Tuesday, November 29, 2022

‘She Said’ offers a profile in courage and determination

“She Said” (2022). Cast: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Angela Yeoh, Zach Grenier, Sean Cullen, Mike Houston, Keilly McQuail (voice), Anastasia Barzee, Adam Shapiro, Tom Pelphrey, Jason Babinsky, James Austin Johnson (voice), Peter Friedman, Lola Petticrew, Ashley Chiu, Molly Windsor, Bill O’Reilly (archive footage). Director: Maria Schrader. Screenplay: Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Story Source Material: Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Rebecca Corbett, New York Times investigation and reporting (2017); Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, book, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement (2019). Web site. Trailer.

The David and Goliath narrative is a common template in literature and screenwriting. And, all too often, it’s a recurring theme in many real world events. One hopes that the outcome in those everyday instances mirrors that of their literary counterpart, though circumstances don’t always shake out that way. The chances of success are far greater, however, when addressed from a standpoint of courage and determination, themes that pervade the new fact-based drama, “She Said.”

For decades, the old boys network held sway over most segments of society, especially in the business world. The network of powerful, influential, mostly White men had successfully managed to get its way in virtually all forms of endeavor. And with that kind of power came the ability to manipulate others into giving them whatever they wanted. This included not only business and financial concessions, but also those of a more personal nature, namely, sexual favors, particularly where women were concerned. Women were routinely coerced into providing whatever the old boys asked for (or, in many cases, demanded) in exchange for career advancement and future opportunities. Their silence about these practices was bought with their signatures on required nondisclosure agreements, and those who threatened to blow the whistle about these incidents were effectively blackballed, denying them any kind of future in their respective endeavors. Those who insisted on protesting these circumstances were generally paid off through settlement agreements that exonerated the guilty and effectively kept their accusers muzzled, no matter what indignities had been committed. And nowhere was this more prevalent than in the entertainment industry.

Such sleazy practices went on virtually unchecked for ages. Powerful men in Hollywood and the broadcast industry got away with these disgraceful forms of bullying and humiliation without notice, despite this being a widely known open secret in the industry. It enabled the perpetrators to have their way without ramifications while leaving their victims terrorized and abused, fearful of speaking out for what it might mean for their future in show business. But, as the number of women who suffered under these conditions swelled over the years, a tipping point was coming. And, thanks to a pair of intrepid New York Times journalists and their courageous, determined editors, the scales finally tipped in the victims’ direction.

New York Times journalists Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, left) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan, right) helped change society’s view of sexual misconduct through their reporting on the subject, as seen in the new fact-based drama, “She Said,” now playing in theaters. Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures, © 2022 courtesy of Universal Studios.

In 2016-17, with the revelation of sexual misconduct claims leveled against TV journalist Bill O’Reilly and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (voiced by James Austin Johnson), the Times staff began pursuing such stories in earnest. Reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) began looking into the issue after reports started emerging about similar alleged incidents tying Hollywood notables like Gwyneth Paltrow (voiced by herself), Ashley Judd (portrayed by herself) and Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) to producer Harvey Weinstein (Mike Houston), one of the most powerful and influential men in the movie business. The charges dated back to the 1990s, when Weinstein headed the film distribution company Miramax before later moving on to The Weinstein Co. in 2005. Most of the allegations managed to stay out of the public eye, largely due to the negotiation of a number of undisclosed settlement agreements to keep the incidents quiet.

When Twohey and Kantor began hearing about such rumors, they wanted to look into them further with the support of Times Investigations Department Editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher). In addition to allegations involving the aforementioned actresses, many reports also surfaced involving Miramax staff members, such as Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle), Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) and Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh). The investigation team believed that, if they could convince multiple victims to step forward, the flood gates would open; they assumed that the “safety in numbers” principle would take hold, helping the affected women overcome their fears of speaking out on the record, despite their nondisclosure agreements.

However, since nearly all of these prospective sources had signed NDAs, they were prevented from speaking out publicly, leaving the journalists with no reportable evidence to substantiate the claims. And Madden, the only one not to have signed such an agreement, was suffering from a recently diagnosed case of breast cancer at the time, leaving her physically and emotionally depleted and unwilling to put herself through another trying ordeal.

To complicate matters, Twohey and Kantor were further stonewalled when they sought to pursue matters through official channels, such as the New York Police Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to see if they could gather evidence about claims leveled against Weinstein. They were told that such information didn’t exist or couldn’t be released or that there was essentially nothing to the charges – accusations made by ambitious opportunists seeking to advance their careers through the “casting couch” system.

New York Times journalists Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, second from left) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan, left) confer with their editors, Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher, second from right) and Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson, right), about how to proceed with their investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in director Maria Schrader’s “She Said.” Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures, © 2022 courtesy of Universal Studios.

Because of these roadblocks, Twohey and Kantor had their work cut out for them. They had to look for back door contacts to find leads that they hoped would provide the necessary background to help steer them in more promising directions. They pursued leads developed through meetings with unlikely sources, such as Weinstein Co. board member Lance Maerov (Sean Cullen) and Weinstein’s accountant, Irwin Reiter (Zach Grenier). This was a tedious process, to be sure, but it was the only way to get the information they needed to keep going.

When word of the Times investigation began circulating (despite nothing having been formally published), Weinstein caught wind of what was happening and began lawyering up. In addition to his regular counsel, he hired high-profile attorney Lisa Bloom (Anastasia Barzee) to offer guidance and to help him run interference. Bloom was an ironic choice given her involvement in representing victims in previous sexual misconduct-related cases, such as those involving notables like O’Reilly and Bill Cosby. Weinstein thus took an aggressive stance in fighting back even before anything surfaced in print, a determined attempt to make everything go away, much like what he was believed to have done in negotiating the aforementioned settlement agreements.

As all of this was unfolding, the reporters faced their share of personal challenges as well. Kantor was a young mother trying to balance career and home life. And Twohey, who had recently given birth, was suffering from a severe case of post-partum depression, one so serious that it made it difficult for her to work (though, ironically, her career proved to be just what she needed). Fortunately, they were married to loving, supportive husbands (Adam Shapiro, Tom Pelphrey) to back them up at a time when they needed it most – and enabled them to keep working.

Over time, fortunes began turning in the reporters’ favor. Damning documents surfaced, and several once-reluctant victims agreed to step forward and go on the record. With the evidence they needed now in hand, Twohey and Kantor, with assistance and guidance from their editors, took up their pens and put them to use. Before long, other victims stepped forward – over 80 in all – leaving Weinstein reeling. For their efforts, the reporting duo won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, while Weinstein found himself in court. What’s more, the investigation by Twohey and Kantor led to the growth of the #MeToo movement, a grass roots coalition of women who mustered the courage to step forward and acknowledge the sexual misconduct to which they had been subjected. It was a culture-changing moment, one that righted a longstanding wrong and has had an impact that has lasted to this day.

Former Miramax staff member Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle, center) contemplates going on the record about the sexual misconduct she experienced at the hands of powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as seen in the new fact-based drama, “She Said.” Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures, © 2022 courtesy of Universal Studios.

As Twohey and Kantor investigated this story, they soon discovered that it was an uphill battle. But, if they thought tackling this issue was difficult, one can only imagine how the victims felt. Having been hemmed in by their nondisclosure agreements, they didn’t dare speak out for fear of never being able to work in Hollywood again, either for Weinstein or for others who came under his influence. Yet even complaining about their circumstances, either to Weinstein, government officials or those in the business, got them marginalized unless they capitulated to the dictates forced upon them. And, even if they complied accordingly, they still had to live with themselves for backing down, decisions that left them feeling humiliated and demeaned.

However, given the gravity of this situation, the reporters believed it was imperative to be unearthed. They were convinced they could take meaningful steps to bring the story to light. And those beliefs are what got them through this ordeal, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these resources in manifesting the reality we experience. Whether Twohey and Kantor had ever heard of this school of thought is open for debate, but their steely determination to see things through reveals a strong conviction for what they were doing, an undertaking for which they had confidence in their abilities and hope that circumstances would eventually break their way.

