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Ensembles Assemble!

Tyler Taormina’s Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point (2024)

World leaders get lost in the woods, four generations of an Italian American family gather for the holidays, and two ultra-minor league baseball teams face off one last time in three ensemble-led films that critics in Cannes have warmed up to over the past few days. None of these features map a group dynamic, exactly; dynamic seems too peppy a word for the tone of all three.

Rumours

When Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux announced this year’s lineup last month, Guy Maddin posted a photo of Roy Dupuis and Alicia Vikander conferring in foggy darkness under a heavy canopy of trees—and next to a gently glowing brain several times the size of both actors put together. Accompanying the photo is a statement from Maddin and his codirectors, Evan and Galen Johnson, the brothers he worked with on The Green Fog (2017), a reconstruction of Hitchcock’s Vertigo made up of clips from films and shows shot in San Francisco.

Maddin and the Johnsons’ statement establishes that the Out of Competition slot Cannes had given their new film, Rumours, was “hardly a slight at all, hardly any kind of indignity, nor affront, and has occasioned no feelings of self-doubt whatsoever in the valiant trio of spunky, self-secure artistes who made it . . . Insider tittle-tattle suggests pic was simply ‘too powerful’ for Competition, with one observer even suggesting that to select the film ‘would not have been fair to the other films.’”

That spirit can be further sampled in Film Comment Podcast host Devika Girish’s conversation with the three directors, who emphasize that as they were fleshing Evan Johnson’s story out into a full-blown screenplay, no idea was too silly to dismiss. Rumours is “a wildly entertaining shaggy-dog satire that sees a stuffy G7 summit devolve into a murky, muddy, and strangely isolated zombie apocalypse,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, and in Screen, Jonathan Romney finds that the film “suggests a cross between Dr. Strangelove, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Night of the Living Dead.

Along with Ari Aster, Cate Blanchett is one of the film’s many, many executive producers, and she plays German chancellor Hilda Ortmann, the host of a meeting called to order in a wooden gazebo set up deep in the forest near the tiny town of Dankerode. The aim is to draft a collective statement in response to some vague global crisis. This communiqué, “as Hilda murmurs to her French counterpart, President Sylvain Broulez (Denis Ménochet),” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “should be worded vaguely enough so they are not committed to any specific action.”

U.S. President Edison Wolcott is played by Charles Dance, the running gag here being that he makes no effort whatsoever to Americanize his English accent. As Bradshaw further explains, “British PM Cardosa Dewindt (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is stressed because she had an affair at the last G7 summit with troubled Canadian premier and ladies’ man Maxime Laplace (Roy Dupuis), who also carries a torch for European Commission secretary-general Celestine Sproul (Alicia Vikander) and has a moment with Hilda. Rolando Ravello plays the nervy Italian PM Antonio Lamorte and Takehiro Hira plays Tatsuro Iwesaki, the modest, shy Japanese premier.”

Caught up in fine-tuning a statement “full of platitudes, corporate-speak, psychobabble, and song lyrics,” as Leslie Felperin describes it in the Hollywood Reporter, these “heads of the leading liberal first-world democracies” become “the Mystery Machine gang from Scooby-Doo,” as the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin puts it, when faced with two-thousand-year-old masturbating bog zombies, an AI chatbot set up to ensnare pedophiles, and of course, that giant brain.

“The danger of movies based on conceptual wit,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, “is that they will lose steam as things proceed and the filmmakers run out of ideas. Thankfully, Maddin and the Johnsons effectively develop their story—goofy and absurd though it may be—so that these constant digs at our ineffectual leaders do coalesce into something meaningful and alarming. Rumours starts off focusing on how the cocoon of leadership is both a privilege and a curse for these people. By the end, we understand that the ones who are truly doomed are the rest of us.”

Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point

In 2021, Omnes Films became one of the rare collectives to be spotlit in Filmmaker’s annual feature 25 New Faces of Independent Film, and the magazine has carried on championing their work ever since. In the run-up to the Directors’ Fortnight premieres of Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, the third feature from Tyler Taormina (Ham on Rye, Happer’s Comet), and Eephus, the debut feature from cinematographer and critic Carson Lund, Scott Macaulay spoke with Taormina, who produced Eephus, and Leonardo Goi interviewed Lund, who shot Christmas Eve.

Young and old, every member of the Balsano family is aware that this may be the last holiday season spent together in the Long Island house where the middle-aged layer of this bunch grew up. “With an Altmanesque overlap of half-heard and half-finished dialogue (but without the Altmanesque ennui), the film’s first half rotates through yakking about real estate, law and order, love of country, love of family, and kids today, with random philosophical asides,” writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter. “What unfolds from there begins with crazy driving and turns into a midwinter night’s fantasia, complete with picture-perfect snowfall, a storybook crescent moon and a lone skater on a lake.”

In Variety, Jessica Kiang finds that while Ham on Rye “put a surreal, dreamily satirical twist on the American prom ritual, Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point plays its traditions straight, with a sincerity and sentimentality so brazen it borders on the avant-garde.” For Macaulay, “what’s particularly remarkable about Taormina’s picture is that it produces a kind of narrative excess in near non-narrative ways. The film’s storyline is, paradoxically, both overstuffed—any member of its sprawling cast might have been the lead in a different movie—and sparse, with affecting moments and trenchant lines of dialogue quickly subsumed within its sensorial flow of girl-group holiday tunes, sparkling lights and, in a surreal moment, a fire truck costumed as Santa’s sled making its annual drive-by to the squeals of neighborhood children.”

Eephus

It’s the mid-1990s, give or take, in a humble Massachusetts town when the Adler’s Paint and Riverdogs teams of middle-aged amateur players meet for one final game before Soldier’s Field is to be paved over to make way for a new school. “But we’re not here to watch the game any more than they’re really here to play it,” writes Kiang. “The minimal action of Eephus is contained in the dugout chatter, the banter in the outfield, the beer cans multiplying in the grass, the bright sky slowly darkening, the tempers that get lost and found.”

“It’s the end of an era, perhaps the end of America,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, “and one of the charms of Lund’s unabashedly low-fi movie is that this last and totally inconsequential game between a pair of minor-minor-minor league teams never really ends, but rather drags on into extra inning after extra inning, way past sunset and deep into the night. It’s baseball as a means to ward off the inevitable demise we all must face . . . If that sounds like heavy stuff, for much of its running time Eephus plays more like an offbeat, old-school sports comedy—the kind they used to make back when baseball was still the country’s number one pastime.”

An eephus pitch, by the way, has a quick spin, a high arch, and a low velocity. Leonardo Goi notes that Lund’s film is “scored to the intermittent Greek chorus-like announcements crackling from a boombox,” one of them voiced by Frederick Wiseman. Lund tells Goi that “the choice to recruit him is a testament to my admiration for his work, but it’s also, I hope, a cue about the way Eephus is operating. Wiseman’s films are all about the collective, these vast systems and communities that often have their own internal logic. I wanted to tell the viewer this is almost an anthropological study of a big group as opposed to a film about this or that protagonist. It’s a film about a world that’s about to reveal itself to you.”

Scott Macaulay has just spoken with Taormina and Lund again, this time about the makeup of Omnes Films, which includes Jonathan Davies (Topology of Sirens), and Michael Basta, whose forthcoming Raccoon stars Tim Heidecker as a salesman at a dental convention. Further features will soon include Lorena Alvarado’s debut, Los Capítulos Perdidos, “a look at a notorious bookseller in Venezuela,” and Alexandra Simpson’s No Sleep Till, “a beautiful, atmospheric film about a coastal Floridian town threatened by an impending hurricane.”

“A lack of irony, that’s pretty important for us,” says Taormina. “I think we’re all pretty genuine people, and we have a shared thing that brings us very close together.”

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