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The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch

All so many people, most with very little of worth to do

dir: Wes Anderson

2021

It’s impossible to know whether this flick is peak Wes Anderson, or whether his next flick will be even fussier. Each time one of his flicks come out, I think “it can’t get any fussier than this, can it?” and every time I’m wrong.

At this late stage of his career, to expect any different would be foolish.

The French Dispatch’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. How you feel immediately after hearing or reading that could impact on your reaction towards the film. If, upon hearing that, you rolled your eyes so hard you might have strained something, or you fought the instant urge to punch a kitten in the face, the preciousness of the ensuing endeavor may be a tad too much for thee.

After all, fans of Wes Anderson films are a special bunch. Like the collectors of Sylvanian Families anthropomorphised unholy animal hybrids or the people who are now drinking their own pee as a coronavirus cure, they’re not like other humanoids. Imagine the kind of person for whom Wes Anderson movies are the best movies they’ve ever seen.

You’re either picturing Wes Anderson himself, possibly wearing a cravat or an ascot, or legions of penny farthing riding, artisanal picklers, waxed moustache baristas or people who crave a gluten free lifestyle despite not being gluten-intolerant.

In other words such a creature doesn’t really exist. And yet those films keep being made, and someone must be seeing them.

Well, I saw this one now, and it’s not only a homage to all things fussy and Andersonian; it’s also a love letter to that other bastion of fussiness and great writing, being the New Yorker magazine. Why the pretense that it’s a French supplement to a Kansas newspaper? I have no idea, other than that Anderson wanted to set this flick in France in a town literally called Boredom-on-Apathy (Ennui-sur-Blasé) because that counts for humour in Wes Anderson World. Though the parallels with the New Yorker are fairly transparent and one-to-one, maybe it’s a reference to The Paris Review as well, which was founded by amongst others, George Plimpton, that silver haired razor wit and raconteur.

Yeah, nah, probably not. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), is probably even fussier than Wes Anderson himself. There are an array of other editors and cronies, all mostly played by the other hangers on and goons who usually populate Anderson’s films. Familiar faces. Familiar, goofy faces.

Mostly, the flick is held together with a tissue of connections, formatting, impeccable set design, but (mostly) is an anthology of stories, some more interesting than others.

Rating:

C'mon C'mon

Cmon Cmon

That wary look is the look of every parent when their kid does
something stupid

dir: Mike Mills

2021

I wish that I had seen this earlier, like, earlier last year. It would really have capped off the last, most dismal year hopefully that we’ll ever experience in our lifetimes.

Well, those of us who survived, I guess.

I was completely unprepared for how easily C’mon C’mon slipped through my critical defences and destroyed me, on a deep, deep level. There were multiple times where I was sobbing, and it’s not even a particularly “weepy” flick. It’s actually a quite joyous flick, in a lot of ways.

It feels like a film from a different era, and not just because it’s in black and white. It’s very contemporary in its efforts to get people, especially adults, to speak in helpful ways about their emotions, but it’s also not afraid to look at the fraught tensions between adults and children. A lot of the flick is Joaquin Phoenix interviewing kids. The kids aren’t acting. When they’re talking about the world or their parents or the future, it never felt like it was scripted.

My heart broke almost every time they spoke. They’re cautiously optimistic about the future regardless of their circumstances, but many of them can’t see past the dramas in their family lives. The kid who’s dad is in jail, and he’s there trying to get by, for his younger sister, because she’s all that matters…

I’m sorry, I’m already in a puddle again on the floor.

The film isn’t even mostly about that, but it does conjure up an atmosphere of optimism, somehow. Of hope. Not once is the pandemic mentioned. There’s not a single mask anywhere. I don’t know why that made me so happy. I didn’t even have to look it up to know that this was filmed just prior to, you know, all this craziness. That means this flick is like a fantasy, where the plague isn’t fucking things up for everyone across the world.

Rating:

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter

Everyone has fun on a Shirley Valentine-like holiday

dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal

2021

Is there anything the Gyllenhaals can’t do? When they’re not wowing audiences with their intense acting, or stealing red scarves from Taylor Swift and keeping them long after the relationship has ended, now they’re also directing intense dramas and probably getting ridiculous amounts of awards and stuff.

