MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Terry Jones
CAST: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Controversial Film”

PLOT: Born on the very first Christmas in the stable next door to Jesus Christ, Brian of Nazareth spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Let the record show this was originally going to be a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but the author had just seen 2 or 3 dramatic films in a row and apparently decided it was time to switch gears a bit.  Complaints about this adjustment may be directed to the author’s colleague, Marc Sanders, who promises to reply to each and every complaint at about the same time hell freezes over. ]


Life of Brian is widely considered Monty Python’s tightest, most well-written film, even if it’s not quite as hysterically funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I agree.  I can speculate that this is due to the subject matter, and so great care needed to be taken to ensure that viewers would not mistakenly think the film was poking fun at the Jesus Christ Himself.  On the contrary, right from the very opening, it’s quite clear this movie is not about Jesus, but about the poor sod who was born in the stable next door and the deluded individuals who continually mistake HIM for a messiah as a grown man.  (“…how shall we f*** off, oh lord?”)

But that didn’t stop the mighty train of offensensitivity from rolling right along.  To wit:

  • Norway banned the film for a year.
  • Ireland banned it until 1987.
  • A town in Wales banned it until 2009, after a cast member was elected Mayor.
  • A town in Britain banned it until 2015.

However, no amount of bans and protests could prevent Life of Brian from becoming an integral part of the cinematic comedy landscape.  At the annual Venice Film Festival, the Premio Brian (Brian Award) is awarded to the most rationalist/atheist movie presented at the festival.  It was named the funniest comedy of all time by the BBC’s Channel Four, beating out Groundhog Day and The Full Monty.  In 1982, during the Falklands War, sailors aboard a severely damaged British vessel started singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while awaiting rescue.  You can’t BUY that kind of publicity.

After a brief prologue in which the Three Wise Men visit the wrong manger by mistake (“We were led by a star!”  BRIAN’S MOTHER: “Led by a bottle, more like!”), we jump ahead to when Brian is just about Graham Chapman’s age, struggling to hear the Sermon on the Mount from a distance (“Blessed are the cheesemakers?!”).  Much like Holy Grail, the film is punctuated by sketches, some of which are pauses in the action, but most of which still manage to carry the story forward.  That’s quite a feat when you consider their subsequent film, The Meaning of Life, was composed entirely of self-contained sketches, albeit with a common theme.  The fact that the Pythons were able to rein themselves in and keep things relatively lean is rather admirable.

If I kept relating plot developments and summaries of sketches and funny quotes, I would be here all day:

  • The “Biggus Dickus” scene.
  • The stoning.
  • The unexpected Latin lesson.
  • “What have the Romans ever given us?”
  • Graham Chapman’s willy.  (Hey, it’s a memorable scene, shut up.)

If I must be honest, though, I was never, and still am not, a fan of the film’s ending.  Yes, I get the supreme, absurd irony of the situation juxtaposed with that cheerful song, but…to be honest, it’s always felt like the Pythons said, “Okay, so we’re here, aaaaand…now what?  Any ideas?  No?  Okay, let’s end the movie.”  Perhaps they always meant to end it that way.  So be it.  But I’m selfish.  I wanted just a little more.  …although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what kind of mileage you could get out of a bunch of people at a tomb waiting for someone to emerge, but never does.  There’s a joke there, somewhere, but I’m not the one to tell it.

There is one scene that I found VERY interesting.  It never stood out before, but it does now.  People are fond of saying, “Well, you could never make Blazing Saddles today.”  Perhaps, but I bet the chances are even slimmer of someone trying to make Life of Brian today, and even if someone did, the scene in question would probably not make it to the final cut.

Picture this: Four members of the People’s Front of Judea (NOT to be mistaken for the Judean People’s Front…those splitters) are trying to decide something when one of the male members, Stan, reveals he wants to be a woman and asks everyone to start calling him “Loretta.”  The others ask him why, and he says, “I want to have babies…It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them!”  “But you can’t HAVE babies!” retorts Reg, “you haven’t got a WOMB!  Where’s the fetus gonna gestate, you gonna keep it in a box?!”  They eventually agree that Stan/Loretta can’t actually HAVE babies, but they will fight for his RIGHT to have babies.  “It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!”  (“…symbolic of his struggle against reality…” grumbles Reg.) [Ed. note: view the full scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlo7YZW8vPA ]

If you ask me, in today’s society, if that scene were to appear in a contemporary film, even in an obviously comic context like this one, it would become an even bigger controversy than “Nipplegate.”  Forget about all the religious overtones and perceived (but non-existent!) blasphemy.  All it would take is for one person to call that scene out, and Monty Python would be on the road to social cancellation faster than you can say, “Carla’s your uncle.”

ANYWAY.  As a lifelong fan of the Pythons, I consider Life of Brian their high-water mark in terms of storytelling and contextual comedy.  If it’s not quite as funny as Holy Grail, well, I ask you, what is?  Any arguments about the movie being blasphemous are easily deflated by pointing out it’s not about Jesus.  It’s about this other idiot and the group-thinking idiots who follow him.  Case closed.


QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote:
(Talk about being spoiled for choice…it’s a little out of context, but if you know, you know:)
“He has a wife, you know.  Do you know what she’s called?  Incontinentia.  …Incontinentia Buttocks.”

After watching the film, can you see both sides of the controversy surrounding it?
I can acknowledge that two sides exist (or existed), but the anti-Brian argument is pointless because, once again for the cheap seats, the movie is not about Jesus.  It can’t be blasphemous if it barely even mentions His name.  My two cents.

APOLLO 13

By Marc S. Sanders

What’s fascinating about Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 is that I can hardly understand what anyone is talking about.  I don’t know how they identify the problems of the doomed spacecraft.  I don’t know how any of the folks at NASA resolved the issue to get the three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise or Jack Swigert (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon), back to Earth.  What I do know is that William Broyles’ script, based upon the novel from Lovell with Jeffrey Kluger, allows for an ease of comprehension to know where one thing has started, where it leaves off and where it needs to go with each passing scene.

Forgive me, but when I watch NASA documentaries, I honestly get bored.  It’s amazing what has been accomplished during the history of our space program.  So much has been discovered but it’s only a fraction of what’s still left to be uncovered beyond our planet.  The films and literature that account for the engineering of space craft and what is required to travel in space lose me though.  Ron Howard puts everything in place with Apollo 13, however.  It’s the emotions that stem from the actors.  All I need to understand are the efforts each character serves to the ending that we all know.  It’s not about telling us what these guys are educated with or what science mandates.  Rather, it is about how these people respond to an unexpected and unfamiliar crisis.

On the ground in Houston, Texas Ed Harris portrays Gene Krantz.  He’s a pretty quiet kind of character, but upon his entry into the film, just ahead of the anticipated launch of Apollo 13, he is gifted a pure white vest.  Krantz wears this as his armor, prepared to take on any challenge including navigating a crew of three astronauts towards the moon.  He is surrounded by a school of nerdy looking engineers and scientists, in their short sleeve shirts, skinny ties and black rimmed eyeglasses.  They are all disbursed among an assortment of different departments.  I think one specified simply in human waste disposal aboard the ship.  Yeah, there’s a guy there making sure the urine is dispensed properly.  Again, I couldn’t tell what specialty each man is designed for, but they’re the experts.  Harris simply tells his men what needs to be done by drawing two circles on a chalkboard; one is the moon, the other is Earth.  When a frightening malfunction occurs aboard the rocket, Harris explains that his men now need to get the ship back to Earth by drawing a line between the solar locales.  He doesn’t know how it can be done, but like a football coach he demands his team find a way.

