Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ Much Ado About Nothing

Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathryn Newton and Michael Douglas star in a three-quel without equal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

O Ant-Man, Ant-Man, wherefore art thou Ant-Man? Oh no, not the Quantum Realm again!!

The latest Marvel movie extravaganza cleverly disguises itself as a continuation of the Ant-Man saga, rather than an introduction to the so-called Phase V of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. It features a slew of talented actors doing their very best to treat the extremely silly movie as though it were Serious And Actually Meant Something. 

The first few minutes are perfectly fine, as Scott Lang, the tiniest Avenger of them all, jauntily walks the streets of San Francisco, timed to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” as though it were the opening sequence for an updated, comic West Coast version of Saturday Night Fever (1977), only starring Paul Rudd rather than John Travolta. Instead, though, we hear “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which prompts comparisons to the sitcom, debuting in 1975, that served as a breakout role for … John Travolta. 

It’s not long before Ant-Man and his nuclear family — Hope van Dyne, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), her parents, Hank and Janet (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) and Ant-Man’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton) — get sucked into the Quantum Realm, aka Several Large Indoor Studio Lots in Atlanta that are filled with colorful lights and shapes, representing millions of hours of dedicated artistry by thousands of workers throughout the world.  

The family is trapped there for centuries, aka Nearly The Movie’s Entire Running Time, where they perform magnificently under pressure and extreme stress, and also crack jokes, when time permits. They encounter Kang (Jonathan Majors), aka The Next Big Bad Villain Who Is Even More Evil And Powerful Than The Last Guy Who Destroyed The Universe. We don’t know why he’s so evil, except that Marvel needed a new villainous character to build their movies around. Also Jonathan Majors is a fierce presence, able to leap tall mountains in a single bound and also Do Anything He Wants To Do Before He’s A Marvel Supervillain. 

Really, the movie is divorced from reality, logic, and common sense, but I’m sure that everyone involved tried very, very hard to make a movie that everyone would want to see in movie theaters. Occasionally, the combined star power manages to pierce the animated atmosphere by wisecracking or evincing genuine humanity. And the story revolves around the importance of a strong family unit, which isn’t a bad thing at all in fighting off evil villains from another realm, if your entire family is superpowered. 

Moments of joy are few and far between for jaded adults, though younger ones may well find unbounded delight in the light show, as did one young person at the critics screening I attended last night. He continually beamed, often broke out in laughter and displayed not one iota of cynicism throughout the endless running time, which made it pass a little more quickly for me. 

Indeed, this movie may be perfect family entertainment. The IMAX presentation looks smashing and sounds spectacular. Never mind the ceaseless death and destruction. Let the kids go and enjoy. Just keep repeating to yourself: “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.” 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 17, via Walt Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin’

Years ago- after running through all the typical horror films I could get my hands on- I turned my attention to the lesser known tentacles of the genre and sought out the more obscure European fare. My journey took me to the blind dead series from Spain’s Amando de Ossorio , the stream of Italian “giallos” that have imprinted the genre for decades, and even the perverse journeys of Jess Franco. And then I watched Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death, (1978) or “Les Raisins de la Morte” as everything sounds better in French.

Here was a gore-fest wherein pesticides were turning French farm folk into ravenous zombies. It looked incredible. It employed a dream logic that sinks most horror films, but only elevated its rural ambiance here. And it began my fascination with the filmmaker Jean Rollin whose trove of French nightmares has given us endless celluloid images of zombies, twin vampires, bloodletting, half naked scythe wielders, and beautifully desolate castles. As directors Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger show in their new documentary Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin, I’m certainly not the only one immediately drawn into the filmmaker’s unique vision upon first laying eyes on his work.

A micro effort that rolls through Rollin’s life (both personal and professional) with a fine tooth comb, the documentary also gathers a nice mixture of talking heads. There are collaborators (such as actresses Brigitte Lahaie and Francois Pascal), personal friends, and lots of cultist researchers and film writers who all talk reverently about Rollin. If this seems non-confrontational, it is. Rollin appears to have been one of the nicest guys out there, despite the savage beauty presented on screen.