Maggie Gyllenhaal elects to write and direct here, adapting a novel by Elena Ferrante, being The Lost Daughter and not, as I initially thought, an adaptation of the fourth Neapolitan novel The Story of the Lost Child. She does not elect to star in it, instead letting Olivia Colman take centre stage, to the film’s benefit. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but Colman has this way of getting mean peevishness across with very little effort. She did it so effortlessly and coldly on The Crown as Queen Betty for two years, so why wouldn’t she bring those Ever So British skills to bear here?

Very much like the Neapolitan novels, it’s about a woman who’s an intellectual and an academic, who had kids, and felt pretty unimpressed with the experience. Present are the elements to do with maternal ambivalence towards one’s own children and not wanting to be classified as a mother to the exclusion of one’s other professional, personal or artistic pursuits. Absent are the elements to do with growing up in poverty in a mafia run town, or the intense rivalry between two childhood friends.

It’s something most mums are reluctant to admit, I’m guessing, unless they feel like they’re in a safe space or have had a few too many chardonnays. The mother who isn’t completely enraptured by kids, or who doesn’t feel comfortable maintaining the illusion that having kids changes everything positively about what you want out of life is still a touchy subject that usually results in the woman daring to say it in essays or fiction as heartless, selfish monsters.

Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) never lies to people about how she feels about motherhood. “Children are…a crushing responsibility” she says to a pregnant woman at one point. Very patiently, over the course of the film, Leda’s relationship with motherhood, and what she did to her children, is teased out, but mostly it’s used as a backdrop to partially explain why she’s standoffish and prefers to be isolated even as she holidays alone on the Greek island of Spetses.

The thing about holidays is, no matter where you go, other arseholes always turn up. And a huge bunch of loud Americans appear, among them a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a toddler daughter. The way the mother seems to swing between wanting to be a good mother to her angelic, annoying child, and seeming to want some freedom from her as well, reminds Leda of what were clearly her struggles when her own daughters were younger.

We get to see Leda as a younger woman with a pair of kids being so deliberately annoying you know this is somewhat a heightened depiction of how oppressive kids can feel sometimes, especially when you know it’s down to you. Other people will say they’re happy to help, but there’s judgement there too.

It’s down to you, all of the time.

Rating:

The Man Who Sold His Skin

The Man Who Sold His Skin

Every time I think of the title, I think of it sung by Kurt Cobain
to the tune of "The Man Who Sold the World". Try It!

(Ar-Rajul Allaḏī Bāʿa Zahrihu)

dir: Kaouther Ben Hania

2020

Where this starts… and where this goes…

This is a pretty sly and smart flick, undone only by what I feel is like something of a cop out ending.

I didn’t know these things before watching the movie, but I know them now – this is kind of based on something that happened, which itself was ‘inspired’ by a Roald Dahl short story called Skin.

Skin I remember, because I read Skin when I was a kid in Tales of the Unexpected, and it stuck in my head ever since, because of the economical brutality of it: a chap has an exquisite tattoo on his back, needs money, someone promises to take care of him like he’s a pampered poodle, but next thing you know the skin is on a gallery wall somehow.

This film begins with two curators being ordered around by a guy with way too much mascara on, getting the position of the frame right, only for the camera to close in on the painting itself, showing that it is human skin.

So, the film starts at the macabre ending, and we’re to wonder how this ever happened.

The purpose of Dahl’s story was to shock, to disturb, to give someone a wry chuckle. The purpose of this flick is very much something different, seeing as it’s by a Tunisian director, with Syrian leads, set during the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State, and most of it transpires in Belgium.

Belgium? How many good flicks other than In Bruges are set in fucking Belgium?

Well, there’s this one.

Sami Ali (Yahya Mahayni) loves a woman, called Abeer (Dea Liane), but her family have promised her to some Syrian jerk who works as a diplomat in Belgium. Bashar Assad’s forces are randomly killing bunches of Syrians, you know, just to keep them in line, so her family think it’s safest for her if they marry her off and send her to Europe.

