Henwick), an alt-right “influencer” (Dave Bautista), his wife (Madelyn Cline), and most surprisingly Bron’s former partner in business Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had been on the outs with the whole group ever since being ousted from Alpha in some sort of dramatic fashion. Things seem to be going more or less as planned but the dinner murder mystery Bron has planned doesn’t go quite as he’d hoped and suddenly the mystery starts to be less fictional and more dangerous than expected. 

            One of the biggest problems I had with the original Knives Out was the Benoit Blanc character and Daniel Craig’s performance in the role.  Having Daniel Craig play this part with a ludicrous southern accent like he walked off the set of a community theater production of a Tennessee Williams play is just not a joke I get and I’m not sure why more people don’t have a problem with it.  My opinion about that hasn’t changed here but I do quite like the rest of the cast.  Janelle Monáe is a real standout in the movie, especially after the first act, when additional dimensions are revealed about the character.  The other standout is probably Kate Hudson, who’s character is just a hilariously vapid ditz, the kind of person who’d get in trouble for a Halloween costume and not understand why people didn’t understand her “tribute” to Beyoncé.  Edward Norton also manages to really tap into his character’s narcissism and there’s also good work from Kathryn Hahn, Jessica Henwick, and Leslie Odom Jr.  Really the only person I didn’t care for here was Dave Bautista, who I think was a bit miscast as his character is supposed to be this over-compensating wimp rather than a true man’s man and casting a dude who looks like The Incredible Hulk kind of plays against that.

            The other big complaint I had about Knives Out was that some of the humor, particularly a strange character trait involving vomit, struck me as kind of dumb and contrived.  There are a couple of similar contrivances here that I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers, but there’s nothing as egregious as that.  There was, of course, also humor in that first movie that worked, particularly its elements of social satire around the mores of upper middle class old money types.  That element is even stronger here, but the targets are now the worst habits of the modern nouveau riche, particularly the lifestyle of its central character who is almost certainly based on Elon Musk.  It is perhaps a rich irony that this movie, which is clearly about how much of a dick Musk is, is coming out right when he’s really come mask off as a truly malignant presence in the world with his acquisition of Twitter.  It’s ironic because in many ways this is a movie that kind of feels like it was made to impress people who are what you’d call “massively online” and who spend a lot of time on that “bird app.”  The suspects here are broadly representative of the biggest villains on Twitter: Musk, normie insincere politicians, red pill types, imminently cancelable “influencers,” etc.  I of course don’t like those people either, but I kind of know when I’m being pandered to, and these are kind of easy targets.  On that level I think the first Knives Out might be the more accessible and restrained work and I think the solution to its mystery is a bit cleverer.  On the other hand, this movie has a cooler set and is generally more confident and is just generally funnier so it’s a bit of a draw.  I think I’ll more or less leave it at that, I still don’t think this really rises to the point of being some of the year’s finest cinema or anything but it’s a very fun time and I kind of wish I lived in times when that felt less like the exception.
***1/2 out of Five

Advertisement

House of Gucci(12/1/2021)

You watch enough movies and you start to learn about certain topics that you otherwise would not be terribly interested in.  For instance I, a man whose wardrobe almost entirely consists of overshirts bought at JC Penny and copywrite defying pop culture T-shirts bought on the internet, and come to know way more about “haute couture” and the industry that produces it than I ever wanted to know because the world keeps making movies about fashion.  For example, by keeping up with the latest documentaries I found myself watching things like Valentino: The Last Emperor and the Alexander McQueen documentary McQueen; not things I would normally seek out, but people were talking about those movies so I gave them a watch.  I also know way more about Gianni Versace because his assassination was the subject of the second season of American Crime Story and learned the name “Halston” because Ewan McGregor starred in a Netflix mini-series about that apparently famous designer.  More in the abstract I know more than I wanted to know about the London fasion world of the 50s because Paul Thomas Anderson thought to set his 2017 film Phantom Thread in that milieu and I learned that Paris had a “fashion week” because Robert Altman decided to make Prêt-à-Porter.  I also likely never would have heard the name “Tom Ford” had he not adopted filmmaking as a side project and made the films A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals recently… or at least I wouldn’t have heard of him until very recently as he becomes a small character late in the most recent fashion related film I found myself seeing: Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci.

