ELVIS (2022)

By Marc S. Sanders

Baz Luhrmann’s take on the legacy of Elvis Presley will certainly grab your attention, even if the director refuses to carry an attention span of his own lasting longer seven seconds.  Having watched the celebrated film from 2022 for a second time, eight months after my first viewing, I see more faults with the picture than achievements.  Elvis is strongest when the carnival ride stops moving, allowing its cast of colorful characters to have conversations with one another. 

Austin Butler is now a known name for his portrayal of the King Of Rock N Roll, whose career was squandered by a slimy business manager known as Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  Butler personifies what pop culture has recognized first and foremost about Elvis Presley, everything from the wild stage presence of dancing to the deep rockabilly singing or speaking (you decide) vocals.  He really bears an uncanny resemblance to The King as well.  Butler could have been better though had he been graced with a more economical and thoughtful script.  I don’t think Austin Butler was given enough to do.

The Elvis character hardly shares any conversations with any of the supporting characters.  That’s the film’s major shortcoming.  There are a scant few scenes of dialogue exchanged between Elvis and his mother and father, between Elvis and the Colonel, and between Elvis and his wife Priscilla Presley.  Baz Lurhmann wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, and I guess it incorporates some major moments within the singer’s illustrious career but nothing seems to hold much weight.  Elvis gets threatened with being arrested for his pelvis swiveling gyrations while he performs.  We get a close up of the state Governor who leads this censoring campaign, but we don’t get an idea of his warped logic.  Elvis gets drafted into the army and the Colonel thinks to sell it as a comeback when his tour of duty will finish in two years.  Two years go by in a matter of sixty seconds however and the King is back to touring and donning the outrageous costumes, but we don’t see the marketing machinations led by the Colonel.  Where’s the deviousness and conniving?  Where’s the brainwashing of the public and our hero?  Elvis is also bedhopping from one woman to another and popping pills, but these incidents which arguably led to his life being cut short are glossed over with a sway of Luhrmann’s camera work.  When the third act of the film arrived, I didn’t even know Elvis was sleeping around until Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) announces she is leaving him.  On her way out the door, the two characters share about five or six lines of dialogue before the film races to another transition or scenario.  In this film, the love of Elvis’ life, Priscilla, holds about as much presence as an extra in the film.  Their relationship isn’t explored like Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, for example.

Lurhmann edits his scenes with title cards of what year it is or what place it is as Elvis tours the country.  Yet, I never got the feeling that I was inside these time periods.  A minute to a minute and a half go by and suddenly it is “One Year Later.”  What difference does that make?  Where’s the transition in Elvis’ character?  When exactly did he become a sensation?  Suddenly I see that Elvis is moving into a mansion (I think is what will eventually be Graceland) with his parents and I presume he’s…well…he’s a success?!?!?!

An opportunity presents itself for Elvis to have a mentor into the world of celebrity stardom by means of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but as soon as he introduces himself, the man disappears and is not heard from again.  Elvis only offers a piece of dialogue later suggesting that “B.B. King once said…”  There’s no significance to the influences or naysayers who enter Elvis’ life.  The same goes for Elvis’ mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson).  The Colonel will assure Elvis’ parents that he has their son’s best interests in mind as he blossoms his career, but we don’t get enough of a solid foundation for his mother’s apprehension or her religious doctrine or the alcohol addiction that kills her.  

I know, reader.  You can argue that I’m offering descriptive text for these people.  However, the text that I give in this column is all that you see.  Baz Lurhmann is a flashy director.  I don’t doubt his skill for color with sparkles and glamour. No subject is glitzier than Elvis Presley.  Yet, if a biography is going to be recounted on film, it needs to be more than just a near three-hour music video.  Luhrmann seems prouder of the letter fonts and graphics that introduce another year like 1956 or another state like Tennessee as it zooms towards you from the depths of the screen.  The gloss of the photography in the movie is overly animated, lacking feeling or character arcs.