Rating:

Petite Maman

Petite Maman

The petite mamans will inherit the earth, and all the candy that
comes with it

dir: Cèline Sciamma

2021

Little mum. That’s how I choose to translate the title. It’s probably ‘little mother’, but I ain’t fancy like that.

Petite Maman is such a tiny, small-scaled flick, with its tiny, 8 year old protagonist. She is Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), and she’s just lost her grandmother. Her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) is stunned by grief. They clear out gran’s room at the old folk’s home, and then travel to clear out grandma’s home – the home Marion grew up in.

It’s an old kind of place (I guess, I mean I have no reference point for what places in France should look like, if they haven’t been renovated since the 90s?), and Marion’s childhood stuff is all still there, which she feels ambivalent about.

Nelly and Marion grieve in their own, confused ways, sleeping wherever feels most appropriate, pottering and such.

And then Marion leaves, because it’s all too much.

Nelly and her dad (Stéphane Varupenne) are meant to be clearing the place out over the next couple of days, but Nelly is more interested in finding the place in the woods nearby where her mother told her she once built a fort out of branches and such when she was a kid, about Nelly’s present age.

She finds the place, four trees in something of a square. There happens to be a young girl there, building the fort. I guess it’s something of a coincidence that the other girl is called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and she happens to look a lot like Nelly. They work together a while, and then run to Marion’s place when a downpour starts.

Even though they go in the opposite direction to where Nelly is staying, you kind of know what’s going to happen – this isn’t a mystery, or a thriller. It’s a gentle meditation on motherhood, grief, wanting somehow to say goodbye properly to someone for whom that option no longer exists, and the wondering many kids must do about what their parents were like when they themselves were kids.

They get to Marion’s house, and of course it’s identical to where Nelly is staying, only it’s back in time. Marion’s mother (Margo Abascal) already walks with the same cane that Nelly, in the present, asked if she could keep when her grandmother died. She is protective of Marion, as she is about to go to hospital for some kind of worrying surgery.

Rating:

Passing

Passing

I've been trying to pass for human for over 40 years, and
I don't think I've quite nailed it yet

dir: Rebecca Hall

2021

I’ve seen a few films, even just this week, made recently but in black and white for stylistic reasons, mostly. I think this one is in black and white for entirely different reasons.

Set in Harlem in the 1920s, this flick centers itself less around the idea of people of African-American backgrounds passing for “white” in a climate still hostile to black people (unlike the enlightened era we all live in 100 years later), and more around the complex friendship between two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga).

The film is based on a novel by Nella Larsen, written in the 20s, and though I don’t think it’s autobiographical per se, the author herself had a complicated heritage, and these notions of passing for white, or, failing that, passing for being “European” might have been a big deal in her life too.

The two women knew each other at school, but Clare’s father’s death saw her move away twelve years ago. When they reconnect, it is by chance, at a hotel restaurant. Irene is not trying to pass for white in this initial sequence; it seems more like she just doesn’t want shopkeepers and doormen to notice that she’s black. Her cloche hat is pulled down far enough, and is current fashion, so if people assume, she doesn’t correct them.

Clare, on the other hand, is blonde, and looks like a silent era movie star. When Irene finally recognises her, and is eventually introduced to her husband (Alexander Skarsgård), she realises her childhood friend is passing for white, and is somewhat surprised.

Even more surprising is the crap the husband says, including his nickname for his wife, and the ‘fact’ that she hates African-Americans even more than he does.

Irene doesn’t mention the obvious stuff that we realise: that both the women he’s talking to are black. She may still have some wariness towards Clare, but she doesn’t want to blow her cover.

When Irene returns to “her” world of the suburb of Harlem, she feels safe in her “element”, and no longer has to camouflage as someone other than “black”. She has a nice house, a husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two young boys, whom she wants to protect from the harshness of the world they live in. This America, decades after the Civil War, is still not a safe place generally for their people. Lynchings happen and get reported all the time, more with glee in the papers rather than sorrow. I don’t know the specific year this film is set in the 1920s, but the Tulsa Massacre happened in 1923, so that would have been recent history.

