Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.
Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.
This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.
There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.
The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.
I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.
The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.
The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.
Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).
Nate’s Grade: A-
Originally released October 19, 2001:
Mulholland Dr. has had a long and winding path to get to the state it is presented today. In the beginning it was 120 minutes of a pilot for ABC, though it was skimmed to 90 for the insertion of commercials. But ABC just didn’t seem to get it and declined to pick up David Lynch’s bizarre pilot. Contacted by the French producers of Lynch’s last film, The Straight Story, it was then financed to be a feature film. Lynch went about regathering his cast and filming an additional twenty minutes of material to be added to the 120-minute pilot. And now Mulholland Dr. has gone on to win the Best Director award at Cannes and Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Association.
Laura Harring plays a woman who survives a car crash one night. It appears just before a speeding car full of reckless teens collided into her limo she was intended to be bumped off. She stumbles across the dark streets of Hollywood and finds shelter in an empty apartment where she rests. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a young girl that just got off the bus to sunny California with aspirations of being a big time movie star. She enters her aunt’s apartment to find a nude woman (Harring) in the shower. She tells Betty her name is Rita after glancing at a hanging poster of Rita Hayworth. Rita is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who she is, or for that fact, why her purse is full of thousands of dollars. Betty eagerly wants to help Rita discover who she is and they set off trying to unravel this mystery.
Across town, young hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting ready to go into production for his new film. He angers his mob producers by refusing to cast their chosen girl for his movie. After some harassment, threats, and a visit by an eyebrow-less cowboy assassin (God bless you David Lynch), he relents.
In the meanwhile, people are tracking the streets looking for Rita. Betty and Rita do some detective work and begin amassing clues to her true identify. As they plunge further into their investigation the two also plunge into the roles of lovers. Rita discovers a mysterious blue box and key in her possession. After a night out with Betty she decides to open it, and just when she does and the audience thinks it has a hold on the film, the camera zooms into the abyss of the box and our whole world is turned upside down.
David Lynch has made a meditation on dreams, for that is at the heart of Mulholland Dr. His direction is swift and careful and his writing is just as precise. The noir archetypes are doing battle with noir expectations. The lesbian love scenes could have been handled to look like late night Cinemax fluff, but instead Lynch’s finesse pays off in creating some truly erotic moments. Despite the population of espresso despising mobsters, wheelchair bound dwarfs, and role-reversal lesbians, the audience knows that it is in hands that they can trust. It’s Lynch back to his glorious incomprehensible roots.
Watts is the true breakthrough of Lynch’s casting and she will surely be seen in more films. Watts has to play many facets of possibly the same character, from starry-eyed perky Nancy Drew to a forceful and embittered lesbian lover.
One scene stands out as a perfect example of the talent Watts possesses. Betty has just been shuffled off to an audition for a film and rehearsing with Rita all morning. She’s introduced to her leathery co-star and the directors await her to play out the audition scene of two kids and their forbidden love. As soon as the scene begins Betty vanishes and is totally inhabited by the spirit of her character. She speaks her lines in a breathy, yet whisper-like, voice running over with sensuality but also elements of power. In this moment the characters know, as the audience does, that Betty and Naomi Watts are born movie stars.
It’s not too difficult for a viewer to figure out what portions of the film are from the pilot and what were shot afterwards. I truly doubt if ABC’s standards and practices allows for lesbian sex. The pilot parts seem to have more sheen to them and simpler camera moves, nothing too fancy. The additional footage seems completely opposite and to great effect. Mulholland Dr. has many plot threads that go nowhere or are never touched upon again, most likely parts that were going to be reincorporated with the series.
The truly weirdest part of Mulholland Drive is that the film seems to be working best when it actually is still the pilot. The story is intriguing and one that earns its suspense, mystery, and humor that oozes from this noir heavy dreamscape. The additional twenty minutes of story could be successfully argued one of two ways. It could be said it’s there just to confound an audience and self-indulgent to the good story it abandons. It could also be argued that the ending is meticulously thought out and accentuates the 120 minutes before it with more thought and understanding.