The script for Elvis seems to also adopt the approach that Milos Forman’s Amadeus took, where the puppet master/antagonist recalls the celebrity’s story.  Colonel Parker provides voiceover with a thick, German/Austrian (maybe ???), dialect for Tom Hanks to deliver.  Unlike popular opinion, I was surprisingly taken with Hanks’ portrayal.  He’s quite the villain in a disproportioned fat suit and bulbous sweat-soaked head.  The relationship between Elvis and the Colonel is nothing surprising.  We’ve seen plenty of bios where the manager swindles the fortunes of the outstanding talent.  Considering that is how it happened, I don’t mind seeing it again in Elvis.  However, much like everything else in the film, it is glossed over.  Only very late in the film do we learn that Colonel Parker is deeply indebted to the Las Vegas casinos, and he signs away a long-term Elvis obligation in lieu of repayment.  Before all of that comes into play however, while we know we can’t trust the Colonel, we also don’t know what his endgame is.  Only near the end, Luhrmann and his script writers throw in a last-minute Hail Mary to shock the viewers and uncover how the Colonel destroyed Elvis’ financial assets and betrayed his trust.  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of a relationship between the two rivals after over two hours of film.  A build up is missing.  The best way for a villain to attack a hero is to whet his appetite with trust and then use that reliability as a control device.  The script for Elvis never sets up those early moments of exposition that get the viewer, and more importantly Elvis, to trust the Colonel. 

Michelle Williams once played Marilyn Monroe in a film called My Week With Marilyn.  It’s an astonishing performance in a very shallow film.  In my review of that picture, I wrote that I wish I could see Williams play the role again in a story more worthy of what she puts on screen.  She was above that movie.  I feel the same way for Austin Butler and Tom Hanks here.  These are great actors who were not given adequate material to shine.  If only another Elvis picture could be made with them in the principal roles.

What I find ironic about Elvis is that when I first saw the film upon initial release in theatres, I felt thoroughly impressed.  While I am always more cold than hot on Baz Luhrmann’s movies, I thought maybe this was the exception.  Watching it a second time however, eight months later, I realize that much of the film I could not remember and that is because that movie doesn’t invest in memorable scenes.  It focuses much too much on flashy edit, cut aways.  What I lost from that narrative is an intimate connection to Elvis or any of the other characters. 

Even the music is not as electrifying as it is known for.  There is not enough time devoted to individual set pieces of Elvis performing numbers like Heartbreak Hotel or Jailhouse Rock, and because of the quick cuts, I’m not convinced that Austin Butler is truly crooning away in an Elvis impersonation like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.  Austin Butler is just not offered ample opportunity to do his best Elvis performing.

As colorful as Elvis’ life was and his legacy continues to be, Baz Lurhmann is certainly a viable candidate to direct this biography.  The problem is maybe that Lurhmann needed an editor and producer who would put their foot down and tell him to try again.  Lurhmann was more concerned with showing his own kind of magic in filmmaking and reserving the story and plot devices for the closing act.  Exposition within the last thirty minutes of a movie usually never works.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL

By Marc S. Sanders

Aubrey Plaza becomes Emily The Criminal, a woman down on her luck with mounting debts, who resorts to credit card fraud with some low level hoods in the Los Angeles underground in order to make ends meet. 

This movie popped out at me while searching through Netflix.  It’s a little over a brisk ninety minutes, made on a shoestring budget, but it has twice the intelligence of whatever crumb of a story Avatar: The Way Of Water has with the two billion dollars spent to make big screen exhausting blue junk.  Goes back to what I always say. If you have an intelligent script, the movie will more than likely be worth watching.  Emily The Criminal is worth watching.

Normally, I don’t look at the running time of a movie before seeing it.  However, this happened to catch my eye in the screen summary just as I was about to hit play.  It’s an hour and 37 minutes.  Once the movie starts, there is a lot piled on to Emily.  First her excessive bills are established. She also has a proclivity for flying off the handle when she’s questioned about her prior arrests for assault and DUI.  Then, she is recruited with a group of others to take a fake credit card and driver’s license into a store and buy a flat screen TV.  A fast two hundred dollars is made.  The ringleader behind this scam is a guy named Youcef (Theo Rossi) who entices Emily with a more complex transaction the next day that’ll earn her two grand.  That works out, but frightening complications intersect.  Still, the cash was better, quicker, and easier to come by than her day job delivering UBER meals.  Eventually, Youcef and Emily connect with one another and she’s learning the tricks to manufacturing the cards and pulling off her own scams.  She’s good at it but not perfect, and when she trips up, a rift in trust between Youcef and his partner comes into play.  Emily is compelled to protect Youcef.

On the side, Emily also reunites with a high school friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who offers a line on a professional day job that could use her talents for graphic art.  Emily’s personality might not be suitable for that environment though, and the criminal underworld seems more attractive, despite the danger and risks involved.

