Wednesday, October 12, 2022

THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER



*MILD SPOILERS*

Movies like The Eternal Daughter always fascinate me because while it is a masterful film (Joanna Hogg does an amazing job of mixing awkward humor & personal grief) - it’s really only made for a specific group of people. Not that there isn’t a market for small intimate arthouse films, but this is part of a series of films that you’d have to be familiar with in order to appreciate the entire saga (this might be my favorite movie of 2022 but I wouldn't blindly recommend it just anyone). I guess The Eternal Daughter can be enjoyed by anyone on a surface level. Who doesn’t love a simple yet beautifully executed ghost story? But if you’ve been invested in Hogg’s last few films (The Souvenir & The Souvenir II) then you’re part of that aforementioned group I’m talking about. This one is for us...

In this latest installment in the “Souvenir Cinematic Universe”, Joanna Hogg takes some of the characters from her previous two films and places them in a haunted hotel 30+ years or so after the events of the first two films. Julia is now an established filmmaker working on her latest project all while trying to take care of her widowed mother. The ongoing 35 year working relationship between Joanna Hogg & Tilda Swinton has always been very meta and The Eternal Daughter is no exception.  Not only does Swinton play both Julia (a cinematic alter-ego of Hogg herself) & her mother, but she takes over the role that her real life daughter played in the previous two chapters. 
 

There’s a lot of pushback against "cinematic universes" these days because Marvel has cornered the market on sequels, prequels & offshoots. There is some understandable fatigue towards superhero/comic book-based films. Marvel's impact on movie franchises is undeniable at this point (Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, DCU, etc etc). But the world of “arthouse” cinema has been doing this decades before the MCU was even a thought. Everyone from Francois Truffaut to Leos Carax have been crafting their own cinematic universes for decades. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a loose continuation of Godard’s Le Petite Soldat. Bruno Dumont has been making nothing but sequels & prequels for the last decade. I’m all for endless sequels & continuations if it brings on more movies like The Souvenir & The Eternal Daughter (it should be noted that Tilda Swinton carries the honor of being the only actress to exist in both the Marvel cinematic universe and the Souvenir cinematic universe).


The Eternal Daughter is bound to draw some obvious comparisons to The Shining (what modern film set in a haunted hotel with long unbroken shots of hallways isn’t?). Those comparisons would be fair, but given Hogg’s deep love of Chantal Akerman, I’d say The Eternal Daughter borrows more from Hotel Monterey. The influence is already all over the previous Souvenir films…

Hotel Monterey /
The Souvenir


I sometimes wonder if Akerman rubbed off on Kubrick in some subconscious way. There aren’t any ghosts in Hotel Monterey but there are some eerie moments that predate some of the imagery in The Shining

Hotel Monterey / The Shining


The Eternal Daughter would be a nice ending to the Souvenir cinematic universe but I said the same thing about the Souvenir II and here we are with a new brilliant surprise chapter. Part of me feels like as long as Joanna Hogg is alive, there will always be the possibility of a new installment and I am totally fine with that.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

TÁR




I’m always fascinated when directors take long breaks between films. I think it’s rooted in my love of post-Days Of Heaven Terrence Malick. Now…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - this myth about Terrence Malick going off to live in the mountains like a reclusive monk for 20 years between movies has been debunked (read “One Big Soul”). It’s like when people still believe that Werner Herzog pointed a gun at Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcaraldo even though that scenario has been cleared up as well.

With all that being said - I was very intrigued by the return of Todd Field as it’s been 16 years since Little Children (similar to Malick, Field had a series of projects that couldn’t get off the ground during an almost 20 year gap). I’m not even a “fan” of Todd Field. I didn’t like Little Children. I think had the film lost the silly voiceover narration and just focused on the relationship between the bully cop and the sex offender it would’ve been a more interesting & challenging film. And while In The Bedroom was fine and had solid performances from the entire cast, I’m more fascinated with the ending and how messed up it is that I essentially agree with/understand the ending (I know co-signing vigilantism is wrong but I’m human and if I could get away with murdering someone that murdered someone close to me - I’d do it. It’s fucked up. I know…)

Todd Field is also just an interesting person. In addition to his spotty-yet “acclaimed” body of work thus far, he’s associated with Stanley Kubrick and his last film (for those of you that are unaware Todd Field played the pianist; Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut and he was apparently mentored by Kubrick). He’s also one of the co-inventors of big league chew (?). And because he’s only directed two films in two decades prior to Tár, he doesn’t even really have a signature style. Little Children & In The Bedroom look like they were made by two different directors (Tár does have a few visual similarities to Little Children).

