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Ford v Ferrari (2019)
I'd have preferred to see Michael Mann's version, but this is an impressive and heartfelt study of friendship and triumph
Based on A.J. Baime's Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans (2009), written by Jason Keller, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, and directed by James Mangold, Le Mans '66 (released in North American with the equally generic title of Ford v Ferrari) counts Michael Mann as an executive producer. This is notable, as Mann himself has been trying to bring an adaptation of Brock Yates's Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races (1991) to the screen since at least 1993. Indeed, at one point, Mann's Enzo Ferrari was set to star Christian Bale, before he was replaced with Hugh Jackman. Whether or not it will ever be made is open to speculation, but it seems unlikely in the wake of Mann's involvement with Le Mans '66, an excellently made but unadventurous movie.
Mangold is a fine director, but he's no Mann, nowhere near, and the film did, to a certain extent, leave me pondering what kind of kinetic brilliance Mann would have brought to similar material. In contrast to Mann's body of work, Le Mans '66 could never be accused of breaking any new ground or trying anything especially original - it hits all the beats, it hits them well, but it never strays from the formula. Looking at issues such as friendship, male pride, personal integrity, sticking it to the Man, art v commerce, individuals v corporations; it is, in essence, a thematically broad and aesthetically anonymous pre-auteur theory audience-pleaser made with the technology and aesthetic sensibilities of modernity. And whilst the individual parts may be unsatisfactorily safe and familiar, the whole is unexpectedly accomplished and immensely enjoyable.
The film begins in 1959 as Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) wins that year's Le Mans, only to be told he has a heart condition and must stop racing. Cut to 1963, and Henry Ford II (a superb Tracy Letts, who steals every scene he's in) has just had an offer to purchase Ferrari rejected and been personally insulted by Ferrari himself (Remo Girone). Livid, Ford II determines to build a car capable of winning Le Mans, which Ferrari has won in 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963. Ford Vice President and General Manager Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) contacts Shelby, the last non-Ferrari driver to have won the event, and asks him to design a car. He gets to work but says they'll need a great driver as well as a well-designed car. He reaches out to Ken Miles (Bale), who has a reputation as one of the best drivers in the world, and is renowned for his almost supernatural ability to identify problems in test cars after only one or two laps. However, because of his volatility and unpredictable personality, few want to work with him. He comes on board, but immediately clashes with the Ford executives, particularly Senior Executive Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).
Le Mans '66 is somewhat similar to Michael Mann's Ali (2001), insofar as it uses the grandiose moments of history to tell an intimate story - Mangold uses the determination to win Le Mans '66 as the background against which to examine issues such as friendship and the clash between gifted individuals for whom success is its own reward and corporations who don't see value in anything unless it's monetarily successful. Indeed, the argument could be made that the film is actually a commentary on the Hollywood studio system, with Shelby and Miles representing independent filmmakers who love the craft and see the medium as an art-form, whilst the Ford executives represent the studio, always more concerned with the bottom dollar than artistic integrity, always getting in the way of the people who, if left alone to work, could produce something spectacular (we'll ignore the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by an algorithm designed to hit as many clichéd feel-good moments as possible).
The film is also extremely funny in places, especially in a scene where Shelby shows up at Miles's house, and the two get into a fight on the street. Miles's wife Mollie (an underused Caitriona Balfe) emerges from the house, looks at the two men fighting, goes back inside, and remerges with a garden chair, a drink, and a copy of Better Living. She then sits down to watch the action. It's a hilarious moment, but it's one with great thematic importance - this is very much an androcentric world (Mollie is virtually the only female in the entire film), but for this brief moment, the audience is allowed to pull back and laugh at the utter ridiculousness of competitive maleness - boys will be clichéd boys, always trying to outdo each other, and getting all worked up over something as pointless as a fast car.
This thematic focus, however, is not to say the film ignores the intricacies of racing; on the contrary, there's a huge amount of techno-babble concerning vectors, aerodynamics, the mathematics of torque, the torsion of metal, and the ins and outs of physics. Additionally, although thematically, the focus isn't on the races themselves, there's no denying that the aesthetic design of these scenes is exemplary, albeit familiar. Mann would have done wonders here, but Mangold, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and sound designers David Giammarco and Jay Wilkinson have crafted some truly intense moments. For the most part, Mangold and Papamichael avoid any objective shots (for example, there are no overheads giving us a good vantage of the entire race), and there are very few shots showing us something that Miles is unable to see. The scenes aren't shot in the first-person, but our vision is anchored to his. This, of course, contributes to a subjective focalisation and creates the sense of being in the car with him, which brings a default level of intensity, as well as giving the viewer a perfect vantage point from which to see just how fast these guys are going and how difficult what they do actually is.
In terms of problems, there are only two of significance. The first concerns just how safe and rudimentary the film is. Aesthetically, although the race scenes are kinetic and exciting, there isn't anything new or inventive in them; thematically, the film doesn't say anything we haven't heard before; and structurally, it walks a very well-worn path - chances are that everything that you think might happen in Le Mans '66 does happen. This is your basic underdog story, and it adheres rigidly to that template. The character of Beebe is a good example of just how rigidly. In essence, he's a poorly written token villain because you can't have an underdog story without a token villain (usually in the form of bureaucratic interference). In this case, when Mangold feels the need to inject some conflict into proceedings, Beebe will pop up to throw a wrench into the works. His motivation? Apart from some brief references to how he doesn't think Miles is a "Ford man", his antipathy is never explained - the character is a Swiss army knife villain who can be used for multiple purposes, a one-size-fits-all bad guy without an iota of nuance or interiority. The second problem concerns Shelby himself, who is disappointingly one-dimensional (at best), as we learn absolutely nothing about his personal life - for example, the film makes no reference to the fact that by 1963 he was on wife number three (of seven!). Who is the film's Carroll Shelby, and why should non-racing fans care about him? We never get an answer - he's Matt Damon wearing a Stetson and speaking with a Texas drawl. And that's about all the character development he gets.
Although these issues are significant in isolation, the thing about Le Mans '66 is that it's so well made, it rises above the clichéd and overly-familiar nature of many of the individual scenes, resulting in a whole that is very much more than the sum of its parts. A film about friendship and integrity rather than racing, it doesn't take any risks, nor does it bend any rules. Indeed it does nothing that could be labelled innovative. For all that, however, I couldn't help but enjoy it. It won't surprise you, it probably won't move you, it certainly won't change your life, but the storytelling is clear and refined, and the journey is one well worth taking.
The Irishman (2019)
Far too long, but the existential and eschatological elements make up for it
Based on the 2004 book by Charles Brandt, "I Heard You Paint Houses": Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa, written for the screen by Steven Zaillian, and directed by Martin Scorsese, The Irishman is about aging, loss, taking stock, regret. To a certain extent, it is to the gangster genre what The Searchers (1956) was to the classic western. One of the best-reviewed films in years, although I certainly don't disagree that it has (many) masterful elements, I felt it's just too long. Shorten it by just 20 minutes in the mid-section and you have a masterpiece. Now, don't get me wrong, I have no problem with long films - I'm a fan of pictures such as The Godfather: Part II (1974), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Dances with Wolves (1990), The Tree of Life (2011), Potop (1974), and Sátántangó (1994) (all 442 minutes of it). However, such length has to be narratively justified, and I just felt that in The Irishman, it wasn't, with the film's 206 minutes occasionally feeling padded and (dare I say it) self-indulgent. Nevertheless, the acting is universally superb, the directing is more contemplative than we've seen from Scorsese in a while, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is predictably awesome, and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is flawless.
The film opens in 2003 as we meet an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) living in a nursing home and close to death. Wanting to go with something of a clear conscience, he begins speaking about his time as the go-to hitman for the Bufalino crime family in Pennsylvania. In 1954, Sheeran becomes friends with family patriarch Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and soon, Bufalino has him carrying out various hits. Loyal to the family, and adept at his job, Sheeran quickly moves up the underworld ladder, and Bufalino introduces him to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The president of the Mob-funded Teamsters union, Hoffa is facing federal investigation and is struggling to deal with rising teamster Anthony "Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Bufalino wants Sheeran to babysit the volatile, unpredictable, and confrontational Hoffa and try to keep him out of trouble. Hoffa and Sheeran hit it off, and soon Sheeran is Hoffa's unofficial bodyguard. However, as the years go by, Hoffa continues to antagonise his Mob backers, and some of them soon come to see him as more of a liability than an asset.
Originally set at Paramount, when The Irishman's budget started pushing $150m before shooting had even begun, the studio dropped it. Then came Netflix, who not only put up the money, they also offered Scorsese a near unheard-of degree of creative control. Netflix's involvement is an interesting situation because here you have a film that simply could not have been made through the modern studio system (at least not in its current form). Many are predicting that streaming services such as Netflix will ultimately destroy the cinema industry entirely, but in this case, it's hard for a cinephile not to celebrate their salvaging such an ambitious and auteur-driven film. It was a great PR move, sure (and they really, really want a Best Picture winner in their catalogue), but it was also a massive financial risk. In terms of the real-life background to the film's narrative, most historians dismiss Sheeran's account of how important he was to the Bufalino family, maintaining he was a low-level goon with a drinking problem who was never assigned to any important task. Indeed, several of his claims have been explicitly proven as fabrications, and several people who knew him have stated he did none of the things he claimed.
Irrespective of this, however, The Irishman is a film written in regret. Much of this is tied up in Sheeran's daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult). An almost completely wordless role, Peggy is introduced in a scene in which she watches her father viciously beat the grocer for whom she works because he pushed her, a scene which speaks to his sociopathy if not necessarily his psychopathology. The impression of him which this gives her is something Sheeran spends much of the rest of the film trying to ameliorate.
Another important thematic element is that as each gangster appears for the first time, a subtitle tells us who they are, and lists the date of their deaths and how they were murdered. There's no better illustration of just how concerned the film is with the nature of transience - every single one of these guys is a colossus in their own mind, and each deems themselves invincible (as do we all when young). Yet none of them make it out of life alive. In the film's last act, this theme is distilled down to its very essence, essentially positing that the only important thing you leave behind is your relationships with other people, and Sheeran has badly mismanaged his, resulting in him sitting alone in a nursing home at Christmas. In Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), the protagonists lose their wealth, possessions, and status, but in The Irishman, the loss is more existential - Sheeran loses his soul.
As the violence settles and the zingers dry up, the film's last act is remarkably bleak in a way that the last acts of GoodFellas and Casino aren't, and as we watch Sheeran sitting in that nursing home, taking stock, spelling out his regrets, reminiscing about his actions as a young man, it's impossible not to see the meta dimension - Scorsese himself looking back on his career, remembering the classics of yesteryear, keenly aware that old-age is stalking him.
In terms of the acting, the closest we get to a poor performance is Pacino, who portrays Hoffa as if he was playing, well, Al Pacino. Look at footage of the real Hoffa, then watch both The Irishman and Hoffa (1992) in which Jack Nicholson plays the character, and tell me who gives the more authentic performance. Don't get me wrong, Pacino is fun (I would gladly watch an entire film composed of nothing but him and Stephen Graham insulting one another), and most of the laughs come from his over-the-top antics, but it's not an especially accurate depiction of the real man. As for De Niro, this is his first not-phoned-in performance in decades, and he imbues the character with real interiority and complex psychology, without diluting the inherent inhumanity. However, the real standout performance is Pesci, although those looking for the fireworks of Tommy DeVito or Nicky Santoro will be disappointed, as this is literally the inverse of such performances. Bufalino is quiet, calm, considered, highly intelligent, but cold and sociopathic, the kind of man who wouldn't beat your head in, but would order someone else to do so without a second thought.
If the film has a single problem, it's the runtime. As mentioned above, the last act is devastating; there's little tension as such, but there sure is pathos. However, by the time we got to this point, I was starting to feel the film had outstayed its welcome, when I should have been the most heavily invested in the story. This has been a recurrent problem in recent Scorsese films, but this is the first time he's strayed from over-long into self-indulgence. The film simply doesn't warrant this length; whole scenes could easily be removed without compromising the story, character beats, or emotion.
Another problem, albeit a smaller one, concerns the digital de-aging. It's a little jolting at first, but easy to get used to. What stood out, however, was the tired bodies beneath those de-aged faces. This is most notable in the scene where Sheeran beats up Peggy's boss. Except the beating is pathetic - the kicks are about five miles away from the man's face and De Niro's exhausted stomps wouldn't flatten a wet cardboard box. It's a shame as, it's a good scene, but the lack of correlation between face and body is undeniably jarring. Another issue is one that has cropped up in all of Scorsese's Mob films - glorification. Obviously, The Irishman is about the toxic masculinity of this world and the lonely endgame (if one even gets to the endgame), but much as was the case with the (frankly stomach-churning) softening of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese runs a very real risk of glamorising what he claims to be condemning.
For me, The Irishman was a very good movie, but not the masterpiece many have felt it to be. But that's just me, and I can certainly recognise and celebrate such ambitious filmmaking, especially coming at a time when more and more it feels like films are being made by committees rather than by artists. Arguably Scorsese's most eschatological film, certainly since Kundun (1997), The Irishman is the story of how one man lost his soul, and, by extension how the world for which he lost it, dehumanises and degrades those who participate in its rites. Although Sheeran is brought down by old-age, abandonment, and the merciless nature of human existence, Scorsese refuses to afford him an easy out - he made his choices, and he must now live, and die, with the consequences.
Grâce à Dieu (2018)
A well-made film about dignity in the face of hypocrisy
When one thinks of contemporary French cinema, few names seem as ill-fitting for a docudrama about an ongoing real-life case involving the abuse of children by a Catholic priest than François Ozon, the prolific and formally inventive filmmaker best known for erotically-charged films such as Sitcom (1998), Swimming Pool (2003), and Young and Beautiful (2013). Originally planned as a documentary, Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) is a partly-fictionalised account of the case of Fr. Bernard Preynat and the formation of La Parole Libérée (known in English as Lift the Burden of Silence), an advocacy group for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Probably Ozon's most formally conventional work, with none of his usual visual panache, the film was modelled after Tom McCarthy's exceptional Spotlight (2015), which examined the Boston Globe's 2002 investigation into sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. This comparison is important insofar as it speaks to Ozon's lack of formal gymnastics; in short, as with Spotlight, the conventional style is matched to the thematic seriousness, wherein neither director wants to run the risk of elements of the form distracting from the content (not that any visual or aural trickery would help either to tell their particular story). Grâce à Dieu, however, is not a Catholic-hit job; rather it depicts the institutional dissembling and prevarication as coming not necessarily from a place of evil, but from a desire to avoid another scandal. Nonetheless, the Church as depicted very much talks a lot about forgiveness and redemption, but seems to have very little understanding of justice or punishment. It's weighty stuff, and although it courts a narrative objectivity and stylistic restraint that often suggests a void of emotion, for the most part, this is undeniably powerful cinema.
The film begins in 2014 as Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud), a respected banker and devout Catholic, discovers that Fr. Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), the priest who he believed to have been defrocked for sexually abusing him, is not only still a priest, but is still working with children. He contacts the Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), and is urged to meet with Preynat. He does so, hoping for Preynat's resignation, but although Preynat openly admits to young boys, he refuses to apologise or admit to wrong-doing publicly. When the church says it can't take the matter any further, citing the 20-year statute of limitations, Alexandre, who has raised his five children in the faith, feels compelled to act, and so, very reluctantly, he takes his story to the press. He is soon contacted by François Debord (Denis Ménochet), who also claims to have been abused by Preynat. Now an atheist, the more militant François advises marshalling the power of social media, and has formed an advocacy group which he hopes will be able to stand against the church and see Preynat not just defrocked, but criminally convicted. Soon, Alexandre and François are joined by a third man, Emmanuel Thomassin (a heart-breaking turn by Swann Arlaud), whose entire adult life has been negatively affected by his childhood.
Ozon originally planned Grâce à Dieu as a documentary, and the screenplay is based on much of his own research, including interviewing the founders of La Parole Libérée. Although the film's central trio are fictional composites, the sequence of events is closely based on real-life, whilst both Preynat and Barbarin are very real, with Preynat (who has now been defrocked, with a criminal trial pending) believed to have up to 85 boys over a thirty 30-year period, most between the ages of 9 and 12.
It's a broadly dispassionate film, and one of the results of Ozon's shunning of directorial flourishes is that there's never anything even remotely sensationalistic. However, although his flamboyant inventiveness is largely absent, the narrative structure is aesthetically interesting. Rather than telling the stories of Alexandre, François, and Emmanuel concurrently, Ozon structures the film in the style of a relay, giving the narrative over to each of them in turn. So at the end of act one, Alexandre meets François, who then takes the narrative reigns, with Alexandre largely absent from act two. François, in turn, then gives way to Emmanuel. Of course, there is overlap, and towards the end, Alexandre re-emerges as the protagonist, but what this style allows for is a slightly different story-telling technique for each man. Alexandre's act is largely epistolary, with the letters between himself and Barbarin read in voiceover. The formality of such a style nicely captures his formal relationship with the Church - he has no desire for a public scandal and believes in going through the proper channels. Once the far more bullish and theatrical François takes over, the style becomes more confrontational (at one point, Alexandre has to talk him out of hiring a plane to sky-draw a above the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon, one of the film's few moments of levity). Then, in the third section, which focuses on the emotionally fragile Emmanuel, the film is at its most empathetic, with the formality of the first section and the rugged directness of the second replaced with a stronger sense of humanism and emotionality. In a film noticeable for its director's formal restraint, it's a well-handled and subtle way of matching form to content without necessarily foregrounding it. This structure also lends itself to exploring the psychological specificity of each man, making for a more ruminative narrative than would have been possible via concurrent editing.
This is important because Ozon is also interested in the mechanics of healing, with all three men dealing with their experiences in different ways, which, in and of itself, reminds us that whilst we tend to think of outrages such as this with a kind of collective mentality, the actual scars of abuse are as unique as each victim is from one another. Although Alexandre found strength in his faith, he has been forced to compartmentalise ("this is about morality, not faith"), which has put him constantly on the defensive about how his actions are not intended as a form of attack against the Church, arguing "it's about justice, not revenge" and "I'm doing this for the church, not against it", as he points out that "families need to know the Church will always protect children". However, whereas Alexandre reaffirms his faith, François rejects his, arguing, "my faith is human, not Catholic hypocrisy", and whilst Alexandre urges forgiveness, François argues, "if you forgive him, you'll be his prisoner forever". For Emmanuel, the process of healing seems barely to have begun, if it ever will. However, the film is especially unequivocal in asserting that for all three men, and by extension all victims of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma will never leave them, it's a part of who they are, not necessarily the main part, but a part nonetheless, a part with which they will always wrestle, with references to how "the burden of silence is heavy to lift" and how difficult it is to "live in the shadow of what he did".
From a more critical standpoint, Ozon overuses the epistolary format in the first act. I understand why he went with this approach, as (apart from establishing Alexandre's more formal relationship with the Church) it has to lay down a lot of background. But, for me, he goes overboard - at times the first act feels less like a coherent narrative held together by the epistolary form and more like a series of letters occasionally interrupted by "on-screen" events. This creates an occasional sense of dramatic inertia that wouldn't be a problem in a non-visual medium, but which can drag a film down. The film also occasionally finds it difficult to escape its origins as a documentary, with some scenes, notwithstanding the universally superb acting, feeling more like respectful yet clinical reconstructions rather than scenes in a narrative drama hoping for a degree of emotional connection. The fact that the case is still ongoing also robs the film of a natural structure, as if the story ends before we get to what we would expect to constitute the final act, and one wonders if perhaps Ozon wouldn't have been better waiting until the conclusion of the criminal trial.