On board Apollo 13, the three astronauts are crammed in what is left of their ship, marooned to float through space. The interior gets extremely cold, exhaustion gradually overtakes them, and they are left with no choice but to power down whatever sources they have left as a means of preservation. 

A third angle comes from the wives and families of the three men.  More precisely, focus is drawn towards Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) with her family, including the children and Jim’s elderly mother watching the television with anticipation for ongoing developments while the media waits outside their doorstep.  The first act of the picture offers the anxiety that Jim’s wife has with this upcoming mission.  There is the standard nightmare scene.  Acknowledgement of the unlucky number thirteen.  Marilyn loses her wedding ring down the shower drain (something that actually happened). Ironically, the Lovells’ eldest daughter seems to carry the same kind of apathy for her dad’s upcoming trip like the rest of the country.  Jim may finally be having his dreams come true, to walk on the moon.  However, the rest of the world is more concerned with the possibility of the Beatles breaking up or what else is on TV.

A side story is delivered by Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise).  The poor guy was originally a part of Lovell’s three man crew, only to be sidelined at the last minute because of a suspected case of measles.  When things go wrong for Apollo 13, he enters the flight simulator to diagnose the issue and find a resolution.  He’s offered a flashlight but rejects it because the guys in space don’t have that tool.  He specifically tells his men not to give him anything that they don’t have up there, and he refuses to take a break either.  If they don’t get a chance to rest, then neither does he.  This mantra carries over to the other guys working diligently to keep the astronauts alive and get them home. 

Apollo 13 is not a how to picture.  Rather, it is a film that focuses on response. 

Ron Howard offers amazing shots of the rocket and footage in space.  The launch is extremely exciting as shrapnel sheds off the craft during its fiery liftoff. Then other parts disengage after it leaves the Earth’s atmosphere.  The interior looks extremely claustrophobic, but the actors look comfortable within the floating zero gravity confines. Hanks, Paxton and Bacon have great chemistry together whether they are kidding one another about vomiting in space or bickering with each other while caught up in the problem at hand. 

The base of NASA is alive with hustle and bustle.  Not one extra looks like they are sitting around.  They all know what monitor to look at or which teammate to lean over as they desperately discuss what needs to be accounted for.  There’s a great moment that is explained to the audience as if they are a four year old.  A man in charge throws a pile of junk onto a boardroom table and says they need to build something with nothing but what’s on this table to absolve the problem the astronauts are having with carbon dioxide poisoning.  A few scenes later, we see the junky device that’s been rudimentarily assembled.  Who knows what it does?  All I need to know is that it works. 

I did take one issue with Apollo 13.  To heighten the dramatics, sound is provided as the ship comes apart. Even I know that sound does not travel through space.  I forgive it when I’m watching fantasies like Star Wars or Superman.  However, this film recaps a real-life event and during those moments, as startling as they may be, I could not help but think about the dramatic clanging and crashing penetrating my sound system.  Apollo 13 draws from a well-known case, but it still resorts to cinematic tropes to hold my attention.  I wonder if the picture would have worked had it remained faithful to basic scientific fact through and through.  It’s not a terrible offense.  It’s forgivable.  Though it got me thinking. Heck, it obviously never bothered the masses because the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Sound Design.

Ron Howard’s film is a magnificent experience, full of outstanding footage.  It relies on actors who depend on the emotions of the scenario to narrate the story.  Recently, I watched the film Tár with Cate Blanchett.  In that film, the mechanics of orchestral music and conducting are endlessly discussed.  It’s like listening to a foreign language at times while trying to keep up.  Howard’s film could have taken that approach and bored me to tears with a lot of technical jargon from engineers and scientists.  Instead, Apollo 13 succeeds by only presenting the basics of the issues at hand.  I couldn’t name one specific part on the engine of my car, but I know it powers the vehicle, allowing it to go from point A to point B.  The army of NASA folks declare this thing has never done that before or it must be crazy to consider because that has never been attempted.  I can count on the players of Apollo 13 to know what they’re doing.  They are aware of the risks that need to be taken and know what’s at stake.  I don’t need to see their diplomas to trust their concern or computations.

Like other films where known historical events are depicted, Apollo 13 maintains its suspense even if you already know the ending.  The aborted mission to the moon became known as “The Successful Failure.”  It’s refreshing to see how this proud moment all played out. For fleeting window in time America, actually most of the world, seemed to hold a unified care for three men trying to outlast a doomed, desperate and impossible situation. 

Apollo 13 is a triumph.

TÁR

By Marc S. Sanders

I’m not sure what to make of this.

One of the very first scenes of writer/director/producer Todd Field’s Oscar nominated film Tár captures its title character Lydia Tár being interviewed for her celebrated career as one of the few widely known female conductor/composers in the world.  Cate Blanchett is Lydia, and her vocal delivery is so crisp and sharp within the wordy conversation.  I hear everything she is saying and yet I can not comprehend one thing that she is talking about.  I’m sorry.  I lack the knowledge to know the value and gifts of a skilled classical musician who expertly leads an orchestra.  However, I think I gathered the most vital element of this scene.  Lydia Tár knows she’s a celebrity as she discusses the influence she collected from Leonard Bernstein, and as she sits on this stage with this interviewer, she knows that she is one to be admired.  Lydia Tár will likely claim to be the second coming of Bernstein. She is a proud -very proud-expert at her craft.  No question about that.  Yet, in front of this classroom audience she is also wearing her best figurative mask. 

(Interestingly enough and a POSSIBLE SPOILER, the final caption of the film has the audience she performs to donning masks.)

Shortly after that interview comes another one-on-one discussion with her agent/lawyer, and a different angle to Lydia is presented at the restaurant table.  I still found it challenging to understand the breadth of the conversation.  I could uncover one thing though.  The mask has been removed.  Lydia Tár is now a proud condescending bitch. 

The most eye opening scene occurs next as Lydia attempts to shatter the confidence of a student while she teaches a class at Julliard.  Constructively speaking, this roughly ten-minute sequence is fascinating.  Todd Field captures one long take, the camera never breaks away for an edit, as the composer destroys the position of this young student’s reasoning for not being an admirer of Bach.  It consists of long, breathless monologues that travel with Cate Blanchett’s stride and Todd Field’s camera as the actress circumvents the classroom and the stage located up front. The student does not approve of Bach as a CIS, white composer whose sexual activities led to multiple children.  However, Lydia does not factor in Bach as the person he was with his ugly warts and all. Rather she only values the art he created, and therefore this student should as well.  All that is contained in the notes on the page are what Bach should be treasured for.  Lydia confidently undoes the student’s argument with logic that is hard to win against.  Todd Field will demonstrate with the rest of his film this destructive skill will also be Lydia Tár’s undoing.

