Archive for January 2021

The Wanting Mare

January 31, 2021


If you’re anything like me, you sometimes find the idea of engaging with difficult art — dry philosophical writing, discordant music, slow and artsy film — more appealing than the reality of it. Such might be true of Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s feature debut The Wanting Mare, which I almost feel I owe a second viewing. It’s everything I often say I want more of in movies, and so I dearly wish it had grabbed me at any point. A little humor might have helped; a darting spot of personality. But it’s an art object, and the people in it are not characters so much as concepts. Here and there it reminded me of another doodle of artsy fantasy, Begotten, although this film at least appeals much more to the eye.

Maybe too much. The Wanting Mare was shot mostly in a huge storage unit, even though more than half its scenes take place outside. Bateman then spent several years digitally painting the backdrop, or, if you will, the world. So the space the actors seem to inhabit doesn’t exist, but then the actors barely seem to exist in it either. The images have richness and depth; the characters don’t. I think we glancingly see one character laughing, during a montage in which we don’t know why she’s laughing. The scene is abstract, like the rest of the movie; the woman laughing stands in for the idea of merriment.

The montage is supposed to pull us into identification with young couple Moira (Jordan Monaghan) and Lawrence (Bateman), who meet inauspiciously when Moira happens across a bleeding Lawrence after he bungles a robbery. In this stark world, which has intimations of the apocalyptic, people speak in whispers about their dreams of the time before. Whatever that past was like, it was probably better than the movie’s present, where people kill and die for precious tickets to journey “across” to a better land. I read somewhere that Bateman wants to make further movies set in this bifurcated world of Anmaere, and again, the idea of a shared-universe series of stubbornly obscure art films is much happier than the actual films would probably be.

After a while, all the movie has going for it is its artificial environment, and sadly there’s at least one shot where you can see the seams, a car’s wheels that are clearly rolling across a flatter surface than the bumpy soil that was cooked up in a computer to go beneath the car. When a movie rests so heavily on the authenticity of its visual fakery, a glitch like that really wrenches us out of its spell. The movie hasn’t earned the simple warm goodwill we extend to the iffier shark effects in Jaws, agreeing to overlook one klutzy shot because every other one has been fantastic. The images in The Wanting Mare are gorgeous, but they don’t connect to much, and they unfold at a remove from us.

The uncharitable suspicion grows that the movie considers rumpled, ornery, funny humanity too crude for its scheme. People whisper languidly at each other. Generations pass; babies grow into women who adopt other babies who grow into women, and they’re all looking for The Dream that exists somewhere Across, from the World Before. The dialogue is almost all capitalized like that. The conversations are somberly meaningless — plot blurts that read like cookie fortunes. Part of the backstage drama of the film involves Bateman hinging everything on effects to be added later, effects he had no idea whether he could pull off. Well, mostly he has, and the movie is one hell of a calling card — proof that Bateman can craft bleakly convincing scenery. What he needs are compelling people to stick in front of it.


January 24, 2021


There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

One Night in Miami…

January 18, 2021

14one-night-2-superJumbo-v2Ossie Davis famously called Malcolm X “our own Black shining prince,” and One Night in Miami… adds three other princes. Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) heads to a Black motel to celebrate with Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the occasion of Clay’s ascension to World Heavyweight Champion. On some level, in the words of Kemp Powers (Soul), who wrote the One Night script based on his play, these were “the Black Avengers” — a supergroup of “living Black manhood” (again as per Davis) in different but parallel ways. Each man was engaged in rising up and trying to take as many Black people as he could up with him.

The irony is that all four men gained their fame and power in front of audiences; only one, Malcolm, did so before largely Black audiences. The rest had to function as entertainers or gladiators for white viewers, who bestowed prestige and money on them as long as they knew their places. But Malcolm appears as the other men’s conscience, often an irritating one for them. Malcolm is always going after them for compromising themselves. What he doesn’t realize — since he’s caught up in his own identity crisis — is that they, like Malcolm, are souls in flux. Clay wants to join Malcolm in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, who has butted heads with Elijah Muhammad, wants to leave the Nation of Islam. Brown wants to pivot from football to movies. Cooke wants to write songs that mean more.

