Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

The Last Thing He Wanted

Do you like drama and intrigue and secret ops and exposing deeply classified cover-ups? Oh that’s too bad. This movie has none of that. The Last Thing He Wanted is the last thing anyone wants when they sit down to a movie. It’s sort of counting on you to turn it on and either take a two hour nap take a nap or walk out of the room for a snack and never come back.

Elena (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist who…covers foreign correspondence. She has a kid in boarding school since she’s never home and I have no idea what happened to the kid’s father other than he is indeed alive. Rosie Perez plays her friend/photographer. I think they get reassigned to cover the election at home, which pisses off Elena. She has a kooky father (Willem Dafoe) who is definitely into some shady business and possibly has dementia. He implores Elena to take care of a deal he’s sunk half a mil into but now cannot himself follow through. She does. Or she tries. And things get really shitty. Ben Affleck is around…pretty sure he’s CIA, possibly also into politics? Hard to say.

 

So this is a brand new Netflix Original that did two things very well: it confused me and it bored me. Granted, those aren’t generally things movies are trying to do, and maybe this one isn’t either, but that’s hard to believe given what a big fat mess it is.

IMDB seems to think it’s about a veteran D.C. journalist (that would be Hathaway) who loses the thread of her own narrative when a guilt-propelled errand for her father (Willem Dafoe) thrusts her from byline to unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break. So it turns out I did have the gist. I just didn’t give a fuck. I’m horrified to see this has been adapted from a Joan Didion novel. I hope she doesn’t have a Netflix subscription.

This isn’t a swing and a miss because it was never going to be more than a bunt. I lost track of motivations first, then plot. Anne Hathaway is…dogged. Either survived breast cancer or had a horrific boob injury. Her signature look is a chest covering scarf. She’s mad at everybody. She’s suspicious of nearly everyone but not suspicious enough. It’s so hard to get a handle on this and yet it was so underwhelming I can’t even be bothered to look it up.

Despite the brand name cast and director Dee Rees’ other successes, The Last Thing He Wanted is a real dud. It’s too late for me, but save yourself.

 

 

My Hindu Friend

Diego has been fighting cancer for a decade. The chemo has helped keep it at bay but is no longer working. The only chance he’s got is a bone marrow transplant but Diego doesn’t want to die in a hospital. To do nothing, his doctor warns him, means things will happen very quickly. In months.

Diego (Willem Dafoe) is a talented film maker who has managed to alienate a great number of his friends and family during his decade-long battle with cancer. But he somehow stumbles into a relationship and marries quickly – til death do them part. And then, having found the will to live in a beautiful woman, he goes to Seattle to face treatment.

Writer-director Hector Babenco is telling his own story in My Hindu Friend though he gives the character another name. His 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman was nominated for 4 Oscars, including best picture and best director, and won William Hurt best actor. 1987’s Ironweed earned acting noms for both Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. My Hindu Friend was Babenco’s last film.

Have you ever noticed that when someone dies we forget every single thing we ever bitched about them and start saying things like “her smile lit up a room”? And when someone has cancer we call them a “brave warrior” and back track on the whole “Karen’s a narcissist” agenda? Well this film doesn’t paint over the ugly portrait. It takes a ‘warts and all’ approach to the whole cancer crusader bit and Dafoe is of course up for both sides of the coin.

My Hindu Friend is a deep-dive into what makes life worth living – love, art, and how for some of us, the two are different words for the same thing. It’s a frank and often raw assessment of one’s life and the meaning we give it when it’s on being threatened with extinction.