It’s quite a proficiency Lydia has for tearing down the principals of anyone confronted with her.  She is also adept at ripping away the promising potential and the talented traits that others possess.  Lydia knows what she does.  She knows the hurt and pain she inflicts among the people around her.  Yet, just as she explains to the student, she should also be appreciated like Bach.  You may despise her demeanor, but Lydia Tár is an artist of varying and exceptionally high degrees, especially for a woman.  She is writing a book about herself appropriately titled Tár On Tár.  She is in the middle of writing her own symphony, and she has the esteemed honor of conducting a major German orchestra in Berlin for an anticipated live performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Therefore, who she is as a person should carry no matter.  Look only at what Lydia is capable of!!!!

Cate Blanchett is one of the few actors that can stand next to other talented peers like Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine or Jimmy Stewart.  She is an uncompromising actress ready to play the unlikable characters necessary for effective storytelling.  Lydia Tár is one such sociopath.  Blanchett occupies nearly every frame of the picture, and she delivers such a frightening and obdurate drive to this person.  

It’s funny.  I often joke with a friend of mine about Faye Dunaway’s awful, over the top performance of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.  It’s so ridiculously out of control and manically abusive that I don’t know where to begin with that film.  Lydia Tár has that same kind of passion, but with Cate Blanchett possessing the character, accompanied by Todd Field’s script, there are an assortment of ways this tyrant leaves her carnage strewn about when she enters and leaves a scene.  The outbursts are timed perfectly for these crescendo moments where Lydia believes she has everything under control and contained, but then a screw comes loose in her functioning that derails everything she’s built herself up to be.

However, this character lives within the modern digital age, where cell phone video footage and social media serve as a mirror and a judge and jury.  It’s not so easy to dismiss what is said about Lydia when “if it appears on the internet, then it must be true.” Underlings will surrender to Lydia’s patronizing demands.  They will cower or fidget with an involuntary bouncing knee or a clicking pen in their hand, while in her presence.  Lydia is aware of the fear she invokes because she is so good at using it for her ongoing self-empowerment.  However, she is not capable of overcoming the judgment she must endure when she becomes associated with the suicide of one of her former musicians; someone she lent the illusion of valuing only to dismiss her without so much of a care later.  She’s also unaware of how to function without the dependability of her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant, doing her mousy best under the elephant shadow cast by Blanchett’s performance.  Furthermore, the intrusion of Lydia’s self-consciousness comes into play as she gets disrupted by sounds that interrupt her sleep or silence or concentration as she kills herself trying to write her piece and live within her ego.

Tár is a film with a lot to unpack.  The other Unpaid Movie Critic, Miguel, saw it before I did and told me that.  He could not be more astute with that observation.  I read his review after watching the film and my impression is pretty consistent with what he gathered from the piece.  However, as I stared at my computer monitor wanting to write about this film, I told Miguel that I am at a loss of what to say about the picture.  It’s a long movie.  It actually feels longer.  Ironically, if I were to watch it a second time, I think it would feel like a faster pace for me.  I guess because I’d have an idea of where Todd Field was going with his film.  My problem on this first go round was that I was lost as to what was occurring, and what or who was being talked about.  Todd Field tells this story with the presumption that his audience is familiar with the art and industry of music composition.  For me, the vernacular is totally foreign.  He doesn’t offer exposition to explain the science of it all like how a crime drama will allow moments to explain police procedure for example, or a fantasy will display who/what is most valuable in its kingdom.  Don’t misconstrue what I say, please.  I’m not complaining.  Tár speaks to the musicians first. 

Only later did I accept that much of what is held within the dialogue is not a priority for me. I should be examining the act of Lydia’s cruelty, self-absorption, and the response she elicits from anyone who steps into her world.  It’s interesting that Cate Blanchett speaks fluent German (she specifically learned it, as well as orchestral conducting for this film) to her orchestra, but sometimes Todd Field opts not to provide subtitles of what she’s saying to them.  In other moments though, he will.  It doesn’t matter what she is saying.  Her body language and her – well…her OUTSTANDING – performance convey the messages.

Because my mind deviated during the film, simply because it was a challenge to understand what was going on, I kept going back and forth with the little figures on my shoulders.  I hate it.  I like it.  I hate it.  Okay, now I like it.  Reflecting back on the film, I think Tár is an enormous achievement for both Cate Blanchett and Todd Field.  This film is a very far cry from the sentimental ingredients I found in his other films (Little Children, In The Bedroom). 

For Blanchett, this role is a massive test of endurance with endless amounts of dialogue to cover in long takes, along with speaking French, German and especially the dialect of classical music while she stands at the podium with the baton held in her hand.  She uses that baton like a weapon at times, a ruler with a broad sword or an extension of her arm.  There was one moment where she holds the instrument with both hands and swings it violently like a golf club or a baseball bat.  I’ve never seen that before.  It’s shocking how she handles herself.  I noted how Margot Robbie must have exhausted herself into oblivion while performing her drug fueled rages in Babylon.  I said she must have curled up in a corner after some takes just to calm herself down.  I would not be surprised if Cate Blanchett sought some therapeutical treatment following shooting some of these scenes.  A role like Lydia Tár is so tyrannical, so cruel, so paranoid and so indulgent that it exhausts you mentally to watch her function.  For Blanchett, her strive for perfection must have taken a toll on her mentally as well as physically. Her performance is comparable to the crazed obsession found in Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the greedy oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood or what he achieved as Abraham Lincoln.

Come later this year, Cate Blanchett will be the one taking home the trophy for Best Actress at the Oscars. It’ll be so well deserved.

I recommend you see Tár, and I urge you to stay with it.  It’ll test you.  It’ll try you. Stay with it, though, because when it is over you won’t stop thinking about it.   

TENDER MERCIES (1983)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
MY RATING: 8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 84% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie that Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay”

PLOT: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.


Tender Mercies does not feel like a movie that was released the same year as WarGames, Octopussy, and Return of the Jedi.  It has more in common with the spare, character-driven films of the early ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces [1970] and The Last Picture Show [1971].  It’s a movie where not much seems to happen, at least on the surface.  Underneath the barren landscapes and big skies, however, great truths about life and acceptance are on display.

Anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies tells the story of Mac Sledge (Duvall), whom we see at the opening of the film collapsing in a drunken stupor on the losing end of a fight in a rinky-dink roadside motel in rural Texas.  The next morning, broke and abashed, he makes an arrangement with the widowed motel owner, Rosa Lee (Harper): he’ll do odd jobs at the motel for room, board, and $2 an hour.  Rosa Lee’s son 10-year-old son, Sonny, watches this situation unfold impassively and asks Mac some very direct questions: “Did you used to have money?”  “How’d you lose it?”  “You think my dad would’ve liked you?”

The filmmakers (directed by Bruce Beresford, Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) make some interesting choices for everything that follows.  There is a gentle scene between Mac and Rosa Lee where he shyly asks her, “You ever think about gettin’ married again?”  She says she has.  “Would you ever think about marryin’ me?”  She says she will think about it.  And in the very next scene, it’s made clear that time has passed, they got married, and have been married for several months.  In another film, that kind of “condensed storytelling” would go into the negative column in my book, but not here.  Instead, it feels…right.  We don’t need to show any further details of their courtship, their wedding, Sonny’s feelings about it one way or the other, etcetera.  Those extra scenes would have delayed the narrative structure, showing us things we don’t need to see, but which we can easily deduce.