Of course, making that happen called upon them to tap into the kinds of beliefs that would ultimately enable the realization of their sought-after outcome. For example, when they began to see that gathering hard, publishable evidence was not going to be as easy as they thought it might be (especially given the preponderance of anecdotal material that was coming their way), Twohey, Kantor and their editors knew that they needed to get creative in terms of how they uncovered the truth in a way that could be reported on the record. They had to expand their range of beliefs about how the information could be gathered and have faith that those innovative techniques would work in their favor. And, when they drew upon unlikely sources that allowed them to work their way deeper into the story, doors began to open in significant ways.

Twohey and Kantor also had to galvanize their resolve given what they were up against. Baquet made it clear to them early on that, based on his past dealings with Weinstein, he was a formidable force to reckon with, someone who would do anything to block them at every turn. That meant overcoming any fears they may have had in taking on this subject, an important step considering that fears are themselves a form of belief. Indeed, if their fears had been allowed to get in the way, they could have easily interfered with their work.

A young Laura Madden (Lola Petticrew) flees in terror after experiencing unwanted advances from powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein when she was a Miramax production staff member, as depicted in “She Said,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Universal Pictures, © 2022 courtesy of Universal Studios.

The reporters weren’t the only ones who needed to get past their fears in this scenario; the victims needed to do the same as well. They stood to lose much by speaking up. But they also stood to lose much by staying silent. Consequently, they felt trapped by their circumstances, unable to move forward, all the while mired in a lack of self-respect and consumed by lingering trauma.

The depth of the victims’ fears becomes apparent in the film through a number of flashback sequences. While the picture doesn’t depict the incidents in question, it nevertheless shows the aftermath of what happened, particularly the devastating emotional impact on the victims. This includes what occurred in the wake of the misconduct perpetrated against, first, a young Laura Madden (Lola Petticrew) and, then, a young Rowena Chiu (Ashley Chiu), an episode to which a young Zelda Perkins (Molly Windsor) sought to come to her rescue (and was subsequently muzzled by Weinstein for her “interference”). These events effectively silenced these women – and many others like them – for decades after the fact.

However, as the investigation progressed, the victims became empowered by what was unfolding. As it became more apparent to them that the Times reporters were closing in on Weinstein, this development empowered the women and helped them transform their fears into a newfound sense of courage. They realized that the journalists were working for their benefit and that of many other women yet to step forward. They could now see that they were part of a team working toward a meaningful co-creation, one that could serve a greater purpose than merely helping them get past their own anguish. Madden was a lynchpin in this, given that she was the only principal not bound by the restrictions of an NDA. And then there was Judd, who courageously realized that this situation was too significant to allow herself to be constrained by her nondisclosure agreement, that she had to step forward to help out Twohey and Kantor. Madden and Judd went on the record with their stories, and the rest is history. Justice served.

Movies about journalism can be somewhat problematic (especially these days in this age of growing media mistrust). Which is why these films really and truly work best when they play it straight, focusing on the facts in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no grandstanding or exaggerated histrionics, and that’s one of the innate strengths of this latest offering in this genre. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation and best-selling book of the same name, “She Said” provides an impressive fact-based recounting of the efforts of the reporters and editors to uncover the blistering sexual misconduct allegations leveled against Weinstein.

Former Miramax staff member Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) details the extensive sexual misconduct perpetrated by powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein during his tenure at the company, as seen in director Maria Schrader’s new fact-based drama, “She Said.” Photo by Universal Pictures, © 2022 courtesy of Universal Studios.

As a onetime-practicing journalist myself, I appreciate the unencumbered approach director Maria Schrader has employed here. While some have called this work “pedestrian” and “plodding,” I respectfully disagree with those characterizations and would readily put it alongside works like “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Spotlight” (2015), movies that detractors of this picture have contended are far superior when, in fact, they’re all mostly on par. Moreover, just because the film takes a rather direct approach in telling its story, that doesn’t mean it’s without its compelling moments of emotional heft, particularly in the testimony of the victims. The picture may not employ anything overly inventive, and the film is admittedly a tad too long, but it nevertheless chronicles the reporting process clearly, concisely and unburdened by technical jargon or gaps in explaining the legal and journalistic consequences involved. It also features a fine ensemble cast, most notably Mulligan (in one of her best performances) and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton in significant supporting roles.

This offering genuinely deserves a fair shake, something it’s regrettably not getting to the degree it deserves (thanks to its often-unfair torpedoing by cynical critics and misogynist trolls). It brings to life an important story that was long in the offing and that has, thankfully, had a lasting, deep, culture-shifting impact. The film, currently playing theatrically, is on the radar for awards season consideration, though, with what other offerings that have already been released and what is currently pending, “She Said” may have some difficulty breaking through in light of the somewhat tepid response it has received thus far.

For whatever reason, those in positions of power and influence seem to believe that they can get away with whatever they want. It’s a theme, interestingly enough, that appears to be running through a number of this year’s film releases, such as this offering and the dramatic character study, “Tár.” One would think in this day and age that such indulgent, self-serving attitudes should be a thing of the past, but apparently that’s not the case. Because of that, we still need courageous, determined watchdogs to keep us honest, especially those who feel they’re immune from the consequences of their actions. In a world that has grown increasingly intolerant of such uncalled-for transgressions, we should be grateful for those who are looking after our interests – and who are unafraid of speaking their minds and hearts when circumstances warrant doing so.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Haves Vs. the Have-Nots on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday November 22, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Monday, November 21, 2022

‘Falling’ wrestles with indecision, pain and moving forward

“Falling” (“Strimholov”) (2017 production, 2022 release). Cast: Andriy Seletskiy, Dariya Plakhtiy, Oleg Mosijchuk, Christian Borys, Larisa Rusnak. Director: Marina Stepanska. Screenplay: Marina Stepanska. Web site. Trailer.

When life repeatedly beats us up and knocks us down, it can be difficult to get back up. We may be reluctant to continue putting ourselves out there in the wake of such results. Even potentially pleasant prospects may lead us to be suspicious; the apprehension of yet another disappointment could leave us weary and hesitant. So how do we overcome this without stagnating in a state of seemingly perpetual indecision as a means to keep from getting hurt? That’s the question addressed in the compelling 2017 Ukrainian drama/love story/character study, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online.

In a nation long beset by pressing challenges, including authoritarian Soviet rule, the Chernobyl disaster, the 2014 Maidan Revolution and now the war with Russia, Ukraine is a nation that has endured much as it has struggled to find a new identity for itself, especially among the younger segment of its population. The lingering ghosts of a troubled past and a future full of uncertainty have left many feeling lost, despondent and directionless, creating for an often-bleak outlook. As true as it is today, that was also very much the case in 2015, a year after the Revolution at a time when the winds of the now-wider war began to blow, leaving many of Ukraine’s youth up in the air about their country’s and their own fate.

So it is for Anton (Andriy Seletskiy) and Katya (Dariya Plakhtiy). They’re both something of a puzzle, both to others and to themselves. And, with the uncertainty hanging over them in 2015, the prevailing conditions have left them just as uncertain about themselves. That’s the point from which their stories begin in this slowly unfolding drama, which reveals the nature of their circumstances slowly and in piecemeal fashion after a chance meeting outside a Kyiv nightclub.

Anton is perhaps the bigger enigma of the two cryptic protagonists. He’s recently rejoined the outside world after a protracted stay in a substance abuse rehabilitation center. The onetime virtuoso musician has come to live with his aging grandfather (Oleg Mosijchuk) in a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of Kyiv. Grandpa provides a degree of stability, tinged with a restrained but firm sense of tough love and an overall outlook shaped by having lived for years under Soviet rule. He’s willing to help out his grandson as he adjusts to life on the outside once again, but he’ll only go so far and doesn’t hesitate to make his reservations known, such as his disapproval over Anton’s plan to pay a visit to his alcoholic mother (Larisa Rusnak). He’s concerned that Anton will backslide under his mother’s influence, undoing all the progress he’s made. But Anton’s visit is short-lived as his mother wanders off on her own, leading him to the realization that attempting to maintain a relationship with her is fruitless – and in myriad ways.

