More than 'just' a romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire draws us in to a whole world of feeling.
Well into the runtime of Céline Sciamma’s transcendent Portrait of a Lady on Fire a scene arose that for this viewer had the same eeriness, intensity and power that I associate with the best horror films, a genre I am fond of. A community of women gathers around a campfire in the dark night, speaking things to one another they would not dare in the daylight. Of a sudden in this atmosphere ripe with great intensity, a small droning sound starts up, soon revealed as the melody of a song. Unbidden, the women sing together with an almost hypnotic power, some of the only music heard in this Spartan film. I don’t know if it was directorial intention, the way I’ve been conditioned to think about such things, or some combination of both, but for all the world it felt to me like a spell or incantation, this nocturnal gathering to be interpreted in the 18th century context of the film as some sort of witchcraft. Because that’s what happens when women gather together in their own space, with their own concerns, separated from male (and therefore societal) sensibilities. Men become uncomfortable with this notion, this seeming loss of control, and rumors and fear begin to fly.
That reaction was always flitting through my mind as I watched this extraordinary film. It is a film about desire and passion, yes, but it is just as acutely about self-determination, about space and about social control and mores, what happens when they can be suspended, and what happens when they cannot be broken. From my own perspective, and with my own background, I always had the sensation of being an interloper or an outsider when watching this film. It is about female space, and I was intruding on it. Men are only seen twice in the film, there is only one line of male dialogue and when it occurs it grates on the ears. Their presence is always felt, however, in the way the women yearn and desire for something else, while realizing they are bound within that web. All of this is encapsulated in a slowly unfolding, deliberately paced rhythm of a film that focuses mostly on the buildup and eventual release of emotion and feeling. This pace, as is more true for European films (this one happens to be French) will likely try the patience of many contemporary (American) audiences, but is full of rich rewards for those who wait.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) found some comfort in being a nun. It was not the religion as such, but it was a place for her to read, to listen to music, to not define herself based on the whims of a man. After the death of her older sister, her mother (Valeria Golino, known only as the Countess) tears her from that security to fill her sister’s place: marriage to a nobleman of Milan whom she has never met. As part of the marriage preparation, the Countess wants to present a portrait of her daughter to the fiancée. Héloïse refuses to sit, does not want her essence captured by a man for a man. Enter Marianne (Noémie Merlant).
Marianne is an oddity in this world, as rare as a unicorn. An unmarried woman with an independent income, fueled by her skill as a portrait painter. The Countess needs her to paint her daughter, but Héloïse will never sit for her, she can never know. All she can know is that Marianne has merely been hired as a companion. Marianne’s task is to observe, and then paint by memory. Every glance becomes intense. Every interaction filled with observation and recollection. By candlelight she’ll draw a sketch. An eye here, a hand there. Trying to capture a person’s soul with her eyes, with her mind, with her paint. Héloïse is like a caged bird. Marianne can only capture her anger. Or her sorrow.
This is a film that plays across the human face and across the rocky, craggy shoreline of the isolated island where the women live. There are only four characters to speak of (the young serving girl Sophie, as portrayed by Luàna Bajrami adds both touches of humor and touches of pathos with a subplot of her own involving another issue that highlights societal disparities of gender). There is no real soundtrack other than the crashing of the waves against the shore. The cinematography is appropriately painterly and understated, bringing out the muted colors of the cold beach and often highlighting the female face against stark black backgrounds, a chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio. The isolation of the women allows them to build trust and deepen their relationship, which by slow motions, fits and starts, by “inventing” or discovering something (according to a poetic snippet of the dialogue), turns into a physical, a loving, a sexual relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. This is portrayed with great passion and yearning. The raw physicality of it left an impression. It may sound strange to say, but after their first kiss we see an element not usually photographed. Suffice it to say I thought of the final scene of resurrection from Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). While they are isolated in their own little world, they settle almost into something of a contented domesticity, neither thinking nor caring about the conventions of the outside world, and yet that world will inevitably close in, resulting in the increasing drama as the film reaches its denouement.