A lot has happened between 2006 (Little Children) & Tár (2022). I’m not going to list everything off but “cancel culture” (or the myth/misconception of what cancel culture is) is certainly something that has become more prominent over the last 10-16 years. I use words like myth & misconception because once the dust settles, a lot of people who have been “cancelled” haven’t actually really been cancelled unless we’re talking about someone who has literally broken the law (or been accused of breaking the law) and had to go to jail which isn’t cancel culture. If we’re talking about standard recent examples like Louis CK or Roseanne or whoever - all that happened to people like that was they lost a show or had a temporary period where they went dark. They still stayed rich and still maintained most of their fans. To say they had everything taken away from them (an argument that has been used numerous times to defend them) is absolutely laughable. From a literal standpoint, they did not have everything taken away from them following their respective controversies. They lost a show. They had a platform temporarily taken from them but they eventually bounced back (again - I’m not talking about people who have broken the law or were accused of breaking the law as that’s an entirely different animal). I’m talking about people who were publicly persecuted/piled-on only to bounce back with another show, or a Grammy win or a new audience of fans/followers.



Take the fictional character of Lydia Tár for example. Long after the allegations she faces die down, her place in music history will still be cemented and she’ll still have plenty of money & resources regardless of how “rock bottom” we might be led to believe she’s hit in the final act.

Part of me cringes even saying all this because I don’t want to be grouped in or associated with the cancel-happy folks who love to play both sides of the fence by saying cancel culture isn’t real all while still using the term cancel when they want to end someone’s career. These are the types of people that make lists of problematic artists who’s art one should avoid (I’d be embarrassed to be someone like that).

The often times irrational mob of entitled losers that sometimes rally the mindless troops in an effort to unfairly try to ruin someone’s life is certainly something that needs to absolutely go away (chances are these self-righteous dorks that try to “cancel” folks are terrible people themselves behind closed doors in some way). But that also doesn’t absolve a terrible person of being terrible or doing something absolutely stupid which often times gets softened down to a “simple mistake”. It is incredibly dangerous to post someone’s address & job information for the world to see because they posted something you don’t agree with on social media. But at the same time if you say something dangerous or unethical or intentionally button-pushing on a public platform, don’t act surprised or shocked when there’s drama.
If you’re a cop who openly shares your hatred for a specific group of people on Facebook or a therapist who shares their client’s private information on twitter (something that seems to happen semi-regularly these days), then maybe someone higher up should be contacted and maybe you should lose your job. But those are extreme examples.

Obviously I’m speaking in generalities. There are some strange smear campaigns out there disguised as cancelling someone. Take modern day Black men for example. The way Black men are vilified these days for certain specific personal preferences has become a personality trait by people who were once supposedly "allies". But these people don’t always fit the typical bad guy mold so it continues to go unchecked…


I’m saying all of this because at it’s core, Tár is an individual story about the complexities of “cancel culture”. A lot of what I’m ranting about is addressed in the film.

To quote Todd Field himself from a recent New York Times interview:

No one’s innocent and no one’s entirely guilty, either. Absolutes are nonsense unless they’re sporting events - Todd Field

(I don’t know if I completely agree with that myself but I understand what he’s getting at)


Beyond that, it touches on everything from identity politics to the paranoia (…mental illness?) that can come with the pressure of being the best in your field. There are bound to be some Whiplash comparisons...

Whiplash /
Tar

What I appreciated most about Tár is that the protagonist is not only a woman, but a problematic woman (had Lydia Tár been a man this movie would have been so much easier & safer to digest). In the film Cate Blanchet is an accomplished yet somewhat self-sabotaging orchestra conductor spiraling downward. Field himself described the character of Lydia Tár as “paranoid” and a “hypocrite” at a Venice film festival Q&A.