Borne out of the French New Wave and rubbing shoulders with just about everyone who crawled from its Gallic ashes, Orchestrator of Dreams has access to so much Rollin footage that not even his early student films are missing. Directors Ballin and Ellinger work with a robust spate of images…. something that’s nice to see since my early days of exploring Rollin’s films were challenging and thanks must go to Salvation Films and their efforts to procure and release so many of his films on DVD. From his early days sitting in Henri Langois’ theater to the continual financial struggle he faced with each new film, Ballin and Ellinger tromp through his cinematic life that was both blessed and hard earned. It’s not a secret he often worked in hardcore pornography to support himself. He borrowed and schemed with partners. He took on assignments deserted by other filmmakers (Jess Franco multiple times) and then used his ingenuity in splicing several strands into one (semi) cohesive trip. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and the kids of the 90’s eat your heart out. As actress Pascal comments in the film, “If Jean had a lot of money behind him, he would have made the most incredible films.”

Besides all that, what makes this celebration of Rollin’s life so special is the eventual outpouring of fandom that would emerge around the world for Rollin and his films. There’s a great story about the surprise emitted from Rollin when a retrospective of his work drew sold out crowds in London. For a filmmaker who helped to spearhead one specific genre of ‘Eurosleaze”, Orchestrator of Storms makes sure to emphasize the lasting legacy of such a frowned upon genre to impact the larger cinematic world.

Though his output dwindled in the 80’s and 90’s due to health issues, he was still working right up to the weeks before his death, often directing a scene and then returning to a stretcher for rest. Orchestrator of Storms spends just as much time on his enduring legacy as it does his formative years and it’s a terrific documentary whether you’re invested in horror films or not. This is a study in hard nosed movie crafting. And even if Rollin had millions of francs to produce each of his films, I wouldn’t change one thing about his mesmerizing, adventurous, and deathdreamy oeuvre.

Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin debuts on Arrow Video’s streaming service beginning February 14th.

Review: “The Outwaters”

After seeing Kyle Edward Bell’s Skinamarink and now Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters within the span of a couple of weeks, it appears the horror genre is trying to reap the rewards of 1999. Partially out of budgetary constraints, but mostly because a “less is more” approach to horror filmmaking often yields terrifying results – just what is lurking in the shadows- the found footage experiment has been proliferating for two decades now. Some do it better than others. My personal favorite would be REC (2007), in which a news crew gets caught up in a rage-filled zombie apocalypse in an apartment building (see it if you haven’t!).

In The Outwaters. the film is introduced as raw video footage from three electronic device memory cards found in the Mojave desert after 2 couples go missing. Card 1 is all introduction as we meet brothers Robbie (Banfitch himself) and Scott (Scott Schamell) and their girlfriends Ange (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May). The risible character development is footage of them in various modes of late night drinking, hanging out, and establishing the vocal talent of Michelle….. with a few bouts of California earthquake rumblings thrown in for unsettling metaphorical value. And, as with most found footage films, the paper thin premise immediately distracts when the images themselves (even though presented as raw video) still contain film making edits and ellipses. If this were true footage, we’d get even longer pregnant pauses and uncomfortably labored conversations of “umms ” and “aaahs” that feebly substitute for something close to personal development. However, this isn’t a Warhol experiment that runs for 22 hours.

Card 2 follows the four into the Mojave desert for a camping trip/music video creation for artist Michelle, Their sunny idyll is soon interrupted by strange happenings. Loud booms of dry thunder interrupt their sleep each night. An abandoned ax is found sticking in the ground like a doomed tableaux. And in one of the more interesting points, a hole in the side of a rock hill yields ominous sounds from within, which Robbie duly records for some of the soundtrack’s more unnerving moments. If one was terrified of that Russian bore hole recording, then this one will make you lose even more sleep.

Suffice it to say, things escalate on card 3 and The Outwaters goes to some gory places as the four interact with cosmic horrors. Through the very limited view of Robbie’s recorder and microphone, blood, terror and body horror are glimpsed in fits and starts as the desert fights back.

I imagine seeing this in the theater rather than on the smaller screen as with my opportunity is advantageous. So much of the film is a camcorder light spotlighting very specific gore or abstract bloody entrails. The camera tips upside down and is volleyed along as madness takes over and people run for a very long time. There’s a spare poetic beauty in some of the film’s insistence on studying dry river beds and shimmering orbs of light that may be rips in time itself. There’s no denying some of the film’s fantastic ideas, but its aesthetic drove me mad. I wanted to be enveloped in the horror these 4 people stumbled into, but despite a film that’s primarily a first-person experience, the limited visual sense continually disorients and cheats. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead tackle some of these same loopy horror ideas with masterful visuals (and probably equal budgets), so it can be done. The Outwaters reveals some unnerving, solid ideas about hell on earth, but it’s continually undermined by a style whose confidence probably should have begun and ended in 1999 after all.