To merely water down this extraordinary film as being a ‘lesbian love story’ does great discredit to the true effort involved. This is a film that builds a whole inner world. As an outsider to the world in many ways, it always felt a privilege to get a glimpse inside, and it is causing me to reflect very strongly on the notion of space, physical, mental, societal, who controls it and how. The unity of effort in this film is extraordinary. The direction perfectly balances the screenplay, the camerawork, the sound, the acting. Nothing is flashy, nothing is showy. It is all at the service of crafting this total, lived in world of feeling. Feeling that lingers long after the credits roll.
~Fr. Michael Carter
This being a grim week at the theater, I turn to a Netflix original that came out this month, Horse Girl. Not without interest, but not without flaw.
Sarah is a quirky, socially awkward young woman living in a bright, pastel world. This world is very small in scope. She connects mostly with her (much older or much younger) co-workers at a craft store, her former horse Willow (let’s just say there was an accident and liability involved), and her roommate Nikki, who kindly (if condescendingly) tries to set Sarah up with real people, instead of the television show characters that Sarah fantasizes over. Upon meeting a man who shares a name with one of these, it’s all an excited Sarah can talk about. “Maybe don’t…” says Nikki, trying to shift the conversation. Sarah laughs when nothing is funny and smiles when she isn’t happy. Lacking the courage to initiate real contact with others, she’s content to spend her birthday alone… or at least she says she is. “I guess those plans fell through…” she plaintively responds to questions from her roommate, knowing full well there were no plans. There never are.
In writing that paragraph, I realize the darkness of the tone and setting of Horse Girl, a Netflix original starring and co-written by the lovely Alison Brie and directed by Jeff Baena. I remark on this, because the first third, possibly even half of the film, is directed, shot and acted as if it were ready to bloom into a run-of-the-mill early 2000’s quirky comedy, where cutely broken people find each other and piece each other together. Knowing how it all reaches a climax, I realize that I was lulled into a false sense of security, never being able to have predicted where the film ultimately leads.
Sarah (Brie) you see, needs everything just so. The paint at the craft store not too thick, but not too thin. Willow should be brushed a certain way. Her car must be parked in the right spot, with the club lock. A 1990 Volvo could be tempting for thieves, you see. Sometimes things go wrong… she thought she set the alarm. Where did that lost time go? Why was her empty car in the middle of the road, keys still in the ignition? When her roommate’s boyfriend spends the night, why does he find her near comatose in the kitchen? “It’s sleepwalking; my mom always said I have an active imagination…”. She is often found at her mother’s side… graveside, that is. The headstone is as meticulously maintained as everything else in her life. By tightly keeping everything under control, perhaps Sarah is stemming off or banishing her family’s history of mental illness… her mother died by her own hand. Her grandmother on the streets, after being institutionalized. People always told Sarah she looks just like her grandmother… a mirror image… almost a clone.
While watching Horse Girl, the tone feels almost cliché… until the pieces start coming together. Or perhaps until they start falling apart. As Sarah notices more gaps in her memory, her behavior grows more erratic. What began as quirky and cute feels harried and stressed. What seems to be a sweet date between awkward people sharing a love of sci-fi and aliens grows more barbed as Sarah’s interest seems a little too keen… “you’re taking this really seriously…” her prospective partner says. The film starts to take it more seriously too. We see inside Sarah’s dreams. Where does she know the people in them from? She should follow them. Why is everyone overreacting? I needed to use an alias. I don’t know who’s listening, who’s watching… we see her thoughts without needing an inner monologue. As Sarah’s certainty and sanity starts to crumble, so does the narrative cohesion of the film. The line between dream and reality blurs. Are we seeing into Sarah’s subconscious or is she truly acting out the behavior we witness? Who knows what? The audience? The filmmaker? What is there left to believe?
The way the film portrays the erosion of Sarah’s world is done most effectively, creating a tense, harried, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere totally at odds with the film’s beginning. As its momentum lurched nauseatingly forward, I found myself becoming more enraptured with the proceedings, even as I became less and less certain of what was actually transpiring. All by design, I would have to think, and deftly done at that. Music, editing and camera all work in the service of this vision. In some ways, the closest recent corollary to this film that comes to mind is Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane of 2018. That film seemed to have more coherent aesthetic intentions and purpose however. As atmospherically effective as Horse Girl is, I was left fully unsatisfied at its conclusion. Was this meant as a portrait of a woman coming undone? A genre exercise, an experiment in unease? A comment on familial ties, social decay and isolation? Horse Girl is all of, and therefore none of, those things. In 2020 I feel that a film about mental illness needs to provide more for the audience than a mere sensory experience. Where is this all going and why? For dramatic and narrative purposes these questions can’t, and shouldn’t always be answered, but without some ultimate hints the whole enterprise can feel almost exploitative. Horse Girl, despite its aesthetic interest lacks that deeper meaning, and, bereft of meaning, ultimately feels bereft of purpose. But as this film proves, that doesn’t always matter in the moment.