Lost Ukrainian youth Anton (Andriy Seletskiy, right) and Katya (Dariya Plakhtiy, left) develop an unlikely bond as they struggle to deal with personal challenges in the time after the 2014 Maidan Uprising in the compelling drama/character study, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Tatofilm Ukraine.

As Anton struggles to find his way, so, too, does Katya, who lives in a Kyiv housing complex with her German boyfriend, Johann (Christian Borys), a photojournalist who journeyed to Ukraine to chronicle the Maidan Uprising a year earlier and is now ready to return to Berlin. He wants Katya to accompany him, but she has her doubts, both about the relocation and the future of her relationship with Johann, who’s rather intolerant of her indecisiveness. The mood at home, needless to say, is quite tense, and it prompts Katya to go off on her own to get some breathing room, not sure of where this decision will lead.

As circumstances would have it, Anton and Katya both wind up outside a Kyiv nightclub. Their chance meeting leads to a conversation and, ultimately, to subsequent encounters near Anton’s new remote home, meetings that are more than a little coincidental. They gradually get to know one another, revealing things about themselves that they both seem to have been reluctant to discuss with anyone else. A bond of trust and even tentative romance forms between them, one that has healing effects but that also raises new apprehensions, such as where this connection is actually headed. Katya still hasn’t committed to either staying in Kyiv or moving to Berlin, and Anton is quietly afraid that he might relapse given the pressures placed on him about the future of his music career and an impending call to fulfill his mandatory military service now that he’s no longer in rehab. To complicate matters further, Anton’s grandfather has suddenly taken ill, and the future of his care hangs in the balance, especially if Anton must leave home for active duty.

These dilemmas thus characterize the uncertainty that many young Ukrainians were wrestling with at the time, brought down to a personal level through the experiences of these two lost individuals. Anton and Katya, like many of their peers in the time frame of this story, can’t help but wonder what their future will bring, questions that, in the real world of today’s Ukraine, probably can’t help but have become compounded by current considerations. Indeed, how does one move forward with one’s life under conditions like these? Can the help of those similarly situated truly help in overcoming these challenges? And what if missteps occur along the way? What then? Is there anything that can genuinely combat the feeling of “falling” (in all its permutations) in the midst of such circumstances?

An aging grandfather (Oleg Mosijchuk) assumes the care of his young grandson after being released from a substance abuse rehabilitation center in writer-director Marina Stepanska’s 2017 debut narrative feature, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Tatofilm Ukraine.

In many ways, it could be argued that the themes addressed in this film are universal to many of those in this group of contemporaries, which is why many of those in this age range can probably identify with the kinds of existential questions that these characters face. But, given the additional challenges Ukraine’s youth faced at the time and in today’s trying times – some of which are presciently foreshadowed in this 2017 offering – one can’t help but feel for their sense of being adrift and concerned about what consequences may await them.

So how do we find the way out of circumstances like these? Arguably the first and most critical step is to examine our beliefs, for they dictate the nature of the reality that emerges, a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources are responsible for the manifestation of the existence we experience. But, as simple and straightforward as that might sound, it may be more difficult to fully grasp the nature of what materializes and the relationship between it and what drives the process – especially if we don’t have a handle on the specifics of the underlying beliefs, an apparent issue for both Anton and Katya.

Thankfully, because beliefs make virtually anything attainable, the protagonists – like all of us – have an infinite range of possibilities open to them, depending on which beliefs they choose to embrace and employ. However, when we operate without direction or if we’re overwhelmed by the choices, we could easily end up staying stuck in a holding pattern, with no readily identifiable goal in sight. To a certain degree that’s reflected in Anton’s woodland living environment; he can’t see the forest for the trees in his worldview, and that’s being metaphorically reflected back to him in the state of his physical existence. The choices are too numerous for him to decide on anything particular, and his environment is indicative of that.

Johann (Christian Borys), a German photojournalist who journeyed to Kyiv to chronicle the 2014 Maidan Uprising, plans to return home to Berlin, hoping to be accompanied by his Ukrainian girlfriend, in writer-director Marina Stepanska’s 2017 debut narrative feature, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Tatofilm Ukraine.

We must also be careful which beliefs we choose to embrace, and, again, Anton’s experience illustrates the importance of this. One of the possibilities that scares him most is backsliding from the progress he made in rehab, and it dangles precariously over him. In fact, it’s so daunting that it clouds his view of what could lie ahead for him in a relationship with Katya. Fears are beliefs in themselves, and, if he holds on to this one too tightly, it might manifest in what he says he least wants to happen, jeopardizing his shot at something good – perhaps the most positive development to have emerged in his life in quite some time. It’s one thing to be prudent, but it’s something else entirely to be preoccupied with, paranoid about or reconciled to such a fate, because it could very well come to pass, despite whatever objections we might think we hold about such an outcome.

Katya’s indecisiveness could just as easily get her in trouble, too. It stems from her beliefs as well and could carry significant consequences. She’s obviously drawn to Anton, who, in many ways, suits her sensibilities better than Johann does, especially since her new romantic prospect is not trying to pressure her into making a decision one way or another. But, if she wavers on this point too much, she could lose out on something that’s capable of bringing her the kind of happiness that seems to have been absent from her life of late.

The existence of ancillary considerations can interfere with the decision-making process where our beliefs are concerned. They can cloud our judgment and again leave us adrift, especially when it comes to trying to determine the direction of our future. Their creation and presence (again belief-driven) could even be seen as a form of stalling, their hindrances placing a drag on proceeding with choosing what we want to manifest. That would account for Katya’s indecision. It also might explain Anton’s concerns over his military obligation and his grandfather’s well-being.

The delay in moving ahead with the direction of one’s life might not be seen by some as a tremendous calamity. Stalemates may not be the most productive way to spend our time, but they’re often likely to be viewed as somewhat innocuous. In some situations, they may even buy us some time to assess our options before making a firm decision, potentially avoiding a huge misstep. But, if we allow ourselves to wallow in such conditions for an unduly long time, we might set ourselves up for a drastic change, one that shakes us out of our complacency and lack of progress. And such a possibility – if embraced as a subconscious belief – could carry dire consequences as well.

The foregoing is not meant to be a disparaging comment on those who find themselves in such circumstances. The conditions that placed them there, for example, may have been so unnerving and oppressive that they left them stuck, unable to move forward; in all fairness, they can’t be faulted for being overwhelmed. That’s particularly true for those who live in a place like Ukraine, which has undergone so many tumultuous changes in such a condensed period of time. However, those affected by such scenarios should also be cognizant of what could arise from standing pat; the consequences of that could be truly problematic. Let’s hope they can see their way clear to a better and brighter future, something that Ukrainians deserve given what they’ve been through.

An unexpected romance develops between lost Ukrainian youth Anton (Andriy Seletskiy, left) and Katya (Dariya Plakhtiy, right) in writer-director Marina Stepanska’s 2017 debut narrative feature, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of TVCO srl.

Writer-director Marina Stepanska’s multilayered 2017 debut narrative feature tackles an array of issues on both a macro and micro scale, including how they’re reflective of one another. In this unconventional drama/love story/character study, the film follows the fortunes of two young Ukrainians torn between giving up and getting back up after each time they “fall.” Their uneasy but undeniable romance provides in-the-moment flashes of happiness that they tentatively struggle to savor, no matter how fleeting and transitory they may be. It’s a story that preponderantly waxes bittersweet, often characterized by despair and listlessness but yet not without its meager though nevertheless sincere hope for better times, provided they can figure out what constitutes such a state of being. Admittedly, the narrative builds slowly (sometimes a little too much so), jealously holding on to its secrets and revealing them in carefully measured doses. But this storytelling approach manages to create a sense of anticipation that’s genuinely rewarded when the characters’ truths at last surface – and the unexpected outcomes that await them. This offering likely won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who are sufficiently patient to wait for their payoffs, this release comes through on many levels, leaving viewers with much to contemplate in the wake of this engaging cinematic experience. The film is available for streaming online from Film Movement Plus.