The Outwaters opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on February 9th at the following theaters: Angelika Dallas, AMC 24 Stonebriar, Spring Valley Studio Movie Grill

Review: ‘The Son,’ Chronicles of Unhappiness

Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, and Anthony Hopkins star in an agonizing drama.

By all appearances, it’s a tragedy in the making. 

Unhappy Nicholas (Zen McGrath) lives unhappily with his unhappy mother, Kate (Laura Dern), and wants very much to live with his happy father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), nevermind that Peter entered into an adulterous affair with happy Beth (Vanessa Kirby), thereby ruining his marriage and breaking up the household. Peter now lives happily with Beth and their newborn infant, but upon hearing Nicholas’ plea, he quickly caves, overruling Beth’s natural concerns. 

Very soon, everyone is unhappy. 

Two years ago, Anthony Hopkins starred in The Father, an adaptation of an acclaimed French-language play by novelist Florian Zellner that was then translated into English by Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Hampton wrote the screen version, helmed by Zellner in his feature directorial debut, and I was very much impressed by the film, which staged the lead character’s splintering existence “as a horrifying reality.” I could relate to it on a personal level, too. 

The film raised my expectations for The Son, which is adapted from Zellner’s stage play of the same name, which, like The Father, was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and staged in London. (In between the stage versions of The Father and The Son, The Mother premiered, but that’s not yet been adapted.) The script for the screen version is credited to both Zellner and Hampton, with Zellner once again directing. 

Unlike The Father, though, The Son is a forthright melodrama, and suffers from any comparison. Its narrative proceeds, inexorably depicting the slow self-strangulation of a teenager who is not merely unhappy, but is clinically depressed. Unable and unwilling to address Nicholas’ serious mental-health issue, Peter continues on his merry, busy way, leaving Nicholas in the hands of Beth, who is consumed with caring for their newborn child, and is already stressed out herself. 

Acting more out of guilt over his adulterous affair, which clearly destabilized the unsteady Nicholas in the first place, Peter steadfastly pursues his own career goals, while throwing money at Nicholas and pretending that he has any idea how to raise or help him. He thinks he is acting differently than his own father did, but in truth, he is acting just as horribly, though perhaps in a more dignified manner. 

It’s agonizing to watch the slow decline in Nicholas, whose simmering anger and seething resentment gradually becomes manifest, mostly expressed against the long-suffering Beth, who is trapped at home, while Peter skips above the fray. With a self-confidence born of his upbringing and professional success, Peter thinks he knows how to “fix” Nicholas, yet in truth, he hasn’t a clue. 

The actors all bring their anguished characters to life, which only makes watching them all dance toward doom all the more difficult to watch. It’s like watching a slow-motion automobile accident, frame by frame, without being able to do a thing to stop it. 

What made The Father freshly disturbing to watch was that it developed empathy for its characters in an unexpected, cinematic fashion. What makes The Son difficult to watch is that it evinces no sympathy for its beleaguered characters, and does so in a profoundly straightforward fashion. 

The film opens Friday, January 20, in Dallas, Frisco, Fort Worth, Garland, Grapevine, and Plano via Sony Pictures Classics. Get tickets here. For more information about the film, visit the official site

My Favorite Films of 2022

16. The Wonder, directed by Sebastian Leilo

In the guise of a religious parable about a young girl starving herself and calling it a miracle, Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder raises alot of intricate questions that only a level headed nurse like Florence Pugh can answer. And as that nurse, Pugh gives another strong performance as the skeptical medical personnel dispatched to a small Irish village to stand watch over the little girl and report her findings back to the area’s dignitaries. Building slowly and beautifully, The Wonder fits a common thread of many of this year’s best films in which unspoken trauma and violent grief are buried behind a facade of societal order. It’s only released when someone dares to ask the simple questions. And by buttressing the film’s opening and closing shots as meta-moments on the studio floorboard where the film drifts into fiction, The Wonder seems to be as pertinent as ever that its ideas are universal and not strictly bound by its nineteenth century setting.