Togo

I never meant to raise a pack of dogs, it just happened – one dog at a time. First there was Herbie, who was kind enough to allow Sean into the tribe. Herbie was such a swell dog that it seemed irresponsible not to want a second. Thus came Gertie, a tiny little ball of fluff who moved so preciously you might mistake her for an animatronic. Herbie was a good big brother, taking care of his little sister, tolerating her effusive affection. When we moved homes, we got a third, reasoning that Herbie and Gertie would just assume Fudgie came with the property. It would all be one big adjustment that came with more square footage, more land, and one more tiny wagging tail. Three dogs in three years. Fudgie was a quaking, anxiety-riddled mess with lots of kisses and an inexhaustible love of fetch. And then after a hiatus, Sean thought maybe we needed a fourth. And the thing is, nobody actually needs a fourth dog. It tips the scales toward madness. But I’d had a large surgery where basically by body was set on fire in an attempt to burn out the disease. It was painful, and I returned home a mass of fresh oozing wounds who’d wait at home for them to slowly turn into scar tissue. For some reason Sean thought I might need a little cheering up, and a puppy had never failed him yet. Bronx was the runt of his litter, a tiny guy who was immediately intiated into the pack by alpha Herbie, who licked him tip to tail, claiming him.

Togo immediately reminds us of Bronx. He too was the runt of his litter, but like Bronx, he grew up to be a big guy with an even bigger heart. Bronx is an utter sweetheart. He often gets into mischief but doesn’t have a single mischievous bone in his body; he’s simply a bit of a bonehead. He’s still playful like a puppy and he has a big sloppy kiss for every single person he meets. The baby of our 4, he likes having his brothers around him and frets when they are not. Gertie was at the hospital again today, and he cried until she came home.

Togo is a husky, but as the runt, his owner Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) dismisses him. There’s no room on a serious Alaska team for a useless dog, so Leonhard tries to give the dog away, but Togo is also full of mischief, and finds a way to escape. Lucky for him Leonhard’s wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) is a lighter touch. She has the tendency to treat Togo more like a pet than a working dog, a real hazard out in the Alaskan wilds, but soon Togo tugs at even Leonhard’s heart.

In 1925, Alaska was hit hard with diptheria. The children in Leonhard’s town were doomed to perish as the life-saving serum was hundreds of miles away, unreachable. But Leonhard decides to make the perilous trip with trusty Togo leading the way. This real-life journey lives in history books but for nearly a century, another dog, Balto, has taken all the credit. To be fair, Balto is just a dog; he isn’t the one who wrote the stories and stole the glory. But it was Togo who deserved the recognition. It was his run.

I have a friend who was born so far north it makes Alaska look like Vermont. She grew up with a team of dog sled Huskies. As working dogs integral to their way of life, the dogs were very well-treated. But they weren’t pets. When the dogs had stopped being useful, they were “recycled” into furs the family could wear. Nothing is ever wasted up north. Though she’s lived “in the south” for a number of years now, it’s still a surprise to her how dogs have a much different role in a family’s life down here.

Togo is a working dog who crossed the line into Leonhard’s heart. He didn’t care if statues were erected in his memory, he just wanted to be Leonhard’s best pal. That’s the wonderful thing about dogs. They live and breathe for you. They fill your life with love and light. Disney knows this, and they’ve made voluminous trade in the dog movie business – but they’re not the ones who animated the lie that was Balto. If you’re interested in correcting this particular piece of history, or if you’re simply looking for a movie about a verygoodboy, you can find it now on Disney+.

TIFF19: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn looks a lot cooler than it is. Gosh it pains me to say that. I really wanted Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn to be great, and it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who works for friend and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s into something deeper than he should be. Lionel doesn’t know what, but when Frank winds up dead on his watch, you can be sure he’s going to find the fuck out.

Lionel, with his tics and Tourette’s, is not your typical P.I. – it’s hard for him to really stay under the radar when he’s yelling out rude things. But he does good work, and he’s very motivated to do right by his friend. Following the clues leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and to exactly where these things always lead: dirty politicians. Is there any other kind?