As if the Ukrainian people hadn’t had enough to deal with before the start of the current conflict with the Russians, the present state of affairs has only added to the ongoing slate of issues that has been affecting the country for decades. And, under circumstances like that, it’s understandable how anyone might want to concede his or her fate. The effort to keep standing up after each fall may be more than anyone could bear. The result of that, unfortunately, could be indecision and stagnation, the belief that a lack of personal pain is preferable to the prospect of any possible hurt, no matter how remote. In a sense, though, it’s heartening that Ukraine has stood up to the current crisis, that its citizens have chosen not to give up in the face of this possible fall, revealing that is truly is possible to bounce back from pain and indecision, especially when the very existence of one’s nation and culture are at stake. Perhaps “Falling” was made at a time when the prospect of this struggle was in the air and the thought of it may have been more than anyone wanted to address given the nation’s prior history. However, as devastating as the war has been, it’s given the Ukrainian people a purpose to rise up, to overcome their past falls and to become who they were ultimately meant to be, an effort truly to be saluted. Let’s hope that they keep up the fight and succeed in this endeavor, that they never have to endure any more falls, and that they have the strength and fortitude to continue standing and saying, “No more.”

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

New November Movies on Frankiesense & More

Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for five new movie reviews on the next edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing on a special day and time, Thursday November 17 at 1 pm ET, will also feature a recap of a recent film festival and a few other surprises. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of “Till,” “Tár” and “Nothing Compares,” as well as a podcast preview and film festival recap, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Wrapping Up the 2022 St. Louis Film Festival

The 31st annual edition of the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival is now in the books, having featured an array of narrative, documentary and short films in theaters and online. Like the recently completed Chicago International Film Festival, the overall programming was a little less satisfying compared to past years, especially in its severe reduction of virtual offerings. Nevertheless, I managed to screen 8 films during the festival’s 11-day run, and what I saw was, thankfully, better than expected overall. So, with that said, here’s my take on what I watched and what I thought.

“On the Bridge” (“Sur le pont”) (Switzerland) (5/5); Letterboxd (10/10)

Web site Trailer

What exactly happens at the end of life? As we transition from this world to whatever comes next, what can we realistically expect? And how long does the process take – if time even means anything at that point? That’s what this insightful and fascinating animated documentary seeks to capture, combining the insights and speculation of individuals at the end of life, recorded in their own words from their homes or while in palliative care centers. Their observations span the spectrum of topics, from what they remember most about life to what they’re leaving behind to what they’re looking forward to and trying to imagine how that will unfold. Their moods range from ennui to hope to humor as they envision what’s ahead and how it will come into being. Much of this is set aboard a train where the passengers present their perceptions as it makes its way to a trestle crossing a river, the point of transition where it comes to a stop and the travelers begin the last leg of their journeys to whatever awaits them. All of this is presented through stunningly gorgeous animation backed by an ethereal score and, of course, the narrated reflections of the wayfarers making their final pilgrimages. Directors Samuel and Frédéric Guillaume have created a beautifully moving, eminently enlightening work that’s positively striking to look at. This is essential viewing for anyone who wonders what comes at the end of the line and how to properly prepare for it. If you’re not profoundly touched by this offering, I don’t know what will.

“Lines of Escape” (“Lignes de fuite”) (Canada) (4.5/5); Letterboxd (4.5/5), Imdb.com (9/10)

Web site Trailer

Given the social, economic, political and environmental challenges we face today, it would seem that, if we hope to survive, it would be in all of our best interests if we were to work together on these issues, right? But are we truly capable of that in light of the rampant intransigent polarization that has infected society on all of these fronts? That fundamental lack of cooperation seems counterproductive, that we should all strive to get along. At the very least, it seems reasonable to expect that should be the case among friends, but is that even attainable? That’s called into question in this wickedly biting dark comedy-drama about a reunion of three old friends (Catherine Chabot, Marianna Mazza, Léane Labrèche-Dor) and their significant others (Maxime de Cotret, Victoria Diamond, Mickaël Gouin) for what’s supposed to be a fun-filled night on the town in Montreal. However, things have changed in the nearly 15 years since high school, and what starts out as an evening of fun and games gradually turns ugly as the differences that distinguish the onetime pals begin to surface, shining a bright light on the pervasiveness and dangers of polarization. Directors Miryam Bouchard and Catherine Chabot have assembled a wickedly funny, bitingly cynical tale for our times, one whose stern message hits the nail squarely on the head, an offering somewhat reminiscent of the satirical dark comedy “The Party” (2017). Some might say the picture goes too far at times (an argument not entirely without merit) that decidedly takes us out of our comfort zone, coming across like the heated discourse one often finds on social media, especially in the film’s somewhat stagey final act. But sometimes it takes a blatant, in-your-face exchange of such senseless, unbridled venom to reflect back to us what’s transpiring in everyday life. That’s particularly true if we ever hope to work together to address the problems we face – and to weather the consequences we might have to deal with if we don’t.

“A Crack in the Mountain” (Hong Kong) (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), Imdb.com (8/10)

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What happens when environmentalism, tourism and economic development all collide? That’s the dilemma facing the fate of the Hang Son Doong cave in central Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, widely considered to be the world’s largest cavern system. Discovered 31 years ago and not widely explored until 2009, this four-mile-long geological formation with enormous cathedral ceilings, a fast-flowing subterranean river, an internal waterfall and pristine greenery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and truly a global treasure. This positively gorgeous locale has an almost spiritual quality associated with it, providing visitors with a perfect environment for personal reflection and intense introspection. And, to top it all off, the cave resembles something out of a Hollywood movie a la “Avatar” (2009) or “Kong: Skull Island” (2017), a source of tremendous inspiration for many art directors and production designers in the film industry. But activists are worried whether the site will stay this way now that it’s becoming more widely known. Adventure tourists have been increasingly wanting to flock to the site, even though restrictions currently limit the number of annual visitors allowed. What’s more, investors and local residents eager to capitalize on the area’s economic opportunities have been anxious to see that potential developed. But can it be done so that ecological, business and employment considerations are harmoniously addressed, supporting sustainability and economic growth without sacrificing the environment? Writer-director Alastair Evans’s debut feature does an expert job at exploring that question from all angles, including those likely to be posed by devil’s advocates. It also provides ample discussion of the social, political, economic and historical influences that are figuring into this debate. And it’s beautifully shot and scored, showcasing Son Doong in all its splendid natural magnificence. In fact, if I had any complaint about the film, it would be that I wish it had more of that. However, what’s most important is that this documentary puts the site on the world’s radar and makes a solid case for its preservation in its authentic state, encouraging us to keep it from being overrun and tainted by the impact of hucksters out to milk it purely for financial gain. This geological gem is too important to us to lose it, so we had better protect it while we still can. And, now that the word is out, let’s hope we succeed at that.

“The Moon & Back” (USA) (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), Imdb.com (8/10)

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Coming of age can be difficult enough, but, when we lose someone who has been a source of valuable guidance in the midst of that process, the result can be shattering. Under conditions like that, it can be easy to lose one’s way. So it is for Lydia (Isabel May), a distraught high school senior who feels adrift after losing the father (Nat Faxon) she adored. And those who care for her and try to steer her back on track – her mother (Missi Pyle), her guidance counselor (P.J. Byrne), a neighbor (Roman Michael) and a variety of friends (Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Molly Jackson, Taiv Lee) – seem unable to help. But, when Lydia stumbles upon an original sci-fi movie screenplay that her father wrote, the discovery finally sparks her interest in tackling something productive. She decides to make a film based on the unproduced work, but her enthusiasm is challenged when she finds out just how difficult such an undertaking can be. In doing so, she learns that, at some point, coming of age means letting go and striking out on one’s own – even leaving behind the source of inspiration who helped her get so far. Writer-director Leah Bleich’s charming comedy-drama provides viewers with a refreshingly distinctive take on material typical of this genre, providing just the right amount of heart tugs but without overdoing it, all the while serving up both laughs and serious moments that successfully avoid the clichés often found in stories like this. The narrative manages to stay on track quite well, despite a few meandering lulls, keeping the storytelling crisp and economical. And, given the excellent, incisive, edgy character development here, this offering strikes me very much as being the kind of movie that “Lady Bird” (2017) was striving to be but could never quite get right because of all its overly cutesy quirkiness. Indeed, “The Moon & Back” is a fun, pleasant, enjoyable little diversion, but it’s by no means a lightweight, just what a film of this stripe should be.