There’s another scene (I’ll try to tread lightly here) where Mac gives a heartfelt, but still masterfully underplayed, speech to Rosa Lee about how he was in a bad drunk driving wreck years before, and how God saw fit to bring her into his life, but to do so meant her husband had to die, and so on.  “See, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did, I never will.”

When he finished, and Rosa Lee stood there taking it in, in my head, I imagined her replying with something like, “Well, Mac, you don’t have to trust happiness, you just have to trust me”, or “yourself”, or some similarly corny platitude.  Instead, in what must have been superhuman restraint on the part of the screenwriter, Rosa Lee simply stands there, processes what she just heard…and walks offscreen, leaving Mac alone with his thoughts.

That was a big moment for me.  It seemed to me to be a gesture from the filmmakers that this is not a movie about processed dialogue and ancient story arcs and the kind of emotional beats you might expect from a film.  Instead, it felt like I was looking at real people, reacting realistically to real dialogue.  Rosa Lee could have drawn the scene out, but instead she seems to realize there is nothing she can say that will make things better for Mac.  She loves him, but she knows this is something he’ll need to work out for himself, and no amount of sermonizing will help him towards that goal.  It’s a small moment, and it doesn’t occur until late in the film, but it’s this moment that convinced me Tender Mercies had a lot to say in between the pauses and transitional shots of country roads and straight horizons.

There is a lot more to the story, but the film presents very little of it with the kind of forward momentum we’ve come to expect as moviegoers.  Instead, we are treated to new developments almost as if we are intruding on these people and their lives.  Even in a scene at a crowded Opry house where we see Mac’s previous wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley!), belting some good old-fashioned, Parton-esque country tunes, the shot choices and editing still feel almost like we’re voyeurs as we watch Mac listening to one of Dixie’s ballads, then leaving, not quite in disgust, but clearly uncomfortable.  It’s in the aftermath of this concert we get the first solid information on his estranged daughter (Barkin), who would be about 18 years old by now.  Dixie screams at Mac, “She doesn’t remember you!  All she remembers is a mean drunk!”  This scene was so well-realized that I started having flashbacks to some of the fights my own parents got into before their divorce.

I don’t mean to suggest the movie does not have an arc.  It absolutely does.  But Tender Mercies does such a good job of “burying the lead” that I didn’t fully get what the movie wanted to say until the very last scenes featuring two characters tossing a football back and forth.  Mac’s life seems to be back on track.  His music career seems about to be resurrected.  Mac might still have trust issues when it comes to happiness.  Perhaps all we can do is appreciate the small moments of happiness we have while we can.  If sadness or tragedy comes, let it come.  It will hurt for a time, but it will also make those small moments all the more precious.

If that sounds clichéd, well, maybe it is.  Tender Mercies does a much better job of delivering that message than I could ever do, proving once again: a movie is not about what it’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.


QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Unless you read the script, you can only judge a screenplay by the movie. Based on the movie, do you feel this script deserved the award for Best Screenplay? Explain.
Great question!  For the record, the other nominees that year were the screenplays for The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, Silkwood, and WarGames (that last one kinda surprised me).  I am a little surprised Tender Mercies edged out The Big Chill, a movie with far more prominence than this little Texas character study from an Australian director, but I would say Tender Mercies certainly deserved the award based on the movie by itself.  Much like Lost in Translation [2003], the screenplay relies more on silences and context to deliver its message rather than on showy dialogue or melodramatic plot developments (to be fair, there is one sort-of melodramatic plot twist in Tender Mercies, but it’s handled so well it doesn’t play that way).  Sure, Tarantino and Sorkin might deliver high-quality screenplays that are flashier and certainly wordier, but to craft such a high-quality film in such a minimalist style is admirable and deserves recognition.

NOPE (2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Jordan Peele
CAST: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Keith David
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.


After watching Nope, the third feature from Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), I found myself curiously unable, or unwilling, to sit down and write a review for it.  What more can I add, I thought, to the volumes that have already been written about it?  What insights can I share that aren’t revealed in the making-of documentary on the Blu-ray?  How can I analyze a movie that can literally be boiled down to, “What if Close Encounters turned into Jaws?”  What good would it do to figuratively take this movie apart and critique its individual components?  It’s a roller-coaster, pure and simple, much like Jurassic Park III [2001].  How do you review a roller-coaster ride and try to compare it to other roller-coaster rides in terms of a review?

“I found the first hill of Rip-Ride Rocket much more intense than the slingshot approach of Hulk or Rock-N-Rollercoaster, but each has something to offer in terms of inversions, smoothness, and on and on and on…”

It just feels pointless, for reasons that are proving themselves difficult to pin down.  So, instead of a “normal” review, here are random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The “true” nature of the UFO – oops, sorry, UAP, I had to look that up – stretched my disbelief suspension to the limit, but I will admit, it’s certainly original.  I can’t think offhand of any other movie or book I’ve watched or read that even considered that explanation for all those unexplained sightings in the books.  Once that was established, every successive appearance of the “spacecraft” became even more ominous and/or menacing.
  • I loved how the movie is littered with clues or easter eggs that either give a hint to the film or sort of comment on what we’ve seen before.  There is an early scene when OJ (Kaluuya) and Em (Palmer) are walking outside with a magnificent setting sun behind them behind the clouds, and hand to God, I remember noticing one particular cloud that looked…off.  Also, there’s another scene when a horse runs off and OJ watches it through the gaps of a wooden shed, and the visual impression is that of a zoetrope, the machine that made the opening images of the running horse possible.  Or even look at the screenshot at the top of this article…quick! What does that lampshade look like to you?
  • There was something about the design of the UAP that bugged me throughout the movie, not necessarily in a bad way, but it just seemed weird.  Why would something that is [SPOILER REDACTED] need what looks like fabric when seen up close?  Is it a sail?  That seems most likely.  In the latter stages of the movie, the “anomaly” doesn’t seem quite as mobile or speedy as it did when its “sail” was intact.  It’s an interesting design concept.
  • One of the scariest moments for me had nothing to do with the UAP itself.  It’s the scene in the exhibition area where the lights seem to be turning on by themselves.  The payoff for the scene seems predictable in hindsight, but as the scene progressed, I was BESIDE myself.  You can ask my best friend, Marc, who watched it with me.  When that shapeless mass by the light switch suddenly started to “unfold”, I echoed OJ: “Nope!  Gotta go, goodbye!”  It is a brilliantly executed scene.
  • I’ll need to watch the movie again to fully understand how that little parachute managed to scare off the UAP.  I assume it has to do with actual horse training, and with some research I could find the answer myself, but the movie does very little to explain it to the viewer.  Or maybe it does.  Like I said, I need to watch it again.
  • I loved how the flashback with the chimpanzee seems utterly incongruous at first.  And I loved how creepy and horrifying it is.  It’s a brilliant framing device (if I’m using that term right) that kept me guessing as to its real purpose right up to the end, or CLOSE to the end.  And did I mention how horrifying it is?  That moment when it’s resting…and then looks RIGHT AT THE CAMERA…chilling.
  • Someone somewhere had said that Keke Palmer was robbed of an Oscar nomination.  With all due respect to Ms. Palmer…she did an admirable job, but I didn’t see anything in the film that would have had me reaching for my Oscar ballot.  But I will give her props for her opening speech to that film crew.  The special features on the Blu-ray reveal that she delivered MANY different variations (fourteen, according to IMDb), much like you see so many other actors do in broad comedies, just to find the exact right version or take.
  • Much like Us, Nope feels like it bit off a little more than it could chew when it comes to the resolution of the film.  Everything leading up to the last 10 minutes or so is gangbusters, honestly, even the silver-helmet guy.  But as everything started to wrap up, I began to feel as if I’d seen all this before, just in different ways, in many different films.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  Perhaps I’m criticizing the movie for what it isn’t instead of reviewing what it is.  I don’t know.  As it is, also like Us, Nope is one helluva roller-coaster ride that ends, not with a bang, but with a “pop.”
  • Allow me to shamelessly quote Roger Ebert, again: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.”