Anyway, the movie is a send-up to ye olde film noir of yesteryear, when men wore trenchcoats with deep pockets stuffed with revolvers and fedoras worn specifically so they could be doffed each time a dame walked into the office, though you could barely see her through the yellowed fog of cigarette smoke. The detective was haunted by his past, of course, possibly by a dame he didn’t save in time, but he was stoic, never talked about it much. Just fingered his gun and smoked some more. Motherless Brooklyn puts a slight spin on things by introducing a detective who can’t shut up. And gives him a dame who is, and I’ll whisper this part: not white.

The film is so meticulously put together that sometimes it feels more like a history lesson than gumshoe caper; the diorama of NYC is gritty and seedy, so lovingly rendered that it doubtless earns its A+ but also serves as a distraction in an already bloated movie. And the maddening thing about Motherless Brooklyn is the performances are roundly very good, engaging and solid. But when you throw in the period setting and the metaphors and the big moods and Norton’s search for political relevance, something is bound to get lost. And clocking in at 2.5 hours, that’s a long time to devote your attention to each of the film’s moving parts, especially when things don’t quite add up to what they’ve promised. I also, if I may, think this was a missed opportunity to shoot in black and white. I mean, go all in if you’re gonna go all in. The actual result is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the good outweighs the bad, but at 144 minutes, I think there was opportunity to excise some of the bad completely, but no one has the courage to really wield the knife.

TIFF19: The Lighthouse

Two men are dropped off on a rock in the middle of the ocean, left alone to tend the lighthouse.  The men, let’s call them Wick and Winslow, though they mostly go by “Sir” and “lad”, are strangers about to get extremely cozy during the four weeks of their isolation.

Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a young guy, a bit of a drifter, here to make some serious money and go home.  Wick (Willem Dafoe) is gruff yet poetic, exacting yet frustrated by Winslow’s rule-abiding nature.  The two rub each other wrong right from the start, and the thing about having absolutely nothing but each other’s company is that you’ll either become best friends or the worst of enemies.lighthouse

The weeks pass slowly, marked by back-breaking work.  There’s wanking and drinking and farting, but eventually their time is up.  They’ve made it!  Except that’s really just where the story starts.

A storm blows in, which means no boat can come for them.  They’ve been stranded, but for how long?  Days?  Weeks?  Time becomes meaningless, reality blurred.  We’re witnessing a descent into madness, but the question is: whose?  Winslow’s? Wick’s? Our own?

Shot in stark black and white, with an aching cinematography and an arresting sound design, Robert Eggers (director of the Witch) returns with a dizzying, disorienting film about madness.

The candlelight serves perfectly to illuminate Dafoe’s lined face, his fevered eyes leaving us to wonder whether he’s a psychopath or just a drunk.  Dafoe and Pattinson spar thrillingly on screen, each pushed by the other to unravel even further.  It’s magnetic even if it’s not always easy to watch.

The Lighthouse is full of omens and mythic imagery awaiting decoding.  This film doesn’t have the same sense of unending, unbearable dread that the Witch did, but it will surprise and confound you in new and unique ways, daring you to look away.

Aquaman

How do I even deal with the atrocity that is Aquaman? You probably know already that Aquaman is about a plot by the Atlanteans to attack the people who live on land, and so Aquaman has to become their king to save the world. But what you may not know is that this film is racist.

The only two black people in the movie are criminals (and also father and son). The black dad blows himself up when Aquaman (Jason Momoa) seemingly foils their attempt to steal a submarine from a bunch of white guys (Russians, as it happens).

Then that same submarine reappears to fool some of the Atlanteans into thinking that MV5BMzZjZTU2NjEtZTEzMC00YmRkLWIzZjUtMDczMWI4MDU4ODAxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_the surface world is attacking them to obtain enough votes to attack the surface world. Turns out, one of the Atlantean human-shaped leaders had hired the black guys to steal the sub and fool another Atlantean human-shaped leader. Except then it also turns out that the leader who seemed to be fooled by the sub attack was actually aware it was fake news the whole time and went along with it anyway (and in case it is not clear, all the human shaped Atlanteans we see are white men, every last one, other than Aquaman’s love interest and Aquaman’s mom who are white women).