I was never looking at my watch but as the movie progressed, I knew I had covered a lot of mileage and there still seemed to be a lot of road left to travel.  My expectations were that some questions will be left unanswered as the ending is approaching.  The cops have yet to make an appearance.  Will Emily be able to go legitimate, or does she even want to?  Most importantly, will her new friend Youcef survive his strained relationship with his business partner?  Thankfully, everything does conclude satisfyingly, and the ending ties together believably, even if there are a few conveniences that enter the frame.

I’m not familiar with Aubrey Plaza’s work prior to this film.  (I’m one of the few who didn’t get into her TV show Parks & Recreation.  My colleague Miguel refuses to let me live that down.)  However, she’s a good actor with lots of range, going from quick bursts of anger to showing mental toughness on screen against some scary people she encounters.  When she meets with a criminal in an empty parking lot who is twice her size and says a flat screen is $600, but the thug insists he’s taking it for $300, I was wondering how she’s going to get out of this one.  Plaza shows her character’s inexperience with such entanglements, but what opportunity will rescue her?  An even scarier episode happens later when Emily is getting robbed.  Plaza is sensational in both scenes.  First time writer/director John Patton Ford sets up these acts, but Aubrey Plaza always delivers it believably.  She’s brash, tough, and smart.

Ford’s film and script work because it doesn’t get too grand with itself.  The criminal world does not open itself up to the highest and wealthiest on the food chain.  Ford was smart to keep the complications of his story within this low-level demographic of delinquent offenders.  Other films would have taken the new student who quickly capitalizes over to the highest mansion on the highest mountain to where the kingpin of everything sits in his hot tub throne on the thirtieth floor overlooking a city.  Ford’s script is wise not to go beyond its reach and mire itself in flashy bloodbath violence.  Also, the window of time from when Emily first dabbles in this shady activity toward the film’s conclusion and epilogue is succinct, not spanning years or decades.  The contained routes that Ford takes with his debut film allow the misdeeds and outcomes to be convincing.

I especially took great pleasure with how the ending of Emily The Criminal circles back on itself to the beginning.  That tells me that John Patton Ford thought this storyline and his protagonist all the way through with good insight. 

Emily The Criminal is an under the radar film to look out for.

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (Canada, 2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Scott Speedman, Kristen Stewart
MY RATING: 5/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 80% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a dystopian near-future, the human pain threshold has suddenly disappeared, giving rise to bizarre performance artists who publicly showcase bodily mutations and self-mutilations.


Somewhere at the core of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is a crackling good thriller waiting to happen.  I was still waiting for it when the end credits rolled.  I couldn’t predict what was going to happen next, which is normally a big plus for me, but the problem was, I didn’t care what was going to happen next.  Just when the movie seemed about to kick into a new gear story-wise, boom, credits.  Shame.

In the near future, human bodies worldwide have started undergoing bizarre mutations involving the development of new internal organs and the disappearance of a pain threshold.  This leads to the proliferation of underground performance artists who are either publicly mutilated or mutilated themselves.  Why?  Because Cronenberg.  We get close ups of the lead character, Saul Tenser (Mortensen), lying in a special chamber while knife-wielding robotic arms controlled by his partner, Caprice (Seydoux), slice, probe, and excavate his thorax in search of unwanted new organs.  Another performer lies in a chair while a surgeon literally cuts grooves into her face.  Yet another performer has grown dozens of additional ears all over his body, and has his eyes and ears sewn shut while he dances to modern music as a voice intones, “NOW is the TIME to LISTEN.”


This is all typical stuff from Cronenberg, who was and is a virtuoso of so-called “body horror,” going all the way back to Scanners, Videodrome, and the remake of The Fly.  It’s so typical, in fact, that the sight of various bodily injuries and mutilations didn’t really faze me as much as I thought it would.  Or should.  Maybe this says more about me than about Cronenberg, but the most off-putting sight was that one dancer with the extra ears.  Everything else, while graphic, didn’t feel “real.”  It all felt like effects.  Instead of recoiling, I found myself thinking, “Wow, how’d they do that?”  (By contrast, the dancer with the ears may yet give me nightmares.)

The storyline of the movie remains maddeningly vague for the first half.  In a weird prologue, we watch as a mother performs an unthinkable act after seeing her son eat a plastic trash can as if it were made of gingerbread.  Saul Tenser seems to encourage the growth of these new organs in his own body, even though they could become harmful over time.  His assistant, Caprice, gets turned on by seeing him getting carved up in his chamber; he seems to enjoy it as well.  They call it “the new sex.”  There is a subplot about a new police division, New Vice (not terribly original), trying to crack down on people who perform these public acts of mutilation.  We watch as an unknown gentleman stalks Saul and Caprice while he eats what looks like a purple chocolate bar.  At a bar, another stranger inexplicably grabs the purple bar and takes a bite out of it himself, and immediately experiences something that makes him wish he hadn’t.