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

By Marc S. Sanders

Reader, I’ve been having a hard week.  My beloved puppy dog, Falcon, has not been feeling well and my family and I are so worried for him.  It’s just been a long week having to deal with reality.  Nevertheless, when I watch a classic musical like Singin’ In The Rain, it’s impossible not to smile and catch on to the energy that drives the film from the talents of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  This trio are not just sensational dancers and singers.  They’re adoring comedians that set a standard for facial expressions and endless entertainment variety. 

A simple, but informative story sets the spine of the picture.  Talking films like Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer are catching on in Hollywood movie houses and the silent pictures are quickly becoming archaic.  Established talents like Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (a scene stealing Jean Hagen) are being threatened with becoming extinct unless they can adapt to the use of their voices in the romantic cinematic roles they are known for.  Don will adjust.  Lina is another story.  Her alluring blond bombshell looks are recognized everywhere.  However, none of that will line up with her natural, squeaky, ear piercing vocals.  She’s a hopeless case for the best vocal coaches that money can buy.  Don and Lina are star attractions with contracts to guarantee them work, but Lina’s voice could put the movie studio out of business. 

Fortunately, Don just happens to land smack dab into the passenger seat of Kathy Selden’s (Reynolds) car.  Kathy has the voice, and soon Don and his trusty songwriting companion and pal, Cosmo Brown (O’Connor), will realize the acting talent to boot.  In the meantime, though, Kathy’s voice will dub in for Lina’s on screen.  There are great gags at Lina’s expense as she tries to work with a microphone for the first time.  This is Lucille Ball material of the finest, comedic polish.

In between all these story developments reside some of the greatest musical song and dance numbers to ever grace a screen.  Few, if any, films have matched the rubber faced hyperactive quick steps of Donald O’Connor during his rendition of “Make ‘em Laugh!” What he does with this cutaway scene looks like a superpower of marvelous agility.  Jim Carrey could never stand next to Donald O’Connor.

Gene Kelly’s accompaniment with O’Connor and their silly, tongue twisting “Moses Supposes” is magnificent to watch.  You could be on your death bed, looking at this scene, and I truly believe you’ll think nothing is so bad in life while you watch this moment.  The pair are masters with their physicality of jumping on and off desks and chairs, while they toss around a stuffy, glass eyed linguist caught in the middle of their shenanigans.  Every prop and set piece are given functionality, be it a lamp shade, office supplies or stacks of paper.  Then there are the lyrics.  How do you so fluently utter words like “Moses” and “supposes” and every other imaginable piece of vocabulary that phonetically sound like them to seem like it is as natural as saying grace? And they do it all while bouncing all over the place with two stepping in perfect sync.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  These guys are functioning on one motor.

To add further compliment, I must emphasize that the camera pointed at these magnificent players hardly ever cuts away.  There are long sequences where the guys are literally walking up walls and back flipping over.  It’s all done in one shot.  There’s only frequent edits away for a close up or another angle.  Otherwise, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are defying the impossible to show breathless choreography.  They seem to defy physics, and the props they use cooperate with every step, leap, run or jump taken.

The same goes for when Debbie Reynolds makes it a trio during another unforgettable number called “Good Morning.”  The furniture pieces are choregraphed to work with the three dancers.  All three race towards a sofa, step on to the seat cushions in unison and then walk onto the back of the sofa, allowing it to flawlessly tip over so they can continue their stride.  Just writing about this, I think about how amazing and wondrous this scene is.  Lightning in a bottle!

All of the material contained within Singin’ In The Rain is incredibly cheerful, full of color and humor and tremendously likable characters.  Yet, it does not ever teeter on being hokey or cheesy.  The musical doesn’t feel dated.  This film transcends generations like The Wizard Of Oz or Star Wars.  No matter the age, anyone should be able to like this movie. 

I love the irony of the number “Singin’ In The Rain” that lends to the title of the picture.  Just think about the word “rain.”  Often it is associated with gloominess and sorrow and mood.  However, the tempo of Singin’ In The Rain as a full length film invites happiness and glee no matter the situation.  Gene Kelly’s clownish activity with an umbrella, a large smile and a rain soaked street corner becomes one of the most delightful moments ever to grace a screen. He stomps, skips and splashes in the large puddles while taking a leap on to a streetlamp just to express all of Don Lockwood’s glorious bliss and adoration for his new love Kathy Selden.  A hat becomes its own character as gushing rain drains out of a storm pipe soaking Don’s head.  The brim of the hat seems to develop its own form of jubilation.

I’ve read that Gene Kelly was a viciously strict co-director (with Stanley Donen) and choreographer on this film.  Debbie Reynolds has testified to long sessions of endless starts and stops.  It was tortuous at times.  If just a toe or a hand was out of place in any of the choreography, Kelly would not stand for it.  It had to be perfect.  I can’t imagine Kelly in a demanding or authoritative capacity.  He is just so cheerful and lovable on screen and so is the entire company of performers.  I guess the contrast with his character lends to how impressed I am with the final product.  However, to make a picture like Singin’ In The Rain this exact and eye popping requires astute examination.  The assembled rhythm of the three dancers and the chorus behind them at least matches some of the most refined military assembly marches I’ve ever seen. 

Watch Singin’ In The Rain for a glimpse into the evolution of Hollywood and cinema.  Watch it for a simple, yet funny story.  Watch it for the characters and set pieces.  Most of all, watch Singin’ In The Rain to discover how grand and wonderful life can be.  It’s likely that none of my readers can do what Kelly, Reynolds or O’Connor accomplish in this film, but I can guarantee that you’ll feel just as joyous as they do while they are putting the show on for you.

Singin’ In The Rain is why movies are so important for our emotional lexicon of escapism.  It lends to good health to watch Singin’ In The Rain.  It’s a film we all need.

Singin’ In The Rain is a reason to live.

EXPLORERS (1985)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Joe Dante
CAST: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 72% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Family-Friendly Film”

PLOT: Three friends try to unravel the mystery of these strange dreams they’ve all been having, at the same time.


I’m probably biased, but one of the best times to be a teenaged movie fan had to be the 1980s.  In the wake of his stupendous earlier successes, Steven Spielberg began to produce movies, letting other directors do the heavy lifting while he contributed behind the scenes.  This led to Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, and of course, Back to the Future.  All in a two-year period.  Awesome.

