EO(12/31/2022)

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

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

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

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

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The Whale(12/26/2022)

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

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

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

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

Babylon(12/24/2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Talking(10/28/2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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