One Night in Miami… ends before the men all get what they want; it also ends before two of them, Malcolm and Cooke, were killed, months apart, under still-disputed circumstances. Director Regina King proves the old saw that actors turned directors tend to be the best actors’ directors. She creates a comfortable vibe for the cast to stretch and project — the movie is leisurely paced, bordering on but never really crossing over into slow. The tempo was different then, not because the need for change wasn’t urgent but because everything took longer. The narrative reflects that, but King varies exteriors and interiors smoothly enough that the story doesn’t feel as stagebound and talky as it might.

Besides, most of the time, what the words are about is much larger than four guys in a room, and the guys all know that. Having the culture’s magnifying glass pointed their way has given them all some level of self-awareness. That they’re consciously playing roles doesn’t make them less sincere; the point is that Black people in America have had to play roles to survive for 400 years. And these four men, in the peak of their prime, the pride of their shining, want to renounce, fully or in part, their heroic roles. They want authenticity in their words and their lives. The actors give us the faces the rubes see, but then quiet down for their private moments as men, not icons. There are some stretches when you can forget you’re watching these specific legends — you’re just seeing four men wrestling with changes that will anger everyone in their lives. As if it weren’t hard enough being Black in a place that continually reminds them of that.

Of the four, I found myself most drawn to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. The movie seems to be about him, though the story doesn’t happen without Clay’s victory and subsequent get-together. Like I said, Malcolm is the ghost haunting the attics of the other three men. Malcolm himself, as we know from his memoir and Spike Lee’s film of it, was constantly in a state of change right up until his murder. He recognizes this in his three friends — especially Cooke, whom he comes down on particularly heavily — and tries to goose them along, sometimes breaking out his electrifying street-speech cadences, which the others respond to with “Man, shut the fuck up.” One Night in Miami… is a comedy of friendship as well as a drama about how change has to come because that’s what living things do. When you don’t change, you’re in the grave.

News of the World

January 10, 2021

news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. One hopes it will come to be valued again.

News of the World is decidedly a change of (literal) pace for director Paul Greengrass, famous for his herky-jerky Bourne movies and his stylistically fitful studies of modern historical chaos (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips). Here, Captain Kidd covers the miles on horseback or coach or foot, and Greengrass eases up accordingly; you’d have to go back to his 1998 romantic drama The Theory of Flight to find him this becalmed, this steady of brushstroke. Tom Hanks obliges Greengrass with a contemplative turn, tight with grief and guilt, but open to the warmth of company. On his way from one Texas dustpile to another, Captain Kidd encounters a felled coach, a lynched Black man hanging from a nearby tree, and a girl (Helena Zengel) who speaks no English — just a smattering of German, from her original family, and Kiowa, from the tribe that took her in as one of their own. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself (after several false starts) to bring her “home” to her aunt and uncle.

With the astringent Greengrass in charge and the increasingly no-nonsense Hanks in the saddle, the story is approached with minimal cuteness; a certain level of manipulation is built into the material (from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles), but mainly the film steers around it or tamps it down. If not for a dusting of PG-13 epithets and a stretch of ugliness involving an owlhoot who seeks to buy the girl, and then comes after Captain Kidd with two other men, this could be a family Western, sharing some traits with True Grit (either version), but with the dark undertone of The Searchers. The resulting shootout between Captain Kidd and the men, bolstered by the girl’s quick thinking, is a deft piece of suspense. Even there, Greengrass doesn’t revert to his old habits of jittery handheld camera or Cuisinart editing. Post-Civil War, even gunfights take a long time. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski pause and gaze upon the luxurious, unspoiled expanse of New Mexico (doubling for Texas).

Given that we just watched dirtbags shuffling through the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate flag, it may strike some as an iffy prospect to be asked to feel for a man who fought for that side, even if he is played by Tom Hanks. But Hanks imbues Captain Kidd with an intelligence that tells us the captain was most likely conscripted into defense of his birthplace, and was not acting out of any particular fidelity to the traditions of slavery. Still, we gather Captain Kidd sent his share of Union soldiers to Valhalla, regretfully, which makes him a complicated hero. (In the book, Kidd fought in the other, less divisive but equally noxious War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.) As we saw in Saving Private Ryan and Greyhound, Hanks is a natural at painting men skilled at war who take no pleasure in it. That prior experience with Hanks does a lot of the movie’s work.

