A comedy that observes rather than delivers laughs: Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness

About Endlessness is a difficult movie. Even with its short running time of 68 minutes, it will make you feel as though you sat through an eternity, waiting for a sign, or perhaps Godot himself. Roy Andersson is one of those few art directors that could care less, it seems, to win over a vast audience, and have the luck to work on their own terms, present their finished product, and walk away from it without drawing any attention to himself. To me, that is quite a feat considering how the system works (and has worked since making movies became part of an industry). Andersson’s story presents a man and a woman, suspended in an embrace, seemingly surveying the world below them. We won’t get to know this couple, and perhaps it does not matter. what matters is the world below, and soon enough, and a tableau of vignettes appear, one after the other, some droll, some dryly funny, some touching. All of them come preceded with a woman’s voice-over as she blandly recites: “I saw a man who wanted to surprise his wife with a nice dinner,” or “I saw a woman incapable of feeling shame.”

To anyone expecting some explicit denouement, some comedic coda, look elsewhere. Andersson’s movie avoids those cliches and embraces starkness as if it were the driving force of his entire vision. Not all of it will come into a tidy whole, but that is the point — life, according to Andersson, is wonky, messy, barely even suggested. His characters simply exist in their most basic nature, or their most salient characteristic, whatever it is that defines them. If a man, late in the movie, is seen only in the aftermath of a horrific crime as he hugs the body of a woman he just murdered, then that is how he will be remembered.

The closest he comes to a story involves a priest with a massive guilt complex (and a faltering faith) who wants to die for reasons unknown (although a session with a therapist may point towards a reason why). He becomes unsuccessful in his quest for death, but at least, he finds an unresolved solace in knowing that if anything, there is life. That seems to be the implicit message in Andersson’s film (which has been announced to be his final). Life, off-kilter, sometimes even nihilistic, will continue, while the lovers — love itself, will remain untouched and elusive, knowing and seeing it all unfold below like an all-seeing-eye without malicious intent.

In The Earth is a trippy pandemic eco-horror from Ben Wheatley

If the 2020 pandemic has anything to teach us it’s that humans will do anything to survive, and many will regress to savagery both out in the cold or in a domestic setting. Basically, either way, we’re fucked, and that is all there is to it. When you think of it, that’s a pretty grim picture to paint, but when you look at how we’ve been treating ourselves and our relationship to the planet ever since the Industrial Revolution, it’s only predictable that something greater, or maybe even something from deep within our own home would have lashed back and taught us a nasty lesson.

Ben Wheatley, no stranger to horrific visions (Kill List, A Field in England), devises a setup that already places his characters in a rather bad position. You see, the Earth has been through an unknown plague of sorts. Society has broken down, and scientists are searching for a cure and hope for humanity. In the interim, the disappearance of a scientist who went out into the woods to search for her own cure, which has to do with mycorrhizal emanations and their role in finding this elusive cure. [The movie goes into elaborate explanations of how this works, and it only gets more complicated as the movie goes deeper, but that’s not the focal point.]

Enter Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who alongside Alma (Ellorchia Torchia, last seen in Midsommar), a park ranger, set out to find the scientist who is somewhere in the woods. However, their search — and the woods themselves — starts to take an ominous turn rather quickly. An empty tent that seems to have houses a family shows up, as does a sense of being followed. The pair gets viciously attacked in the thick of the night by unseen vandals who take off with all that they have, including their shoes. The following day, Martin and Alma continue, but Martin injures his foot when he steps on an unseen piece of sharp wood. Into the already fire scene comes Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a scraggly-haired loner who comes with much-needed help… and a little extra.

It’s that extra that sets the tone of the movie and drives it deeper into its heart of darkness. Soon enough, we’re seeing the sleeping cast being photographed without their consent, and a dinner that follows devolves into a sustained balancing act involving a sharp object and Martin’s injured foot that rivals the hobbling scene in Misery. Even then, Wheatley is not done and has more weirdness to show. I couldn’t but help find a hint of Apocalypse Now in the events that follow when the twosome miraculously and literally by the skin of their teeth reach the nebulous scientist, and this may be where the movie either loses you or wins you over.

For me, the insanity of its final thirty minutes or so we’re pretty intense, but a tad confusing. So much of what transpires hinges on whether you ascribe to ancient legends and the concept that nature may be more sentient than we give it credit for. Wheatley, however, makes the entire movie come together into one delirious climactic sequence, and while I walked out knowing precious little, the fact that its own brand of dread came with the madness that lurks deep inside was enough for me.

In the Earth is available on Prime.

Tackling loss in two very different ways: PIG and REMINISCENCE

The topic of loss — and in essence, the loss of a loved one — is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there you can count on a movie or two that tells the story of a character, or set of characters, dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of a time gone by. Most recently, Chloe Zhao presented her magnificent Nomadland and single-handedly gave Frances McDormand a role so meaty, so juicy, that when the movie was over, and all you saw was her POV of the road ahead, you cried and cheered and kept wanting more.