Some of my brothers tease me about my supposed “pretentious” taste in films. Nonsense. Just because I think the best films are slow, black and white and depressing doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy some broadly popular entertainment as well. For the first 30 minutes or so of Birds of Prey, I felt I was happily in that niche. The colors popped, the action was swift and spunky, the characters energetic and the soundtrack blaring. I was settling into the story, and happy to go along for the ride. But then it felt as if the ride malfunctioned, we missed the station, and I was stuck on an endless loop: seeing the same sights, taking the same turns and shouting breathlessly to the attendant to let me off.
Birds of Prey is the story of the former Harleen Quinzell, now known as Harley Quinn (energetically, and fairly entertainingly played by the lovely Margot Robbie… more on the performance as we go deeper), a former psychiatrist who embarked on a life of crime after falling in love with her most famous patient, the legendary Joker (a warning to all professionals to not blur boundaries with clients). As told in a cutely animated intro sequence, they’ve broken up, Harley is out on the streets and in between bouts of drinking, screaming and fighting, she gets revenge on her beau in a most fiery special effects showcase. This sets off a chain of events that puts all of our pieces on the board: an investigation by a seasoned cop tired of being overlooked, a connection to the shadowy underworld ruled by an unhinged crime boss, the sultry lounge singer ready to double-cross him and a deadly assassin hell-bent on revenge. Forget any connection to comic books, this has the makings of a good noir regardless of the source material. What a shame then, that this bird never gets off the ground.
Fingers can be pointed in several directions, but I think at its most basic level, the problem is with the source material itself. Harley Quinn really isn’t that interesting of a character. She has always been defined by her connection to, and relationship with, the Joker, a more well-established figure in comic lore (seen any movies about him recently?). Even though the whole theme of the film is her attempt to break away from that sense of being defined by someone else, the screenplay ultimately doesn’t give her enough to do, and Robbie, despite giving it her all, can only wring so much out the character’s established and defining traits: a weird accent and word choice that feels like it comes out of 40’s era animation. Maybe good for some TV episodes, but grating in a two-hour feature film.
The way this flawed character’s story is told is another severe handicap. As indicated, all the material for a good little noir are there, but they just aren’t utilized effectively. The screenplay is a murky mess. The first 30 minutes go heavy on a chipper voice-over by Robbie that help to ground the tone, but as the movie progresses it starts to seem more and more an attempt to fill in narrative gaps that the screenplay forgot about. Shifts in time and place are jarringly explained away with some jokes in this fashion, but it feels like a cover for bad editing. I wasn’t quite sure of too many plot nuances after the main event was set in motion.
I guess it’s basically this: the narcissistic criminal boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor clearly having fun, though the campy character leans a little too much on the toxic trope of feminine characteristics in men being perceived as villainous) is expecting the shipment of a diamond that will somehow be the key to more money and power, jaded cop Renee Montoya (great to see Rosie Perez, though it feels like she walked in from a different movie) gets wise to the situation because she’s being informed by Roman’s club chanteuse who goes by the name of Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett Bell, who gets some great action scenes). I must admit I can only throw up my hands in defeat before I can explain how Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress ties into it all, but uh, she looks cool and has an attitude.
None of the action matters if we can’t care about the ultimate outcome, and sadly I found it repetitious. Harley kicking the snot out of people to a classic rock soundtrack is admittedly pretty cool the first two or three times, but eventually I found myself just getting bored; the kiss of death for an action movie. Admittedly, I have this problem with most comic book films. They become a sensory overload. So much is happening that my eyes glaze over, I can’t even parse what’s happening on the screen. The final third of the film just numbed my brain.