Mulholland Dr. is a tale that would have made an intriguing ongoing television series complete with ripe characters and drama. However, as a movie it still exceeds in entertainment but seems more promising in a different venue.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
How much is a dream worth to you? That’s my main takeaway re-watching David Lynch’s surreal indie Mulholland Drive twenty years later from its release. Lynch has had plenty of his own run-ins with the dream makers of Tinseltown, from the difficulty to see his admittedly weird projects off the ground to the swift cancellation of his once zeitgeist, and deeply weird, TV series, Twin Peaks. It’s common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive began as a 1999 TV pilot that Lynch re-conceived as a movie, shot 30 minutes of additional footage, and earned a 2001 Best Directing Oscar nomination for his perseverance and creative adaptability. The movie has since taken on quite a reputation. The BBC and Los Angeles Society of Film Critics have both hailed it as the best film of the twenty-first century (so far). Lynch has retreated back to his insular world of weirdness with hypnotic, over-indulgent retreads, Inland Empire, and bringing back his signature TV series for a Showtime run in 2017. In 2001, Mulholland’s Drive’s success seemed to be the last point with Lynch working with the studio system he so despised. In a way, this is his farewell letter to chasing his own dreams of stardom, at least as far as a director can have creative control and a steady supply of protection and money to see his vision through. Watching Mulholland Drive is like stepping through a dream, which has been the hallmark of Lynch’s more celebrated, obtuse filmography from 1977’s Eraserhead onward. The movie is meant to operate on a certain dream logic, sustained with choices that seem artistically self-destructive, but the journey might feel as emotionally or intellectually fleeting as a dream as well, so I ask you, dear reader, to think as you continue, how much is a dream worth?
The failed pilot serves as a majority of the film’s running time and it’s filled with peculiar beginnings that will never pay off. There are actors like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Brent Briscoe (Sling Blade) who show up for one whole scene and then are never seen again. Presumably, the roles would have been more significant as detectives snooping around from the peripheral. There are mysterious forces chasing after “Rita” (Laura Harring), an important-looking woman who has conveniently lost her memory and adopted her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth. She’s got a bag filled with money, a gun, and blue key. One would assume over the course of a network season that we would get closer to discovering the real identity of our amnesiac leading lady. There are also scenes that seem to exist as their own short films, like the darkly comedic hapless hitman and the scared man detailing his spooky dream to a concerned friend in a diner. These characters, presumably, would come back for more significance or at least larger interplay. The same with the mysterious locked box and key. You can practically identify the J.J. Abrams “mystery box”-style of storytelling for future intrigue. The role of a TV pilot is to serve up a storytelling engine that can keep churning, as well as ensuring that there’s enough curiosity to hook an audience through commercial breaks. Lynch is used to inserting strange symbols and starts in his movies that potentially go nowhere, so the difference between a Lynch pilot and a Lynch movie aren’t terribly noticeable. These characters, clues, and moments were perhaps intended to be developed further, or perhaps they never were. It’s as if the movie itself is a nightmare of different television programs colliding incoherently.
There does seem to be a consensus interpretation for Mulholland Drive, one that synchs up the various doubles and symbols. For two hours, we’re riding along with Betty (Naomi Watts) as she moves to L.A. with big dreams and perky naivete. She finds the amnesiac Rita in her aunt’s apartment and takes it upon herself to give her a home and investigate her identity. They grow close together, Betty nails her big acting audition, and then Betty and Rita become lovers. They go to a club (Silencio) where performance artists insist “everything is recorded,” and thus already happened, phony, and a replication of memory, and then Rita inserts that mystery blue key into the mystery box and mysteriously vanishes. We next return to the scene of Diane, who at first was a dead body that Rita and Betty found during their investigation. Now it’s Betty, or at least Watts playing her, and she’s a struggling actress who is jealous of the success and favor her girlfriend, Camilla (also played by Harring), is indulging in from their seedy director, Adam (Justin Theroux). Overcome with torment, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. From there, she’s attacked by a homeless monster, tiny versions of the people portraying Betty’s parents in the first part, and she takes her own life in grief and guilt. The most common interpretation is that the final twenty or so minutes with Watts as Diane is the real story and that the proceedings 110 minutes was Diane’s dream trying to process her guilty conscience and mixed emotions. The blue key, the symbol from Diane’s hired hitman of a job completed, is the point of transportation between the dream and returning to a living nightmare of regret. Adam’s prominence in the first two hours is explained as punishment from Diane’s mind, so this is why he is emasculated repeatedly, from being robbed of control over his movie, his marriage, and ultimately his future.