But given the overall strength of the non-intrusive direction, the brilliance of the acting, and the clearheaded portrayal of such an emotive topic, criticising Ozon for such things seems almost churlish. Less procedural than the investigative journalism-basis of Spotlight, Grâce à Dieu is no less honest or unsettling a film. It may be too controlled for some, whilst the measured pacing and hefty subject matter will undoubtedly put off others. Nevertheless, uncharacteristically solemn for Ozon, it is another important document on a subject that, sadly, seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
A slightly repetitive, but nonetheless fascinating societal drama that rewards concentration
In Trump's America, such as it is, issues such as race, gender, and class have become more incendiary topics than they've been in years. It's a house divided against itself, and it's the setting for Luce, a film which examines a myriad of these issues. Adapted from the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, Luce was written for the screen by Lee and Julius Onah, and directed by Onah. Tackling all manner of hot-button issues, including race, class, gender, power, privilege, #MeToo, academic achievement, stereotypes, liberal elitism, even revolutionary rhetoric and the importance of language in encoding societal/political power structures, it also works as a thriller about a young man who may, or may not, be a dangerous sociopath posing as the embodiment of the American Dream. Without question it asks a lot of the audience, meaning some simply won't want to put in the effort. It's by no means perfect - it's too long, lapses into repetition, and it spreads itself too thin thematically - but, by and large, this is strong work, with plenty to say to those willing to listen.
In Arlington, VA, 17-year-old Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the adopted son of Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts). Born in Eritrea, Luce spent the first seven years of his life as a child soldier. However, with the love of his adopted parents and a lot of therapy, he has grown into an exceptional young man; all-star athlete, captain of the debating team, all-round honour student. However, when his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who has a reputation for being harder on black students, gives an assignment to write from the perspective of a revolutionary, Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, the Pan-Africanist writer who argued that colonialism could only be defeated by violence. Disturbed by Luce's apparent endorsement of Fanon's theories, Wilson searches his locker without his permission (something she has also done to other students), finding powerful fireworks, and so sets out to convince the Edgars that their son may be dangerous. Luce, however, has no intention of letting her do so.
In a film which takes in countless themes, one of the most prevalent is race, especially the notion of differences in black identity - both Wilson and Luce are black, but Luce is also an immigrant with a vastly different frame of socio-political reference. Sure, he has experienced great hardships, but since arriving in the US, he's been relatively sheltered (to quote Onah, "Luce's proximity to whiteness affords him certain privileges that other black characters don't enjoy"). Wilson, for her part, is a child of the 60s, with direct experience of the Civil Rights Movement. However, perhaps because of this, she subscribes to respectability politics, seeing all black people as sharing a common bond. This is one of the things against which Luce pushes back most strongly - he disagrees that there's such a thing as a monolithic black identity, refusing to conform to Wilson's conception of what a successful black student should be. To conform to preconceived and idealised notions would be to define himself on other peoples' terms, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the very inequalities against which the Civil Rights Movement was a reaction.
And, of course, it's important not to forget that amidst all the ideological differences between Luce and Wilson, their initial conflict is a more tangible one - after writing a paper about violence, he's profiled in a way that a white student would not be. The fact that Wilson herself is black is irrelevant to this - she reads what he says about violence and she assumes he shares Fanon's sentiments, and hence could very well be dangerous. In this way, the film deconstructs the concept of the "model immigrant" - the immigrant who must prove their harmlessness and demonstrate their potential to contribute before they can be accepted by society at large. But is such a requirement of assimilation just another form of racial profiling?
One of the things the film does especially well is toy with audience expectations. Wilson, like much of society, seems to think of Luce in binary terms - he's either a bastion of what's possible in the land of dreams or he's violent and dangerous. Cinema audiences too are conditioned to think in such binaries - we want ambiguous characters such as Luce to ultimately be revealed as one thing or the other. However, Onah knows that people will scan the text to find clues to confirm this notion or that notion, and he delights in complicating that process at every turn - when a grinning Luce mentions fireworks to Wilson, is he threatening her or is it an innocent reference to the Fourth of July; when an amiable Luce meets Wilson and her drug-addict sister Rosemary (a stunning performance by Marsha Stephanie Blake) in a supermarket, is it a coincidence or did he follow them?
I'd be remiss here if I didn't talk a little about the acting, which is universally exceptional. Just when you think you've got Luce figured out, Harrison gives a sly glance, a slight smile, a shift in body language, which completely dismantles your theory. In a part that's very, very wordy, some of Harrison's best acting concerns Luce's subtle non-verbal traits. Spencer is equally good in the role of Wilson, whom she plays as far more on the surface than Harrison's Luce. However, so too does she exhibit a degree of ambivalence - we're often not sure if she's acting out of genuine concern for the school or is instead being vindictive towards a student whose thinking she has been unable to bend to her own.
In terms of problems, the audience has to do a lot of the leg work, and it's something which will be immediately distasteful to some, especially those who demand rigid binaries and clear explanations from their narratives. Personally, I loved the inherent ambiguity, but I understand that some won't. The same is true of many of the themes, which tend to be raised in something of a phenomenological vacuum, exiting almost as hypotheticals rather than prescribed answers, and again asking the audience to connect some of the dots. More of a problem for me was that the film ran a good 20 minutes longer than necessary, with much of the dramatic tension slackening in the last act. It's also prone to repetition - seen most clearly in Peter and Amy's constant back and forths and the dialogue scenes between Luce and Wilson. The film also features a few too many issues, several of which are taken virtually nowhere. A subplot involving a possible sexual assault at a party, for example, pays lip-service to many of the tenets of #MeToo but does very little beyond that.
Nevertheless, I was impressed with Luce. What it says about the US's (in)ability to engage in meaningful dialogue regarding important socio-political topics isn't flattering, but it is compelling. Essentially a film about pressure, as exerted by parents, by schools, by teachers, by friends, by society, by oneself, it's at least partly an exposé on the bitter divisions inherent in Trump's America. It does spread itself a little thin and the ambiguity won't be to everyone's taste, but this is brave filmmaking with a lot on its mind.
A bleak allegorical study of war as seen through the eyes of children
Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord of the Flies (1954) by way of the mad folly of Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and the children-are-screwed nihilism of Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (1981) and Johnny Mad Dog (2008), garnished with the soul-shattering futility-of-war mentality of Idi i smotri (1985), all wrapped up in a pseudo-fairy tale/fantasy aesthetic. Turns out an insane hodgepodge like that results in a completely unique film, quite unlike anything you're ever likely to have seen. Written by Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos, and directed by Landes, Monos (from the Greek "mónos", meaning "alone") is an uncategorisable film that moves from a mountain top which is literally above the cloud-line to a stifling jungle to a raging river to the edge of a city in the midst of war, whilst thematically travelling all the way from a tight-knit group of soldiers who would die for one another to a last-man-standing mentality bordering on insanity. Visually stunning, the plot is a little lacking, and sometimes the allegorical basis is a tad imprecise, but this is hugely ambitious and audacious filmmaking from a director we're going to be hearing a lot about in the coming years.
In an unidentified country at an unidentified point in time, a war is raging between unidentified combatants for never-specified reasons. On a mountaintop, we're introduced to the MONOS unit, a small group of child soldiers with two tasks - to look after a conscripted milk-cow and to guard an American prisoner being held for ransom, referred to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). By day, they take their duties very seriously, but by night, they act more like the teenagers they are; drinking, eating mushrooms, having sex, goofing around. A tight-knit group, morale is high. That is until an accident has a series of knock-on effects that ultimately sees them abandon their mountain base, heading into the unforgiving jungle far below. Cut off from their chain of command, their discipline starts to break down and soon, they have come into violent conflict with one another.
Although the film is very loosely inspired by the Colombian Conflict, a low-intensity, multi-sided civil war that began in 1964 and is still going on today, one of its most important aspect elements is a lack of political, historical, societal, and militaristic specificity - it could be an allegory for almost any conflict at any point in time. Rather than attempting to elicit pathos by evoking the horrors of a particular conflict, Landes treats the story as a universal allegory, facilitated by the lack of concrete contextualisation. In this sense, it has both a fairy-tale sensibility and a mythological underpinning, with the violence and brutality offset by a poetic tone that speaks to timelessness.
On top of this, the film examines the chaos and absurdity of war through the lens of adolescence; although the members of MONOS can be violent, so too are they teenagers, a duality that informs the entire film. The opening scene, for example, depicts the group playing football, but wearing blindfolds, thus encapsulating both the seriousness with which they regard their training, but also acknowledging that play is still an important part of their lives. Indeed, the film could even be interpreted as an allegory for adolescence itself - a group of teenagers unsure who they are, experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sexuality, not entirely thrilled about being told what to do by adults, and convinced that they can do a better job of running things.
Monos's most salient aesthetic characteristic is its dream-like quality, walking a very fine line between the gritty realism of a war drama and the hallucinatory feel of a fever-dream (in this, it very much recalls Apocalypse Now). This sense of existing just slightly outside reality is aided in no small part by the discordant and dislocating score by Mica Levi, which is built around whistling and timpani percussion. Also important here is the lush and saturated photography by Jasper Wolf. On the mountain, Wolf often shoots scenes with the characters dwarfed in a small corner of the frame, filling almost the entire screen with vegetation and sky. Such compositions suggest life lived at the edge of the world, existing outside society, existing outside even time. However, once we relocate to the jungle, Wolf goes in the opposite direction, shooting in tight close-ups, frequently handheld, suggesting both claustrophobia and the loss of the near-omniscient control seen earlier in the film.
If I were to criticise anything, it would be the plot, which is very slight, even by allegory standards. Indeed, regarding that allegory, although I certainly admire Landes's steadfast resistance to specificity, sometimes he's almost too successful in rendering the non-specific and universal, leaving you wondering what exactly he is trying to allegorise (even the title can't be locked into a single meaning - apart from the Greek word for "alone" and the name of the unit itself, it's also the Spanish term for "monkey"). And although the theme of child soldiers is a weighty enough issue on its own, it's something with which Landes seems uninterested for its own sake. This can lead to a lack of emotion, which is almost certainly by design, but it makes it difficult to feel empathy for any of the characters, even Doctora.
Nevertheless, this is hugely ambitious cinema with a lot on its mind. Straddling the line between the surreal and the barbaric, realism and fantasy, the seriousness of the adult world and the innocence of childhood, it's a singularly unique viewing experience, as beautiful, lyrical, and abstract in some places as it is ugly, crude, and realistic in others. Both a dire prediction for where an increasingly divided world may be heading and a foundation myth, Monos speaks as much to our future as it does to the legends underpinning our present.
Color Out of Space (2019)
A solid adaptation, albeit with a bit too much alpaca-based comedy
Written and directed by Richard Stanley (his first film in 25 years, after he was infamously fired three days into production on his long-gestating dream project, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)), Colour Out of Space is a modernised adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 short story "The Colour Out of Space", and takes a good stab at depicting one of Lovecraft's most oblique entities. Mixing humour and body horror (perhaps weighed a little too much towards humour), the film gives Nicolas Cage another opportunity to go full-Cage, and boy does he lean into it - this is the most ludicrous, histrionic, and borderline farcical performance he's given since Vampire's Kiss (1988), and how much latitude you give him may well determine your opinion of the movie.
Just outside the city of Arkham, MA (the fictitious setting of many Lovecraftian stories), Nathan Gardner (Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their children Benny (Brendan Meyer), Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and Jack (Julian Hilliard) have moved into Nathan's deceased father's property, with Nathan embracing rural life by raising alpacas on the property's farm. On an otherwise normal night, the sky fills with pulsating light and a meteorite crashes onto the Gardners' land, and as time passes, the Gardners start to experience ever-more bizarre events - unnaturally localised lightning storms that seem to come from nowhere; huge fuchsia-like plants that seem to grow overnight; a horrific odour that only Nathan can smell; a gigantic purple mantis flying around; radios and the internet cutting out more than normal; the water turning strange colours; the family's dog, Lavinia's horse, and Nathan's alpacas starting to acting strangely; even time itself appears to be corrupted. And soon enough, the family members themselves begin to show signs of unnatural change.
After some basic narrative preamble and a contemplative sub-Terrence Malick-style voiceover, the film then features one of the most inorganic expositionary scenes I've ever seen, as Nathan and Theresa stand on the porch, and spend a good five minutes telling each other things that they both already know.
Thankfully though, the clunkiness of this opening isn't a sign of things to come, and one of the film's most consistent elements is the subtlety with which Stanley depicts the entity, or rather, doesn't depict it. Lovecraft felt that if humanity were ever to encounter real cosmic beings, they could be so unlike anything in our experience as to be impossible to describe, or even process in our minds, and one of his aims with "Colour" was to create an entity that doesn't conform to human understanding - hence the only description is by analogy, and even then, only in relation to a colour beyond the visual spectrum. With this in mind, Stanley wisely keeps everything as vague as possible - vibrant, modulating pulses of light that seem to be emanating from somewhere just outside the frame, vaguely-defined spatial distortions, colour manipulations with no obvious source.
Important here is the colour itself, and instead of attempting to create the indescribable colour featured in the story, director of photography Steve Annis chooses to go the route of not settling for any one stable colour - every time we see the effects of the meteorite, the hue appears to be in a state of flux - so although we can say the colours are recognisable, they're never identifiable as any one specific colour, which, is probably the best choice the filmmakers could have made.
As we get into the third act, the film abandons all sense of restraint and goes completely insane, with the body horror which has threatened to break through from the earliest moments finally unleashed, foregrounding the exceptional work of special effects supervisor/creature designer Dan Martin. These scenes are heavily indebted to David Cronenberg, especially his earlier work such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979), although the most obvious touchstone is Chris Walas's work on Cronenberg's masterpiece, The Fly (1986). A lot of Martin's creature design also seems inspired by the legendary work of Rob Bottin, and there's a direct visual quote of one of the best moments in John Carpenter's The Thing (1982).
It's also in the last act where Cage is turned loose, signalled by an epic meltdown when he discovers Benny hasn't closed the barn door and the alpacas have gotten out. From there, it's Nicolas Cage unrestrained. There is a problem with this, however. Full-Cage has been seen in films such as Vampire's Kiss, Face/Off (1997), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009), Mom and Dad (2017), and Mandy (2018), but each performance has felt fairly organic, never becoming self-conscious. In Colour, however, to an even greater extent than in the virtually unwatchable The Wicker Man (2006), Cage crosses into self-parody, with his performance having as much to do with people's preconceived notions of a Nicholas Cage performance as it does with finding the character. There are a couple of scenes here that seem to have little to do with legitimate character beats and more to do with Cage winking at the audience.
Which might be entertaining and all, but which doesn't serve the film especially well. For all its insanity, this is a relatively serious movie, but Cage's performance is so manic, that it affects everything around it. For example, after the aforementioned meltdown ("Don't you know how expensive those alpacas were"), which just about fits in what we know of the character, as Nathan is walking away from Benny and Lavinia, he stops, turns, pauses, shouts "ALPACAS", pauses again, and then walks away. This got a huge laugh at the screening I attended, and it was undoubtedly funny. But does self-reflexive humour by the leading man help tell the story or even create the right tone? No, not in the slightest. In essence, this scene marks the point where the character ceases to be Nathan Gardner and becomes a version of Nicolas Cage.
The other characters all have a kind of internal logic to their crumbling sanity; the meteorite affects each of them differently, with their minds disintegrating in different, but consistent ways. With Nathan, however, Stanley seems unwilling, or unable, to establish the parameters by which his mind is disintegrating, seemingly going for laughs rather than something more cogent.
This issue notwithstanding, I enjoyed Colour Out of Space a great deal. Stanley's return to the director's chair is to be admired for its restraint and how faithful it remains to the very tricky Lovecraftian original. The body-horror in the film's last act will appeal to fans of the grotesque, whilst others will take great pleasure from Cage's insanity, as narratively unjustified as it is. The film is ridiculous on many levels, but it's extremely well realised and well made, and is to be applauded for not trying to attach an explicit meaning to a story which avoids any kind of thematic specificity.
Little Monsters (2019)
Consistently funny and very heart-felt, anchored by yet another superb Lupita Nyong'o performance
Kind of like a cross between Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Little Monsters is a hilarious and unexpectedly moving piece of work. The storyline is unquestionably clichéd - a loser who cares only about himself is forced to protect others, realising he's been a loser and vowing to change his ways (with the help of a good woman, of course). We've seen this narrative template countless times before. But what's extraordinary about writer/director Abe Forsythe's film is how he's able to create likeable characters and elicit genuine emotion from an archetypal structure (the zom-com) that seemed to be in its death throes. Anchored by yet another exceptional performance from Lupita Nyong'o (building on her astonishing, Oscar-worthy work in Us (2019)), Little Monsters is heartfelt, light-hearted, and consistently hilarious, with a very well-modulated comedy/character ratio.
Dave (Alexander England) is a man-child whose life is going nowhere. Unemployed and recently separated from his girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend), he moves in with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Taking Felix to kindergarten one day, Dave meets and becomes infatuated with Felix's teacher, Miss. Caroline (the always radiant Lupita Nyong'o), and when a school trip to Pleasant Valley Farm petting zoo requires an additional chaperone, Dave leaps at the chance. However, an accident at a nearby US army base releases a horde of zombies, and so, trapped in the zoo and determined not to upset the children, Caroline must try to convince them that everything they see is part of an elaborate game.
The thing that struck me most about Little Monsters wasn't the zombies or the comedy, but the emotion. In the hands of a lesser director, the whole film would be utter schlock, but Forsythe never allows the humour to dissipate, constantly tempering the sentimentality. And it does get very sentimental at times, but it's a sentimentality that feels authentic, grounded in something real, and, most importantly, it feels earned, particularly in relation to Dave's arc, which could easily have turned into turgid melodrama. Speaking of emotional authenticity, it's worth noting that, bizarrely, Forsythe was inspired by personal experience - his five-year-old son has a lot of food allergies and had never been out of his care, so when he started in kindergarten, Forsythe was understandably anxious. However, the teacher was able to allay his fears, making him realise just how important kindergarten teachers are. The visit to the petting zoo was also inspired by a real-life visit to the same petting zoo as seen in the film. The zombies came later, and this is an important point, as the zombies are a means to an end, a vehicle for much of the comedy, but with no real importance vis-à-vis what the film is trying to say. And what is it trying to say? That children can confer strength and, with their uniquely innocent perspective, offer a non-judgmental and often exceptionally perceptive view of the world.
From its opening montage (scenes of Dave and Sara arguing in various locations), the film's humour is sarcastic yet reverent, and this tone is maintained for pretty much the entire runtime; it does encourage us, for example, to laugh at how much of a loser Dave is, but it always maintains an element of warmth, never crossing the line into what could be considered cruel disparagement. The comic structure definitely has a vibe of La vita è bella (1997), with Forsythe getting a lot of mileage out of Caroline trying to keep up the illusion that everything is a game - zombies chasing people is a game of tag; the longer the children all survive, the more levels they will complete in the game; the blood all over Caroline after dispatching a group of zombies is jam. Even funnier, at one point one of the kids complains because she thinks the zombies look too fake.
The film also features one of the best sight gags I've ever seen, involving Dave and a photo of Caroline...or is it? This got the biggest laugh at the screening I attended, and really, I don't see how anyone could find it unfunny. There's also a brilliant scene involving Felix and a Darth Vader outfit, which includes him trying to use the Force in a very awkward situation, later telling Tess, "I am your father mummy", a line which made me laugh more than it probably deserved.
In terms of the acting, Nyong'o owns the film - her performance is physical, emotional, peppy, authentic, lived-in, and when the time comes, she's fierce, unflappable, driven, with charisma to burn and a real sense of psychological verisimilitude that renders Caroline a believable, relatable person, complete with emotional interiority and human fallibility. Before filming began, Nyong'o studied the Australian education system, spending time in classrooms, and talking to real kindergarten teachers, and it shows - there's a naturalism to her performance, nothing is forced (she also learned to play the ukulele). Additionally, her comic timing is absolutely spot on, a talent never even hinted at in any of her previous work - one wonders is there any genre she can't do (she's even flawless in the film's few pseudo-action scenes, and her singing voice is pretty damn good too). I honestly just can't say enough about how good she is.