Recently a movie called Pig came out, starring Nicholas Cage. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this movie because the poster made it seem as though it was yet another horror or revenge movie (and he has been known for doing both, and making something of a career resurgence with it in movies like Mandy or Color Out of Space). Pig, however, is… a bit different, and it left me quite speechless.

Not since the days of Leaving Las Vegas, which gave Cage his first (and so far, his only Oscar), have I seen Cage give such an understated performance in a film. Remember, Cage has a slight (okay, let’s call a spade a spade) tendency to bellow out his lines and telegraph emotions so far out into the bleachers you would grasp a clear picture of how sad or angry he is in the depths of space. When Pig starts, and throughout the entire run of the movie, Cage physically and emotionally embodies suffering in silence. So mute is the character he plays that we actually hope to hear him talk just a little bit more.

Playing Robin Feld, a former legend of a chef whose loss of his wife years ago left him completely stunted, Cage emerges from what seems to be a shack deep in the Oregonian forest to go about his business. Accompanying Feld is his beloved pet pig, Feld has a partnership with a twenty-something businessman named Amir (Alex Wolff) to whom he sells truffles, which go on to get sold to high-end concept restaurants. One day, unknown assailants attack Feld and steal his pig, leaving him destitute. Feld reaches out to Amir to help him find his pig… and here is the crux of the movie, which unfolds in some rather unexpected ways.

Look at that adorable face!

First-time director Michael Sarnoski fools the audience to think we are about to watch a movie about a man not only getting his prized pig back but also leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. His movie gives Cage ample opportunity to go through a progressive reveal of his personality which has remained stunted since the loss of his wife. There are no major reveals here, but the wife’s presence, like that of the pig of the title, hovers heavily throughout the entire story which takes us on a journey into darkness and pain, unlike any other movie I have seen and eventually gives us a fine portrait of a man wanting to recover his last connection to something, even when that connection is an animal. The movie also gives you a little bit of ambiguity between Amir and his powerful father (Adam Arkin). It remains implicit that the father seems to be thwarting Amir’s own entry into the business, but the movie never quite spells it out for us — rather, it lets us decide what exactly is the crux of their dysfunction, and if it may stem from the loss/absence of Amir’s mother.

Side story and all, this is, ultimately, Feld’s story, which binds them all, and Cage demonstrates why he is, despite his weird output of shabby movies, one of our best actors. Take the slightly chuckle-inducing title and you have a shattering drama of near-silent proportions, beautifully shot, atmospherically perfect, and one that ends in a cathartic moment of mourning while Springsteen sadly sings “I’m on Fire.”

Reminiscence should have been a comedy or a cheeky homage. Not this.

Less successful is Lisa Joy’s debut movie Reminiscence. Considering her output with Westworld (and that the HBO series also carries some key actors over to this movie), I was flummoxed to see her not just fail, but fall flat on her face in delivering a compelling mystery that links a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) together in a downward spiral of love lust and betrayal.

Jackman is Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind (okaaay…) who operates a machine, not unlike the ones in Westworld alongside his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton, criminally underused here). With this machine, Bannister seems to be operating an underground memory market that delivers clients’ memories to them for a fee. In the world of science fiction, this seems to be fair enough, but memories can be tricky, and sometimes downright impossible to decipher.

Joy’s already lofty script doesn’t care to answer those questions. Instead, she barrels full steam ahead and introduces Ferguson as Mae, a femme fatale so obvious she may as well be telegraphing it with the force of a banshee in the night. Mae is a lounge singer with an agenda. [Here’s a question. Why do femme fatales always have to have the requisite role of “lounge singer” and need to appear as a variant of Jessica Rabbit with the Veronica Lake hair? Are we still in the 40s?] Bannister, upon seeing Mae sing, doesn’t just melt, he goes full Tex Avery, all giant eyes and a river of hearts escaping his chest as a 16-ton anvil flattens him to a tortilla.

Really, Bannister?

Here is the problem. When Mae appears, she brings not a single gasp with her. Where the camera would normally highlight a woman’s entrance and her movements, Mae never registers a single thing. She’s just a regular, pretty woman. Vapid, with a vaguely foreign accent for kicks, but does that make a memorable femme? Nope. Think of Bergman in Casablanca, Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Anne Revere in Detour, Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. These are women who have you stand up and take notice of their presence alone. In Westworld, Tessa Thompson plays both Charlotte Hale and a lethal version of Dolores Abernathy. She exudes equal parts smoldering (but cold) sensuality and steel menace in both roles. Thompson, instead of Ferguson, would have been ideal — and she would have saved an unsalvagable movie. She has the silky voice that hides iron; she has the allure, and she can definitely carry her own self so that whoever watches her, will remember her. On the other hand, Ferguson, as Mae collapses even before she enters the scene, or as I prefer to say, before the scene portentously introduces her.