This is all interesting, cerebral stuff, I must admit.  The makings of a dystopian thriller a la Blade Runner or Gattaca (with more blood) are all there.  But the mood and lethargic pacing of the movie literally put me to sleep.  I had to rewind it several times during the first half to catch what I missed.

But then the second half kicks in.  Saul is contacted and asked to perform a public autopsy on a child who may have inherited a surgical self-mutilation from his father, a medical first which might be the signal of a true next step in human evolution, but one which was engineered by man and not by nature.  New Vice reaches out to a deep-cover agent (whose identity I wouldn’t dream of revealing) who is assisting the search for cells of bio-terrorists who are trying to alter the course of human evolution.  Meanwhile, Saul, who has been battling some kind of respiratory affliction for the entire film, is tempted with one of those purple bars.  Caprice undergoes a self-transformation of her own…

And then, when a crucial discovery is made that might change the course of the entire movie…it’s over.

How to describe my disappointment?  I was a huge fan of Cronenberg’s two entries in the genuine, “traditional” crime thriller genre, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both starring Mortensen.  Both films are much more conventional than Crimes of the Future, but both are light years ahead in terms of holding my attention.  I naively thought this film (with the word “crimes” right in the title!) would be along the same lines.  Am I critiquing the film I wanted it to be instead of critiquing the film it is?  Maybe I am, because the first half of the movie was so bland and stultifying that I can’t think of anything else to say about it except to compare it to something that I wish it had been.

Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s first feature film after an 8-year hiatus, sees him returning to a horror sub-genre that he virtually created, or at least perfected, nearly 40 years ago, and he does have something meaningful to say about what mankind is doing to itself and the planet without regard to future generations.  I just wish he had found a way to say it without boring me for the first fifty-four minutes, then leaving me hanging at the end.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (GERMANY, 2022)

By Marc S. Sanders

Edward Berger’s Oscar nominated interpretation of All Quiet On The Western Front is a massive success in filmmaking, storytelling, character and construction.  This 2022 adaptation of the well-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque does not only depict the ugly horrors of a mud soaked, gory and bloody conflict within deep dug out trenches, and on endless plains of wasteland battlegrounds.  It also provides perspective for the difficult peace talks occurring near the tail end of the third year (1917) of the First World War.  Another aspect covers the celebrated commander who leads a charge from the comfort of a German high castle while feasting on grand meals, far away from the front, steadfast to never surrender, and emerge victorious no matter the cost.

The main character is a youth named Paul (Felix Kammerer) who is eager to join the German brigade against the French armies.  He happily takes up with school chums to forge their parents’ signatures and enlist amid the reverie that greets them with cheer from his school superiors raging with heroic propaganda.  Shortly after, he is gifted an honorary soldier’s uniform, pressed, and laundered, that once belonged to another soldier who violently perished in battle.  Paul and his friends are rushed to front line of the fighting, into a muddy German trench and pushed on to slaughter in the name of his country. It does not take long for Paul to realize any derring-do he envisioned is nonexistent as men die by gunfire, grenades, flame thrower attacks and tank armaments.  If the men around him aren’t dead, they are at least dismembered with shredded, bloody stumps in place of limbs.

Elsewhere, the German diplomats travel in class aboard a luxury passenger train to meet up with French leaders in an effort to come to a cease fire.  Germany is greatly failing this conflict with loss of life, territory, supplies and money.  It’s a reluctant meeting to partake as the French are uncompromising with their terms.  Either Germany agrees to the demands of the French, or the war continues.  The Germans only has 72 hours to concur.  Coinciding with all of this is General Friedrichs of Germany (Devid Striesow) who lays out commands while dining and taking his butler service for granted.  He also sheds no tears for the soldiers beneath him as they are giving up their lives to fight a war that can’t be won.  Assuming a complete understanding of what constitutes a soldier based upon the generations who fought before him, he asks “What is a soldier without war?”; a dangerous philosophy for all others but him.