House of Gucci begins in the 1970s with the titular “house” having been formed fifty years earlier and already existing as an empire, albeit perhaps an empire in decline.  The company’s founder died in the 1950s and it is now run by his two sons: Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons).  But our focus is on the emerging third generations of Gucci’s and particularly on Rodolfo’s only son Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).  Maurizio seems like a typically aimless “rich kid” at the start but his life starts to come more into focus when he meets Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), whose family runs a successful but ultimately blue collar trucking company.  Rodolfo does not approve of the pairing and disowns Maurizio when he refuses to leave her.  This leads him to his uncle Aldo, who wants to keep Maurizio in the family and views him as being more competent than his own son, the rather foolish Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto), much to Paolo’s annoyance.  Eventually Maurizio finds himself firmly an heir-apparent to the family business but his wife views his work as far from done.  She sees Aldo running the business into the ground by diluting the brand’s mystique and together they come up with a scheme to take the reins from him, but it won’t be pretty and if you know anything about Maurizio’s fate you know that all of this leads to some dark ends.

House of Gucci is in many ways kind of a movie at war with itself, by which I mean that a lot of the people involved with it seem to have been going for different things.   Let’s start with what the film’s screenwriters, Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, seemed to be doing.  These two seem to take the movie very seriously and viewed it as something along the lines of The Social Network: a movie about ambition and betrayal within the cutthroat world behind the scenes of an iconic brand.  On top of that the screenplay has kind of a Lady MacBeth dynamic going on between Maurizio and Patrizia as she prods him towards the head of the “house” and there’s also something of a true crime story in the middle of it all.  Meanwhile, I think what attracted Ridley Scott to the project as an opportunity to look at the lives of extreme wealth and act as something of a companion piece to his film All the Money in the World.  Scott (net worth: $400 million) increasingly seems to be interested in what money does to people and their families and I think he would have been interested in how this basically depicts a family losing an empire through affluenzic dysfunction.  Both of these visions are more or less compatible with each other and notably involve a pretty serious look at this story and a focus on the House of Gucci as more or less interchangeable with any other high end business whose status as a fashion house is basically incidental.

The people who did not get the memo about all this are the actors, who clearly think they were cast in a Ryan Murphy show about outlandish tabloid figures.  As you can tell from the summery this is a cast made up of American and British actors all playing various Italians and rather than take the “just use you normal accent” approach Ridley Scott favored in The Last Duel the film is largely in accented English that ranges from “nice try” to the downright ridiculous.  Adam Driver is probably the one who’s trying to give the most “normal” performance here though I’m not sure his accent is any more consistent or accurate than the others.  Al Pacino is a little closer to his normal shouty screen persona than some of the people here and is mostly notable in his willingness to seem like a somewhat grotesque old man in the movie.  Lady Gaga is probably the one who’s going over the top in a good way one that’s almost necessary given that Patrizia Reggiani seems to be a pretty legitimately nutty person.  Then there’s Jared Leto who is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup which make him look like a sort of Mafioso Ron Jeremy and talks in an accent that makes him sound like a long lost Mario brother.  He’s… doing a lot.

I have my doubts that Ridley Scott, a no nonsense filmmaker whose five years older than Joe Biden, was intentionally trying to turn the film into a piece of camp but, he was the one directing all these crazy performances and he can’t have been completely oblivious to what these people were doing.  I guess on some level that’s because he knows that audiences aren’t going to be interested in the same thing from this story as he does so he let things get a little crazy along the way.  But you know what?  I think the movie still works.  At a certain point Stockholm syndrome takes over and you just get used to the crazy accents and they stop bothering you, then you just let yourself get caught up in this wacky true crime story about outlandish people stabbing each other in the back.  The seemingly contradictory tones of the various parties involved seem to kind of balance each other out into a certain alchemical equilibrium and Ridley Scott proves to just be talented enough to hold everything together.  Make no mistake this movie is still kind of a mess with a host of melodramatic bits that are probably regrettable but I’ll be damned if I didn’t come away from it having had a pretty good time.