Ferguson, through no fault of her own, since she is merely a player, hurts the movie far more than she should. Hers should have been a small but crucial part. Laura, she is not, and it shows. What Bannister sees in her is a mystery all its own that deserves its own documentary or movie. It’s almost an insult to a performer like Jackman to reduce him to a slobbering mess of tears who can’t control himself. Even Fred MacMurray, never a great actor but intoxicated with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, had some self-respect and went down nobly.

For Joy to then hinge the entire plot — which involves a heap of other things, such that cringe-worthy voice-over narration, the world of the criminal underbelly, and a land baron who’s placed a waterlogged Miami in a divide from the have and have nots — on a badly named woman who seems to be in every single plot development is ridiculous. Lofty, yes, perhaps ambitious, but a disaster, nevertheless.

Take away all the science-fiction gobbledygook and you have a basic noir. Why Joy needed to add so many extra layers that do not work is beyond me. In concept, this seems to work, but then, for kicks, let’s just go with the concept of memory. Do you remember things in chronological order? Even people with excellent memories have slips, which make them unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Joy seems to have brought Westworld sensibilities into a story that should have been more human. Her androids in Westworld have complicated memories because they’ve been implanted to program that way, in chronological order, with cleverly placed gaps to delete whatever was “problematic” and could deviate them from their storylines.

People don’t behave that way. Even the cheapest sci-fi story knows that. Memories are shape-shifting things, fit to mold themselves to whatever we prefer them to be. They are hardly the elaborately choreographed dance routines that Joy presents here, and while the concept is interesting it saps the main story from all its energy. And Reminiscence, in trying to keep the concept of memory alive, does the worst a movie could do, which is to repeat scenes we’ve already seen, over and over. Meanwhile, we are left with about three-quarters of the story left, and no care or interest whatsoever in what comes next, who does what, or how it even ends.

In all fairness to Joy, I know she did not set out to make a terrible pastiche of every noir movie known to man. No director ever does. Perhaps separating herself from the show would help? While bringing in Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan feels like a good choice she mirrors their stories (and fates) to their android counterparts from the show. Another thing that isn’t helping might be the Nolan association — too much of that seems to be distracting rather than enriching. But what do I know; I didn’t create this movie, I’m sure there was significant studio interference as there always is, and this is the end result. All you can do if you love movies, and love noir, is go and watch a good one. Even an okay one. Just not this one.

Dream Horse – A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one

Leave it to the UK to produce some of the best feel-good movies that you’ll ever want to see. It never fails: it doesn’t matter the topic or the cast of characters. Whenever a movie made in the UK comes out dressed in the topics of the underdog who scores, or the little village who could, or the little man who makes it, it’s bound to be a crowd-pleaser that will also wring a shameless tear from your eye.

Dream Horse comes from the original 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. Reader, if you haven’t seen that little doc you owe it to yourself to see it. It is a wonderful, oftentimes gripping story that focuses not only on the woman who raised the foal who became Dream Alliance but the snobbery that is a part of the world of horse breeders and racing in itself.

Dream Horse follows the path of its predecessor pretty closely, which would have been the only way to film this movie. We meet Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, disappearing in her role), a woman who works as a check-out girl at the equivalent of a Walmart or Shop-Rite. Her life has become as grey and dejected as the small Welsh town where she lives with her husband Brian (Owen Teale). Brian barely acknowledges Jan, not out of a lack of love — the movie establishes pretty early on that he does love her — but because at his age, life seems to have beat the spirit out of him.

Jan isn’t having that. A woman who lives by her dreams, she takes on horse breeding on a lark after encountering a businessman (Damian Lewis) discussing horse races. Having next to no money, but wanting to try this experiment out, she enlists those closest to her to create a money club to fund the purchase and rearing of a racehorse. Incredibly, she succeeds and soon purchases a mare whom she then has a mate with an American prize winner. The mare dies while giving birth, but leaves a tiny foal behind. That foal becomes Dream Alliance, which then falls under the care of breeder Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). But is Dream Alliance racehorse material?

I have to say it, but a) if you saw Dark Horse you will already know what happens in its movie version, and b) even if you didn’t, these movies arrive with their very own template at hand. Even when the actual events seem to have come out of a feel-good movie of the year, Dream Horse takes the entire premise and knocks it out of the park with breathtaking shots of horses running at full speed countered with the facial expressions of Collette and the rest of the cast. It’s not a surprise, then, that despite the incredible predictability of the entire story, you can and will find yourself swept away by the sheer purity of its people, and the horse itself. And that says something.

Dream Horse is jolly and earthy where it needs to be and emotional when it needs to be. Collette, surrounded by a cast that includes Derek Jarman veteran player Karl Johnson as the town drunk and Siân Philips as the town matron, makes it all come alive.