I just covered this film last year on my Summer project for 2021 80’s Nostalgia Central, you can read a full post here. Last night was an opportunity to see it in a theater and that was a treat. This movie continues to work like gangbusters. I’ve seen it a dozen times and it still gets a rise out of me, there are great sequences that raise goosebumps, and jump scares that work in spite of the fact that you know they are coming.
Ben Mankiewicz said in the out going comments that Spielberg definitely directed the sequence with JoBeth Williams in the freshly dug pool with the caskets popping up. The story is that she was worried about her safety with the water and all the effects and electrical equipment in the scene, and that Spielberg jumped in the water with her and said, “well if anything does go wrong, they’ll lose both of us”.
Although I usually an aghast at too much screaming on screen, it was perfectly natural here. The kids are really solid and Williams is the real star of the picture. The spontaneous chair stacking is a simple concept that gave me a shiver when it happened so quickly. The biggest chill however continues to be the clown doll, If you suffer from Coulrophobia, you do not want to see this movie. As I said, I knew it was coming, I know both bumps in the sequence and they still gave me goosebumps.
There are a hundred beautiful things in this film, and the craft trades have much to be proud of when they point to their credit here. Florence Pugh will add to her reputation as a fine actress with an interesting look and talent to spare. Harry Styles probably should not quit that very successful day job, but I did not find him to be the disaster that others have labeled him. Director Olivia Wilde has an eye for creative visuals, but she has not found a way to turn that vision into a tool that advances a coherent story. Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke have created a screenplay and story that resembles a number of other films. The reality of the characters is not reality. The question that comes up immediately, what the heck is going on? I’m going to tell you now, you will not be satisfied with the answer.
Maybe they thought that what they were telling was an allegory on women and men and their roles. It starts off as if it were an update to “The Stepford Wives”, since it seems the men have a secret and the women are all at home taking care of domestic issues. That however is as close to any obvious commentary as you are likely to get. There is one point where it sounds like it is going to be commenting on the men’s movement which has been widely discussed in the past few years. There is a hint of that in one of the speeches that the leader of the community is making, it almost comes off as a parody of those advocating that men return to their traditional roles. It turns out those words are gobbledygook and the point is even more obscure after that. When we finally get to the explanation of what is going on, it seems almost to go in the opposite direction, because the ineffectual men that make up the community are apparently not employed in something nefarious, unless work is somehow evil.
So what happens in the movie is aggressively stupid, and it gets more annoying as it goes along. The surface of “Victory” the town that all the characters occupy, is glossy and chic in a retro 50s style. Having grown up in the sixties in Southern California, I saw plenty of homes that looked like the ones in this film. I think there are probably stretches of Palm Springs that look like this. The sheen on the cars is so bright you could get blinded by it. Unlike in Stepford, the wives do not appear to be zombies with the same dull faces, except when the director wants them to be during repeated ballet lessons. If this is a message about conformity, why do the women have different styles, why are some of them pregnant, why does our main couple have a sexual appetite that is so insatiable they abandon dinner or have sex in the bosses bedroom? All of the characters take note of the differences as well. When Alice, the character played by Florence Pugh points out the similarity of the couples first meetings, there is a stamp of conformity, but instead of it being a problem in their behavior, it is a flaw in the mechanism that supposedly created this perfect community. If a video-game can have countless resolutions based on the programming and performance of the players, how is it that the system we discover can’t even create different backgrounds for characters? It makes no sense.
Speaking of making no sense, when the twist gets revealed, the first question that popped into my mind was “where did the plane come from?” It is not clear if this is an open system or a closed system. Sometimes, as with the sexual adventures of our main couple, it feels like there is an ability to influence the environment of the program. Other times, as when another wife has a breakdown, it feels like the system is in control. How much influence Alice has over what happens is not clear, ever. The power of the system is sometimes supposed to be implacable, but clearly it is not. When Chris Pine, as the cult like leader of the community, confronts Alice, he makes it sound like he and she are in some kind of battle, but that would undermine everything it looks like he is trying to accomplish. Also, the completion of his story is completely inconsistent with what the twist has revealed. It is difficult to talk about how stupid some of this is without crossing a spoiler line. When it is covered on the podcast, you will hear more if you tune in.