Aside from Nyong'o, the film's other stand-out performance is from Josh Gad as Teddy McGiggle, a famous children's entertainer from the US. Gad plays McGiggle as completely over-the-top and has an absolute ball doing it. Introduced as a kind of hyperactive but generally affable Mr. Rogers, we soon learn he's a hysterical, cowardly, self-obsessed, alcoholic, sex-addicted misogynist, who hates children, and who bitterly despises his comedic companion, a hand puppet named Mr Frogsy. This ridiculously over-the-top list of character failings gives Gad huge room to ham it up, and boy does he lean into the opportunity - whether it be tearfully confessing to Dave that he's addicted to having sex with single-mothers; drinking hand sanitizer for a buzz; screaming at zombies, "I had your mother", before tearing out their throats (with his teeth); or telling the kids that they're all going to die. Gad captures it all perfectly, in a performance that's the inverse of Nyong'o's grounded realism.
If the film has a problem, it's probably the character of Dave. We're asked to like him from the get-go, but his introductory scenes don't make it easy, as he comes across as a self-important and lazy slob, who believes in his own magnificence so much, he's lost sight of everything else. Of course, that's how he's supposed to come across, as it sets up his redemption arc later in the film. Some people, however, will undoubtedly sour to him to the point where that arc seems perfunctory, even cynically fake, which would undermine pretty much the entire second and third act. Personally, I didn't dislike him to the point where I couldn't get on board with his narrative, but I'd understand people who did.
Little Monsters is an absolutely deranged movie, in the best possible sense of the word. Graphically violent and extremely funny, where its greatest merit lies is in its heart - rarely have I seen a film so sentimental that avoids becoming turgid, with Forsythe sidestepping the pitfall of overwhelming everything with jaded syrupy nonsense. Nyong'o grounds the whole thing, Gad chews the scenery magnificently, and Forsythe nails the comedy/zombie balance, with virtually every joke and sight gag landing to one degree or another. The personal nature of the story's origin seeps through at every moment, and it's this sense of grounded emotionality which makes the film so good. The zom-com subgenre is almost completely in the rear-view mirror, but Forsythe has been able to craft an emotionally genuine (and genuinely emotional) film that actually has something to say, and that has fun saying it.
Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
Just as funny and irreverent as the original, even if it hits all the same beats
The original Zombieland (2009) was something of a sleeper hit, earning over $100 million against a $24 million budget, becoming the most financially successful zombie most ever made, until it was surpassed by the asinine World War Z (2013). Smart, funny, and self-aware, it didn't take itself too seriously, and it had bucket-loads of heart, but it was hardly a film crying out for a sequel. And as time passed, it seemed more and more unlikely such a sequel would happen. However, after a decade in development hell, Zombieland: Double Tap has arrived, and boy is it one of the most unnecessary sequels I've seen in quite some time. However, as unnecessary as it is, it's also extremely enjoyable. It doesn't do a whole lot that wasn't in the original, but the irreverent sense of humour, fourth wall breaks, sharp character interactions, and, most importantly, shedloads of charm are all present and accounted for. Directed by Ruben Fleischer (who helmed the original) and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who wrote the original), along with Dave Callaham, Double Tap may not take too many risks, but it's a fine companion piece.
10 years after the events in the first film, the quartet is still together and still getting on one another's nerves - there's the neurotic but sweet Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg doing his Jessie Eisenberg thing), the crass but caring Tallahassee (a wonderfully acerbic Woody Harrelson), the sarcastic Wichita (a dead-pan Emma Stone) and the laidback Little Rock (Abigail Breslin doing a lot with the little she's given). As we meet them, they're in the process of taking up residence in the White House - Columbus and Wichita are still a couple, but recently, she's started to wonder if perhaps their relationship is more important to him than it is to her; Little Rock is now a young woman who resents the fact that Tallahassee still treats her like she's 11; and Tallahassee, for his part, hasn't changed an iota. After Columbus proposes to Wichita (using the Hope Diamond), she and Little Rock skip town, but she returns a month later, telling the others that Little Rock ditched her and headed to a supposed zombie-free commune. And so the trio reluctantly set out to find her. Along the way, we're introduced to Madison (Zoey Deutch, who completely steals the film), a millennial bimbo who's been holed up in walk-in freezer; Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a peace-loving hippie; Nevada (Rosario Dawson), a tough-as-nails Elvis aficionado; and Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), who are eerily similar to Tallahassee and Columbus (the reveal of which was spoiled by the trailer). There's also a new breed of zombie, which is faster, stronger, and more intelligent than the regular kind, and which can only be killed with multiple head-shots.
And that's about it as far as the plot goes.
Although 10 years have passed and the zombie movie landscape is very different, one of the sequel's most successful elements is that next to nothing has changed; in essence, it acknowledges the gap precisely by ignoring it. So, Columbus's opening voiceover specifically refers to the long break as he thanks us for choosing Double Tap when there is such "a wide choice of zombie entertainment" and Madison tells Tallahassee his catchphrase is "very 2009", but the film as a whole feels as if it was shot immediately after the original. Of course, this is important insofar as in the universe of the franchise, the last decade has been very different to the last decade of our reality, so the filmmakers can't layer in too many contemporary references - although Columbus does mention how "unrealistic" The Walking Dead comics are, there's a hilarious deconstruction of the concept of Uber, and there's a subtle allusion to Trump when Wichita sarcastically tells Tallassee he'd have brought "a real dignity" to the office of the presidency.
This factors into the performances as well, insofar as Columbus, Tallahassee, and Wichita are all broadly similar to how they were 10 years ago. Little Rock has changed significantly, but that's as much to do with the fact that she was a child in the original and is now a young woman. This lack of character development may sound like a bad thing, but really, the familiarity of the characters and their group dynamic has its own inherent charm, we welcome it because it's familiar, with the cast essentially doing the same things they did in the original. Speaking of performances, Zoey Deutch completely owns every scene she's in. Sure, the character is clichéd as all hell and, on paper, she should be all kinds of annoying, but that she isn't, is a testament to Deutch's warm performance, finding genuine pathos amidst the perpetually peppy and cheerful high-energy ditz. She also has great chemistry with the original cast, especially Harrelson. In fact, all of the new actors have terrific chemistry, which is nice to see insofar as effortless chemistry was one of the hallmarks of the original.
In terms of problems, as mentioned, the film doesn't do a whole lot that wasn't in the original - the characters, the narrative beats, the group dynamic, the humour; all are pretty much the same as the original, and for some, this will certainly be an issue. Indeed, as much as I enjoyed the film, I would have liked to see it take more risks (there's certainly nothing here to rival the inspired Bill Murray cameo). Because of this blanket similarity, there is a sense in which the sequel isn't really its own thing, it's defined primarily by what the original did rather than forging its own path, and a lot of the meta-humour only works if you know the original. Another problem is that it fails to do much with an interesting set-up, which sees women chaffing against traditional gender roles and the identities conferred on them by men. Once the gang end up on the road, this theme is pretty much forgotten (even with the introduction of Nevada, who seems more like a man's idea of what a tough woman should be than her own person). There are also more than a few clichés, primarily in relation to Madison (as blond a character as you'll ever meet) and the one-note Berkeley (a weed-smoking gun-hating hippie, who is literally introduced by way of a sitar on the soundtrack).
Zombieland: Double Tap is undemanding and doesn't completely justify its existence, but it also does justice to the original, and never for one second does it take itself seriously. The effortlessness with which it slots into the original's groove is either funny in its own right or poor writing, depending on your perspective, but the film is smart enough to know and acknowledge that it feels slightly out of place in 2019. And if a little of the spark has been lost, the warmth, the characters, the jokes, and the playfulness more than make up for it.
Land Without God (2019)
A powerful and personalised indictment of church and state-sanctioned abuse in a country once run by the clergy
Land Without God, a harrowing documentary co-directed by Gerard Mannix Flynn (whose story the film tells), Maedhbh McMahon, and Lotta Petronella, is an act of reclamation. It's a reclamation of the right to tell one's own story, a story of abuse and trauma, the malignant tendrils of which have spread to every corner of Ireland. There are very few people in this country over the age of 40 from working-class families who don't know someone who experienced the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries or the Industrial Schools. For me, it's an uncle who spent a year in St. Josephs Industrial School, Artane, one of the most notorious in the country. His crime? He smashed a window. He's 81 now, and has never spoken of his experiences in that place; whatever happened to him there, he will take to his grave. Almost all of us from working-class backgrounds have similar stories in our families. I mention specifically working-class families because poverty is one of the main themes of the film. Or rather, the exploitation of poverty, insofar as the Laundries and Schools provided what was essentially slave labour - a workforce plucked almost wholly from the working-class.
Flynn was born in 1957. His mother sold vegetables at a market stall whilst his father swept the streets. The 14-child family lived in a two-bed 'apartment' in Mercer House on Dublin's south side, with the parents too poor to send Flynn or his siblings to school. So they roamed the city, getting into mischief. And as the years went by, sibling after sibling would find themselves in court for some asinine misdemeanour (like stealing a dinky car or a box of chocolates), and would invariably be sent to one of the Schools, where they would be regularly beaten and raped. Austin Clarke had viciously condemned the Schools (and the church's hold over the Irish populace) as far back as the 1960s, but it was Flynn's 1983 novel, Nothing to Say which offered one of the first eye-witness accounts of life behind closed doors. 1983 was a time when the Catholic Church still ruled Ireland, but in the next two decades, others would follow Flynn, culminating in 1999 with States of Fear (1999), the Tomás O'Sullivan-researched and Mary Raftery-produced RTÉ documentary series about the abuse of children in the Schools. The series proved so explosive, it led to then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issuing a formal state-apology before the last episode had even aired. Since States of Fear and the publication of Raftery and O'Sullivan's Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools later that year, the Catholic Church's vice-like grip on Irish society has eroded almost to the point of non-existence, a process that has only picked up speed in the years since the 2009 publication of the findings of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, commonly known as the Ryan Report, a 10-year 2,600-page investigation into an industry built on abuse, neglect, and hypocrisy. Yet the removal of the church from its role as supreme moral authority in Ireland doesn't change the fact that so many innocents suffered for so long, it doesn't rewrite history. That history is the subject of the aptly-named Land Without God. And as much as it's an act of reclamation, so too is it a plea that we never allow that history to be forgotten - we owe the victims that much at least.
The film tells the story of Flynn's time in the Schools, how his siblings were damaged by their own experiences, and how the family has spent the last 50 years attempting to recover. However, because so many people have similar such stories, Flynn's story is very much a representative narrative. The film is an intimate family portrait, but it's a portrait which many will recognise as not dissimilar to their own. However, rather than functioning as an investigative piece or a catalogue of abuse, it is instead more anthropological, looking at how the majority of those sent to the Schools and Laundries were poor and how the working-class people of Ireland have yet been able to find peace. Why did this happen? How does one recover from such trauma? Why did the state do nothing? Unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions that cast a shadow over Ireland which will take a very, very long time to dissipate.
The theme of poverty runs throughout the film, with Flynn recalling the social stigma of being poor, recollecting, "we were branded" and asking, "is it a crime to be born poor?" There's real anger that the two most powerful bodies in Ireland at the time, the Catholic Church and Rialtas na hÉireann (Government of Ireland), targeted the most vulnerable and defenceless of people. However, poverty is important not only in terms of how the Schools housed children almost exclusively from poor backgrounds, but also the marginalisation of the working-class in later years, as Flynn points out those who were in the Schools tend to be thought of only in terms of victims and survivors, denied their own agency, rarely seen as the keepers of their own narratives ("our past did not happen").
Tied into this is Flynn's disgust with the Retention of Records Bill, which proposes sealing the records of the Ryan Report and its associated bodies for 75 years, with a provision to renew the bill every 25 years, with Flynn stating, "they now want to lock up our testimonies for 75 years" (the records will be sealed even for those who provided evidence) in what he sees as another example of the working-class being denied ownership of their own history.
From an aesthetic point of view, the film is composed of two main elements - interviews with Flynn's family and footage of Flynn visiting the places of his youth and the Schools in which he was detained, now mainly derelict shells. This footage has a remarkably tactile component as Flynn is shown touching everything with which he comes into contact - running his hand along railings, peeling paint from walls, opening and closing doors, wiping dust off tables. The footage is usually accompanied by a poetic monologue written and spoken by Flynn, with the importance of memory in the voice-over cogently represented on screen, as if touching these places galvanises his recollection.
If I were to criticise anything, it would be the short runtime of 74 minutes and the strange stylistic choice to intermittently feature Flynn in a room with a chalkboard, on which he writes the subject-matter about which he is going to speak. Obviously intended as chapter headings, it's the only formal affectation in the film, and it stands out as stylistically divorced from everything else, a more directorially manipulated element than the raw cinéma vérité-style filmmaking employed elsewhere.
This minor step notwithstanding, Land Without God is powerful stuff. People outside Ireland are far more likely to be familiar with the Magdalen Laundries than the less-documented Industrial Schools, and for that reason if nothing else, it's an extremely important film. Raw and honest, it's equal parts moving, infuriating, and harrowing. I don't imagine it'll find much of an audience in theatres, but it should have long legs beyond that, especially in education, where it'll be an invaluable primary source. It should also travel well, finding audiences keen to learn more about this black chapter in Irish history and the hypocrisy of a church who shielded its members as they preached morality in public whilst harming children in private.
The Day Shall Come (2019)
Not a patch on Four Lions, but you can never go too far wrong with Chris Morris
It can't be easy to write effective political satire at a time when the headlines of The Onion and Waterford Whispers don't read that differently from the headlines of The New York Times and The Guardian. As we find ourselves in an epoch where many public figures have become the satirical apotheoses of themselves, it becomes more and more difficult to satirise either them or the institutions that enable them. Difficult, but not impossible, certainly not for a satirist as talented as the legendary Christopher Morris, who was pedalling 'fake news' long before Donald Trump claimed that he won the popular vote or that the people of France were chanting his name during protests against Emmanuel Macron.
Written by Morris and Jesse Armstrong and directed by Morris, The Day Shall Come is inspired by real-life cases such as the Liberty City Seven and the Newburgh Sting, and aims its satirical ire at the FBI's operating procedure regarding domestic terrorist cells. And as one would expect from Morris, it's darkly comic until it turns deadly series, a transition that drives home that, yes, what the FBI is doing is farcical and satire-worthy, but so too is it destroying lives, and that isn't especially funny. It's a very delicate balancing act, but Morris pulls it off for the most part. As the world is coming to increasingly resemble a Harold Pinter play, Morris's is a voice that deserves to be heard, and although The Day Shall Come isn't a patch on the superb Four Lions (2010), it's still a bitingly funny study of institutionalised paranoia.
In Miami, impoverished Moses Al Shabaz (a superb Marchánt Davis) is a self-proclaimed preacher and the leader of Star of Six, a revolutionary group that aims to overthrow the "accidental dominance of the white people". However, there are significant problems; Moses and his wife Venus (the awesome Danielle Brooks) are close to being evicted, whilst Star of Six has no money and only four members. Moses also has mental health problems - his plan to overthrow white dominance is to call upon the dinosaurs he says are held in stasis by the CIA; he also believes he can talk to his horse; and he's convinced that both God and Satan are speaking to him through a duck. However, despite having the "threat signature of a hot dog", Star of Six end up on the FBI radar, monitored by Agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick). With Glack's superior, Agent Andy Mudd (the always fantastic Denis O'Hare), determined to uncover "the next 9/11", he orders Glack to find evidence that Star of Six is engaged in terrorist activity, and if no such evidence exists, then she should fabricate some, because it's easier to manufacture a fake terrorist than it is to find a real one.
The Day Shall Come was inspired by real-life incidents such as the Liberty City Seven (where seven unemployed construction workers were convicted of terrorist activities after a sting operation in which the FBI persuaded them to begin planning for an attack on Chicago) and the Newburgh Sting (where the FBI manipulated four Muslims to agree to shoot down American aircraft flying out of Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, NY, with all four convicted of terrorist activity). After hearing about the Liberty City Seven in a British TV news piece, Morris started to do research, learning that the absurdities involved in that case were not confined to one investigation. Indeed, since 9/11 it had become standard operating procedure for FBI informants to actively encourage persons of interest to engage in terrorist activities, which, of course, strays dangerously close to entrapment.
Like most of Morris's work, The Day Shall Come is a Juvenalian satire. It's not as funny as The Day Today (1994) or Brass Eye (1997), but then again, what is? However, there are plenty of laughs to be found here. For example, there's the terror suspect who an FBI informant is trying to get to dial a number to detonate a nearby bomb, but who refuses to press the five button, proclaiming, "I'm scared of fives. Five is evil", to which Mudd, who's listening in on the conversation, reacts by screaming, "did we know he was a pentaphobe?" Because that's a real thing.
Especially funny is the exchange between Mudd and Glack as Mudd explains that to diffuse the nuclear emergency declared by the Miami PD, she must also declare a nuclear emergency. Mudd explains, "the emergency exists. And you can't take control of something if you're saying it doesn't exist." To this, she asks, "if we say, "Yes, it exists", isn't that the same as declaring a nuclear emergency ourselves?" To which he answers, "the logic only works if you say it slowly. Keep the contradictory elements apart." And when she points out "I'd look insane", he assures her "only if you say it fast." This exchange is a pretty good example of the type of comedy featured throughout the film, layering the ridiculous on top of the farcical, with a very definitive Armando Iannucci vibe, recalling some of the more irreverent conversations in In the Loop (2009) and the criminally underrated The Death of Stalin (2017).
Elsewhere, Chief of Miami PD Settmonk (James Adomian) gives us another good example of Morris's use of absurdity when he argues, "unarmed white man, unarmed black man. Which one is more likely to have the gun?", a line that's hilarious on its own, but profoundly troubling when applied to a real-world context (as all good satire should be). A similar line is Mudd's argument that if they didn't go after terrorists so forcefully, the American way of life would be under threat, and "the next thing you know, the Statue of Liberty's wearing a burqa and we've beheaded Bruce Springsteen." Again, a funny line, but given the irrational hysteria and baseless paranoia that forms the basis of how so many Americans feel about Muslims, once again, there's a very serious component at work here.
On the film's official website, Morris states that the film "reflects how institutionalised paranoia corrupts our thinking." The line about the Statue of Liberty is a good example, but so too are the multiple references to a "black jihad". This is a concept that seems laughable to sane ears, but is not so far-fetched when one considers that 31% of Americans believe a race war is imminent. However, Morris never allows the film to become didactic, and again, the Statue of Liberty line is a good example; Morris is addressing hugely important issues, but without ever talking down to the audience. He's irreverent and sarcastic, but never condescending or patronising. Of course, as anyone familiar with The Day Today or Brass Eye will know, Morris has a talent for viciously critiquing social ills without sounding preachy.
Towards the end of the film (which becomes very dark), Morris distils everything down to a very simple maxim - the conduct of the FBI may be absurd, but it has a very real human cost. We can (and probably should) laugh at the bureaucratic nonsense, procedural ineptitude, and shocking amorality, but that does not imply we should laugh at the results. The FBI's operational norms may be the stuff of farce, but those norms are putting real people (who are almost exclusively poor and black or brown) in jail for a very long time. Which turns out to be a not especially funny punchline.
The Day Shall Come isn't Morris's best, but it is still Chris Morris, and so it deserves attention. Irreverent, condemnatory, and politically incendiary, the film posits that the FBI is doing more harm than good as they target poor communities in the hopes of finding someone (anyone) planning the next 9/11. And if they can't find someone, they'll create that someone themselves. All in the name of good optics. As funny as it is, the film is also bracing and, by the time the end credits roll, extremely sobering.
A somewhat self-congratulatory interview, but a decent companion to the documentary
Screened on HBO following the broadcast of the second half of Leaving Neverland (2019) on March 4, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland is a 60-minute interview with Michael Jackson-accusers Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, and director Dan Reed. Recorded on March 2, the interview took place after a screening of the full four hours of the film, shown to a studio audience made up entirely of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. And really, there isn't a huge amount to say about it. It's your standard Oprah Winfrey interview, elaborating on some of the film's themes, and allowing Winfrey to pre-empt some of the criticisms that would be aimed at it (primarily, why did Wade lie so often, repeatedly denying anything sexual had ever taken place between himself and Jackson, including on the witness stand in 2005; and how does the fact that both Wade and James are currently involved in litigation against the Jackson estate factor into the accusations, if at all).