Of the modern war pictures to arrive in the late twentieth century and on (The Thin Red Line, Born On The Fourth Of July, Letters From Iwo Jima, 1917), the battle footage consistently offered a convincing and horrifying reality of the bloodshed that occurred during these historical conflicts.  These are not the John Wayne pictures of yesteryear.  Watching Berger’s film, which he co-wrote, I didn’t necessarily see anything that I hadn’t seen before, like sudden gun shots to the head, rapid gunfire, caked on mud, faces being blown off, or bodies being blasted to bits. Tanks are destroyed with grenades tossed into the cockpits and within their tracks. At times Paul even loses his sensory hearing amid the deafening battles, just as Tom Hanks’ character did in Saving Private Ryan.  Much of the material is identical to these other esteemed films.  What grabbed me though was how three storylines in this new film compound on each other.

Peace talks arrive. However, any kind of reconciliation will not begin until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  That’s quite convenient for country leaders to agree on while sitting around a dining table within a luxury train compartment, but the bloodshed continues until that scheduled moment arrives.  Talk of peace also does not force battalion leaders to stand down.  If Germany is to lose the conflict to France, they will go down with one final victorious conquest in battle.  War does not play like a sporting contest where the officials ensure that everyone stops what they are doing as a clock runs out.  War unleashes a rampage in the pawns used to obtain territory and conquest. The fighting gets personal.  One on one fights resort to drowning your enemy in a brutal mud puddle or clubbing an attacker with a rock to the head.  A very personal scene occurs when Paul resorts to stabbing a French soldier multiple times in the heart.  The poor man is giving his last breaths and Paul needs to shut him up to avoid drawing any attention to their location, so he starts to shove mounds of dirt in the man’s mouth.  Soon after, Paul is apologizing to this man and begging his victim to hold on for dear life.  It’s a powerful scene never intended to make any sense, because ultimately in the field of battle, nothing makes sense.  Only frenetic chaos exists.

I have every appreciation for men and women who serve their country with the courageous will to protect against enemy threats and uphold domestic freedom and democracy.  Yet, endless war for achievement of gain does not necessarily translate to protection or honor like General Friedrichs preaches to his battalions from his balcony.  It’s easy for him to heed this policy, dressed in an unstained, decorated uniform with the pride of his fighting generations before him who were all hailed as heroes.  For an insignificant solider like Paul, though, when does he earn the recognition he has sacrificed?  When will his dead comrades gain any appreciation?  Paul’s greatest accomplishment is that he does not get shot and blown away as he runs head on towards a more powerful enemy.  Is that a celebration of the Germany he thought he stood for, though?  Paul encounters an awakening he never expected while fighting at the front line. 

Edward Berger controls a very detailed and forceful piece.  Every ditch or shredded body of a solider tells the real story of this bloody war that cost nearly 17 million lives.  The art direction of the trenches for both the German side and the French, located at the front lines, are endless mazes dug deeper than the heights of the even the tallest soldiers.  Vokel Bertelmann provides the blaring, monstrously echoing soundtrack to the film and uses his horn like chords as an omnipotence to this hellish environment.  His orchestra is so pertinent to the setting of the film.  The craft of makeup and costumes for all the extras and main players in the battle scenes is grotesque with extra thick caked on mud and different shades of blood reds, browns, and blacks.  The sounds of the tanks and the rattling explosions will make you wince with fear and shock for these boys running to their ill-fated doom with just a thin rifle to fight with. 

All Quiet On The Western Front has all of the common tropes of other more modern war pictures.  It works on its own though because the battle scenes are spliced in with the puppet masters, comfortably located elsewhere, who can control the outcomes of these bloody conflicts.  The delay of peace and agreement prolongs the horrifying carnage.  The fate of Paul, his friends, and all the other soldiers rests on what does or does not come to settlement from the people whose commands they serve.

This is a fantastic movie.  One of the best films of 2022.

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (Great Britain, 2022)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh
CAST: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two lifelong friends find themselves at an impasse when one abruptly ends their relationship, bringing unexpected consequences for them both.


Is The Banshees of Inisherin slow?  Yes.

Is The Banshees of Inisherin sad?  Yes.

Does the movie have a sad ending or a happy one?  Yes.

These are not normally the trademarks of a movie I rush out to see.  In fact, I didn’t see The Banshees of Inisherin at a movie theater for those very reasons.  I had heard that, yes, it is well-written and extraordinarily well-acted, but that it was a bit of a slog.  I had hoped Banshees would be another film like In Bruges, one of the finest dark comedies ever made, but that did not seem to be the case.  So, I stayed away.