“Stand Up” (Slovakia) (3.5/5); Imdb.com (7/10)

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It’s been said that misery loves company – and, as this film illustrates, it apparently loves comedy, too. But, as writer-director Juraj Bohus’s debut feature also illustrates, misery is no laughing matter, either. This engaging comedy-drama follows the exploits of aspiring Slovak stand-up comedian Mišo Vrba (Ondrej Koval), who has more self-confidence than talent but nevertheless attempts to give his passion a shot before life gets away from him. However, Mišo’s underwhelming success prompts him to drown his sorrows in drinking and philandering, jeopardizing his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Tania (Zuzana Norisová). But those escapes are called into question when he’s paid a surprise visit by his 20-year-old American niece, Julia (Cailin Witty), who’s clandestinely traveled to Bratislava to leave behind her disappointing life back home. She subsequently goes on tour with her uncle as his assistant, an opportunity for both of them to learn how to put aside their apprehensions and finally learn how to “stand up” for themselves. It thus becomes a story of rebirth and reassessment, taking time to figure out what’s truly important and what’s ultimately superfluous, inconsequential and expendable, told with solid writing, strong character development and an overall well-balanced treatment. This 2022 release is not to be confused with the many other pictures that bear the same title, including, most recently, the 2021 German release by the same name. This iteration of “Stand Up” may take a little effort to find, but this delightful offering is a pleasant little joy, one well worth a look.

“You Resemble Me” (“Tu me resembles”) (USA/France/Egypt) (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10)

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How do we become who we are? Can we attribute it to our upbringing? To society? To politics? Or could it be some combination of all of the foregoing? And, even then, is there a clearly defined answer? That’s the issue addressed in writer-director Dina Amer’s multilayered fact-based debut feature about the life of Hasna Ait Boulahcen (Mouna Soualem), mistakenly thought to be the female suicide bomber who died in the wake of the multiple, coordinated 2015 ISIS-led terrorist attacks in Paris. As the film shows, however, viewers meet a troubled, confused woman who struggled to sort out her life. As a poor Moroccan immigrant living with an irresponsible single mother on the outskirts of Paris, the protagonist led a lonely life, often running away from home with her younger sister and ending up being shuffled from one foster family to another, frequently under the care of culturally insensitive native French guardians. She would later grow up to be a “party girl” who had trouble holding a job and living on her own, eventually becoming smitten with and falling under the influence of her cousin, leader of the Paris attacks, who recruited her into his cause (and her eventual downfall). Through this narrative, the film chronicles the difficulties that Islamic immigrant youth often experience in trying to assimilate into European culture, both in terms of being themselves and in fitting in, as well as finding the right balance (if that’s even possible). But is the story presented here convincing enough to show a definitive connection between what happens in childhood and what unfolds as an adult? This film illustrates what may well have happened in Hasna’s case (though some may argue that it’s a gross oversimplification), but is it indicative of her peer group overall? That might represent a sweeping overgeneralization, but the picture nevertheless tells a sad and tragic tale of a woman devastated by her circumstances, one that seeks to set the story straight in light of erroneous reporting that took place at the time of the incident. It does a rather capable job of this, too, though the script admittedly tends to hopscotch around somewhat, especially in its rather drastic time frame jump from Hasna’s childhood to her adulthood. In any event, this production certainly has its share of high-profile backers, with an executive producer team that includes Spike Lee, Spike Jonze and Riz Ahmed, among others. We may never know the full (or true) story of what actually happened to Hasna Ait Boulahcen, but this picture nevertheless illustrates that things may not always be as clear-cut as we believe them to be in cases like this and that, at bottom, we’re still dealing with a scenario involving the lives of people – no matter who they might be or what they represent.

“The Big Bend” (USA) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10)

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We all reach significant turning points in our lives, and we’re not always prepared for how to deal with them. Such is the case for four old friends, the Talbotts (Erica Ash, David Sullivan) and the Prices (Virginia Kull, Jason Butler Harner), two married couples experiencing a variety of issues that threaten the future of their families and relationships. They meet for a reunion at the Talbotts’ desert homestead on the edge of Big Bend National Park in South Texas, a gathering meant to provide a respite from their problems and an opportunity to enjoy the surrounding gorgeous scenery. But, as the couples find out, they can’t escape their troubles completely, that those lingering turning points stubbornly persist, symbolically looming over them like the appropriately named geography of the region’s landscape. And, to confound matters even further, additional new challenges arise that make their time together even more complicated. Unfortunately, as writer-director Brett Wagner’s second feature plays out, the complications in this comedy-drama grow a little too thick and far too numerous for the picture’s own good. Too many threads run through the narrative, and they don’t always seem to head in any kind of readily identifiable direction – that is, until the movie’s second half, when things finally begin to congeal somewhat more coherently. But, even with that, just when viewers might think that all is said and done, the picture veers off in new directions yet again. The result is a project that frequently feels directionless and relentlessly spontaneous, despite its fine performances, gorgeous cinematography, moments of inspired comedy and a handful of well-constructed second-half sequences. Yet these attributes aren’t enough to yield a satisfying whole. That’s disappointing, given that it seems the makings of a truly engaging film are present here. However, the picture’s failure to overcome its meandering tendencies and the filmmaker’s apparent reluctance to “kill his darlings” keep the project from reaching its potential, especially when it comes to addressing something as important as how to cope with life’s turning points, challenges that we must all ultimately endure.

“Grounds of Hope” (“À Terre promise”) (France) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5)

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When a former smalltime boxer (Julien Barbier) down on his luck and seeking to recover from a past tragedy strives to make a new start, he quickly finds himself compromised by new challenges that force him into some hard choices. In an effort to raise money for medical treatment for his ill father, to compensate for potentially looming unemployment as a cement mason and to help his sister (Stéphanie Schoonjans) in her plans to shelter a pair of illegal African immigrants, he reluctantly makes a deal with a smart-mouthed local mobster (Sebastien Corona) to partake in fixed fights that promise lucrative payoffs for his “cooperation.” But, when events don’t pan out as hoped for, he’s backed into a corner that calls for him to fight back in ways he hadn’t planned on. While director Lionel Bernardin’s debut feature has its moments of eloquence, a fine performance by Barbier, and some fine camera work and film editing, much of the picture ends up being rather trite, especially in its comical, almost-cartoonish portrayal of the bad guy and his band of minions. In addition, the film’s attempts at providing a back story for the protagonist are underdeveloped, leaving viewers wondering exactly how he fell into the downward spiral from which he’s now trying to escape. “Grounds of Hope” appears to have a strong enough foundation for the makings of a solid film, but it feels like the script needed to go through a few more rounds of revisions to get the finished product right. It’s certainly no knock-out but, rather, more like a TKO by split decision.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 11, 2022

‘Triangle of Sadness’ asks whether turnabout is fair play

“Triangle of Sadness” (2022). Cast: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson, Zlatko Burić, Carolina Gynning, Sunnyi Melles, Dolly De Leon, Vicki Berlin, Arvan Kananian, Alicia Eriksson, Oliver Fred Davies, Amanda Walker, Iris Berben, Ralph Schicha, Henrik Dorsin, Mia Benson, Jean-Christophe Folly. Director: Ruben Östlund. Screenplay: Ruben Östlund. Web site. Trailer.

