Category Archives: New Directors

Brief Musings: Passing, Dune, The French Dispatch, and just in time for Halloween, Antlers

Finding a common ground within the variety of movies that I watch, sometimes back to back because such is my life of living on the edge, can be a challenge. Looking at the list of what I’ve seen during the Halloween season alone makes me look like a human kaleidoscope, and because I’ve limited time to sit down and write something comprehensive, sometimes, like now, I have to clump them together and hope that the damn thing makes sense. The four movies I’m about to write some petite mots about don’t have much in common: two are based on novels, one is a director’s incursion into folk horror, and the fourth is a homage to none other than the elitist read, The New Yorker. And France, if you want to include that. What they all have in common is that all are the works of a creator stepping into the ambitious.

Ruth Negga is Claire Bellew in Rebecca Hall’s Passing

If only Nella Larsen had lived long enough to see her 1929 novella Passing be made into a movie. It makes me wonder how no one seemed to notice her work before when she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It might be possible that because she only published modestly, and has only two novels to her name, Larsen somehow disappeared into literary obscurity. Rebecca Hall brings her tragic story to vibrant life with her debut movie. This is the story of two African American women of mixed heritage, so mixed that they could ‘pass’ for white during the 1920s. When we meet Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we only catch glimpses of her wide-brimmed hat as she flits about town, barely noticed. Hall surrounds Thompson with so much sun and light that presenting it in black and white leaves Thompson virtually drowning in a sea of whiteness, and that’s the purpose. You see, Irene, comfortably married to a doctor (Andre Holland of Moonlight), so she has the means to spend her days shopping and visiting places that even in New York would still be almost 100% white.

When Irene runs into a blond woman looking right at her at a chic restaurant, she seems shocked that anyone would know her since she seems to enjoy the anonymity of moving in predominantly white neighborhoods without as much as leaving a ripple. The woman turns out to be Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years. The women catch up, and we learn that Claire has married rich, but upon meeting the husband, we become informed that he is virulently racist, and Claire has effectively fooled him in her ruse, even pretending herself to hate black people. But the movie moves away from Mr. Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard) and focuses on Irene and Claire, and the effect Claire has on everyone she meets. The danger of their rekindled friendship is that for a woman like Claire, being seen in Harlem might raise eyebrows, and it’s not long when the inevitable comes to pass, with dire consequences for both women.

I’ve been seeing Tessa Thompson for some time now in movies and her fascinating role in Westworld. To be honest, I’ve become almost enamored with her acting style. As Irene, Thompson is all internalization with her wide, Bette Davis eyes, her flawless enunciation, her delicate manners that recalls old Hollywood. Negga, meanwhile, counterbalances Thompson as she exudes a girlish sensuality that hides some inner pain. Just look at her deep-set eyes. The women seem to be also telegraphing some queer desire — I wouldn’t put it past Irene, who rebukes kisses from her husband, that she may have some deeply buried attraction to Claire, often seen bathed in light and exuberance. Then again… desire may be a simple observation. It makes me wonder if Irene might also quietly covet the type of life that Claire lives. She certainly reveals quite a lot when attending a function and discussing race with a close friend (played by Bill Camp). The movie manages to express quite a bit when Camp’s character, initially fascinated by Claire, upon learning her secret, basically ignores her. It’s as though he sees her as a fraud rather than the more genuine Irene who isn’t trying so hard to be noticed. His comments on the muscularity of some of the black men who attend the function leave a lot to say on how attraction shapes desire and the ongoing fetishization whites have often had towards blacks.

What I love about Hall’s movie is how she manages to convey so much with so little. Much like Todd Haynes’ 2015 movie Carol, Hall allows her characters to inhabit their own world and their spaces, and even when they talk, what they state may mean one thing but what their body language does may mean something else entirely. Hall definitely learned her time as an actress: she has a keen sense of placement, lighting, and cadence. Her movie might be deliberate, but it is never slow. If anything, it marches relentlessly to its climax, building tension scene after scene like a pressure cooker that at one point must release. If she decides to do more movies, and I hope so, I’ll be at the ready to see what she does next.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and I mean that with respect. With every movie, he continues to build upon his style to a point where it almost threatens to override his movies proper. With The French Dispatch, he takes his artificial scenarios and pushes them to a level almost approaching abstraction. A movie based on the death of the founder of a magazine (Bill Murray) that seems to be a blatant stand-in for The New Yorker, who decides, as a homage to its creator, to publish five of its best stories, is not something that screams Hollywood. Who would even? Anderson, it seems, and he fabricates worlds so completely unique that we get lost in their intricacies. There are no stars in this movie; the only stars, and heroes if you will, are the writers and journalists who make up The French Dispatch, and as someone who is as budding as they can get, I love it. This is a movie that you may have to see twice to catch the minute details hidden in plain sight: Anderson loves his tiny, mannered quotes, his in-jokes, and his movie is littered with them. His actors are as stilted and deadpan as ever, and it seems everyone he has ever worked with shows up for the tiniest of parts. Notable here is Timothee Chalamet as a self-obsessed but also awkward activist hilariously named Zefirelli who loses his virginity to Anderson regular Frances McDormand as the writer who has to ghostwrite his manifesto, Lea Seydoux, paired with Benicio del Toro, as a crazed artist and his muse, and Jeffrey Wright as an author based on James Baldwin who goes on a wacky Parisian adventure.

