Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, and Kyra Sedgwick.
Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has a rough life. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) blatantly favors her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nick the one cute boy in her high school doesn’t know she exists, the only boy interested in her is a giant nerd, her father died unexpectedly three years ago – a loss she is still coming to terms with, and her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) just started sleeping with and dating her older brother. And to make all of this more unbearable she is going through this awkward, painful phase of her life completely alone. After all, when you’re seventeen, there is, like, literally no one who understands your issues and how the universe is totally conspiring against you.
The Edge of Seventeen opens with a determined Nadine approaching the one adult whom she thinks might kind of understand her. She briskly marches into her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s (Woody Harrelson) classroom during his lunch break, and she promptly informs him she will be committing suicide, in some dramatic fashion that will definitely succeed, because she can’t be paralyzed for life, unsuccessfully trying to signal a nurse to smother her. His response: he’s in the process of drafting his own suicide note, because too much of his lunch hour, the only fleeting minutes of happiness in his day, are eaten up by the same obnoxious student.
Nadine then walks us through via flashback how she came to that crisis, and that flashback comprises most of the film.
By this point, the film’s bitterly strong streak of morbid humor should be apparent, as well as the messed-up life Nadine has both due to circumstance and her own bad decisions. I am aware that there may be some people who think jokes about teen suicide, teen promiscuity, teen drinking, and teen depression are not an appropriate vein of humor. However, the humor underscores the foolishness of Nadine’s choices, and it reinforces the notion that all Nadine’s problems, as gargantuan as they seem in the present, are in the grand scheme of her life quite fleeting.
Mr. Bruner’s “comforting” of Nadine flies in the face of any sort of traditional pep talk, and it is quite refreshing to see an authority figure eschew generic inspirational talk and instead respond with dripping sarcasm, humorously suggesting a point of view outside of Nadine’s own, a concept which plays crucially into the film’s climax with another character. Mr. Bruner is brilliantly written, and while the compassionate heart he has is not an original twist, Harrelson’s sardonic delivery and cavalier attitude, while masking said heart, makes for a fantastic performance.
Just as fantastic is Hailee Steinfeld as the seventeen year old protagonist. Not since True Grit has she had a role that allows her acting chops to shine this much. As the resilient, yet stubborn and often selfish Nadine, Steinfeld flawlessly shifts between the tempest of emotions that Nadine experiences, and she creates a frightened and awkward high school student with whom it is easy to sympathize even as she makes increasingly stupid choices. That’s a feat many adult actors cannot pull off, and Steinfeld does it brilliantly here. For instance, as Nadine makes some of the dumbest choices she does in the movie, she attempts to appear more mature, and the comic pathos of those attempts will resonate with anyone with enough hindsight to remember their own disastrous attempts to act beyond their age or to fix a situation by making it worse.
At one point Nadine’s mother gives her a spectacularly bad piece of advice for dealing with feelings of isolation. She says to remember that everyone is as miserable as you are; they just hide it better. Nadine naturally responds with the classic teenage sigh and eye roll, which that cynical advice, to some extent, deserves. While there probably are few who deal with awkwardness and loneliness to the same extent that Nadine does, it is no secret that feelings of isolation plague many people, especially teens.
Twice in the film, at the zenith of her depression, Nadine looks upward and exclaims, “Are you even up there?” How one views the answer to that prayer will probably depend on the perspective of each viewer, but given the moments of grace and compassion shown to Nadine, some of it quite unexpected, it is not difficult to see some providence guiding her life, especially in a final reconciliation between Nadine and another character which is one of the most heartwarming moments I’ve seen all year. Moments like that in the midst of the morbid humor make The Edge of Seventeen a poignant and rare coming of age story, as full of mixed emotions as its flawed and loveable protagonist.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Non-graphic sexual activity between teens, including a scenario which almost turns into an assault, underage drinking, recurring foul language, and some crude gestures. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment
A big thanks to Ken Morefield for inviting me to contribute to his series on Fred Zinnemann with this retrospective on Oklahoma!