*** out of Five

The Green Knight(7/30/2021)

Last year when Covid was destroying the film industry we saw major releases like F9: The Fast Saga, Black Widow, and No Time to Die play musical chairs with release dates as they moved back to maximize profits through theatrical releases.  But that didn’t happen so much with that year’s indie releases like Nomadland and The Sound of Metal, which were low budget enough that they didn’t need millions in box office revenue to make a profit, so rather than waiting for true theatrical releases they found various ways to show up on streaming and went out.  There was, however, one indie distributor which (with a few exceptions) opted not to play that game and that was A24.  In particular I think their film The Green Knight was emblematic of this: it was set to debut at the 2020 South By Southwest Film Festival leading up to a May 2020 release, but the festival was cancelled, the release was cancelled, and fun and good times were cancelled.  But A24 didn’t go running to CBS All Access or whatever with their movie; instead much like the big studios they decided to hold out for a theatrical release for their crazy looking horror inflected Arthurian Legend movie… a decision I support wholeheartedly.  Well, the time has finally arrived for David Lowery’s new movie to come out so the big question is “was it worth the wait?”

The film is a cinematic adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a fourteenth century epic poem from an unknown author that exists within the legend of King Arthur and concerns a wager made between an impulsive young knight named Sir Gawain and a supernatural entity called simply The Green Knight.  In the poem the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who here is this strange entity which resembles a walking tree, rides into Arthurs court on Christmas Day and gives an open challenge to those present: fight him in one on one combat and if you can land a blow on him you get to keep his axe but must meet him at his green chapel a year later and take a blow from him.  Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts the challenge but once the duel begins The Green Knight drops his weapon and sticks out his neck, which Gawain takes advantage of and lops off the creature’s head.  This was a mistake however, as the creature simply picks the head back up and rides off laughing.  Gawain is now on the hook to venture out a year later to meet his fate at the chapel and much of the film concerns that journey.

Going into The Green Knight I was not really aware of how much of a direct adaptation of a particular old text it was; indeed the film very closely follows the opening setup of the original text but greatly expands its middle and completely changes its ending but despite those changes it does seem to be very interested in preserving the legend’s medieval peculiarities even as it uses very modern techniques and aesthetic sensibilities to bring them to the screen.  The film’s opening wager, for example, makes very little sense.  What exactly does this guy have to gain from taking up this duel with the Green Knight?  “Winning” this duel seems to do little except place a burden on his head, we have no idea why having this axe for a year will be of any use to him, and the whole thing really obviously seems like a trap.  Still he goes ahead with it anyway, seemingly out of some arcane notion of honor, and the film goes along with it fairly unquestioningly and it also shows certain supernatural moments pretty overtly in a way that was almost reminiscent of Darren Arronofsky’s radically literal adaptation of the Noah story.  Then when the Gawain goes on his journey the film departs from the original text, which I understand sort of yada yada yadas the actual journey, but I get the impression that the stories along the way which the film does depict are also drawn from legend and folklore to some extent, particularly a stand-out section involving a skull in a spring.

The film was directed by David Lowery, who is certainly an auteur but one who does tend to switch up his choice of subject matter and sort of leaves you guessing as to what to expect from one of his movies.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Old Man & the Gun both revealed an aesthetic love of 60s and 70s cinema while A Ghost Story is very minimalist and psychological but all of his films betray a certain interest in legend as a storytelling method and that is perhaps taken to its logical extreme with this movie that almost wants to be a medieval chronicle, but one brought to the screen using the aesthetics of the “A24 horror film” (despite not being a horror film).  The Green Knight himself looks like a creature out of a Guillermo del Toro movie and the film’s sets are built in a way where they feel intimate despite being literal castles and the forests are moody in a way that’s almost expressionistic.  The film’s title, applied to the modern vernacular, would suggest that the whole thing may have an environmentalist message and there are a couple shots in there that suggest that there may be something of that hidden in there, but the bigger message is probably more of a modern twist on the moral of the original story which is to do with chivalric virtue and masculinity of which this is a lot less forgiving than the original bard who came up with all of this.  I’ll leave it at that for now as this is probably not a movie to be decoded on a first viewing, but needless to say I think this movie is a cool and kind of trippy experience that is more than worth a viewing though it certainly won’t be for everyone.

