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

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Decision to Leave(11/3/2022)

I don’t think I can say I’m a Park Chan-wook “day one” fan, like most non-Koreans who doesn’t go to festivals I didn’t really learn about him until 2005’s Oldboy, but I am the only person I know who actually saw that movie in theaters during its first run so I feel like I do have some street cred when it comes to the guy.  In fact he came along at pretty much the exact perfect time to be pretty entrenched in my cinematic upbringing.  I would have been a Junior in high school when Oldboy dropped and would have been in my senior year and early college as I explored his other slightly lower profile early films like JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance.  He was pretty much the great Asian cult movie director of my youth and his rise announced the rise of South Korean genre cinema as we know if today.  This isn’t to say I’ve loved all his work.  Those “Vengeance” movies are pricklier and less audience pleasing than Oldboy and he’s also made some movies that ended up being more minor genre exercises like I’m a Cyborg and That’s Okay and Thirst and I must say I didn’t really like his English language debut Stoker much at all.  His last movie The Handmaiden, however, was a real triumphant comeback as far as I was concerned so I’d say I went in about as excited as I’ve ever been for his long awaited follow-up Decision to Leave.

Decision to Leave is, at heart, a pretty classic noir detective story.  It begins with a Busan police investigator named Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) assigned to investigate the death of a man who fell off the edge of a local mountain.  He was a skilled climber and they know he made it to the top, so it seems unlikely to be an accident so maybe it was suicide or maybe it was murder.  Shortly into their investigation they meet his wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant to Korea who works at an elder care facility.  His partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) quickly suspects Seo-rae had something to do with the murder and there is evidence that points to her, but she has an alibi and Hae-jun does defend her.  Eventually the death is ruled a suicide and professionally Hae-jun moves on, but he can’t stop thinking about Seo-rae, which is complicated because Hae-jun is married and doesn’t seem particularly unhappy with his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun).  Still, Seo-rae intrigues him and she even offers him a strategy for overcoming the insomnia he suffers from.  But things from that old case keep nagging at him and he starts to wonder if his take on the death of her husband was wrong.

If you associate Park Chan-wook with the concept of “Asia Extreme,” a marketing slogan from the early 2000s that was used to sell Asian genre films that were “out there,” this film might disappoint.  This movie isn’t, like, wholesome or anything but its use of sex and violence is more conventional and “tasteful” than in Park’s other films.  At heart the film is a film noir, though aspects of it almost point more in the direction of the “erotic thriller” except that we never actually get any sex scenes between Hae-jun and Seo-rae despite the formula suggesting there should be.  Like Stoker the film is also something of a subtle deconstruction of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, though I won’t name which one so as to avoid spoilers.  At the film’s center is a love triangle where out detective is torn between the woman who’s good for him and the woman he desires, a dichotomy symbolized by the fact that his stable wife is constantly nagging him to quit smoking while his maybe mistress to be doesn’t give a damn if he smokes himself to oblivion.

The thing about this movie is that it’s maybe so steeped in archetypes that on a basic narrative level it suffers to really break new ground.  The freshness that is there mostly comes from Park’s direction and visual style.  The movie is so handsomely shot and mounted that it’s impossible not to respect, but Park’s style can be a double edged sword at times.  His movies often do run a touch on the long side and this one is no exception, I think it could have stood to lose about twenty minutes; it has a few too many sub-plots that distract from the main story and at times actually make it kind of difficult to follow.  So I’m left in an odd place with what exactly to think about this one.  On one hand, Park himself has pretty much never been more confident in his filmmaking and while I don’t really have any major complaints per se with the film’s screenplay it lacks the novelty of some of Parks more outlandish genre experiments and did not keep me guessing like his last triumph The Handmaiden did.  One could almost accuse this of being watered down Park for people who don’t want to see octopi get eaten alive or extended lesbian sex scenes and the like, but I also don’t want to downplay the film’s many virtues either.  This is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing for Park’s command of the camera and for some strong performances and for a story that does have at least a few twists and turns that keep things interesting.  That having been said, I feel like I’ve seen a hundred different takes on “noir” by this point that it maybe takes a little more than that to really floor me and I thought Park would be the one to give me that “little more” and I don’t think he did.
***1/2 out of Five

Triangle of Sadness(10/27/2022)

Winning the Palm d’Or once is an extraordinary achievement but winning it twice is… well it’s pretty hard but it’s perhaps not as rare as you might expect.  Of the 82 films to have won the award, about sixteen were directed by people who have won twice, meaning that there are about eight people in the exclusive two timers club.  Some of these people are the luminaries you would expect to be in such a class: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, and Shōhei Imamura.  Others are less well known but make a more sense when you understand Cannes history and the tastes of European intellectuals like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, and Emir Kusturica.  And then there are a pair of Scandanavians whose names have kind of faded over time.  There was the Swede Alf Sjöberg who’s now mostly known as a mentor for Ingmar Bergman and who partly joined the club on a technicality because the wacky jury at the first Cannes Festival decided to give out the top prize in an eleven-way tie.  More pertinently there was the Danish filmmaker Bille August, who won for back to back projects with Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions.  Granted I haven’t seen either of these movies, they could actually be super deserving picks, but… they haven’t really been on the forefront of film though, especially not the second of the two.  I bring this up because there has been a new member of the double-Palme club: Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, who won in 2017 film The Square and now once again with his latest film Triangle of Sadness.  Will Östlund be another Coppola or another August?  Well let’s start by seeing if Triangle of Sadness was deserving in and of itself.