I have to say something about the tonal shifts in the film. DC was wise to allow a female director (Cathy Yan, whose previous work I am unfamiliar with) to helm a female centric story. It’s certainly better in that regard than its predecessor, 2016’s Suicide Squad, proverbial among my friends as the nadir of this type of film, and certainly not a piece of feminist cinema if the number of shots focused on Robbie’s rear-end were any indication. Birds of Prey is superior to that, but It feels very jarring to me for a movie to have silly bodily function jokes at one moment, and some disturbing shots of near assault of women in another. The more serious comic book movie template has of course been set recently by Todd Phillips’ Joker, which is much more tonally consistent than this film.
But hey, all deconstruction aside, the merits of this type of film rise or fall on how entertaining it was. Sadly, for me, not very. All the cool stunts, clever directorial flourishes and classic rock on the soundtrack couldn’t hide the fact that there was no core, no heart to this movie. All style and not a lot of substance, it was an empty experience, emptier than the midweek matinee theater as I walked out.
One and a Half Stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter
I was shocked about how much I liked Gretel and Hansel. Let's come to terms with it.
I’ll admit it right off the bat, I wasn’t expecting this one. Gretel and Hansel is a horror movie that was unleashed in the January/February studio clearinghouse season. Usually the only thing frightening about this time frame is that it happens to be when studios haunt movie theaters with all of the undead releases that they couldn’t fit elsewhere on the schedule. Schlocky horror movies are the stock-in-trade of this time, but occasionally other genre films, typically the puzzling or ill-conceived, rear their heads as studios essentially shrug them off, unaware of how to market them, and hoping that they somehow recoup some fraction of their budget. Wanting to see SOMETHING, anything, I walked in with the lowest of expectations and found solace in the advertised (short) hour and a half running time.
But then something unexpected happened. “That’s an interesting shot. Hmm, the lighting was surprisingly good there. The atmosphere actually feels really eerie. This music seems very effective. That’s an interesting directorial choice…” As my inner monologue continued to be surprised by more and more of what was transpiring on screen, I found that instead of liking this movie “in spite of itself”, Gretel and Hansel is actually a spectacular little horror movie that not only drew me in, but made me think of the impact that certain “art-school” horror flicks of recent vintage are starting to have on more mainstream product… something that actually makes me excited for the future of a genre that in recent years has had more than a few stakes in its heart.
The film is set in a plague-ridden, famine infested fairy tale land of indeterminate era and location, where the sun rarely shines and no dark forest is ever bereft of fog (I’m being flippant but the film’s cinematography, set design and costumes are all incredibly effective). Teenaged Gretel (an effective Sophie Lillis, who I know best from 2017’s It: Chapter One; how fun must it be for a teenage girl to specialize in horror movies?) provides for us a moody, slightly over-written inner monologue that sets the stage for the grim proceedings. Suffice it to say that in the murky past, the village had to cast out its most beautiful child. Lore seems to indicate that she dwells in the woods, luring the present children away. “Be careful about accepting gifts” or some iterations thereof, often slip out of Gretel’s mouth, providing not only foreshadowing but some idea of the inner angst of this teenager, plainly dressed in gray garb and delivering faux-archaic lines in an offbeat (and off-putting) demeanor. Gretel is very protective of her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey, doing fine in his acting debut), and tries to shield him from some of the cruelty of the world, such as when she declines to go into detail about her refusal of a job cleaning for a lecherous old townsman, who expects her to do more than cook and sew (the exploitation of women is an undercurrent in the proceedings, though handed rather unartfully throughout. The film’s biggest flaws are in its screenplay and themes). One thing however she cannot shield Hansel from is their lack of food. Cast out of the home for that reason by their shadow of a mother, the two siblings find themselves alone in the dark forest. Maybe they’ll find a convent to stay at, maybe they’ll find some woodsmen. Maybe they’ll dig their own graves and be done with it all.
It is hard to articulate the tone of the film. A creative use of light, darkness, framing and geometry makes every shot feel as if there is something unspeakably sinister just out of reach. Almost claustrophobic in its impact, the electronically based score (interestingly credited only to “Rob”) serves to contribute to the sensation of everything feeling evil, everything full of corrosion, everything closing in. In many ways, the closest corollaries are the works of someone like Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) or Robert Eggers (The Witch, an obvious influence) but in some ways I felt almost a Kubrickian Shining vibe in the way that everything taken as a whole really started to get under my skin, really made me unsettled. It’s not a vibe for everyone, but this reviewer was dazzled.
