Archive for November 2022

Women Talking

November 27, 2022


If you only have two choices, how much choice do you have? That’s one of many questions raised in Women Talking (opening in the U.S. on December 23), a dialogue-driven drama about a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do: fight or flee. It’s recently been revealed that some of the men in the community have been dosing some of the women (and girls) with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they’re unconscious at night. The men responsible have been taken away, but they’ll be out on bail soon, and will come back to the colony — and to the women. Three initial choices are laid out for the women: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options finish in a tie, so eight of the women discuss whether to stay or go, and before long the notion of staying recedes into the distance.

Women Talking is the third narrative feature directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), who seems drawn to material that shows people in all their unlovely complications. Bur her gaze is warm, not cold, and here she simply provides a space for the frequently voiceless to speak. What’s compelling about the drama, aside from the ticking-clock structure and the ghastly situation itself, is the various women’s responses to the assaults and to the realities of the aftermath. If they don’t forgive the rapists, they will be denied entry to Heaven. If they do forgive the rapists, how can that possibly please God? Why didn’t He stop the violence in the first place? And so forth.

The movie, as well as the Miriam Toews novel it’s adapting, is based on an actual incident in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2011. Questions of faith are prominent in the women’s discussions, but don’t really dominate. Some of the issues, I guess, would be brought up in a less devout group of women. One particularly bitter abuse survivor, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), angrily asks another woman in the group why the assault seems to have affected her more than the others. It might seem an uncommonly callous thing to ask until you learn that Mariche is routinely beaten by her husband. The violence inflicted on her has blown out a large chunk of her ability to empathize with others’ pain. Not every victim is as kindly and “nice” as some would like them to be, and Polley knows this and shows it.

Those with the patience to sit and listen will be rewarded with some top-notch performances; Polley even gets a subtly warm turn from Rooney Mara as Ona, whose encounter with a nighttime rapist has left her pregnant. Ona is also sweet on August (Ben Whishaw), a young man from an excommunicated family who has come to the colony as a teacher for the boys. (The girls aren’t taught to read or write.) I kept expecting August to turn out to be slimy, but no, Polley does believe “not all men” (a character even says it). Her film privileges women but is more concerned with what they choose to do with the information they’ve been given. One survivor has changed their name from Nettie to Melvin, and doesn’t speak to anyone except the children; a whole fascinating movie could be made about Melvin (played by trans nonbinary actor August Winter). 

It’s not a “likable” film — it’s grim, with some dots of humor — but I don’t think it was meant to be. It grapples with the subject of women in a society where their options are limited, and that subject expands beyond the literal scenario in a Mennonite colony the more we let the story wash around our brains. It’s jarring as hell when a truck drives slowly past the community’s house, blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” over a loudspeaker along with a voice encouraging the colonists to come out and be counted for the 2010 census. In a little touch typical of scripter-director Polley’s method here, the teacher August, who left the community for a while to go to university, sings softly along with the song, which he might remember from his time outside. The movie is built out of little human moments like that. If we’re waiting for the women to stop talking and start doing — as a century of male-steered movies have conditioned us to want — we might miss those moments, and the movie. 


November 20, 2022


Superhero movies aren’t the only kind of movies that survived the pandemic and restored some faith in the future of theaters. Horror movies (Barbarian, Halloween Ends, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Terrifier 2) have been rallying, and one of the bigger success stories has been Smile, which has taken $213 million worldwide against a $17 million budget. Smile was also helped immeasurably by its creepy marketing campaign, which involved putting people wearing menacing smiles behind home plate at baseball games. The actual movie, or should I say the actual story, doesn’t live up to the marketing. But its writer-director Parker Finn is a director to watch.

Note I don’t say “writer to watch.” Stripped down, Smile is the sort of curse film that was popular in Asia about 25 years ago, and then briefly in America. The way the smile curse works is simple. Someone cursed commits messy suicide in front of you (with their face contorted in an eerie, mirthless rictus), creating trauma that the entity feeds on; it then, within the next seven days, cozies up to you and torments you a fair bit before making you, too, kill yourself in front of someone, perpetuating the cycle. There’s a metaphor here for how the unchecked effects of trauma can repeat themselves. But Parker Finn is interested primarily in the number of startling “Boo!” moments — jump scares — he can get out of the premise. Which is disappointing, but Finn sets them up effectively and also creates a sense of oppressive dread as well as random freakiness.

Smile focuses on therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who had a traumatized patient slit her own throat in front of her. The patient is played by Caitlin Stasey, who played what I think is the same role in Finn’s 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” (I recommend that short, as well as Finn’s first short, 2018’s “The Hidebehind.”) This kicks off a standard supernatural-horror plot in which Rose sees weird, terrifying things, but nobody will believe her, and conveniently she has a cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner) who can help her track down people connected or related to the smile curse’s prior victims. Smile creates a simultaneous doubling effect in the viewer: we experience the story and we are unimpressed, but we see and hear the stifling moods of fear and frustration Finn can evoke and we wish they weren’t yoked to such a nothing-special story.