The title of Triangle of Sadness refers to a spot on the forehead leading into the nose which is said to make people look gloomy and the film’s initial point of view character, a male model named Carl (Harris Dickinson), is advised to “fix” with botox.  And from there we are given a deep dive into the world of one percenter decadence, firstly by being introduced to the dynamics between Carl and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who is also a model.  Their relationship does not exactly seem serious and to some extent they’re together because their relationship helps social media engagement, and as we meet them they seem to spend a lot of their time engaged in awkward and inane power struggles over nonsense.  We then follow them onto a high-end luxury cruise on a yacht captained by a reclusive captain named Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), who can often be found locked in his room drinking and listening to “The Internationale.”  Other notable passengers include a middle aged Russian named Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) who made millions selling “shit” (guano) and his eccentric wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles), a stroke victim only capable of saying one sentence over and over named Therese (Iris Berben), and other weirdos like an elderly couple who got rich selling arms.  Serving them are people like the overly upbeat manager Paula (Vicki Berlin) and a maid named Abigale (Dolly de Leon).  The cruise itself is rife with dysfunction, mostly caused by needing to cater to the stupidest whims of the passengers on board and eventually things go awry and many of these characters will deal with a role reversal as a result.

Triangle of Sadness is a film with three distinct acts marked by title cards.  The first largely serves to introduce the audience to Carl and Yaya and their awkward gender power dynamic, which is a topic that’s been there in most of Östlund’s movies and was the centerpiece of his breakout film Force Majeure.  However this seems like a somewhat odd place to start given that these two are rather minor characters in the second act of the film and are important but still not central characters in the third act.  I think Östlund highlights them because they are sort of representative of the petite bourgeoisie here and are thus among the more logical entry points for your average arthouse viewer: wealthy enough to have some idea of luxury but not really as powerful as most of the people on the boat in the second act.  That second act is where the film really goes to town on “the rich,” making them look like vapid fools who casually wield their power with no forethought for consequences even when they view themselves to be enlightened.  That also goes for the ship’s captain, who is in theory a Marxist whose aware of the inequalities that happen around him but who seems more interested in arguing about that in theory than doing anything to actually help anyone and causes plenty of destruction himself.  Think of him as an avatar for your average Twitter user. And the film is also pretty misanthropic about the poor for that matter as most of the actual lower class workers here that have actual speaking roles are either asskissers like Paula who simply enable the rich or they’re people like Abigale who prove to be every bit as corrupt as the rich are when given some power themselves.

I must say, in recent years we’ve seen a bit of an uptick in overt class conciseness in cinema, which I must say is something I have slightly mixed feelings about.  It was invigorating when Parasite gave us a parable about wealth inequality but the characters in that movie weren’t, like, getting into onscreen arguments about Marx and Lenin.  We’re also seeing this in some of the lower brow genres like horror films, where we’re now being treated to stuff like The Invitation and The Menu which also seem to offer elaborate metaphors for class warfare.  Most directly, Triangle of Sadness seems to have been beaten to the punch a bit by the HBO mini-series “The White Lotus,” which also offered a class portrait within the hospitality industry and all the power imbalances inherent in that.  Simply as a movie it’s a little hard to do much with Triangle of Sadness without engaging in its politics as it doesn’t really tell much of a logical story if you aren’t looking at the whole thing as something of a Buñuelian contrivance.  The logistics of the last act in particular do not make much sense if you apply any scrutiny to it as a literal sequence of events and its three acts really don’t flow from one to the other in a terribly smooth cinematic fashion.