A couple of things jump out at you during the interview. For example, during Leaving Neverland, it's very apparent that Wade and James couldn't be more different, despite the similarities of their stories. Wade, who is used to talking to journalists and appearing in the public eye, is equal parts quiet anger and wilful determination, whereas James is far more melancholy and subdued, his haunted psychology more apparent at the surface level. This contrast is even more apparent here than in the film. In the interview, Wade does a good 80% of the talking, and seems entirely at ease in his surroundings. James, however, looks like he's about to burst into tears for the entire thing, his body language is awkward, and when Oprah does address him, his voice wavers as he stumbles through what he's trying to say.
Something else worth noting is that After Neverland covers something only very briefly addressed in the film - the litigation that both men are pursuing against the Jackson estate. In Leaving Neverland, it's mentioned once that Wade is suing the estate, but James's pursuit of legal redress is never brought up. Here, Winfrey addresses what would go on to be one of the most controversial elements of the film, asking, "Did you think that you were owed money, that you should have some money?" In response, Wade states, "that wasn't a thought of mine, it's just that that's the legal system, and what other scenario was the estate and Michael's companies going to have to listen, going to have to sit there? And also, a big piece for me was - Michael trained me and forced me to tell the lie for so many years, and particularly on the stand, and those were really traumatising experiences that had a huge impact on the rest of my life. So the feeling was I want an opportunity to reprocess that experience, I want to get on the stand again because now I'm able to tell the truth."
Probably the most distasteful element of the interview is how self-congratulatory Winfrey herself is. For example, one of the first things she says is, "in 25 years of the Oprah Show, I taped 217 episodes on sexual abuse, and I tried and tried and tried to get the message across to people that sexual abuse was not just abuse it was also sexual seduction." This comes up again after Wade says, "one of the biggest things that I kept bringing to therapy; what does it mean that it felt good, what does that mean about me?" In response, Winfrey says, "that's one of the reasons it's so confusing for children. When I said this years ago, people said I was crazy." This is more than a little inappropriate in the context, with Winfrey essentially turning the interview into a validation of the pioneering nature of how she covered child sexual abuse over the years.
Having said that, however, she does make a very valid point soon after, arguing that, "you want to believe it's sexual assault and you're being thrown up against the wall, and you're being raped. And I have said for years, if the abuser is any good, you won't even know it's happened, you will be in it and you won't even know it's happened, and if the abuser is any good he or she is going to make you feel like you're part of it." That's an insightful comment, but it would have been a lot more powerful if it wasn't dripping with self-congratulation.
Nevertheless, this tendency aside, this is an interesting interview, and makes for a fine companion to the film, covering some of the more contentious issues in a little more detail and providing some further insight into the filmmaking process.
Leaving Neverland (2019)
A difficult-to-watch examination of grooming and the psychological scars engendered by abuse
Broadcast in early March 2019, Leaving Neverland is not about Michael Jackson. It's not about Wade Robson. It's not about Jimmy Safechuck. It's about how paedophiles groom not just their victims, but their victims' families. It's about the complicated relationship that victims can form with their abusers. It's about the myriad of reasons that can conspire to prevent victims from coming forward. It's about how the effects of childhood sexual abuse linger into adulthood. Certainly, fans will argue that Jackson didn't have a childhood, that he himself was a victim of non-sexual abuse at the hands of his father, that he was an innocent who simply liked to make children happy. However, even his most fervent admirers have always found it difficult to rationalise the fact that this grown man chose to surround himself with prepubescent boys, with whom he would hold hands in public and share his bed in private. That's not normal, and no amount of blinkered rhetoric can render it so.
Undoubtedly, the documentary is unbalanced - no attempt was made to contact the Jackson estate, any of his family, or anyone who knew or worked for him, limiting itself instead to interviews with Robson, Safechuck, and their families. It also omits information concerning the ongoing lawsuits each has filed against the estate. Furthermore, it's aesthetically bland, with the majority of the runtime taken up with visually flat talking-head interviews filmed in standard mid-shots and close-ups. However, this is very much by design; director Dan Reed isn't concerned with bells and whistles or smoke and mirrors. This isn't a tabloid depiction of a salacious celebrity scandal - rather it has a troubling story to tell, an important point to make, a relevant theme to explore, and it wants to do so as unencumbered by the trappings of form as it can. It doesn't need to be as long as it is, and the lack of balance unquestionably leaves it open to criticism, but nevertheless, this is an exceptional examination of grooming and the psychological effects of abuse.
The film tells the similar but separate stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, each of whom met Jackson in 1987, when Wade was five and James was ten. Over the next few years, each boy became a frequent companion of Jackson, and, as they tell it, a victim of regular molestation. When Jackson was accused of molesting 13-year-old Jordie Chandler in 1993, Wade and James gave statements denying that Jackson had done anything inappropriate with them, whilst Wade, his sister Chantal, and his mother Joy all publicly defended Jackson. In 2005, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation relating to 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, and reached out to both Wade and James. However, whilst Wade and Chantal both agreed to act as witnesses for the defence, James refused, telling his mother Stephanie that Jackson had molested him. Wade would not reveal to his family that he had been molested until 2013.
Leaving Neverland is less concerned with the actual abuse (although time is certainly given over to that) than with the process of grooming and the psychological aftereffects. Culled from over 50 hours of interviews, the film runs just under 240 minutes, but, despite the runtime, the only interviewees are Wade, Joy, Chantal, Wade's brother Shane, his grandmother Lorraine Jean Cullen, and his wife Amanda, and James, Stephanie, and James's wife Laura. Reed did interview investigators from 1993 and 2005, but as he explains, "I realised that the families' telling of the story was so complete already. You feel like you are inside the family, and I felt that interviews from the public sphere would break that spell and place us back on the outside."
Aesthetically, the film is as plain as possible. Whereas Wade and James's accounts are graphic and difficult to hear, they're never sensationalised, with Reed allowing their words to speak for themselves - there's no cutaways to experts telling us what to think, no graphics or voice-overs, no montages to suture us into the timeframe. Indeed, at times, Reed's camera sits patiently as an interviewee formulates their thoughts - a kind of "dead air" that one doesn't find in most documentaries.
This tendency to leave the stories unadorned ties into the usage of such a small pool of interviewees - this is Wade and James's story, and anything or anyone which can't speak to that very specific rubric isn't featured. Something else Reed omits is any attempt to tie Jackson's behaviour back to his own abusive upbringing - the film makes no attempt to portray him as somehow less culpable because he didn't have a childhood. In fact, it makes no attempt to portray him at all. Again, this is Wade and James's story, and for better or worse, Reed concerns himself with nothing but that story and how the abuse rippled out through the two families.
Within that, it's as much about the complex, often contradictory relationships that victims can develop with their abusers as it is with the abuse itself. This speaks to why both Wade and James lied for so long - they weren't just lying to other people, they were lying to themselves. And ultimately, the film suggests that rather than being indicative of fabrication, such falsehoods are an understandable reaction to sustained abuse - the compulsion to keep the secret is an intrinsic element of that which is being kept secret, with Wade stating, "I want to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long."
Of course, a major theme is the manipulative nature inherent to grooming. As Oprah Winfrey says in Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland (2019), "this wasn't just sexual abuse, it was also sexual seduction." However, it was also non-sexual seduction of the families. This is especially important in relation to Joy and Stephanie, who allowed themselves to be talked into granting permission for a man they didn't really know to take their child into his bed, and who today are working as much to forgive themselves as they are to atone to their children.
However, as much as the film indicts the parents, so too does it indict society at large. Reed continuously cuts from the talking-head interviews to archival footage of young boys in Jackson's presence (as well as Wade and James, we see Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes). This allows Reed to wordlessly comment on the collective societal obliviousness and blind hero worship that allowed Jackson to publicly surround himself with children without anyone saying, "this is kinda weird". And just as people such as R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O'Reilly got away with predatory behaviour, Jackson's celebrity was simply too big, dwarfing any sense of criminality; his star power was such that we dismissed what, in hindsight, was textbook grooming, as we put his fondness for prepubescent boys down to nothing more than his young-at-heart idiosyncrasy. Celebrity Trumps criminality (pun very much intended - after all, when Donald Trump literally admitted on tape he could sexually assault women with impunity and get away with it because he's famous, he was subsequently elected president).
Of course, there are problems, several of which I've already touched on. The imbalance for example. I understand why Reed confined his interviews to just Wade, James, and their families, but by doing so, he has opened himself and the film up to a not illegitimate form of attack. And because this makes the film easier to critique, it makes it easier to dismiss, and thus easier to ignore, which is pretty much the opposite of what you want to happen as a documentarian.
Another problem is that it doesn't need to be four-hours long. There are several lengthy narrative digressions that, although they help to flesh out the home lives of Wade and James, do very little to inform the allegations against Jackson. Reed also tends to overuse drone shots of LA, which act like paragraph breaks. It's an interesting idea, but there are far too many, becoming repetitive and, eventually, irritating. And then, of course, there are the omissions, which have proven to be a red flag to a bull for Jackson fans. For example, that Wade is suing the Jackson estate is mentioned once, very briefly, and never alluded to again. That James is also suing the estate is never mentioned.
In the end, the lack of balance is a significant problem, but not to the extent that it undermines the way Reed presents the accusations, the way he teases out the process of grooming, the way he unflinchingly presents the abuse itself, the way he comes to focus on the years after the abuse ended - the film's cumulative effect is startlingly raw and generally persuasive. It looks at the process by which Jackson manoeuvred himself into a position to abuse the boys as much as at the abuse itself and at the psychological effects of telling the lie for so long as much as at the lie itself. In this sense, this is a hugely valuable document, not necessarily in terms of the specifics of Wade and James's stories, but in relation to the broader issues of child sexual abuse, and the misconceptions that permeate the zeitgeist.
A World War II political allegory/fairy tale/coming of age drama wrapped up in a horror aesthetic
Part-World War II/concentration camp drama, part-fairy tale, part-psychological study of how even children can descend into barbarism given the right circumstances, part-allegory for what happened to Poland after German occupancy was replaced with Soviet occupancy, all wrapped up in the aesthetic and tonal qualities of a horror movie, writer/director Adrian Panek's Wilkolak is a parable of violence and lost innocence. The title is a rather clever play on the figure of the lycanthrope as found in literature dating back to at least the Middle Ages - the film depicts children who are ravenous and uncontrollable and dogs who are ravenous and uncontrollable, but there's no werewolf unless one combines the two groups on an abstract thematic level. Which, of course, is exactly what the title is inviting us to do. Kind of like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) set in the immediate aftermath of the War, with elements of Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1963) as well as films such as Démanty noci (1964), White Dog (1982), and Fehér isten (2014), Wilkolak is understated, subtle, and thematically layered.
February, 1945; Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Germany have all but lost the War, and the SS are in the process of abandoning the camp. Before they go, however, they force the inmates to do pointless exercises in the freezing night-time temperatures, with anyone resisting set upon by the camp's vicious German Shepherd guard dogs. When the SS depart, the Red Army liberate the camp, and a group of eight children are transported to a temporary orphanage housed in a dilapidated mansion in the forest. The group includes the de facto leader, Hanka (an excellent Sonia Mietielica), who, at 20, is the eldest by several years; Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) a late addition to the group from another camp, who is not made especially welcome; the quiet and possibly irreparably disturbed Wladek (a very creepy Kamil Polnisiak), who resents Hanys's presence, and from whose perspective much of the film is told; and Mala (Matylda Ignasiak) a mute six-year-old girl. The only adult at the mansion is the bitter and disillusioned Jadwiga (the always excellent Danuta Stenka), who, despite herself, soon bonds with Hanka and Mala. As Hanka attempts to re-civilise the children (by having them use a knife and fork instead of their hands, for example), they must worry about marauding Soviet soldiers with rape on their mind. However, soon, a greater threat presents itself - the now feral camp dogs, driven mad with hunger, have made their way through the forest and have surrounded the mansion.
In essence, Wilkolak is a World War II pseudo-horror story about traumatised concentration camp children trapped in a house by vicious dogs. It absolutely should not work. But it absolutely does work, with all manner of subtle thematic layering. Of course, the main theme is barbarism; the idea that the children have been dehumanised by their time in the camp. One of the first scenes upon arriving at the mansion sees several of them cruelly chasing a rat, which they then stamp to death, recalling how the SS were treating the prisoners just minutes earlier, and it's telling that the first instance of violence after we leave Gross Rosen is perpetrated not by a German, a Soviet, or a dog, but by the children themselves.
Of course, this highlights the question of who exactly is the eponymous Wilkolak. Panek approaches this question by is a parable of violence and lost innocence. The title is a rather clever play on the figure of the lycanthrope as found in literature dating back to at least the Middle Ages - the film depicts children who are ravenous and uncontrollable and dogs who are ravenous and uncontrollable, but there's no werewolf unless one combines the two groups on an abstract thematic level. Which, of course, is exactly what the title is inviting us to do. Kind of like Assault on Precinct 13 set in the immediate aftermath of the War, with elements of Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and William Golding's Lord of the Flies as well as films such as Démanty noci, White Dog, and Fehér isten, Wilkolak is understated, subtle, and thematically layered.
February 1945; Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Germany have all but lost the War, and the SS are in the process of abandoning the camp. Before they go, they force the inmates to do pointless exercises in the freezing night-time temperatures, with anyone resisting set upon by the camp's vicious German Shepherd guard dogs. When the SS depart, the Red Army liberate the camp, and a group of eight children are transported to a temporary orphanage housed in a dilapidated mansion in the forest. The group includes the de facto leader, Hanka (an excellent Sonia Mietielica), who, at 20, is the eldest by several years; Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) a late addition to the group from another camp, who is not made especially welcome; the quiet and possibly irreparably disturbed Wladek (a very creepy Kamil Polnisiak), who resents Hanys's presence, and from whose perspective much of the film is told; and Mala (Matylda Ignasiak) a mute six-year-old girl. The only adult at the mansion is the bitter and disillusioned Jadwiga (the always excellent Danuta Stenka), who, despite herself, soon bonds with Hanka and Mala. As Hanka attempts to re-civilise the children (by having them use a knife and fork instead of their hands, for example), they must worry about marauding Soviet soldiers with rape on their mind. However, soon, a greater threat presents itself - the now feral camp dogs, driven mad with hunger, have made their way through the forest and have surrounded the mansion.
In essence, Wilkolak is a World War II pseudo-horror story about traumatised concentration camp children trapped in a house by vicious dogs. It absolutely should not work. But it absolutely does work, with all manner of subtle thematic layering. Of course, the main theme is barbarism; the idea that the children have been dehumanised by their time in the camp. One of the first scenes upon arriving at the mansion sees several of them cruelly chasing a rat, which they then stamp to death, recalling how the SS were treating the prisoners just minutes earlier, and it's telling that the first instance of violence after we leave Gross Rosen is perpetrated not by a German, a Soviet, or a dog, but by the children themselves.
Of course, this highlights the question of who exactly is the eponymous Wilkolak. Panek approaches this question by drawing a lot of parallels between the children and the dogs; both are hungry, both have been taught barbarism, both are aggressive and feral, both move in packs, both need significant reconditioning. Indeed, just as is the case with the dogs, Hanka says of the children, "they can't go hungry or they'll kill each other", to which Jadwiga says, "then let them kill each other". This draws yet another parallel - neither group are seen as worth saving, neither is considered human; to quote King Lear, "Man's life's as cheap as beast's".
Working in tandem with such parallels, the title is metaphorical - neither the children nor the dogs are the Wilkolak, yet both are. That this is so is indicated only moments after the scene with the rat, as we see the children happily playing tag. It's an extraordinary contrast, which suggests for every moment where their traumatised dysfunction rises to the surface, so too are there moments where their childish innocence shines through (i.e. they are half-human, half-beast), a contrast which recurs in various guises throughout - for example, for Wladek's psychological trauma, there's Mala's gentle innocence; and although Hanka makes the children sit at the table and use cutlery, another scene sees them fighting over a tin of dog food, which they spill on the floor, before devouring with their hands.
The most obvious aesthetic element of the film is that it employs classic horror tropes throughout - POV shots of the dogs in the forest; the grisly discovery of a mutilated corpse; a slow-motion shot as one of the children is being chased by a dog; the dilapidated and isolated house, both sanctuary and prison; Dominik Danilczyk's ominous photography which often shoots from around corners and within shadows. Additionally, much of the film is focalised by Wladek, which gives the story an element of intimacy and emotional stoicism (insofar as Wladek is emotionally shut down). Grafting the story of concentration camp survivors onto a horror template may seem crass and disrespectful, but Panek pulls it off magnificently.
There are a few problems here and there, but none are especially serious. For example, the film lags a little in the long middle act, which sees the dogs surround the house, and which becomes a little repetitious, with the tension slackening somewhat. This act could have done with having maybe ten minutes or so shaved off. Another small issue is that apart from Hanka, Hanys, and Wladek, none of the other children receives any characterisation. Mala gets a little backstory, but that's about it, with the rest of the group essentially functioning as background extras, often to the point of blurring into one another.
These small issues notwithstanding, however, Wilkolak is an exceptional film. What really struck me was that despite its use of horror tropes and a fairy tale aesthetic, there's hardly anything here that couldn't have happened in historical actuality. This is part of the reason that the film never comes across as exploitative or distasteful; because it maintains a realist stance throughout. All things considered, this is a thematically fascinating, brilliantly made film.
Ready or Not (2019)
An entertaining horror-comedy that takes aim at the decadence and insularity of the 1%
Written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready or Not is a horror-comedy and social satire that comically exaggerates the anxieties attendant with marrying into a wealthy family and mocks the insular nature of such families, so obsessed with their wealth that they've become disconnected from the real world. In the tradition of Richard Connell's 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game", the film is about elites hunting common folk, but it tells its story with tongue firmly in cheek. And whilst it can be a tad episodic at times, and the manner in which it presents some of its violence is somewhat problematic, this is a very enjoyable and funny film that's well worth checking out.
It is the wedding day of Grace (an exceptional Samara Weaving) and Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), whose family earned their fortune making board games, and are now decadently wealthy. Several years previously, Alex turned his back on the family, and it's only since he met Grace (a foster child eager to have a family to call her own) that he has started to rebuild bridges. His mother Becky (Andie MacDowell) and father Tony (a barely sane Henry Czerny) are thrilled to have him back, and credit Grace with his return. His aunt Helene (a hilariously acerbic Nicky Guadagni), however, makes no bones about the fact that she hates Grace. Elsewhere there's Alex's brother Daniel (Adam Brody), an alcoholic locked in a loveless marriage to Charity (Elyse Levesque), and their cocaine-addicted sister Emilie (a wonderfully hapless Melanie Scrofano) and her husband Fitch (a scene-stealing Kristian Bruun). Shortly after the ceremony, Alex explains a strange family tradition to Grace - whenever someone new marries into the clan, they must participate in a game, chosen at random by a mechanised box using a deck of cards (Charity gor checkers). At an austere ceremony, Grace is asked to operate the box and she receives the hide and seek card, with Tony explaining that the only way for her to win is to stay hidden until dawn. And so, Grace hides in the mansion, unaware that the family (sans Alex) are arming themselves with crossbows, axes, hunting rifles, and assorted antique weaponry.
The film's various psychoanalytical/satirical subtexts are fairly obvious - a lampooning of blue blood families clueless as to how the real world works, a savage deconstruction of the institution of marriage, and a gynocentric celebration of a woman fighting back against old-world patriarchy. In relation to these last two themes, nowhere are they more apparent than in Grace's wedding dress, that most classic symbol of marriage, which becomes dirtier and more damaged as the film progresses, with costume designer Avery Plewes using the dress to show the stages of Grace's symbolic deconstruction of the institution of marriage (to survive the night, she must make the dress more conducive to running and hiding, which involves a lot of ripping and tearing).