Let’s just say that this is a “Twilight Zone Episode”, expanded to two hours and given an indulgent budget. It would be better as a 22 minute black and white episode. It would still be middling in terms of story but it would be less annoying. Just because a Busby Berkeley dance sequence looks interesting, does not mean it belongs in the movie. If you are not tired of a world built around the premise of “The Matrix” and you enjoy songs from the 1950s, then you might find something here to enjoy. I felt it was a weak sauce retread of concepts that have been done better before. It’s dipped in a nice candy coating, but it’s full of empty calories and the more of it I consumed, the less I enjoyed it.
There is not going to be any suspense in this review, I will tell you right off the bat that this was a disappointment. It should not have been, but the writing, which is so good in the first act, falls off in quality and logic in the third act, and like so many horror films, it is the payoff that screws up the film. The slow burn opening gets wasted by a series of non-sensical events at the end. I just saw “See How They Run” and the director in that story wanted to rewrite the ending of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”. There is a scene in that movie where a series of storyboards shows the direction he wanted to take. The makers of this movie must have a similar set of storyboards from the same trite minds that think all horror films have to end the same way.
What is so promising at the start of the first section, gets added too in a second section, where it looks like we might be going into a different kind of barbaric act, featuring a non-horror situation. The character played by Justin Long, is getting a Hollywood cancellation moment, and it looks at first as if it is going to take a unique perspective on that circumstance. The financial and professional ruin of an actor on the brink of sitcom stardom, is the event that drives this character into the scenario we saw played out at the start of the movie. Sadly, it is not to be that an injustice is giving sympathy to a potential victim. Instead, the movie plays this storyline out as a comeuppance. So again what was unique and potentially intriguing gets washed away in an act of woke contrition.
Technically, the horror elements that are visualized are done quite well. There are a couple of jump scares and some mild gore to establish the violence bona fides of the film. It is not the acts of violence and mayhem that are the most horrifying moments however. There are three standout visual images that will really haunt you, if anything from the movie does. In a flashback sequence, we see the machinations of a serial killer/rapist/kidnapper. The point of view from behind him as he shops for products to facilitate his actions is disturbing. When we see the casual way that he gains entry into a future victim’s home, it is a terrifying moment that should make every homeowner pause. This whole sequence takes place as we enter the final act. The second visual stunner is the discovery of a room, equipped with a filthy bed and a couple of other items that will induce nightmares without thinking too hard. It is this visage that startles out main protagonist Tess, into the actions that any human being would have, Fight or Flight. Unfortunately, the character has to do the stupid thing that every fan of horror films screams at the screen about, “Don’t Do it!”, and then she does. In my view however, the most disturbing visual moment takes place in daylight, outdoors, while Tess is in the car driving away from the site of the action. Block after block of abandoned, dilapidated houses roll past her windows. She has stayed in a vacant warzone for a night, and she is lucky to be alive. So once again, living down to the trope of the most basic horror film, what stupid thing does she do? That’s right, she goes back to that neighborhood, after being warned, with the plan to spend another night there.
Georgina Campbell is Tess, who is so smart, alert and wise on that first night. Her spider-senses tingle and she takes appropriate action, until it is time for her to do something, she herself has said not to do. Last summer there was a horror film based on a single word that every person in a frightening situation ignores “Nope”. She literally says it out loud, and within two minutes does it anyway. Bill Skarsgård plays a sympathetic red herring. We are supposed to be suspicious of him but we get won over. His character goes from solicitous with Tess to dismissive for no good reason other than to make us doubt him, but it was inconsistent with the way the character had been presented in the slow burn. AJ, the Justin Long character can be forgiven his stupidity at first, he is distracted, but if he is engaged enough to complain on the phone to the worst property manager in the Detroit area, you would think he could pick up the bad vibes in the house location immediately. So basically, the three main characters are too stupid to avoid the risk right in front of them with the flashing yellow sign.