I must also say that while I found the film consistently witty it wasn’t making me laugh uproariously.  The film’s widely publicized central set-piece in which many passengers get sick and start vomiting uncontrollably has a certain chaotic energy to it but at the end of the day I don’t personally find vomit inherently hilarious and I’m not sure that this is really as politically biting as it wants you to think it is beyond the fact that its bringing the rich and powerful down a peg, pretty much at random.  I would also question if mocking the one percent is even a terribly daring thing to do in this day and age.  Comparatively I feel like Östlund’s digs at upper middle class masculinity in Force Majeure and the intellectual class in The Square were much more daring and, frankly, relatable than what he’s doing here.  I can see a lot of what’s going on here speaking a lot to the black tie crowd at an event like Cannes but I must say, my own experience with people at this level of elite is kind of limited and the dynamics struck me as a bit less recognizable.  So, going back to my opening question, should this have been the movie to win Östlund his second Palme d’Or?  Nah, I’m thinking they could have just left him with the one prize for The Square and they would have been good.  But having said that, this movie was hardly an uninteresting experience, and it’s definitely one worth giving a shot to see what your mileage is with it.
***1/2 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 

Men(5/22/2022)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

I’ve been writing reviews for almost fifteen years now and I don’t have many regrets about any of my reviews.  There are reviews that maybe could have deserved an extra half star here or there and a few that I maybe could have removed a half star or two from, but in broad strokes I think I’ve generally come down on the side I stand by in most of my reviews.  But among the ones I might want to take back is my April 2015 review of Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, which I gave a light three stars to and considered going down to two and a half on and never got close to ranking high among my favorites that year.  I think my issue with that movie was that I got a little too focused on the robotics of it all, focused too much on its questions of how human artificial intelligence can be which I find to a somewhat tired theme, and kind of missed the forest for the trees: namely everything the movie is trying to say about very human issues like misogyny and power struggles.  Eventually I’ll finally give the movie a re-watch and figure out for certain.  Since then I guess you could say I “made it up” to Garland by providing strong praise for his follow-up feature Annihilation, but that movie was a book adaptation rather than something directly from Garland’s mind.  By contrast his new film Men, with its similarly confined setting and themes of patriarchal oppression, feels more like his direct follow-up to Ex Machina.

Men is set largely at a house in the fictional English village of Cotson where a woman named Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has retreated to after the death of her husband James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu).  It is revealed through a series of flashbacks that Harper has reason to have very mixed feelings about this husband’s passing as he appears to have been a rather toxic personality who became abusive in his last days and his eventual death was intertwined with a moment of particular toxicity.  Harper has rented this house from a guy named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who tours the house with a very quietly concealed condescension but leaves her with nothing to be terribly worried about.  But then she spots a naked man standing in the distance and, unnerved, returns to the house.  Not long after she spots this same mysterious man standing outside her house trying to break in.

So we have this divisive movie that kind of feels like a horror movie but isn’t one, that’s set in a house out in a rural area and is in many ways a two hander with a male and female actor, and also contains some disturbing imagery and who’s success is highly dependent on how willing you are to decipher its possibly religious symbolism that feels at once obvious but also cryptic… yeah this movie kind of reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in a number of ways.  That comparison might scare some people off but personally I loved that movie so it’s not meant as a criticism.  Where that movie seemed to be a sort of elaborate metaphor for the bible and the rise and fall of human civilization, this movie (if you couldn’t tell from the title) is meant to be more of a meditation on the topic of male violence against women and misogyny in general.

The film at some points hints at being a folk horror movie but I think that’s a red herring, this is at its heart a highly psychological horror film.  Harper is recovering from an act of unquestionable domestic abuse and is trying to come to terms with everything that influenced that behavior.  The various demonic “men” she encounters in the village are in some ways meant to be reflective of some form of the patriarchy whether it’s the raw sexual aggression of the naked man, the condescending ally who doesn’t believe her about what’s going on, the entitled and possibly red-pilled teenager, the clergyman who seems nice but ultimately advances toxic ideas, or the largely ineffective police officer.  It then all culminates in an ending where these entities start to literally give birth to each other in a moment of outlandish body horror which is perhaps making a point of how this misogyny gets passed down through the ages or perhaps more directly it’s trying to show how all these toxic concepts and patterns are ultimately what “birthed” the sexist violence that existed in her husband.

That finale, I’d say is probably one of the weaker elements of the film.  I think I get what he was going for and the visuals Garland employs are certainly bold and transgressive but the CGI being employed is not perfect and the imagery its working with is outlandish to the point of almost being comical rather than truly disturbing.  There are some gory moments in the movie that are handled better including one really nasty moment involving a knife and a hand, but in general people coming to this looking for a normal scary horror movie are probably not going to get what they’re looking for.  I’m also not sure that the choice to have Rory Kinnear play all the male characters here aside from the husband really paid off.  It works alright for some of the characters but in the case of the teenage character it involved using some visual effects the movie wasn’t really able to pull off and landed somewhere in the uncanny valley.  But the movie is not without some solid atmosphere and filmmaking elsewhere.  The village and the house are appropriately creepy areas without really having anything overtly scary about them and the sound team along with composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow give the film an appropriately moody soundscape.