And New York, far from being the safe, multicultural metropolis of the imagination, is still a place of open tensions.

Rating:

Wild Indian

Wild Indian

Behind every great fortune, or nation, lies a terrible crime

dir: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jnr

2021

This is a pretty confronting, deliberately unsatisfying film. You don’t see a heap of flicks coming out of the States with First Nations / Native American leads or themes, and you also don’t see ones usually this dark. This isn’t about people reconnecting with family or their past, reconciling the enormity of the crime perpetrated against the native people of the Americas with today’s lived experience, or any of those platitudes.

Reservation Dogs is a recent (and the only one I can think of) tv series with First Nations kids as the leads playing characters living on a reservation, where the realities of their lives are leavened with a wicked sense of human and charming performances. Wild Indian has no such buffers

The brutal opening of the film is set in Wisconsin in the 1980s. M’kwa (Phoenix Wilson) is a young Ojibwe boy covered in bruises. A young Catholic priest at M’kwa’s school tries to gently find out where the bruises are coming from, but M’kwa demurs to say anything. His home life is awful, just awful. He has a father who cannot stand the sight of him, and who beats him just for existing. Bullied at school as well, at least he has his best friend and cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal) on his side. They hang out, avoiding their parents as best they can, shooting bottles with Ted-O’s dad’s rifle just for something to do.

There’s a blonde WASP girl at their school, from ‘town’, and to M’kwa she comes to symbolise something very desirable and unattainable, and I don’t think it has anything to do with sexual desire. When another student starts dating her, it unleashes a resentment that will end up in tragedy, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

M’kwa feels powerless against his brutal father, though he is tempted to do something drastic and final. You can see him seething at this other boy, a boy who’s done nothing wrong, whose living circumstances are probably not that different from his own. Which M’kwa himself sees, when he resentfully peers through the boy’s window, and he sees him comforting his passed-out mother.

The priest, delivering a sermon, explains what’s going on for those of us who can’t figure it out from what we’re watching. It may seem strange that, considering the people involved, why we would need a priest to explain stuff to us from the perspective of the Old Testament, when M’kwa and Ted-O themselves could tell us how shitty their lives are?

Rating:

The Humans

Humans

We who are about to be depressed, salute you

dir: Stephen Karam

2021

This flick was kind of horrifying, but it’s not a horror flick, I don’t care what any reviewer says. It’s shot like a horror flick a lot of the time, and there are jump scares, which is a bit confusing.

But this is really about a family coming together for Thanksgiving, in New York, in a cursed pre-World War II apartment that has never seen better days, and just has them talking in these jagged, awkward ways, like people actually talk rather than carefully curated monologues and declamatory speeches.

It’s awfully, deliberately mundane, but the mistake I don’t want to make is to think that so-called naturalistic performances are easy or that they aren’t acting in and of themselves. It’s hard, just as hard as the showier stuff. Imagine pointing a camera at someone and yelling “act natural!”, and just imagine the performance you’re going to get.

People talk and mumble and get distracted and wander around and check their phones and say one thing and then trail off and talk over each other and support each other or attack each other, and I guess that’s what a group of people having a meal together might be like.

Though there are revelations and such, it’s not a flick that’s building to a crescendo or with natural peaks and flows, or rhythms that we might be accustomed to.

Veteran acting legend Richard Jenkins does his thing as the Dad of the piece: Jayne Houdyshell plays the Mum, a role she also assayed in the play this is based on, on Broadway. Amy Schumer and Beanie Feldstein play their two daughters, Aimee and Brigid. Plus there’s also Brigid’s partner Rich (Steven Yuen) with whom she shares this diabolical apartment.

And. If I’m going to call Richard Jenkins a veteran actor, what am I going to call the legendary June Squibb, who plays the wheelchair bound Momo, as they call her? June Squibb was in goddamn Cat on a Hot Tin Roof all them years ago. Let me tell you something for free: there are not many people who were in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who are still around today.

Rating:

Identifying Features

Sin Senas Particulares

This shouldn't be happening, there, or anywhere. Please stop.