Often times when there’s a story of a complicated/problematic/trainwreck female protagonist, there’s usually a sympathetic tone or at least one important scene that sheds light on why she’s so “messed up”. Todd Field doesn’t really do that here and I really respect that choice (there is a scene in the film where goes back to her childhood home but it’s quick and still doesn’t give a whole lot of backstory). I guess there’s always a reason why people are the way they are but I don’t always care why or need a backstory. Sometimes people are just shitty and accountability can’t be dodged because of trauma or whatever popular key phrase people love to use to avoid fault.


I haven’t fully digested Tár but I wanted to get a few initial thoughts out. I liked it but I don’t know how much i liked it (I’ll probably revisit this writing after a second viewing). Blanchet is great as is the rest of the cast (it was nice seeing Nina Haas in a prominent “mainstream” film).

The direction/“look” of the movie sometimes comes off as an American trying to do what they think is Michael Haneke’s Austrian-era style...

The Piano Teacher /
Tar
(This comparison comes off as incredibly vague but if you've seen both films you know these specific moments are almost identical)

The Piano Teacher /
Tar

Cache /
Tar


I wouldn’t be surprised if Field studied Haneke as a source of visual inspiration. Huge chunks of the film seem to subconsciously borrowing from The Piano Teacher & Cache. The movie even has little voyeuristic moments right out of Haneke’s Happy End

Field has namedropped Haneke in the past...

Well, that makes me happy that you say that. I mean, that's why, for me, films are exciting. That's why I like to go to movies. That's why I like to watch—I'm very careful about what I watch because of that. 'Cause I'm really romantic. Like I want to watch a film—I want to make sure there's no distractions. And then I want to walk around and walk a little bit for a few days. Lately I've been watching—I've kind of parceled it out, one a month...Michael Haneke's films. And those films just destroy me for, like, weeks. And it's really wonderful (laughing), you know? Because—I mean, have you seen all of Haneke's films? ...Have you seen all of them? Have you seen Code Unknown and Time of the Wolf and Piano Teacher?—Have you seen 71 Fragments? What a great film, huh? There's one film that he did—have you read any of Roth's books? He did this Philip Roth book—or is it Joe Roth?—about this strange and surreal period in German history. He did it as a long mini-series on German television; I've been trying to get my hands on that - Todd Field, Grouchoreviews.com


Tár is still very much it’s own movie. Putting aside the visual style, Haneke would’ve handled Tár's source material a bit differently. And no matter how overly-stylish & sleek Tár looks, it is very much an intentionally messy story.



Todd Field has made a strong return to the big screen and I would absolutely recommend this film to just about anyone (I’m looking forward to watching it again).

Sunday, October 2, 2022

STARS AT NOON



Claire Denis has been very unpredictable since Bastards (2013). She seems to have made a point to not repeat her past works but, with the exception of the masterful High Life (2018), maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go back and repeat/revisit/re-examine some of the themes from her earlier films that made her so great (I Can’t Sleep, No Fear No Die, Beau Travail, etc).
I guess she’s in another semi-experimental phase? And to be clear - when I say experimental I don’t mean like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. I just mean that she’s constantly trying something different than what we’re used to? Perhaps this is her “playful era”? Maybe that’s a better description. If that doesn’t work for you I guess one could say Claire Denis is in her late-period Francis Ford Coppola stage where she’s just trying out anything. The problem with that is she’s reached a point where her name holds a bit of weight in certain lanes and most people familiar with her work are going to mindlessly praise whatever she does because she’s a living legend.

Coming off the heels of the head-scratching disappointment that was Fire, Claire Denis’ latest film is an adaptation of the 80s novel; Stars At Noon where we follow an American drifter (“Trish”) stuck in Nicaragua in the midst of some vague revolution at the height of the Covid pandemic (Denis added the Covid element to the film version).