Well, I have just finished watching it at home, and I can confirm the film’s slowness and unavoidable moments of sadness, but they are contrasted with unexpected comic beats.  (I was going to say “unintended,” but they were surely intentional, further confirming the ingenuity of the screenplay by director Martin McDonagh.)  I can also confirm that this is one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever seen, and I mean literally, like ever.  At first, I was comparing it to Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, but that turned out to be woefully inadequate.  The Banshees of Inisherin does have the structure of a fine short story, but there its similarities to Melville ends.  I’m not sure if Banshees has a chance of winning the Oscar for Best Picture, but it’s certainly one of the strongest contenders for Best Original Screenplay.

Pádraic (Farrell) lives on the fictional island of Inisherin, off the Irish coast, in the early spring of 1923.  He is stunned one day to learn that his best friend, Colm (Gleeson), has abruptly decided to end their lifelong friendship, cold turkey.  Colm doesn’t want to talk to Pádraic for any reason whatsoever, nor does he give a reason, at least not initially.  When Pádraic persists in speaking to Colm, Colm gives him a warning: Every time he talks to or bothers Colm in any way from here on, Colm will cut off one of his own fingers and give it to Pádraic, until he stops or until Colm has no fingers left.

It was at this point that I sat up and started really paying attention.  I’ve lived long enough to know the specific kind of grief and consternation that occurs when a long-term friend abruptly cuts off all contact for reasons that are not at all clear.  So I felt Pádraic’s pain, I saw it in his face, when he realized how serious Colm was with his threat.  At that moment, I drew mental lines: Pádraic was the protagonist, and Colm was the antagonist.

Of course, Pádraic is the good guy.  He’s nice!  His adult sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), confirms it!  I mean, sure, he’s a little dull, and maybe not all that smart, and maybe he has a pet miniature donkey that he lets in the house when his sister isn’t looking, and he’s never heard of Mozart, but is that a crime?  Is that reason enough to end a friendship?  Pádraic doesn’t think so.  I didn’t think so!  Pádraic is so full of righteous anger that he confronts Colm.  Colm is dumbstruck.  Their conversation ends in a bit of an impasse.  And then, the next morning, as Siobhan prepares breakfast, they hear a thunk on the front door…aaand you’ll have to watch the movie for further plot developments.

(While I watched The Banshees of Inisherin, my girlfriend wondered if I was watching some kind of slapstick comedy with the volume of laughter coming from our movie room.  My explanation of why I was laughing, and what I was laughing at, didn’t quite translate.)

What is Banshees trying to say?  In my opinion, perhaps it’s this: you can’t go through life worrying about what other people think of you.  When Colm lays down the law, Pádraic should have just sucked it up and moved on with his life, right?  I was originally comparing their situation to something that might happen on social media, when someone expresses a very negative view of your post or opinion or whatever.  What do you do?  Latch onto it and let it gnaw away at you?  Post rebuttal after rebuttal until you change their mind?  (Spoiler alert: you won’t.)

As I said, that kind of thinking made Pádraic the good guy and Colm the bad guy.  But then Pádraic starts making some very bad, very DUMB decisions.  He starts listening to the advice of the closest thing they have to a village idiot, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who suggests that Pádraic just needs a new approach: tough love.  At that point, if he’s dumb enough to take advice from a moron, whatever happens next is on him, right?  So now the balance changes.  Now Pádraic is the bad guy/dumbass and Colm is the good guy.  Just leave him alone, dude.

(For the record, Colm does explain his decision, which may shed some light on his own state of mind.  Depression?  Despair?  The screenplay offers clues, but nothing truly definitive.)

All through the film is Pádraic’s sister, Siobhan, who functions as the audience surrogate.  “You’re all f*****g boring!  With your piddling grievances over nothin’!”  She is as dumbfounded as we are at Colm’s stubbornness.  Not to mention at her brother’s foolish attempts to reconnect with someone who clearly doesn’t want to be bothered.  There are a couple of moments when it seems as if all is forgiven, but alas, it is not to be.  Siobhan’s solution to rid herself of their bickering is as simple as it is final.

When the credits rolled, I found myself wondering what kind of review this was going to be.  I liked the movie.  But it is slow and sad.  But its massive unpredictability sucked me in as inevitably as if I were watching Kill Bill or Interstellar.  That’s the key factor to The Banshees of Inisherin.  You may think you know what’s about to happen, but just try to guess exactly how the movie ends, and see how wrong you are.

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.   

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.”

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.