Even for movies, it feels like 2020 is dragging its feet well into 2021. COVID World’s changes in release patterns and delays in awards-giving mean that some films being touted as prize contenders for last year are only now reaching the public, three months into the new year. (It also means that Oscar nominations get announced next Monday, whereas the awards and ceremony for 2019 were done ’n’ dusted by early February the last time around.)
If the whole process hadn’t been stretched out so much, would Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow—possibly the best American narrative feature of 2020, released right before the initial shutdown—still be in the running, rather than basically shunted aside just 10 weeks after topping many critics’ lists and polls? Who knows. But surely some of the major current awards contenders only achieved that status because they’re basically new releases. (Was it even possible for anyone to see The United States vs. Billie Holliday until late last month? Yet somehow Andra Day is now a 2020 Best Actress frontrunner for a movie that was presumably still in the editing room on December 31.)
One deserved beneficiary from all this strangeness, at least, is the first directorial feature for French playwright Florian Zellner. The Father is an adaptation of his highly successful play, and while one can easily imagine it working well on stage, the translation to a different medium is strikingly successful. Anthony Hopkins plays an elderly man living in a voluminous London apartment, tended by his exasperated daughter (Olivia Colman). Though she’d like to move to Paris, dad can’t be left alone—and he chases away the caregivers she hires. But wait a minute, does she actually want to move? Is she divorced, remarried, or still married? Is this even dad’s apartment, or hers, or somewhere else entirely?
This ingenious scenario puts us in the mindset of a (presumed) Alzheimer’s sufferer, whose most combative characteristics are frequently brought out by the confusion and fear he experiences at having reality constantly assume new forms. He’s certain people are tricking him, stealing from him, strangers invading his space—while those people (also including characters played by Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams) patiently try to assure him otherwise.
It’s a fascinating drama, arguably a better one on the subject than such prior awards-magnets as Afterglow or Still Alice, because Zellner approaches that subject from the inside out. He puts the viewer in the position of his protagonist, struggling to make sense of the external world, unable to grasp that the fault lies with his disintegrating perception. This puzzle box of a movie merits the kudos it’s gotten for the acting. But in a way the real star here is the cubist narrative structure, which works itself out not just in scripted terms but in subtle ellipses of production design, editing, and so forth. The Father opens in Bay Area theaters (including the Kabuki and Metreon) Fri/12, with others to follow, including the Embarcadero on April 8.
Other films opening this weekend:
A less successful stab at a prestige adaptation is this nearly two-and-a-half-hour version by Joe and Anthony Russo of Nico Walker’s loosely autobiographical 2018 debut novel, which he wrote while in prison. All three men are from Cleveland (where the story is largely set), which partly explains the attraction of filmmakers best known for several recent big-budget Marvel superhero movies that have been among the better of their kind. Still, those are huge, impersonal, corporate entertainments—and while there’s a certain narrative sprawl (as well as some physical action) to Walker’s terrific book, it works as well as it does precisely because it stays small and very personal, with a singular authorial voice.
Cherry the movie gets better as it goes along, because eventually the story develops enough propulsion to override the excessively fussy presentation. But this is still pretty much a textbook case of original material’s special qualities getting flattened and lost amidst the pummeling effect of too much money, too much flash, too much Hollywood. (Imagine Catcher in the Rye if Steven Spielberg and a $60 million budget were thrown at it.) Thrilled to make something “real” after so much CGI-laden fantasy, the Russo brothers go at it in exactly the wrong way, dumping a giant bag of borrowed tricks (largely but not-at-all-exclusively from Scorsese and Spike Lee, plus some Full Metal Jacket, Drugstore Cowboy, et al.) on top of the material to make it “theirs.” We get different aspect ratios, color filters, slow-mo, desaturation, onscreen text, split screen, an overbusy mixtape soundtrack—no stylistic gimmick is left out.
Somewhere under all that second-hand dazzle is the tale of our unnamed protagonist, played by Tom Holland (concurrently in another big mistake, the sci-fi Chaos Walking), who meets life-love Emily (Ciara Bravo) in college, then impulsively enrolls in the Army when she says she’s leaving him. Then she decides she’s not, but it’s too late—he’s off to basic training, then the worse hell of combat-zone medic service in post-9/11 Iraq. Riddled with PTSD after returning, he ends up plunging them both into drug addiction that necessitates the reckless funding of serial bank robberies.