I don’t think News of the World was consciously made as “the movie we need right now” (how many films in the past year have been thus described?) — it’s a leisurely tale as much about storytelling as about anything else. One nice thing Hanks does is to refrain from making Captain Kidd any kind of great raconteur or proto-anchorman. Standing before his dusty crowds, Kidd squints through spectacles, bending almost in half over the newspaper he’s reading from. He seems to be doing this simply because it’s something he can do, not because he has any passion for it. By the end, though, the pleasures of story have brought animation to Kidd’s reading and wit to his telling. And we appreciate the happy ending because don’t we all deserve one? These are, after all, difficult times.

Promising Young Woman

January 3, 2021

promising-young-woman-trailerThe gut tension starts early in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is by herself at night at a bar, seemingly so blitzed she can barely sit up. Some nearby horndogs take notice, and one of them heads over to her. What follows, as the guy compels the scarcely sentient Cassie to go back to his place for a drink, trades one form of stress for another, a more deeply unsettling one. Cassie is nowhere near as drunk or oblivious as she seems, and her M.O. is quickly established: She purposely attracts predatory dudes, then confronts them with their own piggishness. One of the insights that writer-director Fennell has is that all these guys, two minutes after trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman, still want to portray themselves as not that bad. They’re not, like, rapists or anything, they think, not long after they were planning rape.

But this isn’t quite the #MeToo Death Wish some critics have painted it as. It’s a satire — like, dark satire, Juvenalian satire in which hardly anyone comes off well, except maybe Cassie’s gentle dad (Clancy Brown, gainfully cast against his usual type). It satirizes the inverse of its title: the “promising young men” (Brock Turner, say) whose lives stand to be ruined if they are held accountable for their crimes against women. And the women’s lives? Young women, presumably, are not as promising. It’s a bitter, necessary title for a bitter, necessary near-thriller about a rage-filled woman who always seems about to cross over to violence but never does, except the violence she does to men’s egos.

Promising Young Woman is, alas, a bit pulpy; it runs a little too far on coincidence. If Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, didn’t pick the coffee bar where she works to grab a cup, there wouldn’t be a first-act spin to kick the material up a notch. Ryan is a doctor, and Cassie was once going to be one, too, but she dropped out of med school to take care of her friend Nina, who was raped at a party. Usually, as in Ms. 45 and other revengesploitation, the annihilating angel is herself a victim, but Fennell works around that trope to haunting effect. Nina is never seen, but looms large over Cassie and over the movie. When we first meet her, Cassie’s vengeful fury is a bit random, scattershot; she only shames those who approach her with foul intent. But Ryan and the world he’s part of give Cassie sharper focus. Ryan seems a decent sort, quietly witty, and we dare to hope that Cassie finds some happiness. But the goblin of coincidence raises its furry head again; there’s a revelation that some will take as a betrayal and others will already have seen coming.

I saw it coming, but Promising Young Woman still left a stinging mark on me as one of the year’s best. I continue to insist that, as more marginalized people step behind the camera and take the reins of story — women, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc. — we will see how their approaches differ, often in wonderful ways, from that of the standard default white-cis-hetero-male director. There is a foglike dread, dread of how bad things can get, that runs through violent female-made films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin — a subtle undertone of the silent agony that male supremacy is built on. And I find it in Promising Young Woman, which isn’t really a “horror film” but is about horror, true horror as it is felt and lived, the horror of being violated and then ignored, having to live on in a world that doesn’t care that you were raped. That, in fact, would rather you just shut up about it or die.

The movie may leave you feeling like an open wound, but I can’t deny it’s also fun a lot of the way. Carey Mulligan gets to play an emotionally stunted, eternally disappointed woman, and she finds notes of wit in Cassie’s pain — she may be in pain, but she also is a pain. That Cassie isn’t a wide-eyed goody-goody allows us to enjoy her manipulations as a sort of theater of rage. This one random guy may have had nothing to do with her friend’s savaging, but he’s still a guy who can be taught some brutal truths. Ryan seems different, but don’t they all? Promising Young Woman sees all men as grinning reptiles pulling at themselves; it sees through Cassie’s eyes without 100% buying into her particular actions, but still doesn’t disagree with her. And if we didn’t do concern-trolling with Bronson and Eastwood and all the rest about their vigilante actions, we don’t need to start now with Cassie.