15. Catherine Called Birdy, directed by Lena Dunham

There’s a whip smart streak of anachronistic modernism running through Lena Dunham’s very funny adolescent comedy Catherine Called Birdy. Maybe it’s the high school-esque giggling and exchanges between Birdy (a wonderful Bella Ramsey who deserves late season awards recognition) and her friend Aelis (isis Hainsworth). Or maybe it’s the hand scrabbled diary entries that expose Birdy’s inner thoughts at just the right time. Or it’s probably the chaotic and ultimately beguiling relationship between Birdy and her parents (Andrew Scott and Billie Piper) whose disrespect to the usual medieval priority places the film closer to something like Booksmart than Little Women. Whatever the reason, Catherine Called Birdy belongs in that rarified bunch of ‘coming of age’ comedies even though it dares to normalize a teen’s eruption of angst, curiosity, and confusion in a time more susceptible to the black death rather than black metal. This is probably the biggest surprise of the year, and it’s available right now for everyone on Amazon. Check it out.

14. The Antares Paradox, directed by Luis Tinoco

Following a scientist on what’s perhaps her best (and eventual worst) day in her life, Alexandra (Andrea Trepat) arrives for her night shift at her SETI laboratory only to find her co-worker has lost faith and abandoned his post. A violent storm is raging closer. Most of the lab’s equipment has been sold or raided by the local college. Time is running out for results. Most tragic of all, Alexandra barely gets settled before she begins a series of phone calls with her sister (Aleida Torrent) who constantly berates her for not going to visit their dying father in the hospital. Then, Julia discovers a recorded alien signal from the Atares system….. something that may be the key to her life’s work. Confined to one basic setting and adhering to a committed real time narrative, The Antares Paradox features maximalist ideas in a minimal setting without losing any of the tension that traps many single-set films. What’s most admirable about the film, however, is its attention to the emotional aspects of filmmaking through Trepat’s performance. It’s easy to fake the ballistics, but even harder to make us care for what’s happening underneath all the dressing. This is a strong debut and a film that announces its creators as something special to watch.

13. Marx Can Wait, directed by Marco Bellocchio

With over 50 films under his storied belt, Bellocchio’s Marx Can Wait couldn’t have been made until now. Serving as both a late period familial memoir and a window into the psychological nuances/narrative beats that have filtered through all his films, this documentary makes me appreciate his dense efforts that much more. When Bellocchio brings most of his large family together in 2016, he says he’s not sure exactly what he hopes to accomplish. And then the strands of historical family tension comes to the surface, mostly dealing with the story of Marco’s twin brother Camillo. Marx Can Wait takes its lyrical title from something Camillo once said, and like the best documentaries, Bellocchio weaves a tender tale that not only pulls the curtain from his own artistic sensibilities, but proves that no matter how old we are, its never too late to ordain forgiveness.

12. After Yang, directed by Kogonada

Dare I call this the year of Hayley Lu? With this film and another to come on the list, she dazzles and deepens every time I’m lucky enough to see one of her performances. In Kogonada’s serene sci-fi tale about loss, memory, and what it literally means to be human, she plays a secondary character, but one that’s no less moving. The central performance is given by Colin Farrell (also having a banner year) struggling with his family to deal with the loss of their AI companion and friend to their young adopted daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Like his previous masterpiece Columbus, this latest effort is just as moving in its hushed tones whether its talking about the history of tea or stumbling across the startling realization that beauty and love is truly a universal concept that can exist beyond our mortal ideas. Endlessly moving and heartfelt, Kogonada is a true modern master who understands the beautiful bonds of humankind.

11. Moonage Daydream, directed by Brett Morgan

Brett Morgen’s portrait of the iconclastic David Bowie refuses to play by the standard documentary rules. Using pieces of Bowie’s actual voice from archival recordings as if the singer had been preparing for this type of life reverie since inception, Moonage Daydream is all the more potent because of its idiosyncratic nature. I doubt it would’ve been quite as satisfying if it simply dotted back and forth on a perfect through line of Bowie’s ascension to the top of the rock and roll mountain. And even though it doesn’t immediately serve as a linear experience, Morgen does some incredibly dexterous editing to subtly evoke a timeline in Bowie’s life from his glam rock explosion to heart rendering late life ballads. Like an abstract painting, Moonage Daydream bowled me over in sound, image, and juxtaposition, cycling through his hits (and even some lesser known efforts) to create a film that’s more attuned to Bowie’s outlook on the vibrancy of life than any straightforward exposition crafted about him ever could.