Just because this is the most prominent interpretation, and even perhaps the author’s intended one, doesn’t mean other viewers cannot find equally valid and differing interpretations. That’s the appeal or point of frustration with Lynch’s most Lynchian work. However, the problem with asserting that the first two hours of your two-hour-plus movie were all a dream can make it feel overindulgent and unsatisfying. The TV pilot segments are shot in a way that evokes the cliché storytelling stye that prevailed at the time, with overly lit scenes and flat acting. I cannot say for certain but it feels like Lynch purposely told Watts (King Kong) to try and be hammy. Lynch has been known to purposely ape the style of prime-time soaps to provide subtle satirical contexts. Is Watts doing a bad job with the purpose of making us think of other bad actors from soaps? The one scene Betty comes alive is during her audition scene. We’ve already seen her act it out once so we’re expecting more of the same, but in that moment, she comes alive with sensuality, taking control from the aged acting partner who was just there to exploit some young new starlets. The intensity she unleashes, a mixture of carnal desire and self-loathing, is nothing like bright-eyed Betty. Is the irony that when Betty is pretending to be someone else that’s when the performance excels? You can see the points for interpretation, especially considering the ending thesis, but if so, it’s such a bold gamble by Lynch that could prove so alienating. You’re deliberately having your lead actress act in a cliched and stilted manner to perhaps make a point fewer will grasp? Obviously, the ending wasn’t intended to pair with the pilot parts, so it feels like projecting an unintended meaning onto the intentions of acting decisions, but dreams are murky that way.
I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many people are tested by Mulholland Drive as they are mesmerized. It’s a combination of different genres and film iconography, from Manning as a living-breathing femme fatale, to dark whimsical comedy, to surreal mystery, to tawdry erotic drama, to industry-obsessed soap. As much as it feels like a pilot retooled into a new beast, it also feels like a collection of genres being retooled for whatever intended association Lynch wants to impart. It’s ready-made for dissection and ready to take apart the Hollywood studio system. I enjoyed some of the strange moments that felt most ancillary, like the mobster with the extremely refined taste for espressos, and the eyebrow-less cowboy assassin threatening Adam. That scene in particular still has an unsettling menace to it, as Lynch takes what could have been absurd and finds a way to make this man overtly threatening without ever explicitly doing anything threatening. His browbeating to Adam over the difference between listening and hearing is well written and ends perfectly: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me… two more times, if you do bad. Good night.” I wish more sequences like this could stand on their own. So much of Mulholland Drive seems intended to provide a skeleton for meaning to be provided later as the added meat that Lynch didn’t value as highly.
Watts became a star from this movie and was taken to another level with the success of 2002’s The Ring. From there, she was in the Hollywood system of stars and after toiling for ten years from rejected interviews to rejected interviews. She was thinking of quitting acting and going back to her native Australia at the time she got asked to play Betty/Diane. The audition scene, the later distraught and frail Diane, as well as the mannered Betty served as an acting reel for every casting agent that had rejected her. Here was Watts, capable of doing it all and then some (she was nominated for two Oscars – 2003’s 21 Grams and 2012’s The Impossible).
