Nearly a full week since White Noise opened the Venice Film Festival, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel is still splitting critical opinion. In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi finds that “the film sands off the novel’s sardonic bite and much of its wonder,” and for Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, the overall effect is “distancing to the point of smugness.” But Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri notes that Baumbach “turns White Noise into a pastiche of 1980s Spielbergian action fantasy, with its downright nostalgic portrait of a small-town disaster,” and he’s fine with that.
“Why not turn it into a popular movie that might have been playing in theaters when the book came out?” asks Ebiri. White Noise is “certainly uneven—wildly so, probably by design—but it’s also never boring, always eager to throw something new at the viewer, and it’s eager to entertain. I never imagined I’d laugh so hard while watching a movie adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” Now that we’ve passed the halfway point in the festival’s seventy-ninth edition, let’s have a look at how some of the other contenders for the Golden Lion are faring.
Between 1976 and 1983, tens of thousands of Argentinians were kidnapped, tortured, and/or “disappeared” in the military dictatorship’s Dirty War against political dissidents. Two years later, 833 witnesses testified during five months of legal proceedings against key members of the fallen regime. Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985—cowritten with Mariano Llinás, the director of La flor (2018) who cowrote last year’s Azor with Andreas Fontana—is a dramatization of what has become known as the Trial of the Juntas. “What Mitre stages is a blunt confrontation between truth-seekers and gate-keepers, between an ostensibly ‘new’ society and an elite hellbent on ensuring the country will be rebuilt in the selfsame image of the one that preceded it,” writes Leonardo Goi.
Mitre “eschews any subtle arthouse stylings for a storytelling sensibility as robustly populist as anything by Sorkin or Spielberg,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Javier Juliá’s velvety, deep-hued lensing, Micaela Saiegh’s worn-in period production design, and Andrés Pepe Estrada’s jittery editing grant cinematic sweep and scope to a story that could otherwise favor a televisual format.” As chief prosecutor Julio Strassera, Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes) “does the heavy lifting here,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman at IndieWire, “knitting together the procedural, historic, and domestic elements of this drama with deft wit and nuance.”
Raves for the eleven-minute opening shot of Athena, the third feature from Romain Gavras, are unanimous, but assessments of the remaining eighty-six minutes head off in opposite directions. A thirteen-year-old has been killed, the video has gone viral, and the people of Athena, a fictional neighborhood in an unnamed French city, believe that the police are responsible. Paratrooper Abdel (Dali Benssalah), the dead boy’s older brother, attends a press conference, where another brother, Karim (Sami Slimane), tosses a Molotov cocktail and leads a mob that takes over the police station. “The one-take is an oft-overused gimmick, but Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard create such dynamism with their swooping, chasing camera, it’s hard to believe the acrobatics in the frame remain so coherent and exciting,” writes John Bleasdale for Sight and Sound.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that Athena “gets bogged down in its own one-note, one-tempo uproar, and open-ended parkour camerawork—impressive though that is—and suffers from a number of sneaky false-flag get-out clauses that feel like a cop-out.” There are moments when IndieWire’s David Ehrlich suspects that “Gavras isn’t decrying civil war so much as he’s getting off on the carnage.”
But as Bilge Ebiri sees it, Gavras—the son of Costa-Gavras and the director of music videos for such artists as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and M.I.A.—“reconciles his own pop-savvy, sensationalist sensibilities with the impassioned filmmaking of [his] father. Watching this movie, one might certainly think of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine, or Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, or Costa-Gavras’s own State of Siege. But one might also think of Mad Max: Fury Road, or The Dark Knight, or The Bourne Ultimatum, or even Star Wars. It has high, topical drama and unspeakable tragedy, but it also has magnificence and velocity.”
With Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,Alejandro González Iñárritu “has cooked up a personal epic of the most exhaustingly swaggery type, man-spread across three hours of screen time during which flashes of genuine, startling brilliance occasionally manage to push their way through the strenuously zany macho-visionary fug,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, summing up fairly well the overall critical consensus. Daniel Giménez Cacho (Chronos,Zama,Memoria) plays Silverio Gama, a renowned documentary filmmaker returning to Mexico to accept an award after living and working in Los Angeles for two decades.
Bardo doesn’t have many champions yet, but Carlos Aguilar is one of them. Writing for TheWrap, he calls Iñárritu’s seventh feature “a transcendent masterpiece lucidly woven from honest contradictions, painful self-awareness, and hard-hitting historical observations. Much like Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s own artistic pilgrimage back to his estranged origins, Iñárritu’s Bardo is an attempt at making sense of a place and a people that no longer exist as the creator remembers them, or that perhaps he never fully knew, but whose essence remains unchanged.”
“While there’s pleasure in surrendering to its languid rhythms and sinuous narrative detours,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney,Bardo “doesn’t escape charges of self-indulgence or derivativeness, borrowing from All That Jazz and The Great Beauty, as well as a key influence on both those films, Fellini’s 8½.” In the Los Angeles Times,Justin Chang finds that the film raises some “not uninteresting questions, but Iñárritu, rather than answering them or leaving them provocatively unanswered (either one would be fine), does what he seems to do with most of his stories and ideas nowadays: He flings them around, roughs them up, and rearranges them into an imposing, finally insufferable monument to his own awesomeness.”
Bones and All
In Bones and All,Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich’s adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 novel, Maren (Taylor Russell) discovers that she has a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Her father (André Holland) can’t handle it. He abandons her, leaving behind a wad of cash, a cassette tape, and her birth certificate. Maren sets out across America—the year is 1988—in search of answers and finds a few in the other “eaters” she meets. The first, Sully (Mark Rylance), turns out to be a creep, but she eventually finds Lee (Timothée Chalamet), whom she falls in love with.
Bones and All is “fastidiously romantic,” writes Stephanie Zacharek. “It’s so carefully made, and so lovely to look at, even at its grisliest, that it ends up seeming a little remote.” For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “a concept in search of a story. The film doesn’t draw us in. It stumbles and lurches and seems to make itself up as it goes along. You may feel eaten alive with boredom.”
Catherine Bray was not bored. At Film of the Week, she writes that Bones and All is “at its most compelling when it gives itself over to pure atmosphere, becoming a cinema of mood and imagery, some of it disturbing, some of it luscious.” At the Film Verdict, Jay Weissberg notes that cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan shot the film on Kodak 35 mm, “which comes so close at times to looking like something made in the 1980s that it becomes easy to get lost in the period, helped immeasurably by Elliot Hostetter’s truly exceptional production design.”
At IndieWire, Leila Latif points out that, as opposed to the worlds of vampires, zombies, and werewolves, there are “no real rules” here beyond those that the eaters impose on themselves. “That fluidity brings even higher, and more compelling, moral stakes to the central duo,” she writes. “Their options are broadly limited to eating humans, committing suicide, or locking themselves away . . . The film opens itself up successfully to myriad readings, potentially speaking about everything from intergenerational trauma, to queer love, to addiction. But Bones and All is fundamentally a beautifully realized and devastating, tragic romance.”
Sophia Behrs was eighteen when she married a giant of Russian literature. Leo Tolstoy was thirty-four, and the marriage lasted an increasingly unhappy forty-eight years until, at the age of eighty-two, Leo left Sophia and died ten days later. Drawing from their correspondence and Sophia’s diaries, the great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and actress Nathalie Boutefeu have created a sixty-four-minute monologue that Boutefeu delivers in a lush seaside garden on the island of Belle Île off the coast of Brittany.
