Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

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.

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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.