My original review in 2001 is also wrestling with the question over interpretation versus intention, with the genre mash-ups as symbolic satire or as laborious TV pandering. Mulholland Drive is like watching a dream and trying to dissect its many meanings. Some people will relish the puzzle pieces that Lynch has provided and finding further hidden mirrored meanings, and other people will throw up their hands and ask for a road map, or lose interest by then. I don’t think this is the best film of the first twenty years of this new century. I don’t even think it’s close. I think at its best it can be hypnotic and intriguing; it’s a shame that these are only moments for me, and twenty years later these moments felt even further spaced apart. I just didn’t find Lynch’s movie quite worth the long, surreal drive into the dark of his imagination.
Re-View Grade: B-
What a jubilant, heartwarming, and celebratory musical to lift up your spirits and evoke a few happy tears, especially in the wake of trying to comprehend the mystifying ongoing appeal of another high-profile musical, Dear Evan Hansen. I wish every person chose to watch this Amazon Prime original movie versus that other musical that made me deeply uncomfortable and angry. This is based on the London stage show, and adapted and directed by the original creators, we follow the true-story of a 16-year-old Jamie (Max Harwood) who dreams of embracing his inner drag queen. His conservative father (Ralph Ineson) doesn’t approve and has left him and his working-class mum (Sarah Lancashire) behind to start a new family. Jamie is working on finding his voice and confidence. He comes under the tutelage of an aging former drag queen (Richard E. Grant) who encouraged and educates Jamie in the ways of showbiz and style (“A boy in a dress is someone that can be laughed at, but a drag queen is someone to be feared!”). Right away, I felt like this was what The Prom was aiming for, a big LGBTQ+ musical bursting with empathetic feeling and anthemic empowerment. The musical numbers are fun and frothy when they want to be, taking playful advantage of the expanded visual space of film. However, when the film wants you to feel emotions, it can hit you hard, and I was tearing up as Grant’s character poignantly sings about the heyday of 80/90s drag scene with the AIDS crisis taking its tragic toll. I don’t mean to keep harping on this, but I felt more genuine emotion in that one moment than throughout the entirety of Dear Evan Hansen. The movie is more considerate with its supporting players and finds moments of grace and compassion for just about every player, and with thrumming harmonies and feel-good lyrics. It’s a charming, funny, and definitely worth remembering. Everybody should be talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It’s full of big feelings, declarations of self-identity, an unabashed love of the transformative power of theater, and its power of positivity can be a balm to many during this holiday season. The Prom is based on a short-lived Broadway musical about a girl in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to the school prom and the ensuing media controversy that erupts. A team of out-of-work theater actors (Meryl Streep, Anthony Rannels, Nicole Kidman, James Corden) see publicity value in rallying to her cause, so they decamp to Indiana and challenge the homophobic PTA leader (Kerry Washington) who refuses to hold an inclusive prom. Director Ryan Murphy’s style and sensibilities work well within the realm of musical theater; a decade of television curation for FX and now Netflix has made him an expert on camp and flash. The man loves applying slick gloss to trash. His camera is constantly, uncontrollably moving during the numerous musical numbers, attempting to compensate for the generic quality of the majority of them. There are two standouts. The first is when Corden’s character takes our lesbian teen to the mall for a makeover. It’s got a catchy hook and one that becomes a reoccurring theme for the show. The second is when Rannels’ character is pointing out the hypocrisy of local Christians decrying homosexuality but falling short of other Biblical teachings. The story is sweet but un-challenging. The plot exhausts so quickly that I was amazed at one point to discover there was still an hour left in the over two-hour production. Each member of the squad gets a signature number to varying degree of success. The happy ending is affirming and heartfelt but also quite easy and kind of unearned. The amount of catharsis and reconciliation doesn’t gel with the emotional investment and development of these characters. They’re nice but relatively dull, and the industry satire only goes so far to chide the out-of-touch Broadway elites for their own prejudices of Midwest life. The Prom is disposable fluff that will pacify an afternoon.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Fair or unfair, my mind kept comparing Ammonite to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another period film about repressed women, furtive expressions of forbidden love, and isolation-fueled intimacy, and Ammonite was inferior in every regard. In all fairness, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the best films of 2019 and deeply emotional, romantic, and sumptuous. It would be hard for many films to compete in direct comparison, and as such Ammonite can’t compare.