Suffice it to say that a house is found in the woods. No candy in this version, but an endless supply of warmly lit banquets lurk within, along with a hairless cat and the too-eager smile of Alice Krige’s witch… well, we at least know she’s a witch, even if the characters at present do not. In some intriguingly lit and designed set pieces, the witch uses their hunger to gain their trust. Hansel is sold on their new lodgings right out of the gate, though the careful Gretel is suspicious of gifts… but the witch slowly increases her grip on Gretel as well, telling her of secret knowledge the rest of the world wouldn’t want for her, how society will keep her (as a woman) on the margins. Of how she will need to set her true self free. As we have mentioned, the feminine subtext is awkwardly handled at times, and though we can mostly agree with what the old witch is saying, it is the undertone that makes us (and Gretel) pause.
As the witch tightens her grip on Gretel, events seem to push Hansel away, and through unsettling dream sequences we see the witch’s true (younger) form (played by Jessica De Gouw, looking for all the world like a goth girl you went to undergrad with). Things build to a climax, and if anything, they are wrapped up too quickly at the end while other pacing points occasionally drag. All of the proceedings are held together by director Oswald Perkins (son of Anthony, he of Psycho fame. Good gig for the son), and despite the flaws of narrative and pacing, the consistent aesthetic of unspeakable dread is plenty effective.
There’s no two ways about it: I loved this movie. Whatever it was going for worked for me, and then some. The sense of dread and unease it built was palpable. The look, the costumes the music all came together in a coherent and cogent aesthetic, with only a momentarily clunky screenplay getting in the way. There’s no way I should claim a late January PG-13 horror movie as one of most effective things I’ve seen recently, right? Well… why the heck can’t I?
Three and a half stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter
So I saw and reviewed Jojo Rabbit ... a bold effort that I mostly enjoyed, though it doesn't quite come together.
The Second World War looms large as a key component of contemporary history, and it has of course provided inspiration for seminal works of visual art, cinema chief among them. Less often discussed is the propensity of lazy studio executives to predictably greenlight the odd subgenre of mostly mediocre faux-prestige films with a WWII theme that coincidentally happen to always be released around Oscar time. Critics dutifully predict they will see awards buzz, the notices are all very polite and respectful, a handful of nominations result with perhaps a win here and there, and the films are then gently shelved to never be viewed or referenced again outside of a high school history course.
It is to the immense credit of Taika Waititi, the writer, director and supporting star of Jojo Rabbit, that he strives to do something different with this type of material, though he does not fully avoid the fog of war that is its inherent risk. Jojo Rabbit is told from a child’s perspective, in this instance the ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis), an eager war’s end recruit to the Hitler Youth, which is portrayed here as demented bizarro-world Boy Scouts. Jojo has a room plastered with Nazi propaganda, and he certainly talks the talk of a committed ideologue, spewing comments about the virtue of glory and the evil of Jews. In his heart however, Jojo is a lonely kid with a big imagination who simply likes the sense of belonging that the uniform and the regimentation give him. We see early on that he has a soft heart. His refusal to kill a rabbit, a sick exercise engineered by some sadistic older boys, earns him the jeering nickname of the film’s title. A drunk (yet subversively sympathetic) Sam Rockwell oversees the contingent as a one-eyed officer working well below his paygrade, while minor parts for Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson round out this motley crew. My fear was that the whole film would take on the too-obvious tone of these opening scenes, which paired the cheekily subversive with the obvious and overdone (a bit of business that paired the Beatles singing in German with actual footage of Nazi rallies was a low-point for me). Those characters and that tone linger throughout, but the narrative shifts to a more specific theme.
Before we touch on the film’s main struggle however, we need to deal with the Adolf in the room. Part of Jojo’s loneliness and vast imagination manifests itself in a most unusual imaginary friend: his own personal Hitler, played by Waititi himself. Most of the advertising and promotion of the film has leaned into the “Hitler buddy comedy” bit, and there is an undeniable oddness to scenes of Jojo running around and laughing with the Fuhrer, uniforms, medals and all. I was at first very ambivalent about this aspect of the film. No less a cinematic artist than Charles Chaplin, who portrayed a satirized Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator (among the finest of his works in the opinion of this reviewer) stated after the fact that had he known the full extent of the Nazi regime’s crimes, he would never have made the film and never would have portrayed the character. I actually think what Waititi is going for here mostly works, thanks to a committed performance and the fact that we wisely only see Hitler sparingly, and then only channeled through Jojo’s own mind. As Jojo matures and grows, his relationship with Hitler changes and sours. I know for some viewers the mere image of Hitler, particularly portrayed lightly, can be off-putting and nauseating. It will remain this film’s visual hallmark.
