Archive for March 2021

The Father

March 28, 2021

the father 2

“Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” Anthony Hopkins spoke those words as King Lear in 1986 and again in 2018, and he voices the sentiment in different words, or with no words at all, in the devastating drama The Father. Hopkins plays Anthony, an aging Englishman who can no longer make the world stay still so that he can get his bearings. The people in his life keep changing appearance. So does his flat, which is sometimes his daughter’s flat. The movie, directed and cowritten by Florian Zeller from his play, uses subtle cinematic techniques to keep us as disoriented as Anthony is. We share his sense of being unmoored, grasping at any solidity that presents itself before it and he recede into nonsense.

The Father is not as incoherent as I’ve perhaps made it sound. The style is sturdy and sensible; it doesn’t lurch into frenzy or melodramatic notions of what insanity feels like from the inside. Anthony is, after all, quite convinced that he’s perfectly sound of mind and that everyone else, for their own dark reasons, has conspired to throw difficulties in his path. So when the inconsistencies crack the narrative — when Anthony’s daughter Anne leaves, played by Olivia Colman, and then returns played by Olivia Williams — the style remains a steady flow of information that, though neatly presented, is unacceptable to Anthony. Who is this, now? Anne? You’re not Anne. This switcheroo happens with other characters, and Williams also turns up in two other roles.

The horror of this situation is twofold: Anthony’s existential anguish over losing everything he is, and Anne’s fury and heartbreak over being erased from her father’s memory. Both Hopkins and Colman beautifully convey the nightmare of a disease that steals identity not only from its host but from everyone in his support system. The film sticks diligently to its grim mode of a confounding reality attacking and retreating. Every scene is there to establish Anthony’s decline. It reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s more interiorized psychodramas like Dead Ringers, Spider, even Naked Lunch to the extent that what the protagonist is perceiving is not always to be trusted. We are locked in his disintegrating perceptions for ninety-plus minutes; even in scenes when Anthony isn’t around yet, and Anne is talking to her husband/not husband (played alternately by Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell), we feel we’re seeing what Anthony is overhearing but misunderstanding, or imagining but through his own filter. Eventually we come to realize that the story is about no more or less than the unreliability of any perception. Anthony is all of us, blinking slowly at new people or missing objects while holding firm to his belief that his antennae are working perfectly. 

A lot of things in Anthony’s shifting sense of himself can be interrogated or discussed, such as his insistence that he used to be a tap dancer, while elsewhere agreeing that he was an engineer. Well, which is it? Florian Zeller, along with screenplay collaborator Christopher Hampton, plants conflicting details and, within the tight and conventional confines of his camera blocking, refuses to give us ground beneath our feet. Anthony has, or had, another daughter Lucy, who hasn’t come to see him in some time; the shards of data we get — which, of course, could themselves be suspect — indicate that Lucy was killed in an accident. It’s certainly open to interpretation. 

Hopkins makes Anthony prickly and ungovernable, a modern-day Lear raging against the storm in his own head. Ultimately, as in Wit (with Emma Thompson’s least-seen great performance), Anthony — as will we all — comes full circle into whimpering infancy. If we shed a tear, we do so not for him but for ourselves. The long, intolerable slide into oblivion — the immovable arc of the universe. Sometimes a story like this gets told with a spoonful of genre sugar; a lot of science fiction, for instance, runs on speculation about identity and humanity. So the tale is told sidewise, to spare the viewer a direct hit of pain. The Father stays within our unremarkable reality, a world we recognize, until we no longer do.

Sound of Metal

March 21, 2021

sound of metal

The refreshing thing about Sound of Metal is that it doesn’t pretend things don’t suck when they do. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for the two-person band Blackgammon he shares with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is rapidly losing his hearing. As his doctor says, it doesn’t really matter how or why; this is the fact of his life now. Cochlear implants might help, but they’re expensive, and Ruben isn’t rich. Eventually he finds himself at a place hidden out in the sticks, run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci) as a retreat for those with deafness and addiction issues, both of which describe Ruben.

Riz Ahmed brings an itchy, impatient intensity to Ruben, who just wants to fix his deafness. Joe disagrees; he feels the path to healing should focus more on sitting with the disability — and getting realistic about how it limits you and how it doesn’t — than on seeking to make it go away. This has been a conflict in every disabled community for years; I once worked with someone whose son was disabled, and who used to side-eye Christopher Reeve because he seemed, she felt, to agitate more for finding a cure for spinal injury than for, say, accessibility or generally making the lives of disabled people easier. Director/cowriter Darius Marder seems to understand this eternal heated conversation from the inside out, and has forged a gripping drama from it.

Once Ruben settles in at Joe’s retreat (after a kind of time-wasting bit where he declines to go there, and we’re sitting there waiting for this section to be over because if Ruben didn’t go to the retreat the movie would be very short), I expected Sound of Metal to go soggy and dull, like a bowl of life-affirming gruel. But it stays spiky and tough-minded; Darius Marder is a son of Massachusetts, but his sensibility seems really European in its indifference to sentimentality. Perhaps, then, it’s apropos that the third act brings in Mathieu Amalric, whose features speak of sad, intimate knowledge of the world’s cruelties, and sometimes this makes his character relatable and sometimes sinister; here, as Lou’s moneybags French dad, he manages to suggest both.

Marder also gets a great performance from Paul Raci, a character actor whose face I didn’t recognize; I simply took him for a deaf actor (he isn’t, but learned ASL to communicate with his deaf parents). Tapped for most likely the meatiest role he’s ever had, Raci underplays and puts across a kind of relaxed authenticity, such as we might associate with a Richard Farnsworth or a Sam Elliott. Joe is extremely plain-spoken, and will not bother with a less than honest statement because he knows conversation is difficult enough without having to factor lies into it. Joe’s place is church-sponsored, but there’s no proselytizing. Ruben goes in unreligious and comes out the same way, though there’s no question he’s undergone some kind of spiritual journey.

If Sound of Metal doesn’t at least win an Oscar for Best Sound, the award has no meaning. Frequently, Marder takes us inside Ruben’s experience as the aural world around him turns into muffled distortion, receding maddeningly into a cotton-candy fog of silence. The soundscape has more personality and terror than anything since Alan Splet’s work for David Lynch. We also hear what cochlear implants do to sound, piping its buzzy approximation to the brain, like the tasteless teleported steak in The Fly — it gets the basics of sound but not the warmth, the music. Sound of Metal does shake out as the inspirational tale of a guy who realizes he has to learn to live in the world he’s found himself in, but the insight is hard-won and earned. It feels specific and therefore universal.

Coming 2 America

March 5, 2021


Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.