In 1840s England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a nationally renowned paleontologist. She spends her days digging up fossils along the rocky shore of her small town, caring for her aging mother, and keeping to herself. Her life is turned upside down when Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) becomes her boarder while recuperating from some melancholia following a miscarriage. Charlotte wants to learn from Mary but Mary is more annoyed, and yet the two lonely women find a kinship in one another that turns into a romantic courtship neither knows where it will lead.
Repressed romances work best when you feel the connection between the characters, a growing hunger or desire, and you’re compelling them together from afar. This was the case for me with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was not the case for me with Ammonite. I cannot tell you why either Mary or Charlotte fall for one another. Neither is a very interesting character, especially Mary, who is very private and closed-off. She’s been hurt in the past with a previous gay romance (an underused Fiona Shaw) so likely gun-shy about risking vulnerability once more. There are mentions about her career and the satisfaction it provides but much of it is kept as generalized motivation, a woman making a name for herself in a man’s world. Charlotte is recoiling from a personal tragedy and an absent husband, but why do these two feel any spark of romance for one another in this oppressively drab setting? There’s more intense heat between Winslet and her fossils than with Ronan. It feels like we’re only at this point out of boredom and a lack of better options.
For a movie about repressed passions, Ammonite is decidedly grey. This muted color palette and tone extends to everything about the movie. It’s all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey. This dreary life is effectively conveyed and saps the movie’s energy. The characters go about their dreary lives that you, as the viewer, are begging for some renewed life to emerge. We’re begging for these characters to find something with one another because the world, as depicted, is bereft of life and excitement. To that end, the movie has established a favorable threshold to succeed and yet it still falls short.
This stark, stately, and tight-lipped style of writer/director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) smothers the resulting romance and drama at play. These two women should be able to unwind with one another, open up, become their true selves the rest of the world is denied, something that cannot be manifested separately. They should be more interesting together, plain and simple. This person should unlock something within. I don’t feel like I gained any more insight into either Charlotte or Mary when they were together. Part of this is because it takes so long to get there and also because their coupling seems, in retrospect, to be completely surface-level in personal meaning. Looking back from its completion, it appears that each woman seems to misread the other person and what their intimacy has meant. I’ll credit the filmmakers for at least tacking on a resolution that amounts to more than “woman returns to husband and they can never ever be together again because Evil Patriarchy.” There is an ending but it’s not that much better than the two of these women sadly parting knowing they’ll never see one another again and that this brief time together will remain precious. I don’t know if I’m supposed to leave with the impression that Charlotte and Mary have the opposite conclusion. While they likely enjoyed the companionship and sex, as the camera seemed to, it seems like maybe both women are realizing that’s where it stops. If this was the intended goal, that’s fine, but don’t set up the entire estate of your storytelling upon this romance if it’s meant to fizzle. This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.
I’m sorry dear reader but I was growing bored with this movie. In comparison, I was spellbound with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and found its awakened passions to be luminous and directly tied to two interesting characters. Charlotte and Mary are quite boring. Again, they have potential to be interesting; any lesbian romance set in the 1840s certainly has potential for appealing drama. I was asked by my girlfriend, who herself was giving voice to an argument carrying on social media, why there must be no shortage of forbidden queer romances, and why can’t gay audiences just have movies where gay characters can fall in love and be comfortable being gay? It’s a legitimate question, though my only answer is that these period piece queer tales inherently involve internal struggles given the secrecy and consequences that make for ready drama for big-time actors. There’s also the fact that Mary Anning is a celebrated paleontologist and recognized superstar in her field and there is no evidence that any of her close female friendships were anything more than that. I’m fine with rewriting historical figures as queer and changing things up (I heartily enjoyed the queer revisionism in The Favourite) as long as it still makes the people interesting. Imagine taking a historically celebrated female paleontologist, making her gay, and then somehow making this character even more boring? How do you even do that?