So now, seven years since writing that Ex Machina review I kind of regret I’m once again faced with an Alex Garland movie where I’m not quite sure where to land.  Part of me wants to avoid my previous mistake and give this the benefit of the doubt that it would grow on me, but I feel like I have more grounded comparisons to make this time around and frankly I do think this is actually a lesser movie than Ex Machina even if it’s more bold in its own way.  In some ways I feel like it’s more productive to go back to my mother! comparison.  This is more focused than that movie and less obtuse in its symbolism and purpose, but also certainly less ambitious and cinematically it doesn’t stick the landing as well.  I guess ultimately I’m going to have to fall back on my overall philosophy that, to a point, I’d rather see something try something bold and stumble a little than coast on easy mode.  This is definitely better than your average horror movie and I’m more happy I saw it than a lot of other movies even if there are aspects to it that feel a little “extra.”

***1/2 out of Five

One Second(5/14/2022)

One Second is the latest film from Zhang Yimou, one of the greatest filmmakers working out of China.  Most critics would call him a “master” and yet most of them also do a rather terrible job of supporting him when he actually needs them to because most of his movies barely garner a peep from most of these same critics when they actually get released, which is certainly the case with his latest film One Second.  This is going to be one of the stranger reviews I write because it’s for a movie that was shot around 2019 in China and was released in that country in late 2020, possibly as a way to dump it during the height of the pandemic because the countries censors were not very favorable to it.  It then premiered to Western audiences at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021 where it was sort of well received but wasn’t talked about very loudly.  Prior to its screening though it was acquired by Neon who have handled it with the usual “hold off on showing people things until long after the buzz has faded” incompetence they’ve shown to most of their foreign acquisitions that aren’t Parasite.  It’s now 2022 and as far as I can tell Neon has not set any kind of release date for this, theatrical or otherwise, and at this pace I have my doubts they ever will.  Maybe it will randomly show up on Hulu without fanfare someday but I don’t have a lot of hope for it.  It did, however, manage to show up at a regional Film Festival in my area and that is how I managed to see it and write this review that my audience will likely have little real use for.

The film is set in Western China sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s.  Zhang Yi plays a man who finds himself in this remote desertous corner of the country and finds himself having arrived late for a showing of a film and is informed that the film reels will be moving on to the next town that night.  The reels had been put in a bag and left on an unguarded motorcycle when a young girl (Liu Haocun) walks up and snatches one of the reels.  No one else sees this, so the man chases after her and takes the reel back but when he returns to town he finds that the motorcycle has left, presumably not knowing that the reel was missing.  This will force him to find a way to get this reel to the next town and the provincial projectionist “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei) but he’ll need to jocky with the young thief to do it and even if and when they make it to the next town they’ll have additional challenges to deal with.

One Second is in many ways a film of two halves.  The first half is a sort of lightly comical chase movie with the protagonist and the young thief one upping each other across the desert.  Then in the second half the film transitions into a nostalgic bordering on sappy look at the effect of cinema on a small town along the lines of something like Cinema Paradiso.  The first part has its charms, but I wouldn’t necessarily want the whole movie to play out like it.  Once they get to the town the film becomes this really interesting peak into a film culture that’s much different than what most of the film’s viewers will relate to.  This remote town is said to only have a movie show up where they are once every few months, which then plays there one time only before moving on, and this day event is treated almost like a holiday festival by the towns folk.  These films are not being presented for commercial reasons and are instead being toured by Mao era communist authorities for propagandistic purposes.  The feature film is some kind of jingoistic war film called Heroic Sons and Daughters, which is said to be one of a couple of movies that they’ve rotated through this town multiple times, and the authorizes are very insistent that the Maoist newsreel plays in front of this and goes to great lengths to make sure this part plays.

Despite what in my mind is a deeply unappealing viewing condition for all of this you can tell that the people in this town are still thrilled to have this moment of escapism enter their lives.  That’s probably the most valuable part of the film but the story at the center of these three characters and their diverging interests in the fate of this film screening.  That said, the movie is perhaps a little too upbeat in the face of what seems like some pretty authoritarian conditions.  The film was rather infamously pulled from the 2019 Berlin film festival, presumably by Chinese censors who seem to have made some changes to the film.  It doesn’t feel like a work of propaganda and still has some clear criticisms of the Maoist era, but I do suspect it’s been forced to soft pedal to some extent.  Additionally there are some character moments that feel a bit contrived and some bits just reach a bit too much for sentimentality.  It’s not what you’d call a “hard hitting” piece of world cinema, but I think there’s a place for that.  In the past I’ve made fun of the 90s trend of “friendly” foreign films, including the aforementioned Cinema Paradiso, but I think there’s a place for that and I kind of miss them now that we basically aren’t getting any subtitled films that don’t exist to compete for Oscars.  That seems to be the problem this movie is having with Neon playing games with its release because they don’t know how to sell a movie like this and doing nothing with it until they can find some sort of angle.  That’s unfortunate because this is an interesting watch from a great filmmaker and it deserves a little more respect.

***1/2 out of Five