I earlier mentioned a tonal shift. We meet Jojo’s formidable and imaginative mother Rosie (a pitch-perfect Scarlet Johansson, nailing a German accent). From spreading anti-regime leaflets to slapping officers, Rosie models for her son a different path from his dreams of martial glory, telling him to stuff the politics, and warmly responding to his need for a mother’s affection. Her maternal instincts extend beyond her immediate family: a curious Jojo finds a secret door concealing the spunky Elsa (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie, who we knew was an actress to watch since 2018’s Leave No Trace), a teenage Jewish girl that Rosie is hiding even from her son. Watching these two young performers with a natural chemistry move from mutual suspicion and fear, to grudging acceptance and ultimately to concern and self-sacrifice is the true crux of the film and is a true joy to watch. There is a wit and tenderness to their time together that transcends the surroundings.
Which leads me into a final summation of the film … I did like it. Quite a bit. But what could have been excellent languishes for me in the realm of the “pretty good”. There’s much to recommend. As stated, the acting is stellar throughout. The color palette is consistently bright and bold, giving the film an unabashed immediacy. Waititi’s direction is punchy and confident, with interesting and well-staged framing, several instances of which linger still in my mind. So, what went wrong? It’s hard to succinctly summarize … in some ways it is more of a general feeling. Yes, the film is told from the viewpoint of a child, and one who (as the film opens at least) is sympathetic to his own understanding of the Nazi regime. Perhaps that is the reason why events never feel like they have the requisite weight to attain the desired emotional beats. A scene where Jojo’s house is searched by a Gestapo officer (Stephen Merchant looking like a Raiders of the Lost Ark reject) feels listless and without true tension. The occasional usage of rock music on the soundtrack is effective in some sequences and distracting in others. The screenplay and direction have not quite found the right balance between silliness and satire and more truthful and deeper emotions, though there are attempts.
And this film represents in essence one large “attempt”: an attempt to do something novel and interesting within a staid and conservative subset of film. That it mostly succeeds is due to the ingenuity and daring of a talented director and a stellar cast. Though I was left hoping for more, what they were able to bring forth does indeed serve as a breath of fresh air. The right tonal balance is very hard to strike with this material. That Jojo Rabbit has more hits than misses is its crowning achievement.
~Fr. Michael Carter
I have a friend who spent some time living in Alaska. As could be expected, his experiences there have turned into near mythic lore, and the line between truth and tall tale is blurred. One anecdote that feels true regards my friend unexpectedly finding himself staring down a grizzly. Before either one of them could react, the sheer confusion of the moment took time to sink in, mental panic came before the body could be primed to motion. That psychological rawness came to me front and center during the most visually arresting sequence of Sam Mendes’ breathtaking 1917. A nocturnal image of a ruined, burning city looking for all the world like a backdrop to Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmares, just barely illumines two opposing soldiers emerging from the rubble. The uncertainty about identity as they draw nearer shifts into fear and adrenaline as reality dawns.
A detail like that is a subtlety that is not often found in most films of the “war” genre. In some ways 1917 stands outside of those tropes. At times the stark immediacy of the camera work as it plays with shadow and light, coupled with judicious sound design and a score that is at turns eerie and economical and orchestrally grand evokes nothing less than a horror film. What subject is more horrible than war?
1917 uses what sounds like a hackneyed concept as a mere rationale to showcase the visual and psychological details that coalesce into as true a depiction of industrial combat as someone who has never fired a weapon could conceive. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as two ordinary British soldiers tasked with the delivery of an important message, with the added stakes of knowing that one of the men’s brothers stands to live or die based on its successful receipt (having as I do some knowledge of the First World War, elements of this are certainly based on true events. The Germans did indeed withdraw to new positions at this phase of the war. Rest assured that the film’s degree of accuracy was enough for this pedant). This plot device is really no more than an excuse to keep the film’s narrative moving, and move it surely does, courtesy of the much-discussed “single take” shot that is this film’s stylistic calling card.