Finally in the climax, like all horror films, the monster is indestructible, and we are also asked to sympathize at the same time that murder is going on in front of our eyes. Horror films need to start working backwards. Figure out your ending before to write the opening. When you expend all the energy and creativity on the set up, whatever you have left gets used on the payoff, and it isn’t enough. There was a lot to like about the movie, but all that is gold gets cancelled by acts of stupidity, improbability, out right cliché, and the impossible. Catch it on shudder next month.
It’s not everyday you get a real farce on the big screen. Lots of films have elements of farce and are quite enjoyable as a consequence. In the last year I would say “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” and “Free Guy” are two examples of action films that have farcical moments in them. Most Wes Anderson films also feature the concept of a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character. “See How They Run” has the advantage of actually being a film about a play, which is eventually revealed to be a sort of play in itself. That is what makes it a true farce as far as I am concerned.
The story concerns a murder that takes place during a negotiation to turn “The Mousetrap” into a movie. Those of you not familiar with the play simply need to know that it is an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It is also the longest running play in the history of theater, starting in 1952 and still playing on the West End in London to this day. This movie is not a filmed version of the play, but rather a take off on the plat, using “The Mousetrap” as a sort of touchstone or spine for the mayhem. It mocks the machinations of old Hollywood and they manner in which film makers try to take material and rework it to their own vision. The real clause in the contract granting rights to a cinematic version, states that such a film cannot be made until six months after the play closes in London. See how this is going to work?
Making use of techniques used by movies over the years, this film starts off being narrated by the stereotypical victim of these kinds of drawing room mysteries. The performance of Adrien Brody is fitfully droll and sarcastic, with just a little bit of surprise thrown in. The fact that he is in the film explains why his character is resurrected for several flashback scenes. Those kinds of scenes are also mocked in the film in a self reference that will be seen time and again in the movie. No spoiler here, but when you see the climax of the film, you will laugh out loud, hard.
The historical context of the story adds some fun twists to a murder mystery that is as convoluted as any written by Christie herself. I enjoyed having Richard Attenborough played on screen as a young actor treading the boards in the play. The Hollywood Cliché of the producer is only partially exploited, but the film director tries to compensate by being a cad and attempting seduction by casting whenever he can. Once the murder has occurred, the real stars of the film and the source of the greatest comic moments show up. Sam Rockwell is doing a Gary Oldman impression of a fifties era detective inspector. He is great playing the detached slightly alcoholic run of the mill, hardworking detective. He is partnered with eager beaver Constable Saoirse Ronan, who comically takes notes, jumps to conclusions and also plays the hero. There are bad puns, slamming doors, slightly missed moments when trailing a suspect, all of which will provoke a chuckle here and there.
This sort of thing is hard to pull off in a film. So many times what works on stage simply seems frenetic on screen, but here the pacing is cool enough to let us enjoy the oddball characters and the silly assumptions. The final result is a charming little mystery that lampoons it’s own roots in a gently comic way, and evokes enough laughter to justify going out to a theater to see it. I was pleased that the Tuesday Discount brought out a good sized crowd for this movie. It’s great to hear laughter from a collective of souls in the dark.
It was just six months ago that I saw “X”, which so far continues to be my favorite film of the year. At the end of the film was a teaser for a sequel, and lo and behold, here it is, just half a year later. Director Ti West is swinging for the fences and I approve of the effort, but this film is not an out of the park homerun like it’s predecessor. It is instead a long fly ball to center field that misses the fence but gets you standing for a couple of seconds, thrilled at the prospect if not entirely happy with the result. “Pearl” is not essential to the original story, but it is an interesting trail to follow and there are some great moments to recommend it, even if it isn’t a true gem.