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by David Ayer. Starring Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis, Cara Delevingne, and Jared Leto.
The biggest problem with DC’s latest attempt to set up the Justice League is that Suicide Squad is nowhere near bonkers enough. Given the original premise, it quickly falls back on generic superhero film tropes, playing it safe and sometimes boring. Basically, Suicide Squad is a remake of The Avengers in which the team of superpeople is compromised by their past unethical actions, which we never really see, raising the question: why aren’t these bad guys, bad?
A flashback tells us Will Smith’s Deadshot is a ruthless assassin, but he spends most of the film worrying about his daughter (and repeatedly telling us he’s a bad guy). Diablo (Jay Hernandez) spends all his time worrying his powers will kill people, because of what the film suggests was technically a tragic accident. Honestly, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) sucker punching of Harley Quinn – disturbingly played for laughs – is more unethical than most of the actions of these supposedly evil villains.
Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc (Jai Courtney and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, respectively) merely fill in gaps between set pieces; it would make no difference to the plot if they were taken out. And then there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.
Robbie’s gleeful abandon and scenery chewing is so campy and over-the-top that I couldn’t help enjoy her performance (and, by extension a good chunk of the film as well.) If all the cast had thrown themselves into their characters with equal panache, and if the script had thrown caution to the wind embracing a nonsensical, nonlinear, go-for-broke, style-over-substance method of storytelling, this could have been one of the best superhero films yet. I’m not sure who would constitute the audience for such a film, but I know I’d really enjoy watching it. Wait, that film already exists; it’s called Batman Returns.
Speaking of Burton’s 1992 cos-play camp-fest – which for the record, I think is arguably the best comic book film there is (unquestionably if you exclude Nolan’s Dark Knight) – Michelle Pfeiffer basically played the same type of character that Robbie plays here, and played it better. You could also believe Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was evil and conflicted, unlike Robbie’s Harley Quinn who comes across more as a juvenile delinquent, another undermining of the “bad guys” premise.
As it is, Suicide Squad has glimmers of the campy vitality it needed a lot more of, and for this non-comic book geek, they were enough to make this marginally more enjoyable than Captain America: Civil War. For anyone else who has normal taste, it looks as if Suicide Squad will be roundly hated, which I wouldn’t argue.
Other pluses are director Ayer’s choice to keep the violence on a more contained scale than other recent supertype films, and the choreography of fight scenes is not a chaotic frenzy, even though his color palette quickly becomes monotonous.
As to actual villains, the film gives us three: Viola Davis’ unethical and eminently hateable antiheroine Amanda Waller, Cara Delevingne’s diabolical Aztec witch Enchantress whom the team must assemble to defeat (and whose plan and final confrontation looks like a knock-off of Gozer the Gozerian with updated special effects), and Jared Leto’s Joker who randomly pops in when the script needs him to throw a wrench into the proceedings. Leto has so little screentime, it’s hard to know what to make of his funny voice and creepy sensual antics, other than it seems he’s going out of his way to make sure no one thinks of Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson.
Like many recent superhero films, the script feels overstuffed with too many characters who make no difference to the plot. I appreciated the efficiency of the opening montage in which Waller details who she’s recruiting and gives us a brief overview of their past, but the film takes no time to develop them later, other than Harley Quinn and Deadshot.
For a film that was meant to make us root for antiheroes as they attempted to do some good, I honestly can’t even call these members of the Suicide Squad that. Either we don’t see them as evil, or the few bad choices they make they later regret and wish to avoid repeating. The result is just another superhero film with two (maybe three) memorable characters and a cast of easily forgettable action-fillers. But the soundtrack uses the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody, so let’s bump it up half a letter grade.
Content Advisory: Much action violence, frequent partial rear nudity, unethical behavior throughout, occasional vulgarity, and a few mild obscenities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: B-
Year of Release: 1998 Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Tara Subkoff, and Robert Sean Leonard.