Cherry is not a total disaster a la Bonfire of the Vanities or some such. But it is the new poster child for how a sharp, supple source work can become bloated and inauthentic. Its distinctive tone has been replaced by generic flamboyance and grandiosity, bringing scope but no depth. The performances are decent, and some scenes have power, but they’re all ultimately defeated by being in a movie that never stops feeling like an imitation of other movies. If you haven’t read the novel, you’ll probably think better of the film. But trust me, the novel provides an experience infinitely more worth having. Already released to available theaters, Cherry is available for streaming on AppleTV+ as of Fri/12.
Contrasting Cherry’s elephantiasis with something extremely hand-crafted and no doubt shoestring-budgeted is this first feature by documentarian, artist, DJ, and Bard College professor Ephraim Asili. It, too, is imitative, though in ways you’re meant to notice: A conspicuous background poster for Godard’s 1967 La Chinoise provides one deliberate model for the new film’s structure, rhetorical content, and bright “pop” aesthetic. As that film portrayed a group of Parisian students living together as a radical Maoist sect, The Inheritance chronicles the birth and life (plus possibly-imminent death at fadeout) of a latterday collective dedicated to African-American history, political education, and consciousness-raising.
This happens in the Philadelphia house Julian (Eric Lockley) has inherited from his grandmother. She evidently owned a Black bookstore and was highly active in radical activism, thus leaving behind plenty of educational materials. Turning the place into a commune is pretty much the brainchild of Julian’s emigre girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), a stringently didactic type. He’s immediately caught in the middle when her opposite number, a brash old friend thrown out of his parents’ house yet again, insists on moving into the newly christened “House of Ubuntu,” then consistently defies all its fussy rules for conduct. If “the basis of African Socialism is the extended family” (as one of many texts quoted here notes), then this particular local socialism, like so many families, is headed towards dysfunction.
But The Inheritance is less about that framing story or its fictive characters than about Black activist history and culture, with clips of Shirley Chisholm and Philly’s own separatist collective MOVE (whose survivors of an infamous 1985 police bombing appear to lecture here) woven into an overall semi-documentary tapestry. Asili’s film is sometimes deliberately repetitious, more artifact and demonstration than entertainment. (It’s also the kind of enterprise whose final credits list a Spiritual Adviser.) But even among the spate of recent movies about ’60s/’70s African-American liberation movements, its idiosyncrasies are refreshingly individual, as well as pointed. It is currently playing BAMPFA and the Roxie’s virtual cinema programs.
Keep An Eye Out
Though none of the films above are without humor, those in need of a palate-cleansing dive into pure silliness will welcome this latest from French writer-director Quentin Dupieux. Well, not exactly his latest: He’s completed two features since Eye, one of which (Deerskin with The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) was released here just a few months ago. Evidently the bottomless thirst for home-viewing “content” has gotten this 2018 title US distribution at last, and that is all to the good: Though not much over an hour’s length, it’s still one of the best works yet by this singular talent whose prior movies have included one from the perspective of a murderous car tire (2010’s Rubber).
Superficially more conventional, Eye is cut from the same absurdist cloth. Fugain (Gregoire Ludig) is an ordinary citizen who while running an evening errand found a corpse outside his apartment building, and hence called the gendarmes. At the start here he’s apparently already been sitting for hours at the police station under the withering yet easily distracted gaze of Inspector Buron (Benoit Poelvoorde). The latter treats him as a suspect without seeming to have any basis for that…or any particular interrogatory gameplan at all.
When this “bad cop” has to step out for a moment, Fugain is left in the custody of a one-eyed “good cop” (Marc Fraize), who’s possibly an even duller-witted public servant. Something happens in Buron’s absence that isn’t Fugain’s fault, yet is sure to make him look like a murderer after all. So Eye winds up being largely a sort of hide-the-body farce, in that long tradition which goes back at least to Arsenic and Old Lace.
But Dupieux has his very own peculiar way of looking at things, so that this quickly becomes something closer to Ionesco than, say, Police Academy. It may actually help that the film is so short—his ideas, while original, have tended to run out of steam in other features. Bizarre and digressive, Keep An Eye Out is really just a goof, an extended skit, but one that is consistently amusing and sometimes flat-out hilarious. It’s currently playing the Roxie and Rafael Film Center’s virtual cinema programs.