West has a take on these films that I think is really interesting. He is modeling the style of the movie to the times that it is set in. This worked extremely well in the 70s based “X”, with it’s grungy porn milieu and pacing like a slow burn horror film of that decade. “Pearl” is set in 1918, and the silent films of that era are a little hard to model your film on and still use modern equipment and storytelling. This is not a silent film, but it is a melodrama with over the top moments, long pauses on a frame in anticipation of an action, and some cutesy cinematic moments to make the movie feel old fashioned. In a spot on reflection, the pandemic of Spanish flu serves as a reminder that the Covid-19 situation we find ourselves in, was not the first time that paranoia lead to extreme behavior in trying to avoid the illness.
In an isolated farmhouse, Pearl lives with a domineering mother of German descent, who frequently lapses into her native tongue when admonishing her daughter. Also in the house is her father, disabled by the pandemic in such a way as to lock him in a wheelchair and render him incapable of speech. At first Pearl seems the quintessential farm girl, talking to the cow and goat, both of which she has given names to. It doesn’t take long however to discover that there is something not quite right about her. In spite of her random moments of cruelty, we sympathize with her because the mother’s oppression seems overwhelming and Pearl does have a husband at war, who professes his love quite beautifully in letters that he writes to her from the front in Europe. Like many young women, she dreams of stardom on the screen, in her case as a dancer. Her innocent dress up and performance for animals in the barn or her mirror in the bedroom, are condemned by her mother and she is belittled for being foolish. Later in the movie, we discover that Mom has some idea of the issues that Pearl has. Did she foment those tendencies by her attitude toward Pearl, or did she develop that attitude as a result of what she saw in Pearl? We don’t quite know, but we do know it will come to a head.
The writers of this film are the director and the lead actress, and they have made some interesting choices. For instance, the friendly projectionist might be a predator or simply a man who is looking for connection as a lonely bohemian. He does not take advantage of Pearl so much as she takes advantage of him. We get foreshadowing of this in a way that also warns us again that Pearl is not necessarily stable, despite her prim demeanor at times. When the violence starts, there is no doubt that it is coming from a dark place in Pearl rather than a reaction provoked by the people she encounters. At the climax of the film, the innocent and supportive character is the target of her delusion and rage and there is no excusing it.
Over the course of the film, the techniques to mimic the era are less noticeable and successful. What seemed like a slow burn in the 70s era horror in the first film, feels like needless meandering in this melodramatic potboiler. Pearl pursues her dream with a distorted perception of the circumstances she is operating in. We don’t see all the girls that she is competing with, but we do see both her performance and her self reflection of that performance. There are fantasy inserts that might seem like they fit a late 1920s musical, but they are confusing in this story. Pearl’s imagination spills over into the real world, and I guess that is supposed to give us insight into how she is thinking, but it is an artistic choice that muddles the narrative.
Just as things are coming to a head, and you think the film will finish on a conventional note, we get served a surprise that makes the whole movie worthwhile. Actress Mia Goth has been magnetic in the role up to this point, but she suddenly becomes hypnotic. She has a six or seven minute scene that is shot in one continuous take, never cutting to another character but always focusing on her. Like the great monologue from Quint in “Jaws”, we are pulled into a confessional story that is horrifying, revealing and compelling. Mia Goth holds us in her hand the way Robert Shaw did, for a full six minutes, and we will not be able to turn away. Look, this is a horror film done on a budget without a lot of economic impact on the film business, but if the people who give acting awards don’t take some notice of Mia Goth this year, they are in essence admitting that their awards are not for performance but for politics. This scene is both heartbreaking and horrifying, and it is all on Mia Goth in her voice and face.
Nearly matching Mia Goth is actress Tandi Wright, who plays the Mother, Ruth. She is stern and frightening at times, but ultimately conveys that she is the one most frightened. The make-up, hair dressing and costumes turn her into visage of dominating truculence. She also has a moment of monologue that gives her a chance to shine. It is not as long and it is not entirely focused on her, but is is noteworthy and it is a great companion performance to Goth’s unhinged innocent.