We like to think that we’re fundamentally all equal, and, in idealistic terms, it’s hard to take issue with that notion. However, from a practical, realistic standpoint, inequality is unfortunately alive and well in so many contexts. It’s undoubtedly unfair that such differences have been allowed to continue to hold sway and that there are those who must endure such inequities. But can the situation be rectified? And, if so, how? Those are among the questions raised in the new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness.”

Pity the poor 1%. They have it so rough. One indeed wonders how they get by. Consider the plight of male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his significant other, model and social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). They have such difficult dilemmas to resolve, like who pays for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It might seem like a minor point to most of us (save for the total of the bill), but the couple turns the subject into a protracted and increasingly shrill discussion, first in the bistro then in the chauffeured ride home then in the hotel elevator and finally in their hotel room. Even though they may not possess the resources of the super rich, they’re nevertheless rather well off. So, of all the people for whom one would think such a discussion shouldn’t matter, it would be them. Yet there they are, squabbling over something that brings out the pettiness that characterizes those of their ilk, first in terms of finances and then in terms of gender roles.

Their behavior and attitude set a prime example of what’s to come. This episode thus serves as a sort of prologue, perfectly capturing the nature of the class of people who will be depicted in the remainder of the film. Carl and Yaya will be part of this coterie of characters, of course, but they’re only one aspect of the upcoming show, one that sees them and their peers put through their paces.

After this opening segment, the film picks up with Carl and Yaya, among others, on a cruise aboard a luxury yacht, where the staff is commanded to bend to every whim of the passengers, no matter how frivolous, demanding or capricious their requests might be. The ship’s chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), has the crew whipped into shape through a combination of polite intimidation and hilariously over-the-top motivational speaking exercises. And, almost without question, the staff obediently complies, which isn’t always easy given the many outrageous demands made by the wealthy, eccentric passengers, some of whom include:

  • For starters, there’s Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a successful fertilizer magnate (who doesn’t always describe himself quite so diplomatically) who exemplifies the unabashedly capitalist Russian nouveau-riche. Though jovial and pleasantly generous, the unrepentant oligarch nevertheless has a crass, somewhat unsophisticated streak that makes him come across like a cast member of “The Moscovite Hillbillies.” He travels with his spouse, Vera (Sunnyi Melles), who has all the class of a mafia wife (and the tacky outsized jewelry to prove it), and Ludmilla (Carolina Gynning), his trophy mistress. Together, this trio unabashedly flaunts their affluence, yet they also do their level best to put a positive face on their wealth and even encourage the “less fortunate” among them to join in their fun (such as Vera’s insistence that the entire crew participate in a group swim, a request that’s reluctantly fulfilled despite cruise line restrictions against such forms of interactive fraternization). And who says the Russians don’t know how to enjoy themselves?
  • Winston (Oliver Fred Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker) are a charming, elderly, exceedingly rich British couple who have been together for years and are still very much in love. They freely share these sentiments with the other passengers, exuding a warmth that’s undeniably infectious. They seem like loving grandparents whom anyone couldn’t help but adore – that is, until one finds out how they made their fortune: as munitions manufacturers specializing in the marketing and distribution of grenades and land mines, primarily to third world nations caught up in nasty and ongoing internal struggles. Charming couple indeed.
  • Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) has more money than he knows what to do with, having made a bundle as a coder for various IT applications. But, considering his milquetoast personality, he’s lonely, unable to attract the attention and affection of others (most notably women). The sheepish Swedish programmer quietly yet desperately seeks company, but he’s often his own worst enemy, sitting silently by himself , hoping that someone will take notice of him. It seems that money truly can’t buy happiness.
  • Therese (Iris Berben), sadly, suffered a debilitating stroke that has left her severely incapacitated. She’s confined to a wheelchair, wholly dependent on her husband, Uli (Ralph Schicha), to care for her. To make matters worse, she’s barely able to communicate, capable only of calling for her spouse and uttering a few phrases in German, most notably “In den Wolken,” which translates as “in the clouds,” the realm where most of her clueless peers appear to reside. It seems that money can’t buy health and well-being, either.
  • And, then, of course, there are the many dimwitted eccentrics who are aboard, too, such as a woman (Mia Benson) who constantly complains that the ship’s sails are dirty and in need of cleaning – never mind the fact that this is a motorized vessel with no such riggings. Of course, given that the passengers are always right, the crew continually and politely indulges her request, promising that they’ll attend to it at their soonest convenience. I guess with that kind of money one can afford to live in one’s own little world, no matter how much it may be detached from the rest of us.

Tending to the needs of this motley crew is the eminently patient staff, all under Paula’s micromanaged direction. For instance, there’s Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), a steward who struggles to correctly reconcile her responsibilities, such as complying with Vera’s group swim request, knowing that she’s supposed to be accommodating but without violating ship’s regulations. Then there’s Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a dutiful maid who tolerantly abides by all of Paula’s and the passengers’ requests, no matter how thoughtlessly made. And then there are the engine room crew members, such as Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly), who, like most of his peers, is African – and, sadly but unsurprisingly, confined to their place below deck.

Model and social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean, left) and her significant other, Carl (Harris Dickinson, right), relish the pampering that comes with sailing on a luxury yacht, at least for as long as it lasts, in director Ruben Östlund’s new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Film i Väst.

Overseeing this operation – allegedly, that is – is the ship’s captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson). That qualification is noted because the skipper spends most of his time locked in his cabin, drunk off his behind. The ship’s first mate, Darius (Arvan Kananian), and Paula try to keep Smith in line, shouting announcements and reminders to him through his cabin door and trotting him out when needed, such as ensuring that he shows up for his required appearance at the Captain’s Dinner. That’s all easier said than done, however, given that the avowed Marxist has quiet contempt for his well-heeled passengers, quite the irony considering the position he holds. Maybe that’s why he’s three sails to the wind most of the time.

So what are Carl and Yaya doing aboard this ship of fools? Considering their significant social media influence (particularly Yaya), they’ve been asked to partake in the voyage to help promote it, a freebie offered them by the cruise line. But, more than that, their presence is symbolic of their desire for upward mobility. They aspire to turn their modest wealth into the mega wealth enjoyed by their fellow passengers, believing that this kind of social climbing is something worth pursuing. But is it? As events play out on the cruise, they may find that such an aspiration is not all it’s cracked up to be.

While the cruise starts out living up to expectations, matters slowly deteriorate, first with minor inconveniences and gradually escalating to far more problematic issues. This becomes apparent during the ill-fated Captain’s Dinner, whose timing couldn’t be worse – during a violent storm at sea. As the ship rocks back and forth and the various courses are served, the passengers grow increasingly unwell as seasickness overtakes virtually everyone and leaves the vessel a progressively disgusting mess. (Where’s that Dramamine when you need it?)

But that’s just the beginning. To say more at this point could potentially be considered a spoiler, so, if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading here. But, to fully understand what this film is all about, keep going if you want to know more.

As the catastrophe that is the Captain’s Dinner continues, the ship’s power goes out, leaving the vessel dead in the water (crashing waves notwithstanding). But conditions finally settle down by morning, leaving one to believe that the worst has subsided – that is, until a pirate ship appears on the horizon, a development followed, ironically and fittingly enough, by a grenade explosion on deck, sinking the ship and most of the passengers with it.

In the aftermath of the disaster, only a handful of passengers survive – Carl, Yaya, Dimitry, Jarmo, Therese, Paula, Abigail and Nelson. They make their way to what appears to be a remote deserted island. They have few supplies and no realistic hopes of being rescued, at least any time soon. So what’s next?

Under these conditions, a new social order emerges. Those possessing the strongest survival skills (principally Abigail) take over as the tables are now decidedly turned. So how will this modern-day version of Gilligan’s Island (with a few passing nods to Lord of the Flies) shake out? Can “the Howells” of this primitive new society maintain their status, or will they be forced to capitulate to a new group of masters? That’s what remains to be seen as this sociopolitical odyssey unfolds.