Concerning the film's engagement with wealth, essentially it suggests that, yes, as we all know, the rich are very different from you and I, but could it be that not only are they different, maybe they're actually evil? Of course, it's not suggesting this with anything even approaching realism, and much of the film's humour comes from the Le Domas family itself; they're wealthy, evil, violent, and powerful, but so too are they hilariously incompetent. For example, it's been so long since anyone has got the hide and seek card that everyone is a little fuzzy on the rules, and they spend a good chunk of the film arguing with one another about the hunt - Fitch and Charity want to use modern weapons, but Tony maintains they have to use antique weaponry, nor are they allowed to use the castle's security cameras to track Grace.
This all goes back to a century-old deal made between the family's original patriarch Victor and a mysterious traveller named Mr Le Bail, who promised Victor that the family would become hugely wealthy, but only if they maintained the tradition of having new family members play a game on their wedding night, laying out the rules for what was to happen if they got the hide and seek card. Tony argues that the rules can be no different from those originally established by Le Bail, but, really, his argument never amounts to much more than "tradition...reasons". The film gets a lot of laughs out of showing characters trying to get to grips with their weapon - from Fitch taking time out from the hunt to look up "how to use a crossbow" videos on YouTube to Emilie accidentally dispatching several maids due to her inability to handle her weapon.
Another theme, although one not developed to the extent of the above, is religion. Le Bail, for example, is believed by the family to be a demonic figure, and his name, obviously enough, is an anagram of Belial, the demon from the Tanakh who would later form the basis for the Christian and Jewish depictions of Satan. On the other hand, Grace's name most likely references the idea of Divine grace. Elsewhere, the film depicts a pit of slaughtered goats, alluding to ritual animal sacrifice, a pre-Christian practice. Goats are also important in Christianity, especially in the practice of scapegoating, whereby a goat takes upon it the sins of the community and is cast into the desert, symbolically removing the taint of those sins (as per Leviticus 16:8-10). Along the same lines, Grace injures her hand on a nail, in a veiled reference to the Stigmata. However, whether or not we're supposed to interpret her as a Christ figure is hard to say as, although these references are interesting in isolation, they never really coalesce into anything concrete.
Looking at some other problems, the film is, generally speaking, very slight; it's short and it's silly, and it's not going to change your life or lead you down the road of esoteric revolution. The violence is also (somewhat) problematic. The film maintains the stance that the rich are insane and the violence they mete out is contemptible. However, some of the biggest laughs are reserved for Emilie's accidental killing of the maids. And I have to admit, I found the way she haplessly dispatches two of them exceptionally funny. Also funny is that after one of the kills, the family are trying to have a conversation, which is continually interrupted by the gurgling of a mortally wounded maid; until Helene takes an axe to her head. And again, I have to admit, I laughed a lot at that scene, even though I recognised that the film was essentially asking the audience to see this violence as funny but some of the violence elsewhere as not so much. In this sense, it kind of wants to have its cake and eat it, picking and choosing when the audience should laugh; it takes Grace's stakes seriously but also encourages us to laugh at some (and only some) of the violence elsewhere, which is problematically inconsistent.
Nevertheless, as I said, these scenes did make me laugh, so make of that what you will. Although Ready or Not is slight, its satirical ire is focused, even if the tendency towards irreverence doesn't always chime with the tone of the socio-political agenda. Allegorically skewering inherited wealth, marriage, tradition, even religion, the film suggest that with their atavistic rules and sense of entitlement, the Le Domas family embody the concept that old-money can lead to insularity from modernity. Offering us a match, the film suggests that perhaps the only way to deal with such irrelevancies and their sense of self-importance is to burn them to the ground. And it has a blast showing us why.
Ad Astra (2019)
Despite some utterly absurd diversions (chase scene! horror scene! shoot-out scene!), this is a decent science-fiction narrative
A short while ago, the mesmerising Aniara (2018) pondered the insignificance of mankind when considered against the infinity of space and time. An esoteric science-fiction film in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solyaris (1972), it attempted to convey the universe's near-inconceivable vastness and the psychological ramifications of what it might feel like to be lost in such a vastness. This is the lineage into which Ad Astra wishes to step, but for me, it has more in common with the excellent Sunshine (2007) and the flawed but entertaining Interstellar (2014) - irrespective of its themes and tropes, it remains a mainstream Hollywood movie, wherein the demand for crowd-pleasing content often clashes with the desire for esotericism. In the case of Sunshine, this clash took the form of a genre shift into horror that Boyle doesn't fully pull off, and in the case of Interstellar, it's a predictable and unnecessary third-act twist. And so we have Ad Astra, where it's in the form of an overly convenient resolution and some of the most ludicrous narrative diversions I've seen since the abomination that was Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), diversions which seem to belong in a different film entirely, so tonally unrelated are they to everything else (space pirates! enraged simians! knife-fight/shoot-out!). Which is not to say that I disliked the film - I didn't; even if the narrative never manages to get beyond the "Heart of Darkness in space" template and the script relies far, far too heavily on a sub-Terrence Malick voiceover. The craft on display is exceptional and the story is thought-provoking and generally entertaining, with a terrific central performance, and some spectacular visuals (especially in the IMAX format). But it could have been so much better.
Set at an unspecified point in the near future, space travel has become routine, with the moon not unlike any major city on Earth. As the film begins, a series of energy surges originating near Neptune leave much of Earth and the moon without power. 29 years previously, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left Earth as the leader of the Lima Project, a mission aimed at establishing contact with alien civilisations. Travelling to the same region near Neptune from which the surges are now emanating, 16 years into the mission, all contact was lost. SpaceCom presumed the crew dead, but now they fear that Clifford may be behind the surges, and with an antimatter power core at his disposal, if he has become unhinged, he could create a chain reaction that would eradicate all life in the solar system (it's best not to dwell too much on the script's fundamental misrepresentation of how matter and antimatter interact). And so Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), Clifford's son, is tasked with travelling to a secure long-range communications base on Mars and recording a message for Clifford in the hopes he might respond. Of course, it's no spoiler to say that the mission doesn't exactly go smoothly.
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, and directed by Gray, Ad Astra wastes no time in tying us rigidly to Roy's perspective; it opens with a POV shot from inside his helmet, and the first words we hear are him speaking in voiceover. This sets up the narrative to come, as Roy remains the sole focaliser throughout - we learn things as he learns then and we never experience anything with which he is not directly involved. The fact that the film is set amongst the stars, but remains always tied to Roy's perceptions allows Gray to fashion a narrative that's both massive in scope yet emotionally intimate. He's aided immensely in this by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose gorgeous 35mm celluloid photography effortlessly captures the overwhelming scale of the milieu, but also frequently frames Pitt in tight close-ups.
Depending on your perspective, Pitt's portrayal of Roy is either one of the film's most laudable aspects or one of its most alienating. Initially played as emotionally closed off (he tells us in VO, "I've been trained to compartmentalise my emotions"), he's depicted as cold and distant. This stoicism, however, slowly starts to erode as his mission begins to go wrong, although there are a few early hints that all is not well - for example, his fixation on the breakup of his marriage to Eve (a thankless and largely wordless performance by a blink-and-you-miss-her Liv Tyler), or his observation of the crew of the Cepheus (which takes him from the moon to Mars), "they seem at ease with themselves. What must that be like?". His performance is such that one viewer might praise it for shunning emotional grandstanding even as another might criticise it as too taciturn. Personally, I think it's a terrifically modulated and minimalist performance in which he uses the lack of outward emotion to inform the character's emotional beats, relying on subtlety and nuanced gesture.
Thematically, on the most basic of levels, Ad Astra is the story of two men obsessed with their profession to the detriment of all else, a theme not unusual in Gray's filmography, receiving its most thorough exploration in Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) in Gray's masterpiece, The Lost City of Z (2016). Like most of Gray's films, Ad Astra is heavily androcentric, as are its most obvious narrative influences - Heart of Darkness (1899) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the reformulation of the narrative template, Roy is Charles Marlow (Benjamin Willard in the film), whilst Clifford is Kurtz, with the parallels obvious enough - a conflicted man sent to find a brilliant and pioneering man who has gone off-grid and who must be stopped, with the journey proving to be as much about travelling into the self as reaching a specific geographical destination.
An especially interesting theme is commercialism, which is introduced when Roy takes a Virgin America shuttle to the moon, whilst an exterior shot of a lunar base shows signs for, amongst others, Applebee's, DHL, and Subway. And since the moon is now so like Earth, it has become blighted by many of the same issues as Earth; crime, political division, materialism. Indeed, in VO, Roy laments how sickened Clifford would be with what the moon has become, pointing out it's simply a "re-creation of what we're running from on Earth".
However, for all these positives, there are some significant problems. Firstly, there are three utterly ridiculous pseudo-action scenes (a chase, a horror scene, and a knife-fight/shoot-out) which seem to have come from another movie entirely. Imagine if in 2001, instead of attempting to outwit HAL, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) had pulled out a shotgun and engaged in a running battle with androids controlled by the AI. Ridiculous? Of course. The three scenes in Ad Astra are only slightly less so. The third at least is the springboard for the second half of the movie, but it's still a monumentally silly way for Gray and Gross to advance the plot. The first two scenes, however, serve no such purpose - remove them from the film, and you'd have to change virtually nothing in the surrounding material - they're that disconnected and irrelevant. They lead nowhere, reveal nothing about the character or his psychology, and have no connection to the esoteric themes found elsewhere.
Another problem is the overly neat and anti-climatic finale. I'm led to believe this ending was a reshoot after test audiences responded poorly to the original (and far superior) ending - look it up online; the originally scripted ending made a lot more sense and was as thematically fascinating as it was existentially audacious.
The other big problem is the VO. I can count on one hand the number of times VO has been done well in film - there's the hard-boiled noir films of the 40s and 50s, the narration of Apocalypse Now, the work of Terrence Malick, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)...and, well, that's about it really. The VO is obviously intended to function in much the same way as Willard's in Apocalypse Now, providing some factual info, but also probing the soul of the character. However, the problem is that most of the time, the voice is describing something we can see plain as day on the screen. Pitt's performance is strong enough that the VO is unnecessary. You know the way the best films show rather than tell and the worst tell rather than show? Ad Astra does both, and it's hugely distracting. By the half-way stage, I was sick of Roy's cod-philosophical ramblings that aspire to portentousness, but end up coming across as someone trying and failing to imitate Malick.
With all that said, however, it's a testament to the story the film tells that despite these hurdles, I still enjoyed it. Pitt's performance is excellent, and what the storyline says about man's place in the universe is unexpected and fascinating. The original ending was infinitely superior, the VO is a huge misstep, and the action detours are ludicrous, but this is still an entertaining movie. It's not a patch on Lost City of Z, but the manner in which Gray juxtaposes an intimate tone with such massive themes is really impressive. In essence, Ad Astra is a fable about the importance of transient human connection, played out against the backdrop of the infinite, and despite some not insignificant problems, it's well worth checking out.
Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
Guns, carnage, xenophobia - everything you could want from a Rambo movie; hugely entertaining
In the torrent of negative reviews that greeted Rambo: Last Blood, one that stood out was Richard Roeper's zero-star rant for The Chicago Sun Times, in which he said of the film, "this is a gratuitously violent, shamelessly exploitative, gruesomely sadistic and utterly repellent piece of trash". I agree with pretty much all of that sentence. And I loved it. But let me segue into asking a question. Which is the more "responsible" - the hard R-rated movie that makes no bones about its violent content, or the equally violent PG-13 movie that removes the gore but leaves the savagery? Last Blood is only moderately more violent than most of today's action blockbusters, but it's a damn-sight more honest in its depiction of the impact of violence on the human body. It's like the old joke about The A-Team (1983) - it didn't matter what the level of violence was, the fact that we never saw blood and never saw anyone die meant it was family entertainment. Last Blood is not family entertainment.
And it's awesome.
Now, make no mistake, it's no masterpiece. In fact, it's barely a movie at all (the script is so rudimentary, it rivals the dizzying complexities of Rocky IV (1985)), and it's by far the least political entry in the Rambo franchise thus far. It's xenophobic. It may stoke irrational fears about the evils of Mexico and permeability of the southern border. It's a film in which Rambo doesn't just kill his enemies, he kills them several times just to be sure. It's a film in which on no less than two occasions, Rambo uses his bare hands to extract internal organs. It's a film that's an immensely enjoyable no-holds-barred revenge actioner that's about as interested in political correctness as it is in millennial angst. Which is to say, not even remotely.
And it's awesome.
It has been 11 years since Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) returned to his father's ranch in Bowie, Arizona. His father has died, but Rambo remains at the ranch, breaking in horses and sharing his home with live-in housekeeper Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her teenage granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), who he helped to raise. All is quiet until Gabriela is contacted from Mexico by her friend Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda), who tells her she has located Gabriela's father Manuel (Marco de la O), who walked out on her and her dying mother when she was still a child. Although advised by both Rambo and Maria not to go to Mexico, she ignores their warnings. However, on her first night there, she is drugged and abducted by the Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada). When Rambo comes looking for her, he earns a beating for his trouble, and so, realising he can't fight the cartel on their terms, he decides to lure them back to Arizona, where he can fight them on his.
Undeniably, for better or worse, the Rambo films have always found a way to tap into some of the major geopolitical issues of the era in which they were made. Introduced in David Morrell's superb 1972 novel, the character was brought to the screen 10 years later in First Blood (1982). One of many Vietnam-vet-comes-home-and-is-rejected-by-society films made in the years following the end of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), it presented Rambo as an embodiment of the problems of unaddressed-PTSD. Made in the second year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it argued that you can't create killing machines for use in a foreign war and then simply bring them home and expect them to reintegrate. The next two films also took place during Reagan's presidency, at a time when the wounds of Vietnam were still fresh, but the idea of American exceptionalism had started to morph into a kind of over-compensatory machismo. This saw Rambo transition from being an allegory for the struggles of vets to an embodiment of jingoistic Regan-era American militarism and juvenile wish-fulfilment (in the second film, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), he literally gets a second crack at winning in Vietnam). In essence, he had changed from a symbol for the psychological damage of war to an undefeatable representative of American military might. The fourth film, Rambo (2008), came out in the final year of George W. Bush's presidency at a time when the US (in no small part because of an illegal war) had once again risen to the position of global police force, although the fact that he's on a mission to save, of all things, Christian aid workers, is a bit on the nose even for this franchise.
Which brings us to Last Blood. Written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick, from a story by Dan Gordon, and directed by Adrian Grunberg, Last Blood comes in the fourth year of Donald Trump's presidency, and sees Rambo facing off against the bad hombres south of the border (they bring drugs, they bring crime, although some, he assumes, are good people). And with a border this porous (characters easily cross over with weaponry, drugs, dead bodies, and decapitated heads), the only person who can protect the US of A from such villains is Don J. Trumpo...sorry, John J. Rambo.
However, having said that, this is far and away the least political film of the franchise. Whilst the first and second both dealt with Vietnam, the third with the Soviet-Afghan war, and the fourth with the Myanmar Civil War, Last Blood doesn't explicitly deal with a real-world conflict and is not set in an inherently politicised milieu. And this ties into a crucial point - in moving out of the arena of politics, the storyline is more personal, which is important insofar as Rambo himself is presented somewhat differently, showing more emotion than we've seen from him since the opening few scenes of First Blood. The film also focuses on his PTSD, which had been relatively ignored in the three previous films. Here, not only is he shown as still suffering the effects, he actually leans into it, using his trauma to motivate himself. In this sense, the early parts of the film work extremely well - see Rambo in a home, we see him trying to keep his demons at bay, we see him, for arguably the first time, with something to lose.
However, for better or worse, the film's big selling point isn't the political allegory or the character's psychology - it's the action, the "suit-up" moment when Rambo unleashes hell. Here, the entire third-act is one long action scene, and it's entertaining enough to temper much of the political immaturity and distasteful stereotypes that lead up to it. Well shot by director Grunberg and cinematographer Brendan Galvin, it's kind of the inverse of the sleek action scenes found in the John Wick films - it's dark, gritty, and brutal, and whereas those films often create the impression of near weightlessness, here, it's the tangible physicality that works so well, the sense of visceral devastation that results from a particular impact rather than anything balletic.
Of course, a vital aspect of any Rambo movie is that a lot of what some people love will be the exact things that others despise. In this case, it's the laughably simplistic politics, the barely disguised xenophobia, the brutal violence, and the fetishisation of weaponry. On this last point, I can't recall, off the top of my head, another film which is so blatant in its glorification of guns, whether it's the long tracking shots of Rambo's collection of rifles, or the way the film lingers on the destruction they mete out.
The film's handling of the Mexican portion of the story is a good example of how you either decry the stupidity or celebrate the ridiculousness. The character of Gizelle, for example, dresses like the only research the costume department did was to watch Stand and Deliver (1988), whilst poor Gabriela gets abducted after ONE night in Mexico. And as for the aforementioned porousness of the border, I'm not sure if it's appallingly lazy writing or satirical genius, but Rambo gets back into the US by finding a quiet section and ploughing his truck through the wire mesh fence. He wouldn't have been able to do that if there'd been a wall.
A criticism that I would treat a little more seriously, however, is that although this is supposed to be the last chapter in the franchise, there's no sense of finality. Nothing happens at any point where you could say to yourself, "that seems a fitting send-off for the character". In fact, the previous film felt more final than this one. Another problem is the script. Much as Rocky IV was two boxing matches loosely tied together by montages, Last Blood is 40 minutes of plot loosely connected to an extended action scene via, you guessed it, a series of montages.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention David Morrell's opinion on the film. After seeing it, he wrote on Twitter, "the film is a mess. Embarrassed to have my name associated with it", and later he told Newsweek, "I felt degraded and dehumanised after I left the theatre. Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one. I felt I was less a human being for having seen it."
Make of that what you will.
In many ways, Last Blood is a hilariously bad film. But it's also a hugely entertaining film. Sure, the violence is off the chart and the politics are hilariously naïve at best, dangerously reductionist at worse. But it's extremely well shot, Stallone gives a predictably strong performance, the action is intense, and none of the problems are so large as to render the film unenjoyable. Approach it with the right frame of mind, and you'll find much to appreciate.
A somewhat rudimentary bio-doc that isn't especially insightful, but which features excellent archival material
Directed by Marina Zenovich, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a fairly rudimentary bio-doc that fails to live up to its subtitle; the Robin Williams presented in the film is no more knowable than Robin Williams the stand-up comedian or Robin Williams the Academy Award-winning actor. It asks questions about Williams, gives him a platform, marvels at his on-stage energy, but never manages to elicit or elucidate much in the way of genuine psychological insight. Perhaps a little too respectful of her subject, Zenovich avoids, for the most part, hagiography, but so too does she tend to gloss over some of the darker aspects, although it's certainly laudable that she refuses to allow the manner of his death become the defining moment of his life. What the film most definitely does have going for it, however, is the superbly chosen archival footage, which shows Williams at the absolute height of his powers. And, ultimately, the quality of much of this footage offsets the film's failure to offer anything resembling a deep dive into his thought-processes or private life.
The film covers all the major biographical beats that you'd expect - his 1971 appearance as Tranio in James Dunn's Wild West-themed production of The Taming of the Shrew at the College of Marin and subsequently the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; his 1973 scholarship to Juilliard, where he and Christopher Reeve were the only students selected by John Houseman to join the Advanced Program; the beginnings of his stand-up comedy career; his cocaine and alcohol addiction; his casting as the alien Mork in a fifth season episode of Happy Days (1974), where his largely improvised performance was so well received, it led to a spin-off show, Mork & Mindy (1978); his 1978 marriage to Valerie Velardi; the death of his friend John Belushi in 1982 from a heroin overdose, which led to Williams getting clean; his film career; his celebrated appearance alongside Steve Martin in Mike Nichols's 1988 production of Waiting for Godot at the Lincoln Centre; his divorce from Velardi in 1988; his marriage to Marsha Garces Williams in 1989 and subsequent divorce in 2008; his 2009 open heart surgery; his 2011 marriage to Susan Schneider; checking himself into rehab in 2014 to treat his remerging alcoholism; his diagnosis with early stage Parkinson's; and ultimately, his suicide.