The drama behind the making of Dune is long and rambling and I won’t get into it because, not today. I’m into my seventh paragraph and I still have another movie to write about. What little I can say about Denis Villeneuve’s epic movie is that this is one you must, above all else, view in movie theaters. I made the mistake of seeing it through HBOMAX, and nothing against the small screen — even though mine is nothing to cry about — but nothing Villeneuve will show you can be truly appreciated in the comfort of your living room/screening room. Nothing.

The story is as simple and as complex as Lord of the Rings. You have your essential struggle between two warring civilizations over a precious substance, on a planet with its own set of people and otherworldly creatures, all in a sparse but almost eternal landscape that Villeneuve renders as though this was his vision of Lawrence of Arabia. You have a hero, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet again, and perfectly suited for his part, better than Kyle McLachlan ever was even though McLachlan was the same age as Chalamet when he played the part), and his story is the template of how a boy becomes a man. Joseph Campbell could not have written a better journey. We only get to see him at the start of his journey as he battles internal struggles and betrayals and external monsters and the unforgiving climate of Arrakis in order to find some form of safety for himself and his mother as he makes his next move.

I have nothing negative to say about Dune. Not one thing. Even at a patience-straining two and a half hours, I felt it could have been longer. Then again, this is the first of a trilogy, so of course, the entire length of Chapter One seems to be the prelude to a much larger, cosmic fight. Villeneuve has created something three-dimensional, magical, alluring, and yet he still grounds it in its own reality. Nothing seems fake or plastic — a risk many epics take and only the aforementioned Lord of the Rings has passed with flying colors. Nope — not even the Star Wars franchise has been able to replicate this. That story, which could have been ripped off of Herbert’s own work, did have its own dazzling effects of its time. The camera movement during the final battle of the first/fourth movie is a sequence to die for, over and over again. But in terms of characters, plot motivation, and relations, that movie was as cardboard as a cloak and dagger movie from 100 years ago. I could catch visual glimpses from previous movies (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) filtering in but never intruding. The conflict and its stakes look dangerously real. This, in essence, is Herbert’s novel, intact.

An artistic rendering of a Wendigo

I would not associate Scott Cooper with the horror genre. In a directing career spanning five movies, all of his previous four have dealt with crime and redemption, and the choices men make which haunt them throughout. His latest, the much-delayed Antlers (I remember seeing the trailer for Antlers almost always following St Maud in November of 2019, before the pandemic), seems to be two movies sandwiched into one. On one side we have a domestic situation where a wayward father seems to be abusing one of his two sons; the elder befriends a teacher with a past who connects with his pain and wishes to help. On the other, we get the supernatural element of the movie — hence the title — and this is the part that works in some ways while doesn’t in others. In the middle, we get the tale of the Wendigo which also gets to feature as the movie’s opening quote, and the requisite Native American character (Graham Greene) who enters the plot to dispense some exposition of what the characters are up against.

As a whole, I will say that Antlers is better than its story should be. Its mood is as bleak as it comes, and it seems that its Oregon setting never sees the sun come out, ever. The woods form a backdrop that seems dense enough. Where I wasn’t sold was in the creature itself, and how its dark legacy passes through to humans, in essence, corrupting them. It seems that perhaps this may have had a little of the allegorical but the movie never plays it with fantasy, but straight. Scenes in which the tragic father meets an unfortunate transformation are painful to watch and rival (but don’t surpass) the werewolf scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dread element is intense and foreboding. However, characters start behaving like tropes in every horror movie known to man — so much that at one point, more than once, several players do the tired, “Is anyone there?” line, and one character literally exists to die soon later. To add insult to injury, the movie never seems to know when to stop but continues to barrel ahead as if this were a long, drawn-out gunfight, instead, replacing guns with a Final Girl and a Creature.

I wish that Cooper had taken a different route with Antlers. There are two excellent movies inside one that looks and feels mashed up but is far from unwatchable. The relation that grows between the boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Final Girl Jeri Russell is poignant and deserved better. Her relationship with her actor-brother Jesse Plemons suggests more than what it ultimately reveals. Had the lore of the wendigo been less supernatural and closer to “wendigo psychosis” I would have enjoyed it better. As it stands, Antlers is imperfect, stilted, but fans of folk horror who also saw Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror In the Earth (which also has its own folk thrown in) will sit back and be repulsed in a good way.

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.