With White Noise, Noah Baumbach has managed to make a compelling and remarkably coherent dramedy from Don DeLillo’s postmodern epic of optimism and catastrophe.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver; winningly ungainly with long limbs and beer belly)1 is a renowned professor of “Hitler studies”, who works at a fictional American college sometime in the 1980s. His home in leafy suburbia is full of intelligent, if often misinformed, talkative children; the product of multiple marriages. His wife Babette (a, scatty frizzy-haired Greta Gerwig) runs classes at the local community centre. Her eldest daughter, Denise (Raffey Cassidy, intense and assured), is worried about Babette’s erratic behaviour.
Idyllically lensed by cinematographer Lol Crawley, the film’s first act plays as a lightly mundane, almost Rothian study of late 20th Century consumerism. One of Jack’s fellow academics, Murray (a tweedy, cheery, salt-and-pepper Don Cheadle), is fascinated with movie car crashes, Elvis, and supermarkets as representing as the embodiment of American culture.
However, this free-wheeling, associative optimism is imperilled by the emergence of a
plume cloud Airborne Toxic Event. At this point, White Noise segues into apocalyptic sci-fi as the Gladneys and their neighbours flee to an uncertain future. The Spielbergian scope and humanity here is counterbalanced by the sort of ironic absurdity that would make Joseph Heller proud and physical gags straight out of Airplane!.
Finally, we arrive at a DePalma domestic thriller, complete with split diopter shots and plenty of neon; though it lacks the profundity and grandeur of earlier sequences.
The performances are uniformly brilliant – Driver and Cheadle in concert in a Hitler-Elvis lecture-concert is one of the best scenes of the year -but White Noise can’t quite stick the landing. Frequently funny, sometimes moving, and never dull, this deserves to cut through the static of the Netflix algorithm.
White Noise is available exclusively in cinemas from November 25 and streaming on Netflix from December 30
BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
With BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Alejandro G. Iñárritu blends the personal with the absurd in a surreal, semi-autobiographical epic.
Essentially 8 1/2 from the director of Birdman – and with an extra 25 minutes of runtime on the Fellini classic – the film follows Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho)2, a renowned Mexican documentarian who has recently received a prestigious award from the American Society of Journalists.
That Silverio is the first Latin American to receive the award would seem to be a reflection of Iñárritu’s own status as the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Picture at the Oscars, among many other plaudits. Silverio grapples with success and, having returned to Mexico City after a twenty year absence, his identity as a celebrated Mexican creative.
Time and space are fluid in BARDO and Silverio’s uncertain days are characterised by flights of fancy – Silverio’s apartment interior being momentarily relocated to the desert, or 19th Century soldiers reenacting a historic battle in the present-day grounds of the Presidential palace. No sooner has the film settled into a rhythm – a tender moment between Silverio and his wife (Griselda Siciliani) in bed, a heated discussion with his son (Íker Sánchez Solano) at the kitchen table – than we are swept away by another big-budget conceit. For every one that works, and tastes may vary on this – the missing persons of Mexico appearing as fallen bodies in the streets of Mexico City – there’s one that was inexplicable to me – Silverio dancing to a vocals-only rendition of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.
Then again, the indulgence may be the point. BARDO is a filmmaking unbounded by restraint or compromise. It is a supreme act of navel-gazing, of which Iñárritu seems to be at least partially aware; as in one scene where Gama is lambasted for his professional and character failings. That Gama returns equally acute fire, devastating his critic, suggests a rejection of those criticisms.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s use of a wide lens, shooting on 65mm, gives an expansiveness to events; as though by broadening the scope of Gama’s world, the film’s universality might also be increased. BARDO‘s score, courtesy of Bryce Dessner and Iñárritu himself, makes heavy use of horns; playing into the film’s oft-absurdist quality.
BARDO is clearly a deeply personal work, but it’s ambitions overshadow its storytelling. Still, when Netflix has given you what must have been a blank check, it must be tempting to go a little wild. Iñárritu has said recently that he might never direct another film. If that is the case, sad though it may be, it’s hard to imagine he’s left much on the table.
BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, is available exclusively in cinemas from November 4 and streaming on Netflix from December 16
In Living, Oliver Hermanus’ remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, the narrative may have been translated to postwar London, but the film’s timeless themes of bureaucracy, and second chances remain undimmed.
We hear about Mr. Williams before we ever see him. He’s chief clerk of Public Works at County Hall, head of a team of paper pushers whose sole purpose seems to be avoiding doing anything that could be much described as serving the public; holding onto petitions for as long as possible before sending them on to other departments, who will inevitably disclaim responsibility and send them back.
His subordinates – his #2, Mr. Middleton (Adrian Rawlins), Hart (Oliver Chris), and Rusbridger (Hubert Burton) – speak of him in hushed, cryptic terms to newcomer, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp, our bright-eyed audience surrogate), but, when Williams does appear, he’s a dry, almost desiccated figure, so repressed that he sounds like he’s trying to swallow his own voice.
He’s a man so absorbed into the apathy of the system in which he works that he responds to the news of his impending death – cancer, a matter of months – with, “It’s a bit of a bore, really.”
It’s now that Living turns its attentions to Williams3, with his daughter-in-law, Fiona (Patsy Ferran), who seems like she’d be glad to be rid of him, and his noncommittal son, Michael (Barney Fishwick), who will neither condemn his father nor defend him.
When he finds his father sitting in the dark, the closest Michael gets to displaying concern is a half-turn on the stair, a momentary pause before heading up to bed. That single non-gesture is representative of Williams’ whole existence: words unspoken, a life unlived.
Adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro, who has form when it comes to dramatising English repression, Living mirrors its predecessor almost beat for beat, from Williams’ journey into the seedier quarter of Brighton’s nightlife with a disreputable, larger-than-life stranger (Tom Burke, on typically Wellesian form) as his guide, to his platonic, paternal infatuation with Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Works), a vivacious former employee, to the film’s recreation of that final iconic image.
Suppressing his innate twinkly charm, Nighy gives us the heart and soul of a man slowly coming back to life. The film itself is brought to life by Jamie D. Ramsay’s wonderfully elegant compositions, imbued with a vividness and texture that feels almost Technicolour, and the stirring piano of Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score.
Living is a class act, which makes a strong case for formalism. If there’s something a touch more Sunday afternoon viewing about it’s denouement than in Kurosawa’s original, it’s sentiment well-earned. Much like its lead character, the film earns a glowing testimony.
Living is available exclusively in cinemas from November 4
A story of self-loathing and self-destruction, The Whale plays like a differently-scaled Leaving Las Vegas.
Scaled down is the location – an apartment in rural Idaho inhabited by Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a literary teacher who teaches college online. Scaled up is Charlie himself. At 600-lbs, he’s nearly immobile and in terrible health. According to Liz (Hong Chau, both scathing and caring), his carer and sole friend, he’s unlikely to survive the week, but Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, ostensibly due to his lack of insurance.
Based on the play, and adapted by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale is a focused character study in which numerous characters converge unexpectedly on Charlie’s apartment – his estranged, troubled teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, brilliantly and dangerously unpredictable); a young, end-of-days missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins, naivety obscuring depths), determined to save him; the unseen pizza guy, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), who’s the closest thing Charlie has to a casual acquaintance.
Balding and morbidly obese, constantly sweating and gorging, Fraser gives a heartbreaking, vanity-free performance as a man who, cheerful even in torment, is apologetically eating himself to death.
Aronofsky has made multiple films about protagonists destroyed by obsession and guilt. Charlie is a gay man who abandoned his wife (Samantha Morton, brittle and aching) and young daughter, and who, following that partner’s death, ate himself to the size he is today; a slow, self-loathing suicide that transforms everyday tasks into Herculean efforts. Charlie is both destroyer and the object of his own destruction; both Ahab and the titular whale, as in the book report of Moby Dick that is his only solace in times of physical distress.