I guess Smile will be wild and strange for people whose tastes tend towards the norm of filmmaking. If your norm is Lynch or Cronenberg, you’re likely to shrug, while recognizing Parker Finn’s game as a pure horror director. “The Hidebehind,” for instance, is really nothing other than a piece about a guy lost in the woods who runs into a mysterious entity, but it’s simply and effectively wrought. Finn knows how to use ominous quietude and uncertainty to creep us out. Horror fans will hear more about him in the years to come, but horror fans will also have seen most of the story elements Finn has to offer here and will, again, shrug. Perhaps in the future Finn will hire a good writer, or find a story that means more to him than being a clothesline for ooga-booga freak-outs.

Past a certain point the plot stops making sense — Rose has been flagged as a potential danger to herself and/or others, and she’s still driving around (including to her abandoned childhood house where her mother killed herself, which you’d think would be staked out) as if no one were looking for her. Maybe no one is. Here and there, Smile chills when it brushes against the intractable realities of mental illness in America; Rose gets mildly called onto the carpet when she approves a mental patient for admission but the patient has no insurance. Later, we see that there was no meaningful help available to Rose’s mom; she could only suffer and waste away and terrorize her daughters. Some of the subtext here is cold and ugly in ways that befit a horror movie but put standard horror tropes to shame. And there’s a spectacularly horrific/awkward birthday party with a shock we see coming (and it’s another element whose aftermath is exquisitely implausible as a literal plot point — there would probably be jail time for that) but is still precisely carpentered. Some movies begin as dazzling scripts and get diluted in the filming. Smile may be the exact opposite, a humdrum script that shows off a director who, if he wanted to and had the right material, could really hurt us. Maybe next time. 

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

November 6, 2022


Every so often a movie comes along that makes one feel like a real Grinch for finding fault with it. This time, that’d be Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Weird Al, who capered around on the margins of ‘80s MTV pop with song parodies (and accompanying video parodies) of acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Weird Al’s takes on popular songs, gentler than Tom Lehrer and goofier than Mad magazine’s resident song parodist Frank Jacobs, were good-natured enough, and also skilled enough, that pop stars came to see a Weird Al parody as a sign they’d made it.

Weird, starring a game and enthusiastic Daniel Radcliffe as Al, makes no bones about being a complete farcical fabrication. That’s part of the joke, that Weird Al (who wrote the script with the movie’s director Eric Appel) can’t even tell his own story straight. The plot touches on the usual rise-and-fall tropes and clichés of rock-star biopics, which prevents it from being as wild and, well, weird as it could have been. In real life, Weird Al’s parents were supportive, with his father holding the exact reverse philosophy that the movie version of him does — that it’s important to do what makes you happy. So I’m not sure why Weird Al turns his dad into a forbidding, violent grouch who works in a factory and only later reveals his true colors. In 2004, Al’s parents both died in a tragic freak accident in their home, and we wouldn’t expect that to be covered in what’s supposed to be a comedy — but if you know that background, you might wonder why his parents are in the movie at all being portrayed as glum killjoys. Why not rub against the grain of the usual biopics and have the old man fantastically, unrealistically supportive of his son’s unusual goals?

Weird Al’s path eventually crosses that of Madonna (well-played by Evan Rachel Wood, who nails Madge’s insouciant narcissism), who wants him to parody her song and give her the “Yankovic Bump.” They become romantically involved, which is funny for about a minute, but not when it goes on for scene after scene and leads to a dead subplot involving Weird Al superfan Pablo Escobar. (Even if this premise hadn’t been addressed in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it wouldn’t be all that funny here.) A good chunk of the film finds Weird Al behaving like a jerk twisted by the goblins of success, which we all know is Al’s self-deprecating goof on the actuality of his being a nice, normal nerd who’s only weird in his music. But it doesn’t make it less annoying to watch, because we know he’s scheduled for a wake-up call and comeback. Weird plays too slavishly by the rules of music biopics — there aren’t many surprises. Rainn Wilson does come through with a sensitive turn as Dr. Demento, the radio DJ who inspired and launched Weird Al, but even the good doctor gets an awkward moment where he stammers that he never had any kids and wants to adopt Al (in real life, Dr. Demento and his wife — she passed in 2017 — were childless by choice), but Al demurs. There’s discordant father-figure stuff throughout Weird that gives one pause.

Radcliffe throws himself into whatever each scene requires, and he’s often fun to watch, but the performance doesn’t really cohere. He’s playing a goofball variation on Weird Al that seems to shift from scene to scene. Weird is the feature directing debut of Eric Appel, who has worked on various comedy shows and on Funny or Die projects. On the evidence here, he should probably stick to short-form gags; the movie is predictable and borderline dull, poorly paced and, if I’m not mistaken, badly sound-synced during several performances. (Radcliffe sang the songs live but was later dubbed by Yankovic.) I like Weird Al a lot, don’t get me wrong, but my hunch is that people’s fondness for him (and for Radcliffe) is rubbing off on the rather inept movie. Stick with it through the end credits, though, for a new Weird Al ditty (“Now You Know”) that roasts movie-fed mythology far more efficiently than the film preceding it.