Then the surviving black guy is hired again by the Atlanteans to kill Aquaman and his love interest in Sicily, and the black guy is willing to go along with it because he blames Aquaman for his dad’s death. That plan fails, with the black guy apparently being killed by Aquaman, and also two non human CGI underwater leaders are either killed or maimed by the white underwater leaders who do not attempt any type of stolen submarine trickery on them at all.

So, to summarize the repeated, overt, MAGA-level racism (on the level of “Look at my African American over here!”):

1. The black son is called “Black Manta” so even when he wears a full suit of armor you can be sure that he’s not white.

2. No effort at all was put into fooling the two CGI leaders who weren’t on board with the plan to kill all humans. Again, those disposable leaders are the two that aren’t white men (and blond, blue eyed white men at that) – one is a merman voiced by a black guy and the other is a big brown CGI crab-man. So you might say the CGI leaders were less worthy of respect than the white ones or perhaps you’d say they came from “shithole” countries, if you were a racist.

3. The Atlanteans are really concerned with following certain rules, namely ones that prohibit going to war against us without four votes, while those same Atlanteans have no problem doing awful things to get those four votes, like killing the CGI underwater leaders who won’t vote the way you want in order to install a new leader who will. Which suggests a set of niceties for white guys that don’t apply to non-whites. Or that the nonwhites were asking for it by looking scary and not giving into what the white guys wanted. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

4. If the Atlanteans hadn’t bothered to steal the sub for fooling reasons, we wouldn’t have needed the black humans to steal anything. But then we’d have missed an opportunity to perpetuate the stereotype that black men are criminals.

Does it matter at all that the racist Atlanteans are the bad guys and they lose in the end? I don’t think it does. This movie is so dumb generally that it is not capable of coherent social commentary, and incoherent social commentary is worse than not saying anything. Further, if the film had wanted to make a point about the dangers of a racist political leader, it needed to make the racism a rallying point for Aquaman and those opposing that leader. In other words, for this movie to be on the right side of prejudice (i.e., against it), the racist Atlanteans needed to lose because of their racism. The non-racists needed to object to the racists’ offensive conduct and resist for that reason, but that never happens in Aquaman.  Instead, Jason Momoa’s character seems to buy into the same stereotypes as the Atlanteans when he leaves the black dad to die because the black guys killed some of the all-white sub crew.

Admittedly, Aquaman later says he learned a lesson from that experience but his application of that lesson is to provide mercy to the all-white Atlanteans. Which means Aquaman does not actually learn the RIGHT lesson, so neither does the audience.  As a result, the harmful stereotypes in Aquaman are perpetuated and normalized, and that’s very, very bad anytime but particularly bad in a film that is targeted at white males.

There’s so many other problems here but I won’t get into them because trafficking in stereotypes is the real issue here. Aquaman is intolerant and intolerable and you should avoid giving DC one more dime for this hugely problematic film.

What Happened to Monday

The world is overpopulated and we are consuming resources at an untenable rate – these are facts, not fiction. It’s kind of depressing that in a dystopian, sci-fi future, the architect of our demise is real, but our willingness to do something about it is the fiction.

In this particular 2078, a strict one-child policy has been made law and is brutally enforced. The GMOs in our food has led to unfathomable rates of multiple-births, so every human is braceleted and check-points are set up to monitor for siblings, who are then removed from the population in order to be cryogenically frozen for a time  when the earth may sustain them. But as Willem Dafoe watches his beautiful and beloved daughter die while giving birth to septuplets, he vows to keep the seven sisters secret. Named for each day of the week, they are raised behind closed doors to be smart and MV5BOGE5ZmVjOGUtZmQzOS00OGQyLWEwNDEtNjkyNDRiZTBhNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_self-sufficient. Each one may only venture outside on the day of the week for which they are named – outside their home, they live as “Karen Settman”, a character that all 7 must be equally devoted to keeping sacred.