In an attempt to replicate the success of these box-office favorites, director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) presented a film unabashedly aimed at its target audience, starring a cast of unknown, but immensely likable, teenagers, including two young men making their Hollywood debut: Ethan Hawke and a nerded-up River Phoenix.  While Explorers lacks the polish and sophistication of its predecessors, it is undeniably charming and, for a while at least, even a little spooky, even if the ending flies spectacularly off the rails.

Ben Crandall (Hawke) is a teenage kid obsessed with 1950s sci-fi movies.  He’s been having these strange dreams filled with what look like electrical schematics.  He draws these pictures as best he can and shows them to his best friend, Wolfgang (Phoenix), a science prodigy.  Ben also makes friends with Darren (Jason Presson), the stereotypical kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, and brings him along when Wolfgang decides to turn on the machine he built using Ben’s drawings.

What this machine eventually enables them to do is fly around inside a converted Tilt-a-Whirl car using an Apple II computer to steer.  (Did I mention this was made in 1985?)  One night, though, a phantom signal takes control of their little craft and starts sending it up, up, up…into space?  I wouldn’t dream of saying.

As a fourteen-year-old kid watching this movie, I strongly identified with the idea of receiving a message from space, not to mention being able to fly in a makeshift spaceship.  To say I envied those kids on screen is a monumental understatement.  Their dialogue may not have been as refined as it could have been, and the sub-plot about Ben’s crush on the “gorgeous blonde” in his class is a little ham-handed (not to mention that plot point never really goes anywhere), but I didn’t care.  SPACE, man!  Just imagine being able to go to SPACE!  What a bunch of lucky kids!

Well, naturally, after a couple of false starts, the three of them actually make it to space, where they have a close encounter of the…goofy kind.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  You see, the aliens who were sending these schematics have been listening to and watching decades worth of TV signals.  So that’s how they communicate with our heroes.  Close Encounters it ain’t.  And the way these aliens look…any sense of wonder at being in space and communicating with an alien species gets torpedoed by the fact these guys look like a kid’s version of an alien.  Even Ben realizes something’s amiss when he says, “They don’t make any sense.”

So, yeah, Explorers is no Contact.  But let’s be fair, it was never meant to be.  Sure, it does kind of lead you down that garden path, but the final reels leave you in no doubt that this is sci-fi comedy, not drama.  It has not aged as well as its Spielberg-produced contemporaries.  But I watch it today, and I still get that little thrill of discovery when they turn that machine on for the first time.  And flying around in a spaceship that you built?  Who wouldn’t find that idea exciting?  Am I right?


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Which character were you most able to identify with or connect with?  In what way?
Shoot, are you kidding?  Ben, played by Ethan Hawke.  He was my age at the time.  Loved movies.  Loved sci-fi.  Wanted to be an astronaut.  Had a crush.  (Christine Day.  Went to my church.  Red hair.)  And also thought those aliens at the end made no sense.  Man, that was ME.

What elements do you feel are necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film?  Do you feel this movie had those things?
Explorers has everything necessary to create an entertaining family-oriented film…in the first half.  The second half goes for easy laughs and cheapens what could have been something wondrous.  Alas.

TÁR (2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Todd Field
CAST: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong, Allan Corduner
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 91% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A renowned composer/conductor’s career and personal life take an unexpected turn after she embarks on a project to make a live recording of a prestigious, difficult symphony by Mahler.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW…BE WARNED]


In his invaluable book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote: “Movies are very powerful.  You’d better have a lot to say if you want to run over two hours.”

I found myself remembering that quote as Tár began with three long scenes spanning 35 minutes of running time, in a film that runs 2 hours and 38 minutes.  In the first scene, a man interviews Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a prestigious and fiercely intelligent composer/conductor in a field traditionally dominated by men.  That scene runs at least ten minutes and is full of esoterica about composers, conducting, music theory, etcetera.  It’s wonderfully shot and acted…but despite my fanboy-level of admiration for Cate the Great, I started to wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”

There is the briefest of breaks.  The second long scene takes place in a restaurant as Tár lunches with a colleague who seems interested in conducting as well, but who is not quite at Tár’s level…and she knows it, AND she never quite lets him forget it.  This scene is also filled with jargon and musical references that I didn’t quite get, but I found it interesting because here, Tár is no longer “performing” for the interviewer.  She’s more herself.  And she reveals herself to be, not only a tad self-involved, but also coldly calculating and decisive in her words and actions.

And then…the third scene.  Tár is teaching a class in music conducting at Juilliard.  In an astonishing unbroken take that lasts at least ten minutes, if not more, she demonstrates a mastery of the subject matter, but again reveals herself to be more overbearing and arrogant than we saw her at the top of the film.  One of her male students reveals he doesn’t care for Bach because he was a cis white male whose sexual proclivities resulted in 20-some-odd children.  In a wonderfully roundabout way, she asks him what Bach’s personal life has to do with chords and key changes.  It’s a brilliant dismantling of so-called “cancel culture,” though I’m not sure how much water her argument holds when it comes to, say, politicians or musicians espousing Nazism.  But it’s food for thought.

It’s that third scene that finally hooked me, and I was with Tár the whole rest of the way.  It was almost like an overture in three separate movements.  Given the subject matter, that can hardly be a coincidence.

I was not a literature major, but to a relative layman like me, Tár resembles nothing less than a Shakespearean tragedy.  It’s an intimate story told on a grand stage.  A towering figure, powerful, intelligent, passionate, makes questionable decisions based on her ego, her hubris, and her inability, or unwillingness, to allow humility into her life. Writer/producer/director Todd Field (making his first feature film since 2006) shoots his film in what appears to be mostly natural light, lending a Kubrickian feel to virtually every shot.  This enhances the film in a way that I can’t describe accurately…you’ll have to watch the movie to see what I mean.  The result is a movie that, yes, is “Oscar-bait”, but it’s too easy to dismiss it that way.  Tár stayed with me mentally the way only one other movie in the last few years has done: Hereditary.  The two could not be more different story-wise, but they both have a marvelous visual quality that, when combined with the dialogue and superlative acting, gives the impression of something pulsing beneath the surface.  This is top-notch filmmaking.

Throughout the movie, there are hints that, in spite of (or BECAUSE of) her meteoric rise to the lofty heights of her profession, there were casualties along the way.  These casualties seem to be haunting Tár in subtle ways.  Early in the film, we get glimpses of a woman with red hair.  Who is she?  We’re not told; she eventually disappears.  Tár receives an anonymous gift that, upon opening, she immediately throws into the trash.  What was the inscription?  On her morning jog through a tree-filled park, she hears blood-curdling screams, but she is unable to find the source.  (Easter egg alert: the screams were actually taken from the soundtrack of The Blair Witch Project…kinda cool.)

As Tár went on, I was continually fascinated, but I found myself coming back to that Lumet quote and asking: What is this movie saying?  What is Todd Field getting at?  That people in power should be more careful of how they treat others, especially friends and lovers?  Not exactly breaking news.  But as with so many other movies, it’s not WHAT the movie is saying, but HOW it’s saying it.  The movie’s length allows us to sort of settle into the routine of Tár’s life with her partner, her loyal assistant, her adopted child, her piano, her rehearsals, her infatuation with the new cellist, etcetera, so that when something out of the ordinary happens, you sit up and take notice.