As a Catholic, frequenting the sacrament of confession has been a fairly regular aspect of my life. And for the most part, I have spent a good portion of my life confessing the same sins over and over again, despite my best intentions not to continue committing them. I think of that when Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who spends a good portion of this film blissfully unaware that she tries to control others’ lives while cattily judging them, reflects on the beauty of Amazing Grace. As she proceeds to sing the first two verses, we see some of the costly consequences of her and her friend Alice’s (Chloë Sevigny) mistakes as well as opportunities for second chances. And after this moment of moral insight, in the next scene, she returns to being a bitch toward her friends.
That mixture of trying and promptly forgetting to try to do what’s right is what gives The Last Days of Disco an endearing balance of comedy, pathos, and insight. As Eve Tushnet wrote:
“There are ways of doing tragedy or satire where it’s about people willfully being awful, but I think my favorite tragedies and satires are about how many important things we botch when we’re trying very hard not to.”
From the very first scene, we watch all the characters stress and meticulously calculate the most probable way they will gain admittance to the prestigious disco club in Manhattan. After walking to the club, Charlotte and Alice decide it will look more prestigious if they arrive in a cab, so they hail one to drive them less than a block. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), whose advertising firm has given him the odd ultimatum to get clients into the disco club or be fired, frets over the best way to make a good impression on the bouncer, and he goes so far as to give one of his clients his coat to mask the gaudy plaid jacket the man is wearing. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) is going along with Jimmy, and he ends up getting into the club by the luck of escaping the bouncer’s notice. For all the worry of these characters about proving the value of their social lives by entering the disco club, whether they succeed, to a large extent, comes down to luck.
The aura of prestige surrounding disco serves as a reminder that there are things worth striving for and that even a genre as reviled as disco may have more value than its detractors give it credit for. The titular words, “the last days” suggests a time that is passing and worth remembering, but it also suggests that the characters should think about a future outside of disco.
One permanent fixture at the club is Des, (an endearingly complacent Chris Eigeman) whose job is some sort of back entrance bouncer and other miscellaneous tasks. Eigeman perfectly captures the film’s heart of trying and failing by trying for all the wrong things. He puts his energy into making sure his ex-girlfriends still like him by telling them he’s gay, or might be gay, rather than putting energy into the relationships. He spends more time rationalizing why he’s the best for his job instead of doing his job. Ultimately, he does have a brilliant and amusing moment of insight when he turns an oft-misquoted Shakespeare line on its head:
“You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true?” It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? See, that’s my situation.”
As Charlotte and Alice, Beckinsale and Sevigny make a compelling screen duo, anchoring the ensemble and portraying a friendship and rivalry of two young women both working in publishing in New York. They both want to support one another, and the scene where they put down a patronizing male co-worker makes for great comedy, but neither wants to disadvantage her career or social standing by helping the other too much.
Alice is a more reserved person who clearly has less partying experience, and her hesitance in ordering drinks and only naming one or two cocktails with which she’s familiar is funny to anyone who’s been in a bar for the first time and only knows a couple of drinks, if any. Alice’s desire for a dating life leads to regrettable consequences as she tries her hardest to go about it the culturally “right” way. Charlotte’s insists that she and Alice will be good friends, even as she pushes Alice into awkward scenarios for the sake of boosting her ego. Nearly all of their behavior contributes to that central character flaw of trying the wrong way and repeatedly making the same mistakes.
Finally, the film is loaded with subtle moments of humor, which I must confess, I totally missed on my first viewing several years ago. The comic awkwardness of trying to do what is expected while being totally unsure what that is comes across beautifully, and it makes all these characters loveable as they try, despite their propensity for messing up. Because after all, we have a God who loves us despite our messing-up the same way over and over again.
Content Advisory: Brief full frontal nudity, a fleeting shot of an interrupted sexual encounter, casual discussion of sex acts, and some drug use. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A+