In A Couple, Sophia and Leo’s marriage is “entirely constructed through her eyes, with his part in things conveyed through the impression he has left on her soul,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman. “This asymmetry feels fitting and even righteous, considering that—until now—history has only heard from him.” Reminded of the late works of Jean-Marie Straub, Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing for the Viennale, calls A Couple “a devastating personal autocritique by a documentarist who has devoted his career to what he has called ‘reality fictions,’ his ravishing widescreen compositions, and the services of a skilled professional actress (whose credits include Irma Vep and Kings and Queens).”
“Whatever else it may be,” writes Leonardo Goi, “A Couple is a study of a woman’s face, and Boutefeu’s has an outstanding capacity to channel immense grief as well as fierce resilience, with eyes that look forever on the brink of tears, but never give in to them. And that may be the film’s biggest proof of continuity, the one aspect that, more than any other formal choice, aligns it with the rest of Wiseman’s body of work. Here as in his other projects, the source of A Couple’s cumulatively harrowing power resides in the strident clash between the filmmaker’s formalism and the unbridled, sprawling material he captures.”
If the first reviews from Venice are any indication, there may be riots on the Lido if Cate Blanchett doesn’t win the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her performance as a brilliantly gifted conductor and composer in TÁR, the third feature from Todd Field (In the Bedroom,Little Children). Preparing to conduct a Berlin Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s Fifth, Lydia Tár is tough on her wife and first violin (Nina Hoss), on her assistant (Noémie Merlant), and especially on a student who, as Jessica Kiang puts it in Sight and Sound, “dares to reject Bach on the basis of his ‘misogyny.’ The film’s treatment of hot-button identity politics and art/artist separation issues, especially as scathingly rejected by a gay woman at the pinnacle of her profession, is just one aspect of the bravery of Field’s uncompromisingly intelligent script, and of Blanchett’s completely uncompromising portrayal.”
Blanchett, “giving another of her incredibly stylized performances that straddle the line between ‘thespian excellence’ and ‘alien life form,’ is an ideal bridge between the two,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “If TÁR is an anti-cancel culture/#MeToo film—and I believe that it ultimately is, no matter how much situational ambiguity is deliberately baked in to cover its tracks—it comes by the contextual specifics of its test case honestly.”
For Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson,TÁR is “breathtaking entertainment, beautifully tailored in luxe, eerie Euro sleekness by production designer Marco Bittner Rosser and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, and ominously scored by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who gets a little meta shout-out in the film). That fine craftsmanship is all anchored by Blanchett’s alternately measured and ferocious performance, a tremendous (but never outsized) piece of acting that is her most piercing work in years. Alluring and frighteningly vituperative, Lydia is a beguiling creation, all the more villainous for the beauty that birthed her.”
In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, an adaptation of the 2012 play written by Samuel D. Hunter, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a 600-pound man fully aware that he is eating himself to death. Years ago, he left his wife (Samantha Morton) and daughter (Sadie Sink) for the love of his life, a man who has since died. He teaches literature via Zoom, reads and rereads a favorite essay on Moby Dick, and brushes off the advice of his only true friend, a nurse (Hong Chau). “Aronofsky is walking a fine line between compassion and exploitation here,” finds Stephanie Zacharek. “Even if he means well, he still tips over that line now and then. But sometimes an actor can help minimize a director’s shortcomings, and that’s what Fraser does here.”
“Is Charlie presented as pathetic?” asks Bilge Ebiri. “Well, yes, but in the old, original meaning of the word: He evokes sympathy and sadness, not ridicule or contempt. When he talks to people, his eyes are wide and inquisitive, and there’s a half-smile on his face. He seems open, kind, curious—and shy. Prosthetic or no, it’s actually a perfect part for Fraser. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part, frankly.”
Those prosthetics—all 300 pounds of them—have sparked criticism in some social media corners, but at RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny argues the case for “Fraser’s freedom to take an imaginative and physical leap into a state that is beyond his own, but not entirely apart from it. With The Whale, Aronofsky and Fraser have taken substantive risks, in the name of an insistent empathy. I think, and my tear ducts agree, that those risks paid off.”
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