**** out of Five

Godzilla Vs. Kong(4/4/2021)

If there’s any review from the last couple years I might want to revise it’s probably my 2019 review for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which I gave a pretty generous three stars to while the rest of the world pretty much hated it.  Should I have given it that passing grade?  Yes.  In fact if I was being honest I probably would have knocked it up to three and a half out of five, because if ever there was a movie that worked for me in spite of itself it was probably that one.  The parts of that movie where humans talked to one another were irredeemably stupid and clichéd, but the scenes with the humans have kind of always been stupid in Godzilla movies but the monsters themselves have rarely looked as amazing as they did in that movie and that made up for a lot.  Godzilla himself looked rad but so did his various sparring partners, Ghidorah in particular really just dominated the screen when he showed up and I also liked the movie’s take on Mothra and Rodan and the way the movie took this stupidity like a deadly serious disaster movie just kind of spoke to me.  It might have been garbage, but it was MY kind of garbage dammit!  That having been said I have not been terribly excited for its follow-up Godzilla Vs Kong, in part because seeing our boy fight a monkey just didn’t strike me as being terribly exciting after having already seen him go mano-a-mano with a giant tri-headed space dragon and also because Kong: Skull Island, while a fun movie unto itself, didn’t really set that version of Kong up as being someone I viewed as ever being a match for this version of Godzilla.  But as the film has rolled out as something of a surprise late pandemic hit I did have some interest in tuning into it on HBO Max to see where the franchise went.

The film is set about five years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and several decades after Kong: Skull Island.  Over the course of those years Skull Island has been locked down by Monarch, holding Kong on the island, which now has a high tech roof that mimics the sky but he’s clearly not happy.  He does seem to have established some communication via sign language with a deaf girl living on the island named Jia (Kaylee Hottle) but is far less trusting of the other Monarch staff like her adopted mother Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and fellow scientist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård).  The status quo around titans is, however, upended when Godzilla suddenly attacks a company called Apex Cybernetics off the Florida coast, which prompts the company’s CEO (Demián Bichir) to propose further exploration of “the hollow earth,” an expedition that will involve transporting Kong to Antarctica.  Meanwhile a staff member at Apex (Brian Tyree Henry), who is also something of a conspiracy theorist who suspects there’s some shady stuff happening at Apex and enlists the kid from Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Millie Bobby Brown) and her friend (Julian Dennison) to investigate it.

In 2019 Godzilla Vs. Kong found itself in sort of the same position as another recent Warner Brothers movie, the infamous Justice League, a movie whose post-production travails continue to reverberate to this day.  Like that movie Godzilla Vs. Kong was already deep in production when its predecessor movie came out and was rather poorly received.  Unlike that movie, Godzilla Vs. Kong was already going to be directed by a different director than the one who allegedly failed the franchise in the past and was always going to take it in a slightly different direction, but I can’t help but suspect that there was some panicked studio tampering nonetheless because the final film kind of feels like a cut down mess.  It’s a movie where way too much is happening all at once; there are a bunch of separate groups of people going through their own separate plotlines and it takes too long for their relevance to one another to become apparent and just too many uninteresting nondescript characters in general who are never really introduced.  Beyond that people seem to make really out there decisions (like transporting giant gorillas on ships) way too quickly and major concepts (like the existence of a hollow earth) are introduced way too quickly.  I’ve conceded that all the human stuff in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is clichéd clunky nonsense, but it was at the very least straightforward and understandable clichéd clunky nonsense, and while I certainly don’t think this needs some kind of four hour director’s cut but an extra twenty minutes might have done it some good.

Of course when the actual monsters do start fighting things do start to pick up a bit.  There’s a set-piece about half way into the film where Godzilla attacks a carrier group and Kong starts fighting back that definitely delivers on what audiences are looking for from a movie called Godzilla Vs. Kong and there are aspects of the film’s finale that also work pretty well, but it should be noted that the kaiju action here is a bit cartoonier than what we saw in the Legendary Godzilla films, which tried to emphasize the titular lizard’s mystery and majesty.  For better or worse this should probably be viewed more as a sequel to Kong: Skull Island, but it’s a bit awkward in that regard as well because that movie was set during the 1970s and it feels like we skipped over a sequel that would have brought Kong into the 21st century prior to his meeting with Godzilla and developments on Skull Island kind of get glossed over with brief lines of dialogue.  So, the movie has some problems and generally isn’t what I’m looking for out of these movies, but I can see how it’s closer to what some other people might be looking for.  It’s the kind of modern blockbuster that frequently shows its hand and winks to the audience to let them know that it knows it’s kind of stupid and there are a lot of people who are going to prefer that to the borderline pretentiousness of those other Godzilla movies, and there is generally enough cool stuff in the movie for me to not particularly dislike having seen it.  That’s probably how I feel about the “MonsterVerse” itself at this point, it’s kind of a mess, but I basically like that it exists.