In a way - this recent output of Claire Denis’ reminds me of her first few post-Beau Travail films. She makes this critically acclaimed masterpiece (Beau Travail) and follows it up with an off-putting cannibal/Vampire sex thriller (Trouble Every Day), then an incredibly loose & surreal romantic tale in the form of Friday Night followed by an intentionally off-putting & extremely non-linear organ transplant film (The Intruder). I love Trouble Every Day, but there were walkouts when it debuted at Cannes and it took almost a decade for it to reach the cult status it has today. After Beau Travail people were expecting more of that and she intentionally gave folks the opposite. And almost no one talks about Friday Night or The Intruder outside of hardcore fans like myself.
What’s interesting is that Stars At Noon almost plays out like a straightforward remix of The Intruder. Just not as good. It would also make for a perfect double feature with Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted (there are a lot of similarities between the two ranging from both stories centered around white women stranded in a dangerous foreign land surrounded by intimidating brown men to both movies being quite disappointing).

Recently Claire Denis released one of her best films ever (High Life) only to follow it up with Fire (click here to read my thoughts) and Stars At Noon. It’s almost like Denis has this cat-like instinct where she intentionally avoids the wave of a successful film by making something “strange” immediately afterwards (the same could be said about her post-White Material/Pre-High Life work).

The only difference between this current phase of unexpectable films and the unexpectable films from the early aughts is that Trouble Every Day, Friday Night & The Intruder are great (to me at least). They have style. While Fire does have some style, it’s also kind of an empty exercise. And Stars At Noon has even less style in my opinion and feels a bit more empty than Fire. Sorry to sound so harsh but the last thing I want to do is be a fake/mindless fan praising anything my all-time favorite filmmaker does just because her name is attached to it.

It should be understood that because Denis is my favorite filmmaker I am a bit more critical. I’m sure the casual A24 fan looking for a drony erotic arthouse thriller will be satisfied with Stars At Noon. I just know what Claire Denis is capable of and this isn’t her at her best. Or even at her most entertaining…



I almost appreciate that she leaves behind her regular acting troop and uses a completely new cast of actors ranging from John C Reilly to Benny Safdie (Denis is almost 80 and still willing to step outside of her comfort zone). Joe Alwyn gives the standout performance as the mysterious/potentially dangerous love interest that Trish gets mixed up with. For those of you unfamiliar with Alwyn, check out Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir II where he gives another standout, yet quiet scene-stealing performance.
For me the biggest miscast was the star. Margaret Qualley’s borderline manic pixie dream-girl act just throws everything off (especially the chemistry with the other actors). It also doesn’t help that a good chunk of the supporting cast are clearly non-trained local people. So the combination of non-actors mixed with an unnecessarily schizophrenic performance just spells disaster.

I would suggest that Denis get her cast of regulars back together but she did that with her last film and that didn’t really work out either…




I have no interest in most Covid/Pandemic-related movies (like I said earlier - Denis added in the Covid backdrop for the movie), but I’ll make an exception here. Claire Denis is a master of hints & implications and she applies that to the Covid backdrop in Stars At Noon. We’re made aware that the story takes place in the midst of a pandemic (everyone is wearing masks and there is Covid testing scene), but at the same time it isn’t thrown in our faces (not that it needs to be as we’re still kind of in it today which is why I’m not super interested in watching anything Covid-related).


Ultimately this is another disappointment. Now…disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” or “terrible” (but if someone where to describe Stars At Noon as either of those things I wouldn’t go out of my way to question that). I admit that there are a handful of quick moments that left me transfixed & totally immersed only to quickly be distracted by Qualley’s weird acting choices of randomly yelling and/or smiling like an unstable person or coming off like a misbehaved cute child in the face of danger). The excellent Tindersticks score is the one non-blemished aspect of the movie and a constant reminder that we actually are watching a Claire Denis film.
Stars At Noon is more of an almost interesting yet ultimately empty misfire (I wish the term interesting didn’t have such a negative/bland stigma attached to it because when used properly it is a helpful term to describe things).