So, “Pearl” does not reach the heights that “X” did, but it is nevertheless a worthy follow up and it leaves me looking forward to the third film in the series “Maxxxine” which will be set in the 1980s and already seems poised to get that vibe correct, based on a short teaser at the end of this film. Maybe these movies are being made for a cult audience, I guess it turns out that I am part of that cult.
I did not remember writing about this film before, and that seemed strange to me because it is an old favorite. It turns out that it was not neglect on my part to cover the film, but rather my faulty memory, because I have a post up about this from a 35th Anniversary screening , so just five years ago. You can go there to read my comments on the film, I have not changed my opinion one iota, this is the movie that the original Trekkers will remember as the finest in the series.
At the end of a long holiday weekend, I looked back on the last month and realized that seven out of the last nine films I have written about, are older films that were getting screenings at a theater. I love new movies as much as the next person, but I’m beginning to think that August and September are months that studios don’t want us to see new films. The National Cinema Day that happened on Saturday with $3 admission at most theater chains, resulted in “Spider-Man No Way Home” being the top film of the weekend, with a few minutes of added content for a movie that opened last December and has been on home media for months. Maybe instead of the discount, all the theaters could offer a huge choice of classic films for the weekend, I’d be up for that.
This version of Star Trek II was a director’s cut that Nicolas Meyer oversaw. As I was watching the film last night, I noticed the several slight changes that had been made. This was the same version of the movie that I wrote about five years ago, but I think it must be only the second time I have seen this version because the changes stood out for me. I worry about people tinkering with films after they have been released. George Lucas almost ruined his original Star Wars Trilogy with the refinements he made over the years. This sort of change however is not technical in nature, it is editorial and it works really well, so don’t be put off if you are a purist, the movie still works.
Earlier this year, we passed by “Giant” at the TCM Film Festival because it is a three hour and twenty-one minute film that would have blocked out a couple of other things we were interested in. Lucky for us, the local Alamo Drafthouse scheduled a screening on this long weekend, so we did get a chance to see this George Stevens film on the big screen.
I have seen this film before but Amanda had not. The pairing of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor is a compelling enough reason to see the film. Add to the mix, James Dean’s final screen performance and his second posthumous Academy Award Nomination, and it becomes an essential for cinema buffs. I have always enjoyed the film but I have never thought it was as compelling as so many others seem to feel about it. Now that I live in Texas, I appreciated the first part of the story a lot more and the attitude that Texans have about the state is more relevant to me. Still, this is a big soap opera, with a little fantasy history and social consciousness weaved in to make it feel more significant.
Rock Hudson received his only Academy nomination for this film, and he probably deserved the acclaim for the movie, especially for the second half of the story. Bick Benedict is a headstrong traditionalist who clashes with his eastern bred wife over local politics and the condition of the Mexican workers who populate the large ranch they own. At times he sounds like one of those Southerners who argued for segregation because it was the culture, rather than racial animus that drove their opinions. His slightly inebriated acknowledgement that Angel Obregon, the Mexican kid who is joining the Army, is the best man on the ranch, illustrates that he is simply blind to how this tradition could be seen as prejudicial. His pious protestations about his daughter-in-law being a fine gal, gives way toward the end when he is forced to see the injustices being thrown her way simply because of her heritage. His character as the greatest attitude change in the story arc.
Elizabeth Taylor is fine in her role but the character is always a bit impertinent and forthright in her opinions. The best stretch of her performance is buried in the middle of the film during the couples brief separation. They still have problems when they are reunited, but you can see from her performance that Lesley feels those difficulties are surmountable once they are together again. James Dean was honored in a lead acting category, but his role is very secondary until the final act, and even there it is minimal. I did appreciate the early section where he is enamored of the new Mrs. Benedict, but he is constrained by the situation and her clear messages that she only has eyes for her husband. The visit to his small part of the ranch to share a cup of tea was his best scene in my opinion. I thought the drunken Jett of the last section was a little overdone.