Interviewees include Velardi, David Letterman, Pam Dawber, Billy Crystal, Zak Williams, Steve Martin, and Whoopi Goldberg, with the obvious absentees being Garces, Schneider and his second and third children, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams. Their absence is never mentioned and it leaves a significant lacuna, especially towards the conclusion, where Schneider's insights would have been invaluable (her article, "The terrorist inside my husband's brain", from the September 2016 issue of Neurology, is a must-read).
As you would expect, a major area of interest is Williams's hyperkinetic brand of comedy, with the film's great strength lying not in the talking head interviews, but in the archival footage. We see the outtakes from his improvisations explaining the uses of a stick during his 1991 appearance on Sesame Street (1969); his 1986 performance at the Met Opera House; and his hilarious improvised "acceptance speech" at the 2003 Critics Choice Awards, where he was nominated for Best Actor alongside Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, and the result was declared a draw between Nicholson and Day-Lewis ("it's been a wonderful evening for me, to walk away with nothing; coming here with no expectations, leaving here with no expectations. It's pretty much been a Buddhist evening for me").
The film also tosses out some interesting facts. For example, his father was a very stern man, and it was when a young Williams saw him laugh at Jonathan Winters, that he first began to consider a career in comedy. Also interesting is how he changed the manner in which sitcoms were shot. When he started on Mork & Mindy in 1978, all American sitcoms were shot with a basic three-camera set-up (one captured the wide shot, and the others captured close-ups). However, due to his unpredictable improvisational style, he would rarely stick to his marks, making it virtually impossible for close-ups, as the camera operators never knew where he was going to end up. And so, the show's executive producer Garry Marshall introduced a fourth camera, whose sole purview was to follow Williams as he moved about the set.
The use of audio interviews with Williams, which act as narration, see him more contemplative, explaining, "I don't tell jokes, I use characters as a vehicle for me. I seldom just talk as myself." Which is, of course, a key admission, and which is one of the main themes of the film - the division between public and private. However, this also brings us to one of the film's main failings - the lack of exploration of the dissonance between these two aspects of his personality (the manic public comedian and the pensive private man); it's touched on a few times, but it's never explored in any detail. Indeed, for a film which literally invites the audience into the subject's mind, there's very little of any psychological worth to be found here.
Another problem is Zenovich's (perhaps understandable) unwillingness to depict with any degree of completeness some of the darker aspects of his life. Lip-service is given to much of it, but nothing more. So, for example, Elayne Boosler talks about being his girlfriend whilst giving her blessing for him to be with other women; Billy Crystal explains that Williams was addicted to audience reaction, which gave him a sense of validation; Steve Martin discusses how difficult Williams found it to stay sober. However, apart from these brief moments during the talking head interviews, Zenovich never examines any of the issues thrown up. And as much as they are glossed over, there's nothing at all on Dawber's claim that Williams fondled her and exposed himself to her the set of Mork & Mindy. I can certainly understand why it's been left out, especially insofar as Dawber herself has said she was never offended or threatened ("there was nothing lascivious about it, in his mind. It was just Robin being Robin, and he thought it would be funny"), but it's rather conspicuous by its absence.
The film's structure is also a little unusual, focusing on his rise in the 70s and 80s and the last few years of his life, without spending a huge amount of time looking at the intervening years. There's next to nothing, for example, on his film work, with Zenovich devoting only a few seconds to his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting (1997). Because of this, when his 2014 suicide comes, it feels abrupt, with much of the narrative tapestry that brought him to that place skipped.
Nevertheless, although these problems are significant, fans of Williams will enjoy Come Inside My Mind. The film does lack any kind of psychological depth, and although the argument could be made that Williams was notoriously difficult to know even in real life, hence we shouldn't expect a documentary to lay him bare, the fact is that Zenovich doesn't really try. And I can't help but think that presenting some of the darker times with a more journalistic sense of objectivity would have been a more truthful approach. It wouldn't have tarnished his legacy, but it would have made for a deeper film. In the end, Williams was consumed by his demons, but Come Inside My Mind has sidelined those same demons as much as possible, hoping, perhaps, that we remember the laughter, without dwelling on the sadness.
Extra Ordinary (2019)
A charming Irish ghost story that is consistently hilarious; but Chris de Burgh is definitely going to sue
The debut feature from writer/directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, Extra Ordinary is an unexpectedly hilarious Irish ghost story. I'm sure there are other examples in the Irish comedy/ghost subgenre, but the only one I can think of off-hand is Neil Jordan's well-intentioned but poorly executed High Spirits (1988), a film built almost exclusively on "look how strange the Oorish are" humour. Extra Ordinary, on the other hand, isn't about the Irishness of the characters at all, focusing instead on their inherent decency, and, in the case of the villain, his tendency to call upon Astaroth so as to achieve musical success. As you do. It's a quant film in all the right ways, leaning into the trope of small-town people forced to deal with situations far beyond their ability, and it gets a lot of mileage out of just how completely out of their depth they find themselves. The humour is low-key and irreverent, but it doesn't rely on winking at an audience it assumes to be Irish - I would imagine most of the laughs will translate well to international markets. Some of the nuances will certainly be lost, but, by and large, the film is working with a broader palette by juxtaposing the supernatural with the utterly banal. And it works exceptionally well.
In an unspecified rural Irish town, Rose Dooley (stand-up comedienne Maeve Higgins, who is also credited with "additional writing") is a lonely driving instructor. Gifted with the ability to talk to ghosts, Rose hasn't communicated with the dead since a childhood incident with a haunted pothole (don't ask) left her father, paranormal researcher Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper, playing the character as if he's in an ultra-serious existentialist drama), dead. When Rose is contacted by Martin Martin (a superb Barry Ward) asking for a driving lesson, she happily obliges, and the two click. However, when Rose learns that his real reason for contacting her is that he and his daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman) are being haunted by Martin's deceased wife, Bonnie, she is unimpressed. Meanwhile, one-hit-wonder Christian Winter (a hilarious Will Forte in full caricature mode) is desperate to make a comeback, and has abducted a local virgin, who he must sacrifice to Astaroth on the night of the blood moon. Which wouldn't be a problem except that his wife, Claudia (a spectacularly acerbic Claudia O'Doherty), accidentally causes the young girl to, well, explode. With the blood moon in a couple of days, Christian must find another virgin, and lands on Sarah. Deducing that Sarah is imprisoned in a "holding spell", Rose tells Martin that the only way they can save her is by collecting the ectoplasm of seven ghosts, and they can only do that by letting each ghost temporarily possess Martin.
Extra Ordinary is one of those films that could have been distractingly sardonic if it wasn't made with such genuine warmth. Sure, the humour is irreverent, but it's done in such a way as to endear the characters to the audience due to their imperfections rather than encourage us to laugh at their failings. For example, when Rose explains to Martin what she has to do to release Sarah, he responds, "oh, so like The Exorcist?", to which she says, completely seriously, "I don't know, I've never met him." It's a funny moment, but so too is it a rather sweet moment, and a lot of the humour is in this vein; on the edge of being sarcastic, but never cynical.
Another important aspect of the humour is that the jokes come thick and fast from the opening few seconds. Indeed, there's rarely a scene without some element of humour somewhere in it. This isn't the type of comedy where everything gets serious at certain points, or where the characters' experiences force them to make major changes to their lives because they have learned this lesson and that lesson. Instead, from the opening voiceover to literally the last words spoken, this is wall-to-wall humour. For example, take Martin's relationship with Sarah. He's introduced as being overly protective of her (his great fear is that she'll end up "a homeless sex maniac living on the streets and snorting hash"), whilst she views him as a bit of an embarrassment. However, their relationship never leads to the clichéd old scene where (insert emotion here) they learn to value one another's flaws. That's just not the film's modus operandi, and it's all the fresher because of it.
The film opens with a VHS recording of Vincent Dooley's TV show (featuring some of the most low-rent production values you'll ever see), with Dooley explaining that the reason cheese gives people bad dreams is because cheese is made of the same stuff as ghosts, and hence, they find it easy to inhabit. And this is the tone in which the entire film takes place; it never really departs from this register. Later on, a major plot point is Christian's "virgin rod", a magical staff which can point towards a suitable virgin for sacrifice . To avail of its services, he must hold it up, whisper an incantation, then drop it, and it will point towards a virgin. He must then walk a few feet in that direction, pick it up, and repeat. And yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds, and the shot of him wandering across an empty field as he continually picks up and drops the stick is absolutely hilarious.
The film doesn't rely too heavily on sight-gags, but there's a moment towards the end that is side-splitting. As Sarah floats down the road towards the sacrificial altar, she's followed by Christian and Claudia in one car and Rose and Martin in another. Except the entire chase is taking place at around 10mph. It's one of the film's most slapstick moments, but Claudia's solution to speed things up elevate it to a whole other level. And I won't spoil anything, but the "ginger werewolf scene" has to be seen to be believed; suffice to say, it's pure Father Ted (1995), with an elaborate build-up that makes the utter mundanity of the punchline exquisite.
However, the single most hilarious moment is when we see a brief clip of Christian's claim to fame, a song called "Cosmic Woman" that is so obviously a riff on Chris De Burgh's "A Spaceman Came Travelling By" (1976), I'm pretty sure he could sue for royalties. Everything about it, from the cheesy special effects to the instrumental refrain to the self-important lyrics, just screams out where it was taken from.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of smaller moments that stand out. For example, at the outset, a "based on a true story" subtitle appears. Perhaps getting a dig at the never-ending spate of horror films to make this claim, no sooner has the subtitle appeared when a garbage truck drives across the frame, erasing the words behind it. Along the same lines is cinematographer James Mather's tendency to use overly dramatic crash pans, especially in car scenes, with the incongruity between the hyperkinetic form and the utterly mundane content never failing to make me chuckle. Speaking of overly-dramatic shots, in one particular scene Mather even uses that most dramatic of shots - the split diopter. Except he does so in the most mundane setting you could possibly imagine (in a scene in which a person holds a mop in front of their face as a disguise). There's also Christian's hilarious driving lesson, which sees him spend more time putting on a pair of driving gloves than actually driving. And then, managing to go all of four feet (giving himself a bloody nose in the process), he decides he's had enough for the day. Also consistently funny is Claudia's inability to understand why the virgin must be sacrificed on a particular night, with her refrain of "just kill the b***h" one of the film's best running gags.
Extra Ordinary is a distinctly Irish film, but it's one whose self-aware brand of Irishness should travel pretty well. Strong performances all-round, constant laughs, some terrific sight-gags, and a generally warm tone make for a fine film. For some, the highpoint will be Forte's ludicrously over-the-top Christian, for others, it will be the touching character beats between Rose and Martin. Irrespective of your preference, however, I would strongly recommend this truly charming film.
Andre the Giant (2018)
A fitting tribute to a man who was genuinely one of a kind
On March 29, 1987, the most significant pro-wrestling match of all time took place at WrestleMania III (1987) in the Pontiac Silverdome, in front of 93,173 fans and millions watching around the world, as Hulk Hogan (the greatest of all time then and the greatest of all time now) defended his world heavyweight title against his former best friend, André the Giant. The whole thing was a perfect storm of an expanding and rabid fan base, a company that had gone from territorial to national to international in just a few years, advertising acumen, talent with charisma to burn, and, most importantly, genuine emotion - Hogan had been betrayed by his oldest and closest friend, a man who had grown bitter and resentful of Hogan's success, and who now wanted Hogan's title from him, a title he had held since January 1984. It's not the greatest contest of all time; for a WrestleMania main event, it's very short (12 minutes), with Hogan extremely restricted as to what he could do with André, whose mobility was severely compromised and who was in immense pain due to the effects of acromegaly. But it didn't matter, because the match culminated with Hogan doing the impossible and slamming André. It's rare in pro-wrestling when a babyface champion goes into a match as the underdog, but that was exactly what had happened here, making Hogan's victory all the more significant.
Which brings us to Jason Hehir's excellent documentary on André for HBO, the emotional high-point of which is the WrestleMania III match with Hogan. Sure, it's not always successful in its attempts to separate the man from the myth, falling back far too often on the very hyperbolic mythological elements it's trying to sidestep, and it's neither as insightful nor as objective as one might wish - it was made in association with WWE, which makes objectivity pretty much impossible, and there's next to nothing here you couldn't find online. However, it's respectful, informed, and entertaining, avoiding, for the most part, hagiography, and featuring some superb archival footage, providing a not-always-uplifting window into the life of a man for whom the term "gentle giant" could very well have been coined.
Born André René Roussimoff in 1946 in Molien, France, André began to display signs of gigantism at around 10, and by age 12, he was already 6ft 3in and 208lbs. He started working as a pro-wrestler in 1964, and soon became a huge draw anywhere he went. Fast forward to WrestleMania III in 1987, André's gigantism had developed into acromegaly, as he continued to grow, putting huge pressure on his joints, which caused him constant pain. Semi-retired, he had trouble even walking. However, WWF owner Vince McMahon pitched a storyline which would see André turn heel for the first time in his career and challenge Hogan for the title. The resulting match was instantly iconic, not just in the pro-wrestling sphere, but in pop culture generally. That same year, André appeared in The Princess Bride (1987) as Fezzik, a gentle giant with a penchant for rhyming. Refusing all treatment for his acromegaly as he felt it would interfere with his career and diminish his persona, he continued to wrestle on and off for the next five years, as his health continued to decline. He died in his sleep of congestive heart failure on January 27, 1993.
The film is composed entirely of archival footage and talking-head interviews, with Hehir choosing not to employ a narrator, effectively allowing the interviewees to tell the story. During pre-production, Hehir and producer Bill Simmons decided to include only material which had been directly witnessed; there was to be nothing anecdotal. As Hehir explains it, "we were only going to have first-person accounts. So, if someone said, "I heard André drank 156 beers," well, were you there? If you weren't, it's not gonna make it in. But when Ric Flair says "he drank 106 beers in front of me", that makes it in." This affords the documentary a sense of personalised intimacy - every interviewee is talking about things they actually saw rather than things about which they heard - which, in turn, works towards Hehir's mission statement of depicting the man rather than the myth.
In this respect, one of the most important sections in the film is the disappointingly brief depiction of his time in his adopted home of Ellerbe, NC. Interviewing his daughter, who spent time with him on his ranch, and a few neighbours, this is where Hehir is most successful in dividing the man from the mythos. André loved living there because he could be himself and because he was left alone - he could go to the shop without people gawking at him or asking for autographs, he could be a regular citizen. This comes in the middle of a section about how logistically difficult André's life was (as Flair points out, he couldn't put on a disguise and stroll around New York or go to a movie, and as Hogan explains, everything was too small for him, rendering mundane tasks such as eating in a restaurant hugely difficult). The Ellerbe material really gives the impression that, outside his native France, this was where he was happiest. It's one of the most low-key, moving, and human parts of the documentary, and it's perhaps the only section from which hyperbole seems entirely absent.
Another rather moving section concerns the making of The Princess Bride. Anyone familiar with the film will already know everything covered in this section, but many wrestling fans will not. In a direct rejoinder to colleagues who humorously extol his legendary drinking, Cary Elwes points out that the reason André drank so much was that he was perpetually in so much pain. Along the same lines, director Rob Reiner and actress Robin Wright discuss how surprised they were at how difficult André found it to perform even the simplest physical tasks. There's the famous shot, for example, where Westley (Elwes) jumps on Fezzik's back, and Fezzik slams them both into a boulder, a scene which employs one of the most obvious stunt doubles ever seen, as André was unable to shoot the scene himself. Even more revealing is the scene where he catches Buttercup (Wright) as she falls from a tower, a scene which had to be shot with Wright supported on wires because André couldn't hold her weight. This man who routinely tossed 300lb opponents around the ring couldn't support the weight of a single woman.
In this sense, although the tone is never melancholy, André's story does emerge as something of a tragedy - not because he failed to achieve his dreams, but because in doing so, he dissuaded himself from availing of the aid that could have lengthened his life, and would certainly have eased his suffering.
In terms of problems, the most egregious is Hehir's failure (for the most part) to disentangle André Roussimoff from André the Giant. Hogan, Flair, McMahon, and André's closest friend, Tim White all talk about the man behind the persona, but none can claim to have known him before he became André the Giant. This is why the Ellerbe section and the brief material on his life in France are so important, as they speak to who he actually was rather than who we believe him to be. So although Hehir does avoid hagiography, he fails to demythologise, with so many of the (probably hyperbolic) stories told by the interviewees fitting more comfortably into the image of André the Giant than the life of André Roussimoff. Additionally, more than likely due to the WWE's direct involvement with the project, there's nothing even remotely negative said about the company, although Hogan does point out that, come WrestleMania III, André probably shouldn't have been in the ring. The implication is that McMahon may have exploited André's passion for the business, but this fascinating theme is buried under more mythologising and is quickly forgotten. There's certainly a documentary to be made about André's later years, about his inability to leave the spotlight, about his lack of interest in self-preservation, but this is not that documentary.
Nevertheless, this is a very fine tribute. André was vitally important to an industry at a pivotal crossroads, and the film captures why he was such a compelling character, able to elicit pathos (and later antagonism) from wrestling audiences the world over with relative ease.
The poem is a masterpiece of esoteric science-fiction literature; and this is an unexpectedly impressive adaptation with a chilling dénouement
The transitory nature of human existence, especially when set against the infinity of space and time, has been the inspiration for countless science-fiction narratives. A theme which has only become more relevant as the years go by and we find ourselves in the midst of an increasingly certain man-made extinction event, a fine example is Harry Martinson's poem, Aniara: en revy om människan i tid och rum [trans. Aniara: fragments of time and space] (1956), which is about the crippling contemplation of meaninglessness that consumes the passengers of a vast spaceship (the eponymous Aniara) set adrift in the void of space. An adaptation of the poem, this exceptionally well made film is the debut feature from writers/directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, and is in the tradition of such esoteric texts as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solyaris (1972), Sunshine (2007), and High Life (2018). And yes, the characters are a little underdeveloped, with only a couple getting much of an arc, and yes, the science isn't exactly kosher, but irrespective of that, this is a provocative, morally complex, and existentially challenging film that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Set at an unspecified point in the future, Earth has reached a point of irreversible decay, and humanity is making a new home on Mars. The Aniara is a massive vessel that takes passengers on the three-week trip from a lunar docking station to the red planet. As the film begins, we meet the unnamed protagonist (Emelie Jonsson). An employee on the Aniara, she is in charge of MIMA, (hence her job as a Mimarobe, or MR for short), a semi-sentient holodeck-like technology, that can scan people's thoughts, and allow them to experience whatever is best suited for their psyche (for example, we see MR exploring a vibrant forest). A week into the voyage, however, Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) is forced to jettison the vessel's nuclear core to avoid catastrophy after a minor collision with space debris. However, the ship is now off-course, and without the core, the crew have no way of turning her around, leaving them drifting into the darkness of space. And so, as months turn into years, with no hope of rescue, and as people find themselves unable to face reality, MIMA becomes essential for their mental well-being. However, MIMA wasn't designed to be exposed to so many negative emotions for such a prolonged time, and soon she starts to show signs of failing.
As mentioned, Aniara was written in 1956 by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson (the title is derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning "despairing"). The poem is more allegorical than the film, and was written, at least in part, as a reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the developing Cold War, Walter Baade's doubling of the estimated distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda in 1953, and Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. The film is divided into nine chapters, which mark the passage of time. So, for example, the first three chapters are "Hour 1: Routine Voyage", "Week 3: Without a Map" and "Year 3: The Yurg". The titles of some of the later chapters contain pseudo-spoilers, so I won't mention them here, but when the title of the last chapter appeared on screen, I was so sure I'd misread it that I had to ask my friend for confirmation. Turned out I'd read it just fine; this last title contains all the existential dread and mind-bending contemplation of infinity that you could ever want. And it's an absolutely haunting way to end the film.