10. Three Thousand Years of Longing, directed by George Miller

Magically alive and heartfelt, Three Thousand Years of Longing had me from the very start. As a fan of films like those of Julio Medem where the natural world is never very far removed from the fantastic when it comes to his varied couples, Miller’s film (adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt) swoons with overstuffed emotions matched brilliantly by his haunted-house visuals and CGI flourishes. Basically, there are enough ideas here for a dozen films, and at times Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like its about to boomerang into space before being yanked back into focus by the central relationship of Swinton and Elba. Their conversations in hotel room bathrobes and a demure English flat are the stuff of real human connection. And it matters because these two people have been running towards and away from each other for centuries, kept apart by wars, jealousies, madness, and sheer bad luck. At its core, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a commentary on enduring love. Just why does that one figure from Sheebe’a court appear out of thin air to traumatize Alithea? What does a restless leg have to do with the story? Miller has imprinted the film with a deep appreciation of star-crossed lovers who finally find each other again. In his sly way, he’s made the most romantic film in years.

9. Sundown, directed by Michel Franco

Michel Franco’s Sundown is a film of two halves. Almost antagonistic to a point in the first portion, those who stick with its initial ambivalent vibe will most certainly be awed by where the film takes its viewer by its end. Remaining in total control of every frame as he did with his excellent study of violent repression in New Order (2020), Franco favors the less-is-more structure of storytelling here. There are stretches of Sundown that particularly incite the viewer by Neil’s total lack of commitment to anything other than drinking and shrinking into the background. Think of all those films where some shadowy ex-patriot is living in an exotic location with no visible means of money or livelihood. Sundown could be their origin story. Instead, Franco reveals a broken man desperately trying to live life on his own accord, which is just as mysterious as anything else.

8. She Said, directed by Maria Schrader

In a scene of conversation between reporter Megan (Zoe Kazan) and a possible victim of sexual assault, the word “rape” comes out almost unwittingly for the first time by someone who experienced it, and the reaction is noticed but never commented upon. Megan continues to document what’s being said as if she might miss something just as equally important. This is the perfect tenor of Maria Schrader’s incisive She Said, a journalistic procedural that trades in the small explosions of conversation and grows in power as words and action of a group of people methodically expose the abuse of Harvey Weinstein and the shroud of obligation that allowed his physical/psychological destruction for decades. Every performance is perfect. Every scene is edited with care. And even if we know the outcome, the dogged steps taken and the empathy exuded still hits hard by the final push of a “publish” button.

7. Saturday Fiction, directed by You Le

My appreciation for intricately plotted World War II spy thrillers from Euro masters isn’t a secret. Last year’s criminally neglected Wife of a Spy by master Kiyoshi Kuroswa deserved better. And this year, the criminally underrated masterpiece is Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction. Shown at a scattering of film festivals in 2019 and then unceremoniously released in a few theaters earlier this year, Le is a filmmaker I’ve long admired- check out Purple Butterfly (2003) or Summer Palace (2006)- and Saturday Fiction is yet another bold stroke in the career of this Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker. Filmed in Le’s typical nervous, handheld style (but this time in beautiful black and white), the film tells the bifurcated tale of a movie star Jean (Gong Li) returning to occupied Shanghai in December of 1941 to act in a stage play by Mark Chao. Is the play a memory of their past together? Le constantly shifts perspective from the play to real life, causing a meta-curious comment on the film’s events. But outside of her acting duties, Jean also seems to be acting as a spy. Opposing forces are all around. Who is exactly spying on who? Saturday Fiction resides in this cloistered atmosphere where political paranoia and personal attractions are never too far removed. In one brilliant scene that illuminates how invisible this line is, a member of the acting troupe gets drunk and accidentally falls against the door of their hotel suite, which opens slowly into the room of a group of Japanese soldiers. The tensions that rise are spectacular and Le charges Saturday Fiction with a beautiful blend of action thriller aesthetic and moody art-house plot mechanics. Part Jean Pierre Melville and part Wong Kar Wai, Le has crafted a terrific effort that (knowing the importance of its December 1941 setting) ticks down and reveals the ominous wreckage of secrets told and kept.