**1/2 out of Five

The Hunt(3/13/2020)

The Blumhouse produced horror film The Hunt was originally intended to come out on September 27th 2019 but this was derailed, ostensibly out of sensitivity to the mass shootings that occurred in Dayton and El Paso that occurred a month before the release but what’s really thought to have been behind it was the fact that some right-wing outlets heard vague descriptions of it, interpreted it as an assault on them, and saw it as an opportunity to create an “us against them” narrative about “Hollywood elites.”  Trump himself even made vague comments about it at a rally.  At the time I viewed this delay as something of an outrage.  A cowardly attempt to stifle what looked at least from the trailers to be an attempt to combine social commentary with genre elements.  Mind you I barely knew anything about the movie I was defending, and in many ways that was beside the point, I didn’t want the incident to have a chilling effect on future movies that would try to do things along those lines.  Beyond that, the fact that this was now forbidden fruit made me a whole lot more interested in seeing it than I was before, partly out of the long long history of the best movies becoming “controversial” powder kegs that spark debates and outlast their critics in the long run.  Also, frankly, there’s a certain kneejerk instinct to support anything that Donald Trump seems to hate.  But now the film is back, this time with an advertising campaign that leans into the controversy by claiming to be the most talked about movie of the year (which it objectively is not), but despite feeling a lot less dangerous and interesting than it did in the fall, I still felt some compulsion to seek it out if only to make sense of that whole tempest in a teapot from a few months ago.

The film is a bit of a riff on the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” as it is about a cadre of wealthy elites who take it upon themselves to kidnap a bunch of people, transport them to some sort of secret compound in the Balkans, and then hunt them for sport.  The film doesn’t beat around the bush about this reveal and pretty much lets you know what’s up from the beginning.  The victims of this hunt are various low income people, mostly from the south, who have at some point or another expressed some sort of right wing sentiment.  They are “deplorables” as one of the hunters describes them in a text chat that displays onscreen at the beginning.  I don’t think the name “Donald Trump” is spoken in the film but you do get the impression that the two sides of this are basically two sides of the culture war at their most extreme.

It is perhaps curious that Donald Trump came out against this movie because if he had actually seen it he might have found that the movie kind of seems to in many ways push the worldview that Trump espouses.  In it liberals are viewed not as people of diverse backgrounds looking to advance social causes but instead as virtue signaling millionaire fatcats who operate entirely out of hatred for red states while their victims are seen as misguided but ultimately sympathetic victims, and people of color don’t seem to factor into any of this much at all.  Why the film’s producers, who as far as I can tell are not Trump supporting conservatives, wanted to advance this narrative with their movie is difficult to perceive.  The most charitable reading I can perceive is that the movie is meant less to be a reflection of contemporary America than it’s meant to be a movie about stereotypes and the way we perceive one another, but I must say this interpretation requires a lot of bullshit false equivilencey that’s inherently unbalanced by the fact that liberal elites do not actually hunt people while there are actual real world examples of the kinds of “deplorability” that the hunted people represent.  Outside of that I think there’s a sort of extreme version of the sort of self-criticism that made Get Out such a hit, but done much more clumsily.  The upper class liberals in that movie at least sort of resembled people you might meet in real life, but the ones here seem to exist solely in Alex Jones’ imagination.

The film is not completely without wit.  In my summery of the film’s plot I avoided giving character names or listing cast members, in part because it does a fairly clever thing at the beginning where it fools the audience into thinking a variety of people will be will be the film’s protagonist before finally settling on one.  Some of the film’s kills are also reasonably well staged in a way that the gorehounds will appreciate and there are jokes here and there and there’s a fairly good performance from the lead that eventually emerges.  But all of that is kind of wasted on a movie that seems to be peddling a profoundly unproductive message that will not please (or particularly challenge) anyone on any side of the political divide.  It does nothing to probe more deeply into what makes the “deplorables” tick and its interest in the richest of limousine liberals seems particularly out of touch coming out of a hard fought primary in which decidedly non-elite Democrats were deciding the future of the party.  Maybe twenty years from now this thing will appear to be an interesting document of the political divide in the Tump years the way we now look back at movies like Punishment Park seem to give insight into the culture wars of the past, but right now this is decidedly not the movie the country needs.

* out of Five

A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)


The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five