I had forgotten that Rod Taylor was in this picture, and that is understandable since it is a very tertiary role. Dennis Hopper is incredibly young and a little wooden but he comes across quite sincerely. Chill Wills is in a much more familiar part here than he was in “The Deadly Companions” which I saw earlier this year for the Strother Martin Wednesday series I did this summer. It is a big cast and the movie looked great but it’s length was a bit much. “Lawrence of Arabia” is nearly twenty minutes longer, but never feels long to me. This felt quite padded at times. Still it was a great movie and great seeing it on the big screen.
“Jaws” on the big screen, of course I am going to be there. This is a cinematic experience and no matter how great the home video releases are (and yes I will be buying the 4K Upgrade being promoted by the current release) one should always see “Jaws” in a theater when it is possible. The screen size and sound are probably going to be superior, but even more than the technology, you are seeing the movie in the place it was made for with people who have the same desire as you, to sit in a theater to experience this masterpiece. The only question is whether the tweaking for 3-D enhances or detracts from the experience.
So we went to two screenings, back to back in different theaters. The first had a 3-D presentation so let me start with that. “Jaws” is a perfect film, so it doesn’t really need anything else to gin it up, but there were interesting moments in the film with the 3D effect. The Billboard Public Service announcement does pop a bit more and it does draw your eye to the graffiti artist’s work. The scene in Quint’s workshop was also a little more intriguing because some of the production background stands out more. Some of the effect was distracting however since you start looking at the things that are different rather than the things that are important. Quint’s limerick gets pushed to the background because the foreground with Ellen Brody is now the 3D focus in the scene. I don’t know that it lessens the film but it does alter the perspective you have and that was a little disconcerting.
The second screening was in the New IMAX where the screen size is substantially bigger and the quality of the sound and projection has been carefully adjusted to perfectly fit the venue. This was the experience I preferred. The movie looks great in both versions, but without the 3D effect, the experience is the way you are usually engaged with the film which is probably more comfortable.
I liked that the sound in the theater allowed me to hear Brody repeating the directions for the knot he is trying to tie while the reel is slowly being taken. Most mixes focus on the clicking of the reel and obscure the off screen sounds as a result. You also can make out more of Quint’s improvised lyrics for 15 Men on a Dead Man’s Chest.
I am still trying to figure out what Ellen was serving at dinner, but the rest of the scene was solid with Sean imitating his father and providing a great emotional arc for Chief Brody. I have literally seen this movie over a hundred times and I still get bits and pieces of new insight each time. This is the first time it dawned on me that Meadows is driving Mayor Larry Vaughn’s car when they track down Brody at the ferry. Why the Mayor gets out of the passenger seat in this scene probably has something to do with framing the scene, but once I realized it, the moment felt strange.
We are going back for a third screening today, just because we can.
As is usual when “Lawrence of Arabia” is on the Big Screen within range, we went again to see one of the greatest cinematic experiences ever created. The Paramount Theater in Austin is finishing off their Summer Classic Movie series with some great ones. “2001” and “The Godfather Part II” are also set for the next wee, and I may try to get to at least one of those, but “Lawrence”, always.
I’ve written about this movie several times and each time I do, I try to find a different angle to focus on. This time I’m going with something that has been staring us in the face for 60 years, but we don’t really take notice, Lawrence is a funny guy, and David Lean inserts a lot of funny moments into the film. It’s easy to see the story arc of our central character by how his mischievous nature and dry wit, wither in the second part of the film.
Lawrence delights in his insouciant manner with his military superiors. He acknowledges to one General that it is his manner that makes him appear to be insubordinate when he is really just delighting in word play and his own perspective on things. He can also laugh at others and take delight in the two boys who become his servant/worshipers. It is only after the loss of one of them that the bemused smile that is usually on his face fades. It comes back briefly when the battles are won or when he foolishly chooses to enter a town with a Turkish garrison. After the sadistic treatment he receives from the Turkish Bey, he almost never smiles again.