As fate would have it, I recently sat down to watch another movie with a similar strategy: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 1975 Belgian film that just recently won the top spot in Sight and Sound’s decennial critics’ poll.  For three hours, we observe a single mother going through the motions of “everyday” life – cooking, cleaning the house, feeding her teenage son, and daily assignations with men who pay her for sex.  The strategy of the movie is to establish the heroine’s routine drudgery so that when the smallest element is out of place, it takes on extraordinary meaning.

In my humble opinion, I believe Tár takes that strategy, refines it, and presents it for a more contemporary audience, take it or leave it.  For me, it worked.  The more I think about it, the more impressed I get.  I have a general rule about disliking movies with unlikable characters in the lead, but there are so many exceptions nowadays I’m thinking of demoting it to a guideline instead of a rule.  Cate Blanchett’s Tár is in every single scene of the film, and she has the trappings of being a fascinating dinner guest, but she is not someone I would want to be friends with.

Take her relationship with her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant (whom you may remember as the lead in Portrait of a Lady on Fire).  One day the assistant finds herself in line for a promotion.  Tár gives the promotion to someone else for her own petty reasons, and when the assistant resigns, Tár immediately resorts to anger and fury.  She has a revealing line where she says something to the effect of, “She KNOWS how much I depend on her!  She did this on purpose!”  Tár is so clueless about how terribly she treats people around her, she doesn’t even realize it when she accidentally admits how much she needs her assistant.  This is not a nice person.

This makes her tragic story arc fairly satisfying.  She begins to imagine phantom noises in her apartment at night.  Some are explained away; others aren’t.  An off-camera suicide occurs, and she is summoned to a deposition.  The press gets hold of the story, and suddenly she finds herself in the process of becoming cancelled, which makes her opening teaching session that much more ironic.

I’m rambling at this point.  I’m trying desperately to get my feelings of the movie across without giving too much of the plot away.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable character study, shot and written and performed in a way that made every moment impactful and mesmerizing.  As a fan of classical music, I LOVED the scenes where she conducts a German orchestra.  She has a speech about how a conductor must literally obliterate herself in the service of the music, and I found that equally applicable to stagecraft.  There is so much to like in this movie it’s difficult to know where to start or how to finish.

What is Tár telling us that is so important that it takes 2-and-half hours to tell?  Maybe it’s something different for everyone.  Maybe the better question is: What does it tell you?

TRIANGLE OF SADNESS

By Marc S. Sanders

I’ve noted before that the value of satire lives off how divisive it is within audiences.  Satire will drive home a perspective by going to the extreme to maintain order or deliver a sense of logic that needs to be prompted. Ruben Östlund’s Oscar nominated film Triangle Of Sadness explores how a rank in social class values itself and what’s beneath them in different scenarios.  I do not think there is room to argue with the message delivered in the film.  However, for all the reasons I liked the film, in turn my wife hated the picture.  Yet, I can’t blame her.  The message is just.  The message is sound.  The envelope it was delivered in is quite grotesque, though.  I guess that is how satire should be served.

When your dependence on others becomes so reserved to only what your stature and money pays for, then what will you do when that assured reliance is absent from what you live for?  Ruben Östlund will have you believe you could end up getting violently sick, drowning in your own feces, and propagandized with debates about the needs for communism vs capitalism.  Then again, you could just be pirated by scavengers and shipwrecked on an uncharted island.

Östlund begins his picture with cattle of chiseled male models auditioning for a catwalk stroll.  Carl (Harris Dickinson) is asked to adjust his “triangle of sadness” – the area identified between someone’s eyebrows and above their nose.  Carl acquiesces, but I never saw the difference.  The casting agents apparently did, and it is implied that Carl is past his prime.  In the next scene, he’s in the front row of an audience ready to watch a fashion show, and he’s asked to move down the row of chairs until there are no seats left.  He’s left to take a seat in the back.  He no longer carries any value in the world of modeling.  More importantly, because he has only been a male model with good looks, he is no longer a value in any world, anywhere. 

Following this pretext, we are introduced to Part I (“Carl & Yaya”) of a trilogy of chapters involving Carl and his model/social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean).  Östlund stages a scene duet with his characters at a restaurant table debating about who is going to pay the bill.  Yaya makes more money, but Carl is the man.  What is appropriate here?  What is the societal norm? The conversation turns into a tense exchange between boyfriend and girlfriend, that carries over to an elevator ride and I don’t recall any kind of resolution coming from any of it.

The centerpiece of the film is Part II (“The Yacht”) where Yaya has been complimentary invited to sail on a small, luxury yacht with other passengers, all stemming from the most elite and wealthy social class.  Yaya’s influence will lend testimony to the vacation voyage.  Carl is her plus one.  The other passengers include a husband who made his fortune “selling shit,” or more appropriately, fertilizer.  Another couple are thriving off their success selling hand grenades worldwide.  The staff of the yacht have a rah-rah session led by their cruise director, Paula (Vicki Berlin), who stresses that whatever the passengers say or need is right and should be completely satisfied.  What will that lead to?  Better tips!!!!!! WOO HOO!!!!!  She gets the primarily white and attractive looking staff in a clapping and stomping frenzy of enthusiasm for the voyage while the maintenance crew of darker skinned minorities are on the deck below waiting to clean or do housekeeping with no sense of gratitude for their service.  What’s in it for these people on the bottom deck?

Part II of Triangle Of Sadness really drives home the point of the picture.  These wealthy folks rely on their satisfaction based upon how they are catered.  Carl thinks he is so elite that he inadvertently gets a maintenance man fired for cleaning the boat while shirtless.  A woman insists the sails are unclean compared to the pictures in the brochure.  Paula will ensure it is addressed.  Another woman insists that all the staff do a swim with her.  The cooking staff has to prepare for the Captain’s dinner.  If they swim, the food risks getting spoiled.  Doesn’t matter though.  This passenger has asked for a staff swim and Paula will make certain the upper class are accustomed.  It doesn’t help either that the Captain (Woody Harrelson) – the man in charge – refuses to leave his cabin and thus no one with authority is steering the ship away from choppy waters and a violent storm.  As such, the Captain’s dinner is going to be unforgettable for sure.

Part III is known as the “The Island” which depicts a turn of events when seven surviving people are marooned on a desert island following the graphic complications of that doomed dinner at sea.  Dynamics in social class take a drastic turn here.  The rich and privileged don’t know how to fish or build a fire.  So, what happens when a maintenance worker does?

The message of Ruben Östlund’s film is not surprising to me.  Yet, how many of us forget that we all biologically evolve the exact same way.  We come from the womb with the same appendages and capabilities to eat, breathe, learn, and digest.  Eventually we all face the same demise.  What I appreciate about the movie though is how many people of a wealthy social class are incapable of fending for themselves, even in the most desperate of situations.  What can a social media influencer do for her fellow man or woman beyond taking endless selfies of herself?  How can a man who profits off of selling fertilizer or hand grenades survive with just the raw materials of the earth?  How can a woman suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke with limited communication make due for herself? 

Östlund’s script examines the dependability of one for the other, and how it is taken for granted.  The dependability is not from equal peers though.  Östlund goes a step further when the one positioned lowest on the pole turns herself into the highest rank when any kind governing mandate is dismissed.  In any community, opportunity will allow someone to always usurp the higher cabal and assume his/her own dominance. 