Much as is the case with the poem, the film looks at issues such as the possibility that we have already irreparably damaged the planet, the impermanence of human existence, and the sense of meaninglessness that can result when mankind is faced with the eternity of time and space. In relation to this, the film spends a good deal of time on the idea that human civilisation is essentially a construct that we use to shield us from the bleak reality that we are utterly insignificant, and when that construct is removed, we revert to barbarism. So, basically your typical multiplex stuff. The passengers on the Aniara become increasingly unable to stave off the encroaching malaise born from the hopelessness of their situation and the meaninglessness of their existence, and one of the most important lines in the film is when MR is told "everything we do is peripheral". Uplifting stuff.
One of the film's most interesting themes concerns MIMA, which is depicted as half-mind control, half-narcotic. As she becomes more important post-collision, it doesn't take long for people to become dependent on her, with large queues forming, and people at the back trying to bribe MR to get in early. Then, when MR hires another employee, she explains that she'll need to "teach them to resist the images", recalling the way people who work in pharmaceutical factories are randomly drug-tested. That's the narcotic element. At the same time, when a passenger proves unable to handle reality and becomes violent, he is forced to experience MIMA against his will and is rendered unconscious. That's the mind-control element. However, MIMA is also semi-sentient, and she soon proves reluctant to continue processing the never-ending onrush of negative emotions, with the passengers' sense of pointlessness and despair becoming overwhelming, to the point that she tells MR, in a surprisingly moving scene, "I want peace". HAL 9000 she is not; he'd have been able to suck it up.
Another theme, of course, is mankind's destruction of Earth. Whereas once, science fiction narratives focused on nuclear warfare as humanity's probable extinction event, in recent times, global warming and ecological disaster have become far more pervasive. Indeed, Martinson himself was something of a pioneer in this field, positing that we were destroying the planet long before climate change had entered the zeitgeist. In relation to this, the possibility that we may colonise other worlds is now seen not as something to facilitate exploration, but to facilitate survival. Of course, this is rendered all the more terrifying because it's not something only found in the realm of fiction - the planet is dying. But when you have a US president who ignores the scientific evidence of his own people, routinely rolls back environmental protections, and continually confuses weather and climate, the possibility of our changing course seems remote, just like the Aniara. This theme is never examined explicitly - we never learn the year in which the film is set, whether or not Earth has already died and is entirely uninhabitable or is simply on the way, nor what exactly it was that sent us into the cosmos - but it's touched on obliquely throughout and is a good example of how the film subtly engages with themes without necessarily foregrounding them.
Moving away from thematic concerns, the film's aesthetic is absolutely gorgeous. Made with a relatively small budget, the CGI is basic but highly effective. For the Aniara interiors, rather than building elaborate original sets, much of the film was shot in shopping malls and on ferries, which makes sense, as the Aniara is essentially a giant shopping mall/hotel, not unlike a luxury cruise ship. For the sets that were built from scratch, they are matched seamlessly to the location work, with the sleek minimalist post-modern (one might even say Ikea-like) style of Linnéa Pettersson and Maja-Stina Åsberg's production design working well to suggest rigid functionality.
In terms of problems, perhaps the most significant is the lack of character arcs (although this is also true of the poem). This is felt most in the lack of disparate viewpoints on the Aniara where it would have been interesting to meet characters with distinct beliefs, backgrounds, and denominations (although, having said that, the poem has no such characters). Does this leave the viewer with little with which to engage and no characters with whom to empathise? Yes, to a certain extent it does, but this is by design; the film isn't asking us to fall in love with a cast of well-rounded characters, it's asking us to engage with it at an esoteric level.
I will concede, however, that the science has some issues. Why, for example, would a ship the size of the Aniara be used as a short-distance transport vessel? It's mentioned several times that she wasn't built for long-term habitation, but if so, why are there so many amenities on board, why is the life-support system self-regulating, why are the algae farms designed to produce food indefinitely? And the practical nature of her size (4,750 meters long and 891 meters wide) throws up its own problems. Mars is (on average) 140 million miles from Earth, so for the Aniara to complete the journey in three weeks, she would need to travel at an average velocity of 277,777 miles per hour. Newton's second law of motion states that "force equals mass times acceleration"; in short, the greater the mass and the greater the speed, the more force it takes to slow down, and the power needed to slow something this big moving at such a speed is virtually unfathomable.
Nevertheless, the surrounding film is so accomplished, I can easily forgive the scientific inconsistencies. As aesthetically impressive as it is morally complex, as esoterically fascinating as it is unrelentingly despairing, this is a hugely impressive debut film. Equal parts haunting and provocative, the picture it paints of a humanity faced with its own extinction isn't a pretty one, but it is an urgent one, as we hurtle towards our own extinction, rapidly approaching the point where, like the Aniara, we will no longer have the capacity to turn around. And when we reach that point, our collective future will consist of nothing but the indifferent darkness and deafening silence of the infinite.
The Looming Tower (2018)
Complex, intelligent, and sobering; superb television
Based on Lawrence Wright's 2006 book, The Looming Tower tells the story of how the 9/11 attacks were made possible by the internecine squabbling between the CIA and the FBI. However, whereas the majority of the book deals with al-Qaeda, the series focuses almost exclusively on the American perspective, which makes sense as it's an American show with American financing aimed at an American audience. Certainly, there are depictions of some of the terrorists; but this is an American story. And although the binary of CIA=bad/FBI=good is too neat, and there is a series dearth of information on al-Qaeda, this is sobering TV, which is at its best when it shows us how easily these events could have been prevented.
Although framed by the 9/11 Commission in 2004, the story begins in 1998. Both the CIA and FBI each have a dedicated "bin Laden unit". The CIA's Alec Station is run by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard playing a thinly-fictionalised Michael Scheuer), whilst the FBI's I-49 is run by John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels). Each unit is required to share intelligence with the other, but, in reality, neither shares much of anything except insults. In between the two is Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg), National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism. As the show begins, Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim Lebanese-American, has just been assigned to I-49, and shortly thereafter, bin Laden (referred to primarily as UBL) is interviewed for ABC News, promising a grand statement unless the US pull out of the Middle East. But with the Monica Lewinsky scandal in full-swing, the country's attention is elsewhere.
The Looming Tower was developed for TV by Wright, Dan Futterman, and Alex Gibney. An element to which it returns time and again is how both the Clinton and Bush administrations underestimated UBL. This is initially touched on in the first episode, "Now it Begins... (2018)", after the ABC interview, with Soufan telling O'Neill, "he used the interview to appear strong by threatening the United States as he looked an American directly in the eye." With a semen-stained dress to worry about, however, no one pays much attention. Subsequently, in the fourth episode, "Mercury (2018)", Soufan explains, "al-Qaeda is not going to be defeated by simply gunning down the boss. To them, martyrdom is the purest kind of poetry. It's beyond poetry. It's eternity. Each time we snuff a part of it out, it'll keep resurfacing. It goes that deep. Killing Bin Laden is only going to secure his legend and inspire more and more martyrs." The theme of failing to understand the nature of the threat comes up again later in the same episode when Schmidt proposes bombing a bird hunt that might include bin Laden, and O'Neill counters, "within days, there will be a million more recruits ready to sign up. Do you even understand the concept of martyrdom? This isn't a war about one man. Bin Laden is an ideologue, not some plutocrat running a banana republic. His people actually believe. It's bin Laden-ism we're up against, not just bin Laden."
This tendency to underestimate UBL becomes even more pronounced under the Bush presidency, leading to some of the show's best scenes. In the eighth episode, "A Very Special Relationship (2018)", shortly after her appointment as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (Eisa Davis) interrupts Clarke as he is giving a presentation on al-Qaeda, telling him, "when you put something in writing, if you want it to get to the President, keep it pithy." A later scene in the same episode has a similar tone as Rice meets with Clarke, CIA Director George Tenet (Alec Baldwin), Schmidt's right-hand woman Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt), and O'Neill, at which O'Neill is stunned when Rice asks him who he is. It's an extraordinarily well-written scene, and the only time we see O'Neill lost for words, with Daniels nailing his utter incredulity at her not knowing his name.
Another major theme is faith. However, the show is less interested in the blind devotion of UBL's followers than in the lapsed faith of O'Neill and Soufan. O'Neill's loss of faith deeply troubles Liz (Annie Parisse), one of his two mistresses, who's a practising Catholic, and who believes him (incorrectly) to be divorced. This is rendered even more complicated when he's told that to marry Liz in the church, he must first nullify his marriage to Maria (Tasha Lawrence), who's an even more stringent Catholic than Liz, and doesn't believe in divorce. In "Mercury", he asks a cardinal, "you sure there's not some little crack in the magisterium that would allow Maria to maintain her good standing?" However, he's told, "well if you were to die".
In regards Soufan's faith, although he's initially introduced as no longer practising Islam, the faith-based nature of al-Qaeda's ideology deeply troubles him ("when people use my religion to justify this s**t, it affects me"). Indeed, one of the most welcome elements of the show is that although there isn't a huge amount of time spent depicting the Muslim community, there are a few scenes that give a positive presentation, such as a social gathering in "Mercury" where Islam is barely even mentioned. Even some of the terrorists are given interesting context, much of which challenges the notion that all Muslims subscribe to Islamic fundamentalism; for example, Hoda al-Hada (July Namir), who is married to one of the hijackers, doesn't subscribe in any way to her husband's belief in UBL. Instead, she's more concerned with her young children knowing their father than the otherworldly blessings of Allah.
When it comes to the acting, the show excels, with Bill Camp (playing Robert Chesney, one of O'Neill's most reliable agents) and Michael Stuhlbarg as the standouts. Camp is given an amazing scene in "Mistakes Were Made (2018)" when he interrogates Mohamed al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain) in the wake of the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. An eight-minute scene of two men just sitting in a room, Camp is quiet and calm, fondly remembering his military service, drawing al-Owhali in, gaining his trust, making him comfortable, before exploding at the right moment. It's an extraordinarily well-acted, well-directed, and well-edited scene, and a masterclass in dramatic pacing. Although Stuhlbarg plays Clarke as perennially frustrated, he never lets his quiet politeness slip, although on several occasions, he hovers tantalisingly close. He's especially good in a scene late in "9/11 (2018)", after the attacks have happened, and Rice tells him, "Rumsfeld wants the attacks linked to Saddam Hussein and Iraq." This, of course, is an allusion to the illegal war pursued by the Bush administration after 9/11, itself a narrative of American incompetence, ineptitude, and arrogance, and Clarke's simple "what did you say", his voice subtly modulating, is as important a moment as the series has.
Elsewhere, Daniels plays O'Neill as boisterous and foul-mouthed, who doesn't care about the feathers he has to ruffle to get what he wants. Sarsgaard, on the other hand, plays Schmidt as the pretentious polar opposite; calm, patient, and insidious. Whereas O'Neill is all passion and rage, Schmidt is cold and emotionless.
Of course, the show does have problems. For one, there's almost nothing on why al-Qaeda hated the US so much (one of Wright's main themes), and literally nothing on the group's background. This kind of context is hugely important to any depiction of al-Qaeda, so for the series to offer us nothing on their origins is disappointing.
Elsewhere, a subplot in the first episode sees Chesney strike up a romantic relationship with Deb Fletcher (Sharon Washington), chief of station for the US embassy in Nairobi. The storyline is intended to give us an emotional connection to the bombing, but the plot is tonally divorced from everything surrounding it, coming across as emotionally inauthentic. Along the same lines, the show is at its weakest when depicting O'Neill's labyrinthine personal life, Soufan's relationship with his girlfriend Heather (Ella Rae Peck), and the tentative romance between Schmidt and Marsh. Much of this material feels rote and generic, romantic subplots forced into the story so as to counter the testosterone-soaked main narrative (although to be fair, Scheuer did marry Alfreda Bikowsky, on whom Marsh is partly based).
The most egregious problem, however, is the rigid binary distinction between the FBI and the CIA, wherein the FBI are the honourable team players whilst the CIA are the paranoid and duplicitous pseudo-villains, a distinction personified in O'Neill and Schmidt, and which never feels completely authentic. O'Neill was far from perfect, but Schmidt is a dishonest, permanently smirking jerk, convinced of his own genius. To be fair, there can be little argument that Scheuer is a toxic and thoroughly arrogant individual, but there's also some nuance that Schmidt doesn't possess.
Nevertheless, The Looming Tower is taut, complex, and politically fascinating. Sure, the story is streamlined and simplified, but even so, it hasn't been drained of moral complexity, as it serves as a reminder of something with great importance today - with UBL literally telling the US that he was going to attack, everyone was focused on how a cigar was used as a toy. And living, as we do, in an era where the American media is routinely distracted by irrelevancies, it seems the lessons of history have not been heeded.
The Mustang (2019)
From a narrative perspective, there's nothing you haven't seen done before, but it's very well-made and genuinely moving
The pitch for The Mustang is about as hackneyed as it gets - a dangerous convict who hits out at everything and everyone is given a shot at redemption by working with a dangerous horse who hits out at everything and everyone, and as the man starts to tame the animal, the animal starts to tame the man. So far, so Hallmark Channel movie of the week; a story so familiar, it seems impossible it could communicate anything of interest. Except, despite its derivative underpinnings, The Mustang has been made with such craft that it transcends the clichés and works exceptionally well on its own terms. Tonally similar to recent equine-related films such as Lean on Pete (2017) and The Rider (2017), whilst also covering some of the same narrative ground as Michael Mann and David Milch's criminally underappreciated TV show, Luck (2011), The Mustang touches on issues such as masculine guilt, penitentiary stoicism, and human-animal trust, but really, this is a character study. And yes, chances are everything you think might happen does happen, but the acting, the emotional beats, and the sense of authenticity all contribute to the whole, wherein it turns out the familiarity of the destination doesn't matter that much when the journey to get there is so well executed.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is serving a 12-year bit in a Nevada jail and has just been released from solitary. He's so emotionally shut down that the prison's psychologist (Connie Britton) can barely get him to confirm his name, let alone open up about his feelings. Assigned to "outdoor maintenance", he is to clean up the horse dung from the mustangs used in the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which sees a select few inmates "gentle" the animals - essentially, tame them so they can be sold at auction. Coleman keeps to himself, but is drawn to a barn in which a single horse repeatedly kicks the door. Seeing Coleman's interest, head trainer Myles (Bruce Dern doing his Bruce Dern thing) decides to give him a chance to work with the horse, although he warns him that it's considered unbreakable, and will likely be euthanized. Naming him Marquis (although he mispronounces it as Marcus), Coleman sets about attempting to connect with Marquis in a way in which he hasn't connected with anyone or anything in many years.
Executive produced by Robert Redford, The Mustang was initially developed through the Sundance Institute. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Norman Brock and based on de Clermont-Tonnerre's short Rabbit (2014), The Mustang is her feature directorial debut. As the opening and closing legends tell us, WHIP is real, with prisons across 13 states adopting it, and research showing there is a significant dip in recidivist rates amongst inmates who have worked with the horses (the rehabilitative potential of WHIP was also an important plot point in Luck).
Despite the narrative outline suggesting otherwise, The Mustang is not a sentimental film. De Clermont-Tonnerre avoids, for example, romanticising the relationship between Coleman and Marquis; they don't have some kind of profound psychic bond, rather they connect emotionally, nothing more. Their relationship is not an opportunity for glib esotericism regarding the human condition, it's a simple friendship. Belying her directorial inexperience, de Clermont-Tonnerre shows a terrific instinct for how close or how removed we should be at any given moment; at times, she stands back and allows the characters room to breathe, whilst at others, she muscles into the action. This is important when we get to the third act, as she shows remarkable (almost documentarian) directorial restraint, shooting the film's last few scenes, where the potential for melodrama at its strongest, in such a way that such melodrama is never allowed to overwhelm the smaller more realistic character beats.
In terms of acting, this is Schoenaerts's film, with his performance recalling his work in De rouille et d'os (2012), Maryland (2015), and, most obviously, his portrayal of Jacky Vanmarsenille in Rundskop (2011). Coleman shares a lot of characteristics with Vanmarsenille, and Schoenaerts hits many of the same beats, particularly the barely controlled temper that could erupt at any moment. The performance is all the more impressive when you consider how little dialogue Schoenaerts has, instead conveying emotion via physicality. Pay attention, for example, to his gait, which subtly changes over the course of the film in tandem with his developing arc.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Coleman and Vanmarsenille, however, is their connection with animals. In Rundskop, Vanmarsenille is repeatedly compared to the bulls his family rear, whether through shot composition or editing. This comparative vein is even more pronounced in The Mustang. For example, the film opens on a tight close-up of a mustang's eye, and the first time we see Coleman, it's a BCU of him opening his eyes as horse hooves play on the soundtrack. Later, there's a shot in which Coleman is reflected in Marquis's eye and a scene where both he and Marquis are pinned to the ground, facing one another. When Coleman is confined to his cell, we see him pacing back and forth and punching the wall, recalling Marquis's behaviour in the stall. Sure, none of this is subtle, but it is effective, with de Clermont-Tonnerre showing a surprising ability to communicate emotions and themes via pure visuals.
Thematically, of course, the main theme is the similarity between man and beast - Coleman and Marquis are both wild and unruly, and both must be brought to a condition of amiability. Within this, the other big theme is the danger of losing self-control. A crucial scene in this respect, and one of the best in the film, is an anger management class with the psychologist, who asks each prisoner how long passed between the thought of their crime and its execution, and how long have they been in jail. None of the men say there was anything more than a few seconds between thought and deed. The point is clear; a split-second decision has landed then in prison for years. It could be a scene out of any number of prison documentaries (it would have fit right into The Work (2017), the superb documentary about the Inside Circle program in Folsom), and it's a good example of de Clermont-Tonnerre hanging back when she needs to.
Of course, the film is not perfect. For a start, for some people, the narrative beats, particularly the penitentiary redemption arc, will just be too familiar. The fact is that we've all seen pretty much everything of which The Mustang is composed, and for some, that aspect will simply be off-putting. De Clermont-Tonnerre does a fine job of sidestepping almost all of the clichés inherent in this kind of story, but the mere fact that there are so many clichés to avoid in the first place will discourage some people. A bigger issue is a subplot involving Dan (Josh Stewart), Coleman's cellmate, who blackmails him into smuggling ketamine into the prison. This subplot feels like it's been imported from another film entirely, but in incomplete form - it's introduced late in proceedings, is only half-heartedly explored, and ends without much in the way of resolution. These scene are the weakest and the most inauthentic in the film. The narrative needs Coleman to be at a certain place at a certain time, and de Clermont-Tonnerre uses this storyline to facilitate that. But there were far more organic ways to have accomplished this without resorting to a subplot that is so tonally divorced from everything around it.
These few issues notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mustang. On paper, this is a clichéd social protest film with a classic redemption arc, but de Clermont-Tonnerre fashions it into something far more emotionally authentic. She embraces, for the most part, non-judgmental restraint, simplicity, and sincerity, and more than once communicates meaning via purely visual statements. She's working perilously close to cliché, but her intimate direction and Schoenaerts's committed performance allow the film to remain always genuine and respectful. Basing the drama around the real-world WHIP, de Clermont-Tonnerre suggests that, as in other restorative therapies, when you treat someone like a human being, oftentimes, you will find their humanity. And the irony, and the film's most fascinating and beautifully handled trope, is that Coleman's humanity could only be found, drawn out, and nurtured by an animal.
