Year of release: 2018. Directed by Wim Wenders.
A narrative voice over (from director Wim Wenders) laments the state of the world: increasing numbers of people are starving and homeless, pollution continues to cause irreversible damage to the environment, injustices abound over the entire face of the globe. The direness of these proclamations is contrasted with a beautiful long distance shot of an Italian city, which one might assume is Rome. However, it is Assisi, the home of St. Francis, from whom our current pontiff took his name.
Wenders continues, praising the revolutionary way St. Francis confronted the injustices of his day. By adopting a life of extreme poverty and prayer he did not fight against the corruption of wealth and power, but instead led a peaceful rebellion, witnessing to the joy that comes from embracing poverty and seeing Christ in all of creation.
Brief interludes performed by a trio of actors playing St. Francis and two of his followers are scattered throughout the film, and they depict that joy and simplicity, which is reinforced by Wenders’ decision to film the interludes in a grainy, old school black and white full frame. Among other incidents from the life of St. Francis, Wenders focuses on St. Francis composing his Canticle to the Sun and meeting with the Egyptian Sultan during the Crusades to ask for peace, arguing these are some of the ways St. Francis fulfilled Christ’s command from the crucifix to “rebuild my Church.”
After the first interlude, Wenders cuts to a 1999 address from Bishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, in which Bergoglio calls for charity and solidarity among all Christians, which Wenders is clearly stating to be not dissimilar from St. Francis’ way of life. Thus, when the next scene shows Bergoglio becoming Pope and choosing the name Francis, the remainder of the film becomes a series of examples of the various countercultural ways that Pope Francis lives out the Gospel in his personal life, like his namesake did eight hundred years ago.
The first half of the film has a natural flow from one event to another, for which Wenders should be commended. We see Pope Francis give interviews to children, to the camera, to crowds, and to reporters calling for us all to be less attached to possessions, decrying the rampant consumerism that engulfs the world, and affirming the dignity of a work, which is something we are all called to do. A tracking shot through a parade concludes this half of the film with a touching exchange between the pope and a nun.
The second half of the film tackles more topics, sometimes jumping around to different ones in ways that don’t always flow. However, Wenders spends enough time focusing on Francis’ own words that we can see his beliefs and his explanations for how all these issues are interrelated in a sort of seamless garment: care of the environment, welcoming of refugees, defense of the innocent, condemning unhealthy consumerism – failing any one betrays a worldview which devalues the poorest and most vulnerable.
An extended segment focuses on the plight of refugees and immigrants around the world. The pope’s call to recognize refugees as the image of Christ comes as welcome rebuttal to the current USA administration’s assault upon immigrants, especially for any Catholics who are physically ill from watching supposed fellow believers defend such monstrosities. Wenders clearly intends for Francis’ words to be taken this way, not only from the location of the refugees he films, but also when he follows this part a few minutes later with Francis’ 2015 address to a joint session of Congress, focusing on his condemnation of the plunder of the environment and calling for an end to the production and sale of weapons.
In addition to the top-notch production values, Wenders greatest strength is his focus on Pope Francis and Francis’ own words, clearly portraying him as a man who lives and leads by example. It’s a bit of a pity Wenders did not include Francis’ recent apology for his callous response to the Chilean abuse scandal or any other example of the pope repenting and seeking forgiveness for his shortcomings, but in fairness to Wenders, that may have happened after post-production concluded, and his focus is on the similarities between the two Francises, and the ways they were both committed to living the Gospel.
A final flourish merges the St. Francis of Assisi timeline with today in a particularly impressive and touching way, concluding a parallel between two teachers of the Church, almost a millennium apart, who were both men of their word.
Personal recommendation: A-
Year of release: 2003 Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.
It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.
I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.
A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.
I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.
I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.
Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.
As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.
Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.
Personal recommendation: F
Year of Release: 2018 Directed by Wes Anderson. Voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Babalan, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, and Liev Schreiber.
When the world has become pile of garbage, and humans are seized with paranoia and are searching for a scapegoat to preserve their way of life at the expense of others, is it possible to still find goodness in the world? Wes Anderson barks out a resounding “yes” with this tale of a boy and his dog and the dog’s dogs and a girl and her dog, and many more dogs.
Isle of Dogs is admittedly an over-the-top smorgasbord of characters, elaborate and painstakingly crafted stop motion sets overflowing with Anderson’s trademarks of balanced compositions, quirky dialogue, and deadpan humor. It is also a love letter not only to canines but to Japanese culture, particularly the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
At times it can seem overwhelming, and with the exceptions of Bryan Cranston’s gruff and scraggly stray Chief, Edward Norton’s pragmatic and talkative Rex who’s basically a canine version of Scout Master Ward, and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-prone husky Duke, none of the dogs make a particularly strong impression as individual characters, at least not on a first viewing.
However, considering the affection that saturates every detail of the production, for me, it didn’t really matter. The joy and passion that Anderson clearly had for this film, its story, the sets, and the characters was the driving force, and it is such a spectacularly beautiful thing to witness that by the film’s end I wanted to stand up and cheer.
One aspect I have repeatedly admired about Wes Anderson’s past films is the way they portray a broken world while simultaneously showing the characters’ hopes for a more perfect one. It’s what Sam and Suzy are seeking in Moonrise Kingdom; it’s what haunts Zero’s memories in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Isle of Dogs primarily taking place on a location called Trash Island after the titular animals are exiled there by an evil cat-loving dynasty that wishes to eliminate the canine population, the brokenness of this world could not be more apparent.