I still don’t want this to discourage any of you. I actually want folks to watch it so you can come back to this review and possibly persuade me to look at it with a different lens. Or just share my disappointment…

Saturday, October 1, 2022

A FEW WORDS ON THE NORTHMAN



Was The Northman an unfortunate case of the film-twitter hive-mind killing something before it even officially came out? I remember there being some light controversy about the film having subconscious connections to white nationalist ideology and toxic masculinity which couldn’t be fully shaken. White nationalists will find symbology & metaphors in anything. I wouldn’t put too much weight on a group of folks who look up to a cartoon frog. If they don’t hijack The Northman it’ll end up being something else. Why give them the power to essentially ruin a somewhat interesting movie?

Unfortunately that’s kind of what happened…



 
As for the Toxic masculinity - this is a violent Viking tale about revenge (a loose adaptation of the source material for hamlet mixed with a pinch of Conan The Barbarian). We all knew this from the trailer. Vikings were violent. Let’s not rewrite history. Just don’t watch this if it isn’t your thing (there is quite a bit of incoherent yelling & war chanting courtesy of the almost all- male cast). But at the same time there is a bit more to this movie than just violence. (it should be noted that Nicole Kidman steals the show in this predominantly male-heavy film).


I had zero expectations going in to this which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. I don’t put Robert Eggers on a pedestal like a lot of today’s blind A24 loyalists do, but I still enjoy his movies for the most part. The Northman is Eggers’ largest scaled project and it strays pretty far from the horror genre like his previous films. Something tells part of the reason this “flopped” is because folks wanted him to stay in the horror genre. For the folks that wanted something more like The Witch or The Lighthouse, Eggers still pulls from the same playbook referencing the same types of silent films and painting that he always does…

Witches Sabbath / The Northman

The Hands Of Orlac / The Northman

The Thief Baghad
 / The Northman


And there are elements of horror throughout. It just isn’t a “traditional” horror film like this previous works (and I don’t even know if I would consider those traditional horror movies either). The Northman still feels like a Robert Eggers film. 

Kurosawa was another influence on Eggers…

Throne Of Blood / The Northman

I think it’s really the Soviet Medieval epics and Kurosawa’s work that I turned to most as cinematic inspiration as well as John Milieus’ Conan - Robert Eggers, Indiewire

Throne Of Blood / The Northman

Conan The Barbarian / The Northman


This is me trying to do Conan The Barbarian by way of Andrei Rublev - Robert Eggers, Little White Lies

Andrei Rublev
 / The Northman

Eggers also once told Far Out magazine that Andrei Rublev was; probably just the best thing in cinema history. That love of  Tarkovsky certainly shows up in The Northman...

"The court jester"
Andrei Rublev
 / The Northman


Andrei Rublev
 / The Northman


In addition to the unfair pre-judgement I mentioned earlier, I wonder if The Northman fell short because it wasn’t deemed an immediate masterpiece. It feels like now more than ever when a movie isn’t immediately considered a masterpiece (or meme-worthy), it’s disposable. It’s as if when something is just an entertaining mid-budget popcorn movie it gets tossed aside as soon as the credits roll. It’s ok for movies to be fine. Very few movies are masterpieces. The “good”, “solid” and/or “fine” movies are what keep the lights on.

The best part of The Northman is Eggers’ use of Alexander Skarsgard. He’s an in-demand actor but with the exception of True Blood, no film had utilized his true Viking-like presence prior to The Northman. With all these smaller-framed leading men nowadays I think we should embrace an actor like him in a role like this who can tap in to his primal side.


To reiterate - The Northman doesn’t push the art of cinema forward but very few films actually do. It is a solid movie that was unfairly pre-judged that deserves a reassessment (which insane to even say because we’re still in the same year that it was released).

THE PINK SMOKE PODCAST: SURVIVING DESIRE

 


I'm back on the Pink Smoke podcast to chat about the underseen/underrated Hal Hartley masterpiece; Surviving Desire.

Click here or the image above to go to the episode.

Enjoy...

WRONG REEL EPISODE #617 - THE 60TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

 


I'm back on Wrong Reel with my good friend Rob Cott to dive in to the 60th annual New York Film Festival. Click here or the image above to go to the episode.

Enjoy...

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