Sin Señas Particulares

dir: Fernanda Valadez

2020

I don’t understand. I don’t understand what is happening, what is depicted here, as happening in Mexico.

I understand government violence (well, when I say that, I say it from the safety of distance and privilege, in that I can intellectualise about it, but haven’t lived through it), I understand the concept that criminal gangs commit violence in order to control drug operations and maintain areas of control.

I guess I understand the concept of right wing or left wing paramilitaries, or religious nutters attacking villagers and villages, or ruling suburbs, or any number of things. I think I understand violence as a tool to make the survivors cower, and go along with whatever the group wants.

I don’t understand what is depicted here. Killing just to kill people, and not like serial killers or sadists or crazies or vampires. People, trying to get to El Norte (the States) from all areas of Mexico, being robbed, murdered and their bodies desecrated and burned, just for the hell of it.

And…it’s real, it’s what’s been happening for a long time in Mexico, and I find it terrifying, and I don’t understand it.

A recent film I watched about the Srebrenica Massacre (Quo Vadis, Aida?) during the Balkans War in the 90s, that was horrible, and terrifying, to see a group of people try to exterminate an ethnic group of people they don’t like. That’s horrible, too, but I can at least grasp some semblance of their mentality, of how they justify it to themselves, or try to justify it in front of a war crimes tribunal at The Haig.

I don’t understand this.

The perspective is mostly from that of a mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), trying to find out what happened to her son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), who went up north two months ago, and haven’t been heard from since. She lives a humble farming existence on a small plot of land, and while she obviously fears for her son, she would understand the son’s drive to go El Norte, cross the border, maybe eke out a living and send some money home. The lure of the better life that only money and not being surrounded by apocalyptic violence could bring.

When he and his mate disappear, his friend having a distinctive patch of vitiligo on his forehead, making his body easier to identify for his mother, at least, Magdalena doesn’t accept that just because the authorities say that he’s dead, that he must be.

She’s fully aware that he might be dead. This isn’t false hope or delusion on her part. She has a weary kind of resignation to what has happened. But she has to know for sure. She needs certainty, a mother needs certainty, to bury her son, to bring him home, somehow, if she can.

Rating:

Together Together

Together Together

They look like they're about to interview you for a position
at their tech start up, but as an unpaid intern drowning
in coffee / energy drink orders, and abuse, but you'll
do it for clout / exposure maybe?

dir: Nikole Beckwith

2021

Together Together is a very modest, very small-scale flick, which is part of why I found it so charming. It mostly has two actors acting all the time on the screen, but the stakes are pretty low.

It’s a plot you haven’t heard and seen a million times before. A guy called Matt (Ed Helms) who’s in his 40s wants to become a dad. He does not have any partner, or seemingly ever had a partner, and wishes to get a surrogate to have the baby for him (for cash money), and then she can fuck right off out of their lives forever. The baby itself is from a donor egg, so there would be no genetic connection to the child for the surrogate.

Typing those words makes the whole process sound so awful. I assure you this is a light hearted comedy. It’s mostly about the awkwardness and the foibles of the two main characters.

Anna (Patti Harrison) is in her early 20s. She is one of those dreaded millennials that we were regularly told pre-covid were ruining everything for the rest of us. She had previously had a kid as a teenager but gave it up for adoption.

This time, at least, she wants some money for her troubles. She is… an interesting low-key character, in that she seems a bit isolated, but at least she has one friend / co-worker (Julio Torres) whose purpose in the film is to be extra annoying. Any of the millennial clichés she gets to avoid, Jules totally embodies.

The far more problematic character is Matt, in that there isn’t any diagnosed personality disorder or spectrum related discussions, but he is fairly horrible at talking to people in general and Anna specifically. His polite exterior covers a gaping, howling void inside. Immediately upon meeting Anna, and once she signs on the dotted line, he begins acting towards her like she’s an untrustworthy employee who needs to be heavily supervised at all times.

From that as a starting point he graduates to talking to her the way no man with a pregnant partner ever should, no matter how controlling or overbearing. The relief comes from when Anna pushes back against his bullshit, in a way that almost made me think he was the movie’s secret villain.

Rating:

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