This camera innovation was one of the few things I was concretely aware of regarding this movie as I was walking in. I feared it would be a novelty that soon wore off, becoming more of a hindrance than an effective narrative tool, as was the fate of the critically overrated Birdman from some years back. In 1917, it never feels like a gimmick, and indeed adds immeasurably to the mood and tone of the film. Traveling as we are with the soldiers through trenches, tunnels, fields and fire, the camera movement allows us to feel a true sense of unease and discovery as we travel along, never knowing what the next crater or farmhouse will bring. This technique also helps to raise the stakes, allowing us to feel genuine surprise when (for example) a character is stabbed off-camera. There is a whole world existing outside of the limited frame, and, as with our own senses, what is most important is not always directly in front of us.
I have heard some complaints about the pacing of this movie. Again, I feel that we are too inured to the rhythms of the war genre. This is a film with action, but it is not an “action film”. Its combat and tension is offset with quieter and more somber moments of rest, for the characters and audience alike. The dialogue has an autumnal, reflective quality, like how you know on a Sunday afternoon that the weekend is slipping through your fingers, impacting your enjoyment of the moment. I particularly think of a sequence when one of our main soldiers hitches a truck ride with another unit and we hear the chatter and banter of unintroduced characters. As I was viewing, I was tempted also to see some of these scenes as dragging the momentum, but upon knowing the whole, they are indispensable to the film’s rhythm, where every shot (from a camera or a gun) has more economy of purpose than one might come to expect from a film of this type. I would also briefly respond to the fact that the film is too nationalistic in tone. I emphatically disagree. Though told from the British perspective the impact of the film would shift not one iota if the characters and dialogue were portrayed as being from the German side. The hero of the film is simple humanity, the villain war itself. All are equally caught in the maelstrom.
As someone interested by the film making process, I am always dazzled at the mere existence of a film like this with so many moving parts. Being able to bring it all together in a way that allows the visual highlights as well as the quieter moments to coexist in a way where both are equally memorable is a tonal and directorial triumph. As a portrayal of the sturm and drang of industrialized war from the macro to the micro level, it is remarkable that the smaller, more pensive moments hold equal weight. A hushed conversation in a ruined basement is as tumultuous in its own way as a bombardment in an open field, and allows us to see the connections that allowed these people their individuality and dignity in the midst of forces beyond their control. If it is said that war is hell and that hell is other people, 1917 proves that the mere presence of others can also be heavenly. Would that we did not need wars to understand that.
Fr. Michael Carter
I'm trying to restore my habit of seeing a movie a week. To get me in the zone, I wanna try writing reviews of each movie I see. This one is coming right from the fire, I hope they get more polished the more I do them:
As Underwater began its final third, I found my attention go daydreaming back to the opening 30 minutes which represented the most engrossing, engaging and sustained burst of action that I have experienced in a film for a good long while. What a shame that the genre clichés that this film subverted and playfully transcended in its opening salvos caught up with it in the end.
For at its core, Underwater is inescapably a genre picture, and ultimately one we’ve seen too many times. In the (seemingly) near future, there is some sort of project underway involving a seven mile drill and the Marianas Trench, for what we can assume are the vague reasons of cinematic science and/or corporate greed. The film wisely dispenses with even a cursory explanation of the wheres and whys of the whole scenario, opting to instead showcase any exposition within the opening and closing credits, the former of which seem ripped out of an early 90’s Trent Reznor project. We glean enough to know that a cadre of researchers and workers are living on-board this giant drill, and are scarcely able to orient ourselves via a moody Kristen Stewart voice over before the unexpectedly unexpected happens courtesy of a series of explosions and mechanical failures which send Stewart’s Norah on a mad rush to a more stable part of the station.