Of course, when Monday goes missing, the remaining 6 are going to have a heck of a time tracking her down since between them they only have the one avatar allowed to exist in the world. So the script basically forces itself into an anything-goes amalgam where we’re never sure if we’re watching a gritty crime thriller, or a family drama, or a murder mystery, or jagged social commentary. There are a couple of really great set pieces that may get your heart pumping quickly enough to sustain you during the more aimless scenes in between. It’s an uneven movie, overstuffed for sure, but an interesting premise even if its denouement is somewhat predictable.

Noomi Rapace gets to play all seven juicy roles, and she gives each Settman sister a twist of her own. It’s fun to watch her interact with herself, and it’s a trick pulled off rather deftly. But for me, personally, the  most interesting part of this movie is imaging myself and my sisters (there are “only” 4 of us, luckily – the world could not take a single one more) co-existing even nominally peacefully in an apartment for years, sharing one single identity. The four of us are nothing alike and I can’t even imagine what a compromise would begin to look like. One of  us lives and breathes hockey, and one of us cannot physically stand upright on skates. How do you even do that halfway? One of us is covered in tattoos and one of us refers to them as “prison ink” with a judgmental eye roll. Growing up, we couldn’t agree on a single television show to watch. How would we agree on a single hairstyle, job, boyfriend, drink preference? And let’s face it: whoever pulls the Saturday shift will never have to go to work or school, while poor Monday will forever be stuck without a single drop of fun.

Sean watched this movie and had a very different takeaway. He saw only potential: since we are childfree by choice, he thought our right to a child could be sold to the highest bidder, and he envisioned us living comfortably off the proceeds. So in summation: Jay can’t even imagine a fictional world in which she is capable of compromise, Sean is mercenary, and What Happened to Monday is an entertaining but not quite brilliant addition to Netflix’s sci-fi catalogue.

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot is a world-renowned detective, known almost as much for his venerable mustaches as for his excellent deductive skills. On the way home from solving yet another case successfully, his train gets stuck in the middle of nowhere thanks to an avalanche, and that’s not the worst thing that’s happened aboard the Orient Express. Overnight, there has been a murder most foul. One of the dozen or so passengers is dead, and another must be his murderer. With Hercule Poirot unluckily aboard, can his or her identity remain secret? It seems unlikely.

MV5BMTU4NjU5NDYxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzgyODg0MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_Kenneth Branagh directs himself as Agatha Christie’s famed Poirot, and he’s equally right in both roles. He leads an all-star cast including Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and more. The only thing you can complain about with such an ensemble is that we spend precious little time with any one of them – Dench is particularly underused.

Branagh shoots on 65mm film and the result is luxurious and beautiful; I could barely take my eyes off the scenery, and indeed, the script gave me little reason to. I’m still not sure what genre of movie Murder on the Orient Express was trying to be. There might be a mystery at its core, but the audience feels no particular sense of urgency in solving it. There’s almost zero tension, which seems like a failure when a murderer is trapped among a gaggle of vulnerable potential victims, each with a neck ripe for slicing. And though I commend Branagh’s attempt at making Poirot sag a little under the pressure of his special skill set, the character seems largely untouched by the story unraveling before him. Leached of the emotional heft probably its due, the story never delivers any punch. There’s no real suspense. So while every shot is perfectly composed and the film is a stylistic triumph, it just doesn’t do justice to Christie’s plot.

The Florida Project

Thank you New Hampshire Film Festival for bringing this beautiful film to us. We missed seeing it at TIFF and it got huge buzz. HUGE. Director Sean Baker is following up his crazy-good Tangerine and we’ve been collectively, societally waiting with baited breath for his next effort. It feels like Sean Baker is doing important work without all the trumpets and majorettes and fanfare. But I sort of hope that maybe I can blow the horn a bit here, wave a flag or two: The Florida Project is fucking awesome.