Other characters have to cover the humor in the post intermission segment of the film. Ali pleads with God on behalf of his friend, Auda pontificates with a poisonous wit now and then, and General Allenby and Mr. Dryden provide asides and barely hidden smiles to keep a bit of humor in the film in those grimmer scenes.
It was a long day and my companion had utilized most of her energy at work that day, so I was a little concerned that the long movie and the late evening might cause some drowsiness. The temperature in the theater solved that problem. I have not been so chilly in the desert since I saw “The English Patient” in winter at the Rialto theater where the heater had gone out. I guess they were overcompensating for the weather here in Austin.
I am not sure why this movie was released the last week of August. It is a quality piece of film making with a thoughtful theme and delicate performances from the two leads. This feels like a Spring or Fall release, not something that you dump with the action/horror trash that makes up the usual fare at this time of year. When the Lion in the MGM logo that came up in front of the film did not roar in the traditional way, I wondered what was happening. Maybe someone at MGM decided it would be triggering, or maybe that Idris Elba had enough lion roars from his film out just two weeks ago. It did make me question the thinking at the studio, and after seeing the film, I believe I was right in thinking someone in marketing has screwed up.
George Miller has been responsible for some odd films over the years. The two “Babe” pictures run in the opposite direction of his Mad Max films, and “Happy Feet”, the less said about the better. “3000 Years of Longing” is a non-traditional narrative about narratives. Alithea, the subject of the initial story is a character who studies, records, interprets and investigates literary narratives. The idea that this person should be the one to discover the story revealed when a Djinn gets released from his captivity is a good one. By making her the receiver of the story, she can stand in for the all of us as skeptic and captivated audience. Idris Elba as the ancient Djinn with a story to tell is a more compelling character than the doctor he played in the recent “Beast“. It feels odd to have him in back to back weeks as the lead of the major film opening that Friday. The character here is more compelling and he requires the skills of an actor to keep us enthralled in the story.
This movie reminds me of a movie from almost thirty years ago, Wayne Wang’s “Smoke”. The subject matter is completely different, but the films both feature narrators telling stories that pull us in. The stories may not be essential but they are compelling. What Miller has done is ladled on the visuals to go with the stories that our protagonists are sharing. This works especially well in the setting of the hotel room in Istanbul. As the two characters converse and we see the story being told by the Djinn with magic, color and incredible visual detail. Solomon’s musical instrument, the concubines of the imbecile brother who will become king, the inventions of his greatest love, all are amazing images that Miller and his team deserve credit for. The three stories told in this sequence are fascinating, but sometimes they feel arbitrary, like they have to evoke the cautionary tales of wishes being granted. The problem is that the rules seem inconsistent, and that matters because when the location of the story moves to modern London, the film runs out of steam and it does not have a clear set of rules to fall back on.
Tilda Swinton plays the most normal character I have seen her as in a movie in a long time. Her career justifies her willingness to engage in the stories, but the change in her desires at the close of the middle section was abrupt, and the ground rules were ambiguous, in spite of her exposition then and at the end of the movie. As I look back on the film, I see some foreshadowing of the final outcome that I noticed but did not connect to the story. That’s because we get side tracked in a totally superfluous side story about a couple of busy body old ladies living next door. Their only reason for being there is to provide a completely unnecessary woke moment, but as a piece of misdirection, it works to make the Djinn’s physical shift a surprise.
In the end, I was glad I saw the film and I liked the slightly melancholy happy ending. The plot is supposed to be told to us as a fairy tale, so I suppose that can excuse some plot contrivances and holes in the logic of the story. I mostly did not care because the two leads engaged in conversation, with the advantage of a visual palate to complete the stories that are being shared, was compelling enough for me. It may be a languid trip for some, but it was a pleasant journey with a nice fairy tale feel.