Though the film, for me, never quite achieved the transcendence it was reaching for, the cast, Fraser in particular, achieve new heights.
The Whale is available exclusively in cinemas from December 9
Empire of Light
Though deceptively mild in the outset, Sam Mendes’ paean to the cinema has a wider lens than first apparent.
It’s the closing days of 1980, and life is going on at the Empire Cinema, a once-grand, Art Deco movie palace on the south coast. Duty manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is part of that life; her own quiet, solitary existence punctuated by the occasional dubiously consensual tryst with the manager, Mr. Ellis (a scrounging, officious Colin Firth). When a new staff member, Stephen (Micheal Ward), joins the cinema staff, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and soon, unexpectedly, a romance is born.
Both directed and written by Mendes, his first solo writing effort, Empire of Light is pervaded by an understated sense of loss – the abandoned upper floor of the Empire contains a shuttered ballroom, complete with grand piano – and threat, as in the skinheads that menace Stephen on his way home. Hilary’s fragile mental health, with mood swings and erratic behaviour, is also of increasing concern, and with this Empire of Light solidifies into something more acute and painful. A particularly ill-timed outburst is so excruciating as to be almost unwatchable.
Colman captures both the highs and the lows, the numbness and forced cheery smile, and is matched beat for beat by Ward, who, in the less showy role, showcases charm, charisma, and caring. They’re ably supported by, among others, Toby Jones, as the theatre’s dedicated projectionist, and Tom Brooke, as a particularly sympathetic usher. Ron Cook is also memorable in a small role as a particularly despicable member of the general public, an ugly bundle of entitlement and prejudice.
While its lack of focus means Empire of Light plays as more slice-of-life than state-of-the-nation, it’s nevertheless a compelling drama; even if its attempt at a cinema-conquers-all denouement feels a bit pat.
Empire of Light is available exclusively in cinemas from January 13, 2023
The Banshees of Inisherin
Writer-director Martin McDonagh returns to his roots, reuniting with In Bruges duo Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for a blackly comic tale about the end of a friendship.
It’s 1923 and life goes on in the small island community of Irisherin. Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) visits the home of Colm Doherty (Gleeson) to invite him out for a pint, as is their custom. But Colm isn’t taking visitors. When Pádraic is able to talk to him, Colm puts it plainly: he doesn’t want to be Pádraic’s friend anymore.
What initially seems inexplicable turns out to be not an unreasonable request, if not very kind, but Pádraic can’t stop picking at the scab of their relationship; even as Colm vows increasingly dire consequences if Pádraic continues to force the matter. Friendship becomes enmity and matters escalate.
Pádraic is portrayed as a good guy, if a little dull. He lives in a cottage with his long-suffering sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and a variety of animals, including his beloved little donkey. Gleeson, by contrast, lives alone on the short with his dog, solitarily working on his violin compositions.
It’s tempting to read the situation as a microcosm of the Irish civil war, raging on the mainland at the time; but McDonagh is never that schematic. Instead, he makes space for a cast of colourful characters, including the village “gom”, Dominic (an as-usual lightly cracked Barry Keoghan), the thuggish Peadar Karney (Garry Lydon), and Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a sinister crone in widows weeds, who may be the proverbial banshee of the piece.
It’s a remarkably unshowy affair after the Oscar-winning barnstormer that was Three Billboards…. Initially intended for the theatre, the third in McDonagh’s Isles of Aran Trilogy, The Banshees of Inisherin feels very much like a play with scenery, idyllically lensed by cinematographer Ben Davis as though it were God’s own country. Carter Burwell’s score, alternately pensive and plaintive, uses harps and glockenspiel to evocative effect.
In cinematic terms, The Banshees of Inisherin feels more akin to John Martin McDonagh’s Calvary, a quiet, rural reflection on what it means to be good and what it means to pay for your sins, knowing or otherwise. With some big laughs and well-judged emotional swings, this is arguably McDonagh’s most mature work to date.