One might easily come away from this story asking, “How could things possibly get so out of hand?” Well, just take a look at what’s going on in the world around us these days, and you’ll see that such an outcome is not so far-fetched. If we’re such a supposedly intelligent species, how have we ended up with so many widespread social, political, economic and environmental problems to solve, nearly all of which are readily attributable to our own making? Time Out magazine has fittingly hailed this film as “the perfect comedy for our times” – and how astute that observation is.

As a vehicle designed to get us to sit up and take notice, “Triangle of Sadness” has indeed struck a nerve, shining a bright light on the pervasive inequalities in today’s world. In doing so, it has also put us and our beliefs under the microscope for what amounts to some very uncomfortable scrutiny. And examining those beliefs is crucial, for they shape the world around us thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these intangible resources in manifesting the existence we experience, for better or worse. In this case, it's not hard to imagine which of those applies.

This is not to suggest that our beliefs are always put to nefarious uses; they’ve also created much good in the world, as they can essentially be employed in the materialization of virtually anything. But, as this film illustrates, they can wreak all kinds of havoc when implemented for wholly self-indulgent purposes, all the while making it look as though such dubious choices are something to be looked up to.

In bringing all this to light, this offering symbolically depicts the results with spot-on incisive wit. For instance, the yacht’s problematic voyage is a perfect metaphor for a ship of state sailing in troubled waters. And, to compound that problem, it’s being captained by a drunken, irresponsible skipper at the helm who doesn’t know what he’s doing (remind you of anybody?). Captain Thomas Smith could be a symbol of virtually anyone in a position of power, struggling to keep their respective political, social or business institutions afloat. One need only look at the fiasco that is the Captain’s Dinner to see how these notions can manifest metaphorically, symbolically indicative of bigger and more troubling issues.

Perpetually inebriated cruise ship skipper Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson, right) is propped up through the support of his dutiful first mate, Darius (Arvan Kananian, left), in director Ruben Östlund’s new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Film i Väst.

The relations between the passengers and crew also reflect the class distinctions so prevalent in today’s world. While that relationship is comically portrayed here as a present-day version of the 1970s British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, it actually depicts a more serious issue that spans the differences between the world’s haves and have-nots. It also addresses what can happen when circumstances prompt a switching of roles and what can occur as a result. For the 1%ers, life suddenly isn’t what it once was – and may never be again.

The inequalities extend beyond economics, too. The question of gender equality comes up frequently, even amongst the privileged themselves. One need only look to the relationship between Carl and Yaya, for example, to see how this plays out. But it doesn’t end there. When the castaway survivors end up stranded in the wilderness, Abigail assumes a leadership role that puts the supposedly strapping alpha males in their place, a position to which they’re sorely unaccustomed.

What’s most important to bear in mind here is that all of these developments – unsatisfactory though they might be – nevertheless stem from the beliefs of their creators. In this case, we’re talking about co-creations in particular, collaborative results that arise from the jointly held beliefs of everyone involved. Some might argue that it’s patently advantageous for the haves to manifest what they have created for themselves, but what do the have-nots get out of it? That’s difficult to say, given that we can’t get inside their consciousness to discover the exact reasons behind what they’re doing. However, it could be that they are part of a collaboration whose underlying intent is to materialize a scenario in which all parties involved have an opportunity to experience and learn a valuable life lesson that they may not be able to get any other way. Should that be the case, they’re obviously in store for a potent, possibly transformative experience – and, again, for better or worse for all involved.

Is turnabout fair play? That’s a good question, one that’s put to the test in this outrageously hilarious new sociopolitical satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund. Drawing upon themes explored in previous works like “Force Majeure” (2014) and “The Square” (2017), the filmmaker examines what happens when the uber-privileged find the tables turned on them, placing them in circumstances where those they once callously and willfully disrespected suddenly find themselves having an undeniable upper hand. But will those who were once oppressed draw from their unfortunate experiences and treat the newly downtrodden with dignity and compassion, or will they morph into newly emerging versions of those they previously spitefully detested?

In addition to matters of money and power, the characters in this sidesplitting farce also wrestle with issues related to gender, physical beauty and social influence and how they wield their clout in these areas in their relationships with others, including both peers and those of different class status. The symbolism employed to convey these notions can be a little obvious at times, but it’s always inventive and decidedly clever in its implementation, making the picture’s message readily known but without being too on the nose. Also, some of the bits – as funny as they are – occasionally go on a little too long, a quality easily apparent given the film’s unusually protracted runtime of 2:27:00, uncharacteristically long for a comedy. Nevertheless, so much of what takes place here works so well that it’s truly hard to find fault with the Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. Its superb ensemble cast truly shines, and the locales are perfectly chosen, most notably the yacht, which was once owned by Aristotle Onassis.

This is the kind of picture that one might not suspect to be quite so uproarious upon entering the theater, but the film definitely delivers the goods, much in the same way that the Oscar-winning offering “Parasite” (2019) did. And, if you found that funny, you’re sure to find more of the same here. Catch it in theaters while you still have an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

To be fair, the differences that have divided us have been around for eons, and changing those entrenched patterns is not something that’s going to occur overnight. Indeed, we should be proud of what progress we have made. But there’s still much work to do, and change will only emerge when we decide to change our minds – and our beliefs – to set matters in new directions. We must come to understand that there’s no point in continuing to hold on to that which no longer serves us, but that’s something of which we must be convinced before proceeding. Let’s hope that movies like this help us to make those decisions – and sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

‘Tár’ seeks to unscramble one’s motivations

“Tár” (2022). Cast: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Mark Strong, Julian Glover, Adam Gopnik, Allan Corduner, Mila Bogojevic, Sylvia Flote, Fabian Dirr, Zethphan Smith-Gneist, Tilla Kratochwil. Director: Todd Field. Screenplay: Todd Field. Web site. Trailer.

Understanding what drives us is crucial to our success in life’s endeavors. But, if we truly wish to attain the goals we seek for ourselves, we need to grasp what impels us and the beliefs that underlie our ambitions. Should we fail on this point, we could end up with a mixed bag of results, some satisfying, some not. The process of unscrambling those motivations thus becomes integral to assessing and appreciating how matters turn out for us, a concept explored in the new dramatic character study, “Tár.”

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has made quite a name for herself. The internationally renowned conductor has taken the classical music world by storm, leading some of the globe’s most prestigious orchestras. She has also composed her own pieces, established initiatives to support world musicians and landed a position teaching aspiring conductors. In addition, Lydia has overseen the production of an extensive repertoire of recordings, most notably all but one of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. And, as her story opens, she’s preparing to complete the composer’s symphonic catalog, teaming up with the Berlin orchestra to record the final work, the Mahler fifth.

Lydia has established such a celebrated reputation thanks to her interpretation of the pieces she records and conducts. She has widely discussed how she seeks to express the transcendent language of music through her work, bringing about the feelings that music generates that can’t be adequately put into words. It’s a process that affects her deeply as she attempts to transform these emotions into tangible musical expressions that are meant to be felt and experienced, even if they are incapable of being described linguistically. It’s a way of looking at music that has set her apart from her peers, many of whom are in awe of what she has been able to accomplish in this regard, especially since they are fundamentally unable to re-create it themselves.

Lydia knows all this, too, and makes no particular effort to hide her self-awareness of it, well-practiced false humility notwithstanding. But, despite her efforts to maintain an agreeable, acceptable public image, Lydia quietly has earned a reputation as someone who gets what she wants, even if it sometimes calls for her to play the role of shark. This is true in both her professional and personal endeavors, too. If she needs to throw someone under the bus, she’ll do it. Of course, she’ll do whatever she can to cover her tracks or to put a good face on her actions. But those closest to her can see what she’s doing, and they’re not particularly approving.