At the same time, moments of hope and joy appear throughout this world. The story primarily concerns twelve-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) who flies to Trash Island on a mission to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A resistance led by a group of students fights courageously and continually for the rights of the mistreated and victimized dogs. Throughout the film we are invited to laugh and celebrate such simple delights as a dog understanding television and the inherent conflict of five alpha dogs all being leaders for the same pack. An adorable litter of puppies features into the story in a way that undermines the cynicism of another character.
Finally, the denouement features one of the most delightfully satisfying triumphs of good over evil, showing a world where people do not fear the unknown and help those in need rather than exile them. And if I’m entirely honest, I find it impossible not to love a story in which corrupt fascists who maintain their power through paranoia and public manipulation, who make disparaging comments about immigrants, and who have creepy, long-faced, soulless ghouls as their right-hand men are then undone by their own sinister schemes.
There are obvious political analogies which the story invites, which may or may not have been intentional – considering the length of time that production took, some of the similarities between the villains and the USA’s current administration are probably coincidental, but for a story celebrating the marginalized and their inherent value as part of the world, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful example of art being a realization of timeless truths.
An opening title card informs the audience that all the humans speak their own tongue, which will sometimes be translated via electronics or a translator; all the barks, however, have been translated into English. It’s an insignificant detail, but the conviction with which it is conveyed makes it both funny and touching. The same could be said for Edward Norton’s frequent, trivial banter and for Jeff Goldblum’s smart-alack catch phrases – mundane and meaningless on their own, but the commitment which the actors give to their parts makes them come alive. It is the same way for every detail this production, and it is in the paying attention to those details that this story shines out as the gem it is.
Content Advisory: Some intense menace and peril including a murder, much cartoon violence – might frighten young or sensitive children. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment
Personal recommendation: A
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, and Nicolás Saavedra.
Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of a transwoman who must confront her older partner’s grieving and increasingly hostile family after his sudden death due to a brain aneurism. The film functions as a chronicle of daily discrimination punctuated with magical realism as she sees her lover’s ghost wherever she goes, which functions as both an escape and a comfort to her.
Honestly, I must confess that I’m really not sure what to make of this film. On the one hand, Daniela Vega gives a fantastic performance (pun not intended), and she was a consultant for the experience of transwomen, so perhaps I should give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the film wants to be a call to treat everyone we meet with compassion, and it gives visibility to a part of the population which is often overlooked. On the other hand, there’s a sort of savage glee the film takes in depicting the abuse and degradation Marina (Vega) suffers over and over and over and… Yes, I’m sure many transpeople face that level of discrimination, but here it comes across as a manipulative stacking of the deck for two reasons.
First, similar to The Help’s ridiculous caricature of racists, which enables many white people to pat themselves on the back and think they’re not racist while refusing to challenge any ingrained cultural racism they harbor, the transphobic characters here are so extreme that they create a sort of security bubble for any nominally progressive person watching this. And if we’re honest, ninety-nine percent of the people who watch this will most likely be some degree of progressive. I’m sure there are many more people this degree of transphobic than The Help’s sort of racist, but the portrayal comes across as a cheap shot at moral superiority.
Further undermining the film’s depiction of transphobia is the scenario in which Marina encounters her lover’s family. She meets them after his death, and they want to prevent her from attending the wake and funeral, solely because she is transgendered. The idea that anyone might harbor resentment toward the person who broke up their family regardless of their gender identity is never seriously considered. Conflating the two motivations undermines both the bigotry of the former and the more reasonable, if selfish, anger of the latter.
Secondly, heaping on the discrimination and abuse so heavy-handedly means the only way we can identify with Marina is to pity her. She’s an object for our pity, which I don’t think is a positive portrayal of anyone. Thankfully, she’s not raped, but it would have been perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film if she had been. A few scenes break away from the misery of the rest of the film when Marina can be herself or dream about the world as she wishes it was, and they’re welcome reliefs both dramatically and thematically.
However, I have to give the film credit for Vega’s performance as she does a very good job at creating a nuanced character trapped in an utter hell. She is a hundred times better at portraying a transperson who is an actual human being than Eddie Redmayne was when he portrayed a preposterously concocted straight man who liked to play dress-up in The Danish Girl. While it’s possible the filmmakers are just depicting the hellish world Marina is forced to inhabit, I’m not convinced they aren’t perpetuating that hell with some of their stylistic choices – the filming of a physical examination due to a creepy and prurient social worker comes foremost to mind.
When Marina first meets her lover’s adult son, he inquires whether she’s had sexual reassignment surgery, because he cannot know how to act toward her unless he knows what kind of genitals she has. She tells him never to ask that, and the notion that we can treat people as human beings regardless of their gender is made strikingly apparent. However, after that scene, the film takes a coy, nearly voyeuristic interest regarding where Marina is in her transition, repeatedly teasing the audience and inviting them to speculate how much of a woman she is, while simultaneously saying how wrong it is to do so.
Postscript: when I Googled Daniela Vega to make sure I was spelling her name correctly for this review, the top search term was, “Daniela Vega before.” Based on the film’s treatment of her and its obsession with the state of her transition, that makes sense.
Personal recommendation: C+
Content advisory: A non-sexual but nasty assault, several scenes of nudity, some obscene language, non-graphic love-making.
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment
Many thanks to Ken Morefield for offering me the opportunity to review this delightful documentary about piano teaching in Ireland.