Thus begins what is almost an uninterrupted sequence of tension and escalation that is far and away the movie’s highlight. Claustrophobia, leaking and rising water, live wires and mechanical failures all contribute to what truly felt like a race against time as Norah and the various survivors she encounters along the way think on their feet (and knees and backs) to develop a plan of escape. There is nothing extraneous or wasted in these early moments, no need for a rumination on what is causing the disaster or any wider meta-commentary that might stem from a closer examination on what these people were doing on this station, why, and for whom. I admired the simplicity and focused approach that was enhanced by some deft directorial choices and set design that added authenticity and true tension to the proceedings. My hope was that the tension built in these early sequences could be sustained for the duration, resulting in an uppercut of a film that made full use of its lean 90-minute running time. Unfortunately, the more characters that were collected and the more we learned about why any of this was happening, the spell was broken and the momentum dragged.
A word about Kristen Stewart, who truly carries the film, and who I personally have been wanting to turn into an action-hero for some time (we’ll just ignore her unfortunate role in last year’s abortive attempt to reboot the Charlie’s Angels franchise). The way that she has played with various notions of gender and androgyny in her own personal style and career makes her ideal for these types of roles, which too often have been caricatured as bizarrely attenuated machismo on the one hand or male-gazey misogyny on the other. With a close buzz and (at the beginning at least) glasses, she upsets the archetype while being able to summon the grit and power that makes her more extreme exploits believable. Her closest cinematic counterpart would be Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and, indeed, Underwater’s single biggest influence is Ridley Scott’s Aliens (1979), from the perspective of characters, set-design, attitude and creatures that you wish had stayed in the dark, though not necessarily for the reason the director intended.
Stewart’s Norah encounters the typical rogues’ gallery: a stoic older captain, a character who’s sole purpose is an attempt at comic relief, a sweetly loving couple, a person of color who is the first to die (can we let that trope die in 2020?). No one aside from the captain gets more than a cursory characterization, and the dialogue, which was never razor sharp to begin with, trends more and more towards the dopey as things move along, but so long as they keep moving we are scarcely bothered by it, and excited to see the crew navigate dark corridors, faulty pressure suits, malfunctioning elevators. There almost seems something novel in a film which wastes no time, doesn’t try to dazzle or justify its existence and simply just goes. Alas, the filmmakers could not resist introducing an explanatory element to the proceedings which saps the film of its character and provides a (disappointing and poorly designed) raison d’etre for questions we were too busy enjoying the action to ask or care about. As the film tries to introduce more depth to the characters and more reason to the proceedings other than “we need to move” my attention steadily waned. What kept this film singular and exciting was its initial lack of any external trappings. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
Two and a half stars.
By the force of inertia if nothing else, it is time for my 2019 movie list. In my very humble opinion, 2019 was not at all a good year for film. It also was not a good year for me, meaning that I wasn't able to make time for movies as much as I would have liked. That being said, whereas 2018 saw the release of several films that I continue to think about and that continue to capture my immediate attention and imagination, providing me all the visceral wonder that film at its best can provide, only the top two of my list this year really had a similar effect. As a matter of fact, I'm not even submitting a top ten list. There just wasn't enough for me. We'll call it a top five, and then I even feel compelled to list some disappointments ... movies that had potential or that I thought I should enjoy that just ... did not connect.
1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
2. Climax (Gaspar Noe)
3. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)
4. Midsommar (Ari Aster)
5. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
3. Joker (Todd Phillips). Joaquin Phoenix is probably the best actor working, and his performance in this movie is justly admired, but the film itself is overlong and self-serious with severe pacing problems. I'm not as critical of whatever the "message" may or not be (a point of contention for many) as I am of the fact that I walked out of the theater feeling empty, and not in the way I like.
2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers). Despite much to admire in the mise-en-scene and sound design of this film, which powerfully captures internal and external claustrophobia, I never bought the acting and felt it devolved into bloated self-parody at the end (in front of and behind the camera). A shame, because the director's previous film The Witch is among the best of the past decade. Were I to rewatch it now, I think I would like it less as I've seen all the director's tricks laid bare. Ghosts are always scarier away from the light.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino). The nadir of my film-going experience this year is summed up by the conversation I had with a friend in a Boston theater as the lights went up. Nudging her awake I sheepishly said "I'm so sorry, I wanted to ask you if we could leave after like 30 minutes, I was so bored". Her eyes widened as she exclaimed "Oh my God I wanted to do the same thing!" I love Old Hollywood, and I love the cinema, attitude and music of the late 1960's, but nothing connected for me in this interminable slog that felt really and truly as if it would never, ever end.
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