For instance, when it comes to getting what she wants, Lydia frequently taps her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), to carry out her orders (i.e., do her dirty work for her), often with the vague promise of coveted rewards, many of which don’t materialize as hoped for. And, if a scenario calls for her own direct involvement, she’ll often seek to bring outcomes into being by tactfully manipulating others to her advantage, as she does through carefully coordinated interactions with orchestra peers like Sebastian Brix (Allan Corduner), Elliott Kaplan (Mark Strong), Andris Davis (Julian Glover) and Knut Braun (Fabian Dirr), many of whom don’t realize they’ve been railroaded until it's too late.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) leads the Berlin orchestra as she prepares to make a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony as seen in writer-director Todd Field’s latest, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

The same is true in Lydia’s home life. Her long-time partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), patiently dotes on her and cares for the well-being of their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), keeping the household running while the maestra is away on her many business trips. Sharon is also a loyal, dutiful musical collaborator as the orchestra’s concert master (one can’t help but wonder how she landed that position), respectfully following all of her partner’s requests and commands in the concert hall. But, despite Sharon’s personal and professional devotion, it doesn’t stop Lydia from allowing her eye to wander, such as when a new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), arrives on the scene. Lydia makes no attempt to conceal her attraction to the new girl in town, making things uncomfortable for both Olga and Sharon.

It’s not entirely clear why someone like Lydia, who potentially has so much to lose, could act so carelessly, callously and irresponsibly, but that’s who she is. Perhaps she feels a sense of entitlement for her many artistic achievements. Maybe her status as a celebrity and distinguished intellectual has caused her to lose touch with common courtesy and everyday etiquette. Or it just might be that she’s a self-centered, self-absorbed bitch. Whatever the case, though, it becomes apparent over time that she’s becoming increasingly oblivious to and detached from the practices of civilized behavior, as well as her connections to those whom she supposedly cares most about.

It would seem that Lydia’s due for a healthy dose of comeuppance, and, if she doesn’t change her ways, it just might be in the offing. The likelihood of that significantly increases when implications surface that she may be connected to a tragedy involving an aspiring conductor, Kristin Taylor (Sylvia Flote). Suggestions of inappropriate classroom behavior with one of her conducting students (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) also emerge, thanks to the release of an edited, albeit damning online video. And all of this comes just as Lydia is embarking on a promotional campaign to promote a new book and to lead the performance where the Mahler symphony will be recorded.

Will everything at last come crashing down on the celebrated prima donna? Or will she yet again figure out how to wiggle her way out of her circumstances? Payback can indeed carry a high cost. Is she prepared to pay it? Or will she need to find a new way to “conduct” herself? The irony of that may be lost on her, but it may provide her with an opportunity to learn a valuable life lesson – one for which she’s long overdue.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has developed quite a reputation for herself as an esteemed interpreter of the transcendent language of music as seen in the dramatic new character study, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Many viewers (myself included) are likely to be somewhat puzzled by Lydia’s behavior. How could someone who has so much to lose so recklessly jeopardize everything she has worked so hard to build? It just doesn’t seem to make sense. But, then, perhaps that’s the point in a nutshell – how can someone who is supposedly so learned and erudite simultaneously be so incredibly short-sighted and stupid? One could say that this film goes a long way toward proving that you can be well educated and still not know anything at all.

The key in this, of course, is unlocking the nature of Lydia’s beliefs, for they ultimately shape the nature of the existence she experiences thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest our reality through the power of these resources. It’s apparent that Lydia may not be well versed in this school of thought – or even precisely what her beliefs are to begin with. But, then, that would help to explain the contradiction that exists between what she thinks she should seek to achieve and what actually results. The surprises that occur truly seem to baffle her, but, considering the belief standpoint from which she operates (and her lack of knowledge thereof), this really shouldn’t be dumbfounding, at least to anyone who has enough cognizance to recognize the intentions that are being put forth and what eventually results from them.

Lydia’s biggest error in this is that she appears to be concerned more with the outcomes she wants than with any of the consequences that can result by not adequately thinking things through. This is better known as the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default, through which manifesting beliefs are developed with due consideration for the sought-after goals but little or no attention is paid to the potential side effects or ancillary concerns that can occur along the way. When we engage in this practice, we may indeed end up with what we seek, but the result could arise in a distorted form because those aspects of the materialization may not be properly considered during the creation process. That can leave us with more messes to clean up and fires to extinguish than anticipated, keeping us from relishing the success we attain otherwise. Is that really worth it?

That’s the question that Lydia is continually being forced to ask herself as her story unfolds. For example, in her pursuit of Olga, is the fleeting erotic satisfaction Lydia derives from that experience worth potentially losing her partner, her daughter and her comfortable home life, not to mention possibly causing undue complications within her circle of orchestra colleagues? And this is just one example of the many little dramas playing out in her life that carry the potential for significant losses. Imagine what might happen if they all blow up all at once.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) pays meticulous attention to her orchestral score as she prepares to make a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony as seen writer-director Todd Field’s latest, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

It's obvious that Lydia needs to do some heavy-duty soul-searching, but the problem with that is that she may not even recognize the need to take on this task, let alone know how to proceed with it. As she stares down from her ivory tower, she may well come up with excuses for not doing so, deflecting the need to address this issue and tidily sweeping it under the rug – that is, until some greater problem arises that requires attention and reminds her once again of the need to follow through on this consideration. But, each time this happens, the question is repeatedly raised, “Will she do it?”

No matter what we attempt to create for ourselves, it’s essential that we recognize we’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to the beliefs that go into the process. And, because of that, it also means that we bear the responsibility for what transpires. That’s an issue, unfortunately, that many of us try to duck, seeking to lay blame elsewhere and/or claiming that we had no choice in the matter. Try as we might to pawn off our manifestation foibles on those excuses, however, they ultimately don’t hold any water. We simply must accept the fact that we have to own up to what we create, and, if things don’t turn out as planned or hoped for, we must be prepared to face the music (pun intended), something that Lydia ironically appears to be reluctant to do.

If the foregoing issues are perpetually left unaddressed, the aforementioned comeuppance is almost certain to arise at some point. So then what? The combination of consequences that could emerge from this might well leave Lydia scrambling to stay afloat. The great Ms. Tár could end up facing the greatest challenge of her career, if not her life. On some strange level, given her highly driven nature, maybe that’s what she’s been out to create for herself all along. But is this really the right way to go about it? Only Lydia can answer that for herself. And, if she keeps going the way she has been, she’ll have a lot more to answer for as well.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, foreground) works with her new cellist, Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer, background), in developing more than just her musical abilities in writer-director Todd Field’s dramatic new character study, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

“Tár” is unquestionably one of the most unusual offerings of 2022. And, while much of writer-director Todd Field’s latest – his first film in 16 years – succeeds, there are sequences that could definitely use some work, especially at the outset of this somewhat overlong release. This tale of a brilliant, compulsively driven maestra manages to muster its share of dramatic tension and artistic exuberance, but it also leaves its share of loose ends and unclear motivations, making viewers wonder why events unfold as they do (and even more so about why they should care). It’s a work that also leaves open the question of whether this is innately a grand tragedy or a tongue-in-cheek exercise in pretention (again, something more to make audiences wonder why they should care). But perhaps the biggest irritant is the picture’s annoying and tiresome tendency (especially early on as the story is establishing itself) to break into protracted, insular discussions about classical music (and the business of it) that sound more like classroom lectures (or professional gossip) than bona fide believable dialogue. Obviously the screenplay for this project was scrupulously researched, but do viewers really want to know the finer points of its subject matter in such exacting detail?

Much to its credit, however, the film features what is perhaps one of Cate Blanchett’s finest screen performances (a likely Oscar contender), a finely tuned ramping up of the escalating pathos the further one gets into the narrative and a positively superb classical music score. And this current theatrical release is likely to capture a boatload of nominations in multiple categories as awards season unfolds. Is all that enough to save the film, though? I’d provisionally say yes, but, if none of this sounds like it would appeal to you, I’d recommend that you give this one a pass and rent one of the protagonist’s many other fine releases instead.

What we make out of life depends on what we make of ourselves. That opens up a wide range of possibilities for us. But, if there’s something amiss with us, there could well be something amiss with what we manifest, an issue that appears to be ripe for examination in Lydia’s case. However, nothing will get resolved if we turn a blind eye or live our lives without a sense of personal integrity. We certainly wouldn’t want to end up “tárred” for our efforts, because, if we do, the feathers are sure to follow.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.