There are many ways to deliver the message of what is unfair or what is right in a social class system.  I don’t think I risk much by declaring that anyone who watches Triangle Of Sadness should have a presumption of extending value and appreciation to his/her fellow neighbors, even if we don’t always live by that mantra.  What will divide audiences of this satire though is in the route that Ruben Östlund adopts to make his point.  In The Three Stooges, the wealthy would lose their dignity and authority when they got struck with a pie to the face, humiliated by the well-known vagabonds.  Here, the wealthy gradually toss their cookies as the boat continues to toss and turn with no Captain at the wheel, while they all continually try to consume the fancy prepared entrees that are not agreeing with them.  I could tolerate and laugh at that ugliness that surfaces during Part II of Östlund’s film.  My wife could not.  I can appreciate a good pie splattered in someone’s deserving kisser as well.  My wife doesn’t like The Three Stooges.  However, the point is what we agree upon.  The approach is where we differ.  My wife could have done without watching endless streams of vomit spew across the dining room or toilets bubbling over with brown sewage.  I can’t fault her for that, though.  It is disgusting.  It’s supposed to be.  I wouldn’t want to watch my wife or child get violently ill.  For that matter, I wouldn’t want to watch anyone in real life succumb to that state of helplessness.  Fictionalized mediums allow that opportunity though. 

An interesting angle that Ruben Östlund takes is as the ship is spiraling out of control, the Captain engages in a drunken debate with the wealthy fertilizer seller on the positives of communism vs capitalism.  Both men use the loudspeaker to preach the gospel of celebrated leaders like John F Kennedy and Karl Marx.  Our leaders are arguing.  The constituents of this doomed boat have no choice but to listen, all the while they are drowning in their own vomit and shit.  These are just words that our leaders are drunkenly shouting.  Heck, these guys didn’t even write these policies.  They stole them from pioneers before them.  Where’s the execution leading to a salvation for their community, though?

As I continue to write this column, it occurs to me how much I listen to the guidance of others.  A doctor tells me what pills to take.  An article will explain what foods are bad for me.  A politician will tell me his or her platform is the best course.  I write critiques of movies encouraging readers like you to watch or avoid. These are all sources of authority that we are exposed to everyday.  Triangle Of Sadness explores what occurs when those sources are taken away and we are each individually left to our own devices. Maybe Ruben Östlund’s testament is that only the meek shall inherit the earth.

I can not promise that you’ll like Triangle Of Sadness.  You will appreciate the message though, and whether you care to or not, you will think about it for a while after it is over.  Hence, another satire has done its job.

WOMEN TALKING

By Marc S. Sanders

In the year 2010, a sect of women must hold congress in the upper level of a barn to debate whether to leave their colony or stand and fight against the oppressive men who rape, beat, and brainwash them into believing they will be denied entry into the kingdom of heaven should they never offer forgiveness and tolerance for the abuse they suffer.  That is the story of Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley, from the novel by Miriam Towes.

From IMDB, Towes based her novel on a true story of vicious serial rapes in an insular, ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia. From 2005 to 2009, nine men in the Manitoba Colony, using livestock tranquilizers, drugged female victims ranging in age from three to sixty and violently raped them at night. When the girls and women awoke bruised and covered in blood, the men of the colony dismissed their reports as “wild female imagination”–even when they became pregnant from the assaults–or punishments from God or by demons for their supposed sins.

Sarah Polley’s film works like a stage play.  She shoots with deliberately dim cinematography as if to have you feel the cold, helpless isolation the women of this fictional community endure.  These women are smart but uneducated in reading or writing.  When they vote for what do, pictures are drawn to display their options.  Two figures with dueling swords are drawn for stay and fight.  A horse is sketched for the choice to leave.  The women cast their ballots by drawing an X under the picture they opt to follow. 

To know that this piece of fiction is inspired by true events is very chilling, and when the film finishes there’s much to ponder and talk about.  It stays with you.  A young educated man named August (Ben Whishaw, in a beautifully reserved performance) from a university is recruited to keep the minutes of the meetings.  Topics of debate include if they should leave with a mass exodus of all the women, do they also take the young boys; most of them products of the numerous rapes they suffered through.  At what age are these boys incapable of trusting they will not be as monstrous as their bastard and abusive fathers?  What about August?  He is harmless and sympathetic to the ladies’ victimizations.  Shouldn’t he be allowed to go too, or because he is a man, is he excluded?  Frances McDormand’s character, whose appearance lives up to the name Scarface Janz, insists upon doing nothing.  She’s convinced they will be denied entrance into heaven by their almighty God.  To not forgive their attackers is a sin.  Is doing nothing an option?    If they stay and fight, how exactly will that be done?  Violence is an unforgivable sin, as described in doctrine.  How else do you fight against the constant attacks of violence, though?

Women Talking deserves an audience.  It’s a very good film because it draws attention to a modern day hardship.  When there are communities like this in the world that most of us are unaware of, how are the members accounted for?  Are they being nourished and educated and living comfortably?  Is everyone safe and protected?  If they are not, then how are they getting the justice they are entitled to, and do they have a chance of survival?  I appreciate when movies can open my eyes to a reality for which I have yet to carry any regard or awareness.  I feel taught having watched a movie like Women Talking

When the movie began, before knowing anything of what the story was about, my first presumption was that maybe this is an Amish or Quaker community based on the farm country setting and the simple wardrobes of the characters.  The time frame was uncertain to me as well.  Horse and buggies are shown, but no automobiles.  So, is this the early twentieth century, perhaps?  Only after the first ten minutes of exposition, did I realize this was something else taking place within a more recent time period.  It is astounding how far we’ve come globally with the rights of women, minorities and the overall oppressed.  Yet, there are those who regrettably remain overlooked.

Polley’s script is rhythmic with strong dialogue, and the cast of actresses (Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley) are quick with their retorts when one makes one statement after the other.  There are lots of fascinating arguments at play here, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.  Again, this is gripping material ready for live stage work. 

I did have a problem with the picture, however. The trajectory of the film works on its dialogue of debates.  The actors deliver lines from Polley’s script perfectly.  This is a smart collection of actors.  Still, it is challenging to keep track of what platform each woman stands upon.  When one gets swayed from one argument over to other side, it is also a little tricky to realize when that has occurred.  Who is staunch in their beliefs is also difficult to keep track of.  The dark photography that Polley layers the film with is meant to be morose.  It works.  It places you in the helpless mood of these afflicted women.  When you consider the practicality of the piece though, it makes it hard to identify who is who and what perspective they have.  Often, the characters don’t stand apart from one another.  It might sound trivial.  I may risk putting a stain on the filmmaker’s art.  Nonetheless, but it got in the way of the movie I was watching.

It is a blessing that Women Talking has received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and for Sarah Polley’s screenplay.  Had it not, the film would likely go unnoticed, and it cannot afford to be.  Sarah Polley’s film deserves attention.  Any one of us may never come upon these very private, hidden, and isolated communities that function under an unfair governance.  However, the film demonstrates the vicious dominance that one sex can have over another which still remains all to common.  No matter how much wiser we have become as a people, there are some who still have never gotten the message.