6 year old Moonee has the run of the crummy Orlando motel where she and her mother live in “extended stays.” Halley, her mom, can’t get work at Disney and has no other MV5BYjZhMDZmZjItNjcyZC00ZWY2LTkzMzUtZWM0ZDgyYzM2Nzg2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_options, so you can imagine some of the crazy things they do for money. It’s a destitute, desperate kind of life but you’d never know it to see Mooney adventuring around free-range with her comrades.

Sean Baker is a master of society’s fringes, and the near-homelessness of the people constantly scrounging for rent between scrapes with the law or family services is about as marginal as you get. Situate that beside the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” where the wealthy tourists stay in much nicer digs and it’s an uncomfortable reminder that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Moonee, meanwhile, is seemingly untouched by her circumstances. Intellectually, you know it’s not true: that of course she’s affected by what she sees and hears and eats and meets and experiences, and that she’ll find it hard to climb above her mother’s station. But for now she’s a happy-go-lucky kid who rarely faces consequences, although that’s largely thanks to the motel’s manager and de-facto babysitter, Bobby, who is the eyes, ears, caregiver and mediator when parents just aren’t up to snuff. And believe me, this is a building where neglect rules the day. I felt real tension watching these kids be unwatched.

Halley, barely more than a kid herself, and scarcely more responsible, is tattooed with bad decisions but not without sympathy. Bria Vinaite, who plays her, really understands Halley’s sharp corners and soft underbelly. Willem Dafoe gives Bobby a complexity and edge that make his character fascinating. He’s like the beating heart of the building he supervises. But it’s little Brooklynn Prince as Moonee who just about steals the whole gosh darn movie. She is so real and raw it often feels like you’re watching a documentary, and that the stakes are indeed life-altering. Child actors can make or break a movie but Sean Baker has found not one but a trio of incredibly spirited, natural, and talented kids that make this movie what it is.

The Florida Project is audacious, authentic, absorbing. And it’s begging to be watched.

Hot Docs: Do Donkeys Act?

Did you ever have existential questions about donkeys? No? Well, move on.

Or not. The truth is, you haven’t seen anything like Do Donkeys Act? It’s a documentary about donkeys (a donkumentary?), made reputedly by humans (Ashley Sabin and David Redmon), for the enjoyment of – donkeys? There are no talking head interviews in the film, very little input from people, period. There are, however, extended shots of donkeys just “being.” Filmed on a few different donkey sanctuaries where tired and abused donkeys go to live out the last years of their lives, there are no donkey facts, no never-before-seen donkeys in the wild. What the film does offer is plenty of space to contemplate the life and death of these beasts of burden.

Do_Donkeys_act_1How do donkeys cry? Do they tremble inside? Do they dream? These are the types of insights and reflexive cues provided by poetic narration provided by Willem Dafoe. We might spend several minutes just gazing upon a bunch of donkeys eating communally from a trough. We may consider the different utterances we hear and attempt to interpret each one. The donkeys are communicating – are you listening?

The documentary takes the humble donkey and elevates him to the star of his own movie. I started to wonder, listening to them honk and hee-haw, if they were perhaps translating the poetry we were hearing from Dafoe. But then, in a mind-bender, I wondered: is it maybe we who are translating their poetry? Mind blown.

Although its run time is brief and it takes a while to get into its unique rhythm, Do Donkeys Act? has an embracing kind of empathy that came to be quite moving. I’m not sure I’ve come away with specific meaning, but I’ve just spent 72 minutes thinking about donkeys, which is 72 more than I’ve ever given them before, and there’s a kind of grace in that,  triumph for the film makers, dignity for the film’s brave subjects.

 

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis, where you can find lots more excellent Hot Docs coverage.