Never Grow Old (2019)
Ugly, bleak, gritty, and enjoyable
I guarantee you've seen this story before - a good man who either abhors or has renounced violence forced to take up arms so as to protect the innocent from a villain. You can find it deployed in westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Firecreek (1968), and in genre films as varied as Collateral (2004), Death Sentence (2007), and Rambo (2008). Filmed in Connemara (standing in for Oregon), this third feature from writer/director Ivan Kavanagh is the latest to roll out that narrative template. And really, there are next to no surprises in Never Grow Old - chances are everything you think is going to happen does happen. However, this isn't really a criticism. The film wears its predictability like a badge of honour, and Kavanagh is obviously a huge fan of violent revisionist westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bone Tomahawk (2015). The script isn't going to be winning any awards for originality, but the film has been put together with undeniable craft. It's bleak, gritty, and despairing, and whilst it won't change your life, it is rather enjoyable.
Oregon, 1849; the town of Garlow is the last stop on the California Trail prior to reaching the Rocky Mountains. Although Sheriff Parker (Tim Ahern) is nominally in charge, Garlow is really governed by the local Methodist preacher, Pike (Danny Webb), who has forbidden alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The town's mild-mannered undertaker, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch with an Irish accent that wavers mid-sentence), isn't especially interested in Pike's hellfire sermons, but he converted from Catholicism because it was important to his wife, French immigrant Audrey (Déborah François). Living on the edge of town with their two children, they plan to leave Garlow at some point but are in no major rush to do so. That plan becomes complicated when three men - Christopher 'Dutch' Albert (John Cusack, having an absolute blast), Dumb Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his severed tongue with him, and Sicily (Camille Pistone), an Italian immigrant who doesn't speak English - roll into town looking for Bill Crabtree (Paul Ronan), who left Garlow several months prior, although his wife (Anne Coesens) and daughter Emily (Manon Capelle) are still there. Stating that Crabtree stole from him and must be killed, Dutch browbeats Tate into bringing the trio to his home and having Audrey cook for them. Seeing Pike's decrees as an opportunity, Dutch procures a group of prostitutes and reopens the town's saloon, killing anyone who crosses him. With his undertaker business thriving because of the spike in violence, Tate stays out of the situation as best he can, although Audrey is disgusted that he's prospering because of Dutch's actions. Soon, however, Tate's family will come under threat and he'll be forced to decide what he must do.
Thematically, the idea of paradise awaiting us in the next life, specifically the notion that the afterlife will be a lot better than our earthly existence, is alluded to throughout the film, mainly by Pike, but also by Audrey, and even Tate and Dutch on occasion (although Dutch references it ironically). And it's really not too hard to imagine a better life than the one Kavanagh presents in Garlow, which is literally a one-road town. However, this isn't the parched, dusty environment of beige, yellow, and light browns that we're all used to seeing in westerns. Rather, it's bleak and forlorn; the buildings are dark brown, almost black, the clouds hardly ever part, it rains a lot, and the road itself is nothing but mud, with Aza Hand's sound design emphasising the squelching of the characters' steps. To compound this sense of squalor, most of the film takes place at night, with cinematographer Piers McGrail occasionally using only one practical light to illuminate an entire scene. This necessitates that characters drift in and out of the shadows, which adds an extra element of danger to Dutch and his men. The life of a European in the Americas of the 19th century wasn't easy, and one of the film's most successful elements is in showing us some of why that was.
Never Grow Old has the structure of a morality tale or a Mystery play, looking at issues such as religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness and the harsh life of European colonisers in the Americas. It even takes time to briefly address the genocide of Native American people, with Pike sermonising about how the colonists saved the land from "savages". The most obvious theme, however, is greed. Tate, for example, is complicit with Dutch's violence insofar as he accepts and ignores it, even profiting indirectly because of it. Audrey is utterly disgusted with this, and she regards their newfound financial prosperity as nothing short of evil. Several of the town's more religious folk think the same thing, and there are multiple references to Tate getting his "30 pieces of silver". Indeed, a recurring motif in the film is to cut from Dutch killing someone to Tate cleaning the body to placing two coins on their eyes to closing the coffin to burying the coffin, and finally, to hiding his payment away in a tin buried in the house. When we first see the tin, there's little in it, but as the film goes on, it becomes fuller and fuller.
Indeed, the film has several visual moments like this which convey thematic points sans dialogue. The opening shot, for example, shows a tattered American flag hanging on a burnt building, immediately introducing the theme of violence and how life in the Americas was very different from that which was sold to so many before they arrived. In another early shot, we see Pike preaching to a packed church. Later, however, after Dutch has reopened the saloon, we again see Pike preaching, but this time to an almost empty church, which, of course, makes reference to the dwindling church attendance that we're seeing playing out today. Another nice visual touch, this time in John Leslie's production design is that the saloon is directly across the road from the church, symbolising the battle between these two forces (hedonism and piety) that continues to this day.
In terms of problems, the script isn't exactly original, with every character an archetype we've seen in many other films. Additionally, the slow-burn pace will put some people off. As mentioned, Emile Hirsch joins a venerable list of actors who have completely butchered the Irish accent; everyone from Tom Cruise to Tommy Lee Jones to Val Kilmer to Brad Pitt. Hirsch isn't as bad as any of these, but his tendency to drop in and out of the inflections on a word-by-word basis is distracting. Another slight issue is that towards the end of the film, Dutch starts reading from the Bible, quoting Revelation 19:17. It's more than a little on the nose, and really, a villain quoting Revelations is itself a cliché.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Never Grow Old far more than I expected. It's bleak and gritty, rough-edged and nihilistic, but it's very well made, with some nicely conceived visual shorthand. An uncompromising look at the harshness of frontier life in the 19th century, the film suggests that stoic individualism is no substitute for a vibrant community, and is as thematically dark as it is practically dark. A morality tale in all but name, there's nothing here you haven't seen before, but Kavanagh handles the genre elements well and has made a rather enjoyable film.
Built upon a fascinating temporal dissonance that works well, but the narrative is painfully dull and the characters taciturn
Transit is based on Anna Seghers's 1942 novel of the same name about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage from Vichy Marseilles to North Africa, as the Nazis move ever closer to the city. However, rather than a 1:1 adaptation, the film is built upon a fascinating structural conceit - although it tells the same story as Segher's novel, it is set in the here and now. At least, some elements are set in the here and now. In fact, only part of the film's milieu is modern. So, although such things as cars, ships, weaponry, and police uniforms are all contemporary, there are no mobile phones, no computers, people still use typewriters and send letters, and the clothes worn by the characters are the same as would have been worn at the time. In essence, this means that the film is set neither entirely in 1942 nor entirely in 2019, but in a strange kind of temporal halfway-house, borrowing elements from each. There's a fairly obvious reason that writer/director Christian Petzold employs this strategy, and it has to be said, it works exceptionally well, with the film's thematic focus symbiotically intertwined with its aesthetic to a highly unusual degree. Petzold doesn't so much suggest that history is repeating itself, as postulate that there's no difference between then and now. Unfortunately, aside from this daring aesthetic gambit, not much else worked for me, with the plot somnolent and the characters void of any relatable emotion.
The film tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski) a young man on the run from the "fascists". In Paris, he's entrusted with delivering some papers to George Weidel, a communist author currently in the city. However, when Georg goes to Weidel's hotel room, he finds the writer has committed suicide. Taking an unpublished manuscript, two letters from Weidel to his wife Marie, and Weidel's transit visa for passage to Mexico, Georg stows away on a train heading for Marseilles, one of the few European ports not yet under fascist control. Upon arriving, Georg visits the wife of a friend who died, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), to give her the bad news. However, she's deaf, and he has to explain the death through her young son, Driss (Lilien Batman), with whom he quickly forms a bond. Meanwhile, when he goes to the Mexican consulate to return Weidel's belongings, he is mistaken for Weidel himself, and he realises he has a chance to escape Europe, with Weidel booked on a ship sailing in a few days. As Georg awaits passage, he has several encounters with a mysterious woman, who, it is soon revealed is none other than Marie Weidel (Paula Beer), who is waiting for word from her husband. Not telling her that Weidel is dead, Georg finds himself falling for her.
Shot on location in Paris and Marseilles, everything from street signs to cars (including a few electric ones) to the front of buildings is modern, whilst Hans Fromm's crisp digital photography hasn't been aged in any way whatsoever. In terms of cultural signifiers, Petzold keeps it vague, although there is a reference to Dawn of the Dead (1978), with the closing credits featuring "Road to Nowhere" (1982). However, for everything that seems to locate the film in the 21st century, there's something to locate it in the 1940s, whether it be the absence of mobile phones, computers, and the internet, or the ubiquity of typewriters and letters. Along the same lines, Petzold keeps the politics generalised, with no mention of Nazis, concentration camps, or the Holocaust. Instead, the film makes reference to archetypal "fascists", never-defined "camps", and systemic "cleansing".
The combination of liminal elements of modernity and period-specific history sets up a temporal/cognitive dissonance which forces the audience to move beyond the abstract notion that what once happened could happen again. Instead, we are made to recognise that the difference between past and present is a semantic distinction only, and that that which once happened never really stopped happening. Indeed, given the resurgence of Neo-Fascism across Europe, built primarily on irrational xenophobic fears of the Other in the form of immigration, the refugee crisis is as bad today as it ever was in the 40s. The temporal dislocation also suggests both the specificity and the universality of the refugee experience - every refugee is fundamentally unique, but so too is the experience the same.
The other important aesthetic choice is the use of a very unusual voiceover narration. Introduced out of the blue as Georg begins reading Weidel's manuscript at around the 20-minute mark, there's no initial indication as to the narrator's identity or when the narration is taking place. Additionally, the narrator is unreliable, as on occasion he describes something differently to how we see it. The narration also "interacts" with the dialogue at one point - in a scene between Georg and Marie, their dialogue alternates with the VO; they get one part of a sentence and the VO completes it, or vice versa.
However, although I really liked the temporal dissonance, the experimental VO didn't work nearly as well, serving primarily to pull you out of the film as you try to answer a myriad of questions - where and when is the voice is coming from; what is its relationship to the narrative; are we hearing a character speak or someone outside the fabula; how can the narrator have access to Georg's innermost thoughts at some points but not at others; why is the voice able to accurately describe things not seen by Georg, but often inaccurately describe things which are; why does the narration seem to be ahead of the narrative at some points, and behind it at others; what is the purpose of the pseudo-break of the fourth wall by having the VO alternate with dialogue? I don't have answers to all of these questions, but I think the point of the destabilising/defamiliarising narration is to reinforce the experience of being a refugee, which is a mass of stories within stories and fragments that often contradict one another.
The film has more problems than just the VO, however. To suggest the disenfranchised nature of what it is to be a refugee, Petzold depicts Georg as a non-person; he has very little agency and is instead someone to whom things happen. In short, he's passive, less a protagonist than a witness. Passive characters can work extremely well in the right circumstances (think of Chance Gardner (Peter Sellers) in Being There (1979), or the most famous example, Hamlet), but here, passivity combines with a dearth of backstory and character development, whilst Rogowski plays the part without a hint of interiority. Easily the most successful scenes in the film are those showing his friendship with Driss because they're the only moments where he seems like a person rather than a narrative construct, they're the only parts of the film that ring emotionally true.
This friendship, however, is secondary to the love story between Georg and Marie. Except that it isn't a love story; there's no emotional realism to it whatsoever. I understand what Petzold is going for here. He doesn't want a Hollywood love story of fireworks and poetic monologues, he wants to show that the war and their status as refugees has stripped them of their identities, and they are now effectively shells. However, this in no way necessitates such a badly written relationship void of emotional truth.
What Petzold is trying to do in his characterisation of Georg is clear enough; as an archetypal refugee, Georg can't be seen to have much control over his affairs, and his time in Marseille must be static, an existence in-between more fully realised states. Petzold uses this to try to imply that to be divested of one's country is to be divested of one's identity. However, the extent of his passivity renders him completely unrealistic - he's not a person, he's a robot.
Tied to this is a lack of forward narrative momentum. Again, I understand that Petzold is trying to stay true to the experience, that the life of a refugee must necessarily involve a lot of waiting, repetition, and frustration. But again, it's the extent to which the film goes to suggest this. Yes, inertia is part of the theme insofar as the film depicts people suffering from crippling inertia, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the film needs to be so unrelentingly dull.
Easily the most egregious problem is one that arises from a combination of these issues - it's impossible to care about any of the characters. Think of films as varied as Das Boot ist voll (1981), Le Havre (2011), or Toivon tuolla puolen (2017). All depict refugees, and all ring true emotionally, because they're populated by characters about whom we come to care. This is precisely what Transit is lacking. There is no pathos, with none of the characters coming across as anything but a cipher, a representative archetype onto which Petzold can project his thematic concerns. With little in the way of psychological verisimilitude or interiority, they simply never come alive as real people.
An intellectual film rather than an emotional one, Transit is cold and distant. And this coldness and distance has a cumulative effect, with the film eventually outlasting my patience. The temporal dissonance works extremely well, but it's really all the film has going for it. Petzold says some interesting things regarding the experience of refugees in the 21st century vis-à-vis refugees of World War II, and the mirror he holds up to our society isn't especially flattering. If only we could care about someone on screen. Anyone.
Palpably tense and thematically complex, this is deeply uncomfortable viewing
A film I've always admired is David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005), which features two graphic sex scenes between Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Edie (Maria Bello). The first is a beautifully shot scene of two people madly in love; it's tender, gentle, playful, and erotic. The second takes place after their comfortable life has imploded because of his past deeds, and it's brutally rough, void of affection; just two people having sex on a staircase with no carpet. In these two scenes, the themes of the entire film are spelt out perfectly, encapsulating how catastrophically wrong things have gone and the degree to which their love has been compromised. So if ever there was a film with thematically justified sex scenes, it was here. In the same sense, explicit but crucial rape scenes can be found in films such as Irréversible (2002), Lilja 4-ever (2002), and Import Export (2007). And now so too Holiday. Director Isabella Eklöf's debut film, Holiday features an explicit rape that pushes all kinds of boundaries, and that will prove too much for some. No doubt it will be labelled gratuitous, exploitive, and voyeuristic, (accompanied by the usual asinine claims of "worst film ever"), when in actual fact it's the opposite - a narratively pivotal and thematically essential provocation.
Telling the familiar story of a sybaritic gangster's moll who realises she's in a bad situation, Holiday delights in upending generic norms. In this sense, it's thematically similar, although tonally different, to Coralie Fargeat's mesmerising rape/revenge thriller, Revenge (2017), which tackles all manner of androcentric tropes, subverting some, inverting others. Eklöf has cited both Gaspar Noé and Ulrich Seidl as influences, and as in much of their work, it's difficult to tell whether she's trying to convey a point about an inherently aggressive, territorial, and amoral human condition, or if she is just daring the audience to be offended. Co-written by Eklöf and Johanne Algren, the film is cold and hard, clinically detached from its subjects. But is it a post-MeToo narrative or an exploitative recreation of the male gaze and a validation of the worst elements of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity)? And, yes, there are some problems - it eschews narrative momentum and conventional character arcs, and has no interest in eliciting pathos - but this is an impressive debut feature. The rape scene will limit its exposure beyond the festival circuit, we will definitely be hearing more from Eklöf in the future.
The film tells the story of Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a young woman holidaying with her older boyfriend, successful drug trafficker Michael (Lai Yde), and a group of his employees at a villa in Bodrum. Shortly after arriving, she meets Thomas (Thijs Römer), a Dutch tourist who is clearly smitten with her, and soon they're hanging out together. However, Sascha never mentions that she has a boyfriend, nor that he is violent when people don't do as he says.
As mentioned, Holiday reminded me of Revenge. Both are the first feature of a young female filmmaker, both play with genderised tropes, both turn androcentric paradigms on their head, both feature graphic violence, both are set in an almost exclusively male milieu where aggression is central, and both are highly confrontational (in Revenge, Fargeat makes the audience complicit with the male gaze by visually commodifying the body of the only women in the film, whilst in Holiday, Eklöf forces the audience into the position of a passive witness to a horrific rape). Thematically, the films are also connected, albeit by way of inversion - Revenge is about a woman fighting back against the men who have exploited and abused her; Holiday is about a woman who is either unable or unwilling to engage in such a fight.
In terms of the rape scene, filmed in a single shot at a removed distance using a stationary camera, is Eklöf saying something about male-on-female violence and sexual violation, or is the scene fetishising the very things she seems to be condemning - treating Sascha's body in much the same objectifying manner as Michael does. Is the scene redolent of a wider commentary on the behaviour it depicts, or is it simply cold observation of man's cruelty unto (wo)man? Either way, it's pivotal to the film, with Eklöf presenting Sascha as someone who internalises the violence done to her. Two key scenes in this respect come immediately before and immediately after the rape. When one of Michael's employees, Musse (Adam Ild Rohweder), returns from a drug deal to tell Michael the buyer never turned up, Michael is furious, telling Musse the police could have been watching and followed him back to the villa. He and his other employees then beat Musse for his stupidity. The rape happens next, and in the following scene, we see Musse, desperate to work his way back into the group's good graces, handing out expensive gifts. The point is clear; just as Musse becomes more loyal after a violent reprimand, so too does Sascha slide more and more into her role as sexual plaything for Michael.
The rape scene is also important insofar as it's an excellent example of showing rather than telling. At one point during the scene, which takes place in the villa's living room in broad daylight, someone appears at the top of the frame, coming down the stairs, although we only see their legs as they stop and retreat. This character, whoever it is, is thus doing something that Eklöf refuses to allow the audience to do - close our eyes to the horror of what we're witnessing, pretend it isn't happening. This speaks to a societal instinct to evade that which causes repulsion, with Eklöf suggesting that closing one's eyes to suffering and violence doesn't mean that suffering and violence go away. This is why the scene can't be dismissed as exploitative or gratuitous, a hollow attempt to shock.
Of course, although Sascha is blameless when it comes to the rape, in other ways, she's complicit with her own exploitation. Crucially, she's more concerned with accruing materialistic trappings than with the humiliations she must endure in order to accrue them. This is not a story about a woman too beaten down to try to leave, it's a story about a woman who knows that if she leaves, she will lose her meal ticket. In this sense, the film is partly a critique of consumerism and materialism. Important here is that Michael's group represent the worst kind of vacuous sybaritism - lowlife classless scumbags with no interest in anything other than their own wealth.
Aesthetically, the film is extremely controlled. Perhaps too controlled. For around an hour, next-to-nothing of consequence happens. There is method in Eklöf's restraint, however, with the narrative somnolence in the first half meaning that when it comes, the rape hits with even more force. Undoubtedly, the lack of incident will drive some people around the bend, but for me, everything is so tense, it doesn't matter that little of note happens.
The tendency to defamiliarise the mundane and render it unsettling is introduced in the opening shot, which sees Sascha walking through a seemingly empty airport, the sound of her high-heels reverberating throughout the building. There's nothing remotely threatening about the scene, but it's just off-kilter enough to instil trepidation, and this tone is maintained throughout. A karaoke session, in particular, is almost unbearably taut as we wait for an explosion of violence that may or may not come. Here, and elsewhere, Eklöf plays with and manipulates audience expectation, especially genre conditioning; we're used to seeing things kick off in films about drug dealers, so we expect the same from Holiday.
In terms of problems, the lack of forward momentum will lead some to find the film boring or "pointless", whilst the lack of character arcs will see others accuse it of being underwritten. Some people will also see the rape scene as unnecessarily degrading. And although all of these issues are by design, it has to be said that Eklöf does push non-incident slightly past breaking point, and her refusal to develop the characters does make it difficult to empathise with anyone. This is especially troublesome with Sascha herself, as she is, for all intents and purposes, hollow.
These problems notwithstanding, Holiday is an impressive first feature. Essentially about a woman who can adapt to anything so long as she has a credit card, it's bleak and difficult to watch, but it's also masterfully constructed and thematically complex. Presenting the group's milieu with the detachment of a nature documentary, we witness the physical violence and psychological brutality that's endemic to this world. Pushing the boundaries of how a woman's body can be used on-screen, Eklöf asks all manner of questions without providing much in the way of answers. Finding them is our job.