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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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