6. Montana Story, directed by Siegel ad McGehee

Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee have a varied career. Starting in the early 90’s with the no budget body invasion Suture (1993), helming the eerily unnerving thriller The Deep End with Tilda Swinton in the early aughts and then working sporadically during the last decade, nothing really points to the majestic crescendo that Montana Story fills the viewer with. Not that they’re bad filmmakers, but their latest is so full of subtle life and overwhelming vistas that it doesn’t quite gel with any of the quirky, hard-scrabbled indies they’ve created in the past. I’m sure having Hayley Lu Richardson as your co-lead helps as well. A boiling family drama played out against the windswept beauties of the Montana mountain range, Montana Story looks at the curdled relationship between a sister (Richardson) and brother (Owen Teague in a role as equally good) dealing with the traumas of their past over the deathbed of their dying father. Yes, the set-up sounds familiar and the type of slowly simmering fireworks display that’s launched a thousand indies, but Montana Story is different. Siegel and McGehee have painted their film with vivid supporting performances- especially that of hospice aid Gilbert Owuor)- and poignantly sketched secondary characters- like that of Eugene Brave Rock- that the film takes on an unrehearsed sense of acceptance and gravity. And when the emotional pay off comes between brother and sister, the film burns with a pithy truth, and its then released in a heartbreaking, sweeping image of true freedom for everyone (and animals) involved.

5. Petite Maman, directed by Celine Sciama

Whether one interprets Celine Sciamma’s latest film as grounded science fiction time travel fantasy or something much more innately interior, it’s still a powerful film of simplicity and genuine heart. Working with child actors can be dicey, but in Sciamma’s capable hands, Petite Maman quickly melts any precocious waves in the very beginning as young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wanders around the assisted living home where her grandmother has just died and sweetly says goodbye to everyone. From there, Nelly holes up in the dead woman’s house as her mother (Nina Meurisse) initially tries to deal with the loss by packing, but subsequently disappears and leaves young Nelly to fend for herself and interpret her swirling emotions with her father (Stephane Vrupenne) who probably understands even less. Within this tepid space of loss and confusion, Nelly stumbles upon a girl playing in the woods (played by real life sister Gabrielle Sanz) whom she soon comes to realize is her mother at that age. The joy of Petite Maman doesn’t require the viewer to be dazzled by its metaphysical conceit. Sciamma wants us to feel and experience (as she has in so many of her exquisite films) loss, death, wonder and adolescence in equal measures, and in its compact running time, the film magically does so. And there’s a needle drop towards the end of this thing that just took my breath away.

4. Triangle of Sadness, directed by Ruben Ostlund

All of Ruben Ostlund’s films are provocative and hermetic social anxiety dramas that feel more like sociological experiments than films. Up until now, none of them have really vibed with me. The closest that made me pay attention to his distinctive ethos of class and approximation was Play (2011), a film that pushes the clash of cultures between young teenagers to the brink of intellectual exhaustion. Now, with his latest subtly sadistic Triangle of Sadness, I sort of see what Ostlund is up to. Whether it’s the exuberant comeuppance through extreme scatological humor or the precise shifts in power and subordination, this is a scathing eat-the-rich comedy that sees a beautiful but tenuous couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) get caught up in more than their scabrous arguments about who’s paying for dinner. Divided into three sections and running at two and a half hours, Triangle of Sadness doesn’t ask one to care about anyone, from a communist yacht captain (Woody Harrelson) to the survivors who find themselves stranded after a disastrous event. Filmed with formal elegance (just admire that quiet, slow pan back from the point of view of a boat drifting towards a multi million dollar yacht that elicited gasps in my screening) and populated by needle drops that serve as ironic counterpoints to the empty vessels of wealth and pomp, the film does skewer the upper class, but then proceeds to take a fine slicing of all the classes in between before this masterpiece of a film cuts out.

3. Fabian: Going to the Dogs, directed by Dominik Graf

Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs is at once an intensely chaotic love story and a couple’s desire to survive in an expansive paranoid thriller during the burgeoning Nazi regime. That people’s liberal souls are crushed and driven to suicide….. everyone seems to be drinking and smoking their worries away…. and the most innocent characters are kept apart like cosmic stars passing in the night doesn’t detract from its romantic edge. Graf’s latest is a heavy thing of beauty (running at just under 3 hours), anchored by the wide-eyed relationship between Fabian (Tom Schilling) and Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) as they try to stay afloat in a world that’s rooting against them in early 30’s Germany. Graf doesn’t shy away from the terror looming around them, but ultimately, Fabian: Going to the Dogs is a doomed lover story that announces itself as a radical experiment right from the opening as a long tracking shot through a modern-populated subway station opens into Weimar Germany. The past is certainly over, but the past is never through with us, indeed. Ravishing, complex, and bold filmmaking as Graf has been doing for decades now.

2. Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells

In the midst of flailing bodies on a strobe-lit dance floor, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on a summer vacation with her father (Paul Mescal) that took place years earlier. Lucky for us, her remembrances aren’t infused with the same splintered visual aesthetic that has trapped her, almost motionless with sadness. Instead, Charlotte Wells’ magnificent Aftersun almost feels too personal for the way in which it textures a relationship between father and daughter that’s acutely aware of the perceptions, mood swings, and minor infractions that color the most intimate of our relationships. This is a film that wallops the viewer in its final moments, accumulating its power gently along the way. A mood piece. Frustratingly obscure at times. But also a film that seeps into your mind and reverberates with the power of how we perceive things in our memory and then achingly attempt to reconcile them in the present.

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by The Daniels

I went into Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once skeptical of the adoring buzz, but after the first hour, I began to feel myself crumbling to the film’s sweet energy before collapsing into an emotional mess at the finale. This is an exuberant celebration of family, inclusion,and film genre itself as it marches forward with it’s head spinning tale of multiverses and hot dog fingers. Led by the amazing Michelle Yeoh (with heartbreaking supporting turns by Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu), The Daniels have created a modern answer to the iconic, trippy, and melancholy past works of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Julio Medem (Lovers of the Arctic Circle) with a film that stretches the concept of love and acceptance across a spectrum of space and time…. and comes out the other side with a beautiful rendition of what makes us human.

Honorable mentions: Babylon, Pleasure, The Last Movie Stars, The Inspection, Vengeance

Review: ‘Back to the Wharf’

Based on a true story of civil corruption and land development crimes, Li Xiaofeng’s “Back to the Wharf” dares to place most of that political upheaval on the back burner, instead focusing the moral reckoning in the lap of student Song (Zhang Yu). Whether such a person actually participated in the downfall of the officials and criminals who got rich for so long in shady real estate dealings doesn’t really matter. “Back to the Wharf” mostly doesn’t have the time for them as well. This is a film awash in moral density and jaded redemption where a murder only peels back the initial layer and then proceeds to seep away for more than 20 years and we root for the vaguely innocent to make it out alive.

That innocent is student Song, who’s crestfallen when his straight A grades are ignored and his college admission is given away to a local bigwig’s son named Li (Yuhang Gao). Hoping to speak with another school official about it, Song enters the wrong house and becomes embroiled in a fight with the owner in which Song stabs the man in self defense.

Making things even worse, Song’s father (Yanhui Wang) follows his son and enters the same house to finish the deed in what can only be described as a wayward attempt to help his son, but instead forces Song to leave their town and start a new life.

Like all good Chinese dramas that elevate the passing of time and focus on the generational struggle, Song returns after 15 years when his mother dies and promptly meets fellow student Pan (Song Jia). Pan lets him know immediately she has a crush on him and they begin to develop a tenuous relationship. And just when Song begins to craft a normalized life with Pan, Li’s murky business dealings and Song’s own murderous past begins to crop up and cloud his potential future.

Guided by a strong visual sense and effective performances, “Back to the Wharf” is most interesting when it buries into the murky morality of Song, such as his fascination with a 15 year old student (Jin Chen) and the dangerous sway his old friend Li holds over him. It’s in the second half of the film where the ripped-from-the-headlines scandal begins to insert itself in a twisted dichotomy. It would be cliche to say the calm is always before the storm, but it fits “Back to the Wharf”, especially when the heinous act in the first half takes place during a violent typhoon.

Even if the finale is a bit overwrought, “Back to the Wharf’s” pulp thematic remains hard-fisted and doom laden. Like the swift turn of a car wheel, another innocent life is wasted. And though post-film titles give information on the eventual downfall of some of the politicians involved, “Back to the Wharf” remains committed to the mournful idea that the greater tragedy is the absence of fathers.

Back to the Wharf makes its North American VOD debut on numerous digital and cable platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iNDemand and DISH starting January 17th, 2023.

Reviews by Joe Baker and Peter Martin

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