Winslet (Steve Jobs) does a fine job of looking and acting glum. My trouble was trying to determine what points of life were recognizable with her character. How does one acknowledge what this change agent is doing to her when she’s, by nature, so insular and shut off? Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses and can do so many amazing things, and yet her guiding directorial note must have been, “Can you dial it back even more?” There’s a fine line between subtlety and just being lifeless. Ronan (Little Women) has even less substance to work with. At first, her character is suffering and lonely, but she leaps at companionship with abandon. Her character doesn’t seem like she’s wild or reckless or impulsive in any other regard. She stops wearing black when she embraces her feelings for Mary (Get it? She’s no longer in mourning). Still, Charlotte’s ultimate view of the world is one of privilege but this doesn’t inform her character until the very end. Ronan does her part making an audience believe she’s lovesick for Mary, but feeling it is another matter, and even an actress of Ronan’s caliber cannot accomplish this with this flagging script.
Ammonite is so drab, so passionless except during its sweaty sex scenes, that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even bother making this story come alive in the first place. If you’re all about furtive gestures and glances and the color grey, well you might be in luck. Look, I’m just going to be blunt. If you’re even remotely thinking about watching Ammonite, just seek out and watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s superior in every regard and a forbidden romance that is actually, surprise surprise, romantic and full of evocative feeling. Plus it’s French, so automatically more romantic. Watch that instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s about time that gay people were better represented in holiday rom-coms (according to my girlfriend, 2020 was the first year Hallmark featured a gay protagonist in a Christmas movie, which is astounding). Why shouldn’t queer people be able to enjoy cute, low-key holiday fluff that also better represents their stories and perspectives? That’s the goal of Happiest Season, written and directed by Clea DuVall, an actress best known for her 90s output like The Faculty and But I’m a Cheerleader who has transitioned behind the camera. The story follows a lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), celebrating their first Christmas together. Harper invites her girlfriend to meet her family, however, she hasn’t come out to her conservative parents and sisters. Abby will have to pretend to only be the “roommate” and from there the movie sets us up farcical misunderstandings and comic mishap. The problem with Happiest Season is that everyone is a big jerk. Harper’s parents are jerks. Her overly competitive sister played by Alison Brie is a jerk. Even her young niece and nephew are jerks. Why would it be such a big deal for a conservative politician’s daughter to be gay… in 2020? Hell, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter and he’s done okay for himself. Why would Harper want her girlfriend to spend upwards of five days with these awful people and under the guise of having to hide who she is and their relationship? I think it’s because Harper is also a jerk. She dismisses Abby’s feelings and misgivings, ditches her to hang out with an old boyfriend, and doesn’t seem to recognize how uncomfortable any of this is making the woman she reportedly loves. And then it’s revealed that Harper outed her high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) and said she was obsessed with her in an effort to not be seen as gay when she was younger. That’s not endearing. This person doesn’t deserve Abby, and that’s the problem because when the happy ending and sweet kisses fortuitously come I wasn’t feeling joy but contempt. I kept yelling at turn after turn for Abby to leave this family to their own miserable devices. I wanted the movie to somehow transform into a separate story about the only people I genuinely liked, Dan Levy as Abby’s friend and Mary Holland as the youngest daughter, a sweet goofball, the only one in Harper’s family with a soul. The comedy bits run the gamut between cute and clumsy, though the escalations don’t rise to the farcical levels you would expect from compounded misunderstandings and secret-keeping. Happiest Season is an adequate holiday movie, and a boon for greater representation even in a genre with a low bar, but it would have been even better with characters you actually liked and wanted to spend the yuletide season with.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.
Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.
The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.
Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.
So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.
I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.
Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.
There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.
The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favourite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.
In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.
What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.
This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.
Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.
Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.
This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.
Nate’s Grade: A