Comala starts with a denial. The documentarian is interviewing his mother, and she says “no” over a dozen times in reference to whether or not her husband was a hitman. We can’t tell if she’s in denial or just doesn’t know about who he was. It’s an engrossing opening that feels personal. What follows is meandering film that deteriorates when attempting to convey meaning that haphazardly buoys up in the end during a subsequent introspective interview once again with his mother.
Gian Cassini forces perspective from external lighting sources. Casting a single beam of light on carefully laid out images adorning a table. They mean nothing to the viewer. He the looks into a MacBook at other images. They to are absent any force. Emotional or narrative. Gian then uses a projector to project a couple of those images onto his face, in an attempt to convey thoughtful intent. What we actually get is a shabby, incongruent, choice that lacks any tact and causes distrust in addition to dislike of our storyteller.
It’s easy to see why this first time film was shelved for three years. It stumbles around from meticulously staged shots that reek of unsubtle meaning, to personal handheld interviews with family members and friends of Gian’s father, and neighborhood walks through old haunts. Rather than Comala being a story about a man, the hitman the interview starts out with, it’s about the filmmaker. His childhood and how he sees himself. It rings hollow, as a boy who’s not yet a man trying to figure out who and what he is from external sources rather than his own actions. A large ego can ruin a good film, at minimum that’s the case here. There will surely be films of great quality and merit in the future that explore histories of violence among family members in Mexico, this is not that film.
Everyone’s favorite loud mouthed film critic uncle turned director is back with a brash Atlantic City government intrigue gambling film. Schrader once again leans on a heavily burdened middle aged man to communicate a story of penance if not atonement. Oscar Isaac plays that central figure who goes by the name William Tell, which as we come to find out is actually a pseudonym. His real name William Tillich isn’t one he wants to parade about. He’s been tried and convicted in connection with the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. So it’s easy to see why he’d want to avoid any extra attention, as it would doubtlessly not lead to a positive interaction.
Rounding out the players of The Card Counter are Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and frequent Schrader collaborator Willem Dafoe. Dafoe here is the only supporting player without a weak moment. Which is a shame as he’s only very briefly in the film. Haddish and Sheridan each have moments, but there’s something off balance and out of key when all three (Isaac, Haddish, and Sheridan) end up in a scene together. It’s not simply that the performances are bad, but the tonalities of the characters themselves clash in an almost indescribable way. Undercutting the moment and leaving one focused on the actual acting that each is doing in the moment. Which not only dissipates the narrative value but the film itself.
The Card Counter tells the story of Bill Tell after getting out of Leavenworth Penitentiary. He becomes, you guessed it, a card counter. Surfing the highways, byways, and interstates of America from Casino to Racino collecting modest sums for his efforts along the way. Until one fateful day when he encounters Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan while they’re both watching a presentation by Major Gordo, played by Dafoe. Cirk writes down his phone number as Tell is leaving and asks him to call him. Over the next dozen or so minutes we learn that Cirk’s dad was in Abu Ghraib alongside Tell and that he’d beaten the boy and his mother until one day she left without a word. Shortly after that Cirk’s father shot himself. Leaving Cirk alone, and pondering revenge. Haddish’s La Linda offers Tell with a way to earn a significant sum of money that he could use to set Cirk back on the right path. Paying off his and his mother’s debts with a nest-egg for him to go back and complete his education. Away from vengeance and back toward a future.
Isaac returns to the heights of his abilities as a performer. If you’re familiar with my thoughts on Oscar Isaac, you may know I thought he was one of the best and brightest up and coming performers up through 2015’s Show Me A Hero and Mojave. Then he was waylaid by vapid blockbuster fair like 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He had a handful of good performances between that stretch and now, in At Eternity’s Gate(alongside Willem Dafoe) and Suburbicon. But by and large the Julliard graduate that took us by storm with Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina seemed to have evaporated. Exchanging complex character performances for larger than life caricatures in movies that sell well but have the nutritional quality of a McDonald’s hamburger. Perhaps like me you’ve been along for the ride since 2006, with Pu-239. Which makes this return to form so thrilling. Isaac’s Bill Tell goes from cheery scallywag to torturer in seconds. He rivets us with his physicality, using posture to enormous effect whenever he’s sitting down, and always seeming withdrawn despite his shoulders lacking so much as a hint of a hunch. Dialogue is spat out like venom or professed breathily like a loosened secret evaporating from his lips. In the scheme of things it’s hard to say if this is a return to form for Isaac or just evidence that with the right project and director he can still act at the very top of the craft.
Schrader is running and gunning, the camera peels back, forward, and along–in hallways, Casino floors, and hotel rooms. There’s a particularly stupefyingly gorgeous scene in which Haddish and Isaac go for a walk in a park adorned and bedecked in lights. But even in the heights of a scene so magnetic and engaging as this aerial light sequence the edges of the project are peeling up in the corners and we can see the tape trying to hold it together. Just before the aforementioned aerial sequence begins Isaac and Haddish are talking, which is moderately okay, as the sound quality of the muxing is rough. But then they turn and face each other as they’re talking and we can see the lines of dialogue they’re delivering don’t line up with the lips moving on screen. This is just one egregious example in a sequence that should have been resplendent of many. The ADR(Automated Dialogue Replacement) throughout the film is often off, which is a real shame because Schrader brought his cards to the table and to see him undercut by a post production snafu that pops up frequently seems unfair. The Card Counter is a sturdy if mishandled hot-blooded drama. But most importantly, it’s a sure sign that Schrader isn’t close to done.
The Card Counter Trailer
The Card Counter is currently in wide theatrical release.
The melodramatic and forced Flag Day is Sean Penn’s first foray picking up the camera since his critically panned follow up to Into the Wild, The Last Face. It is notably also the first time he’s directed himself in a film. Flag Day itself is an adaptation of Jennifer Vogel’s story (the character Sean’s daughter Dylan Penn plays.) written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. It pins Sean’s John Vogel as an everyman who’s committing crime to take care of his daughter.
Penn frequently utilizes tight half frame close ups during dialogue scenes. Daniel Moder’s camera has a complimentary fuzzy grain, imagining things a bit more warmly than they actually were. That same grain adorns the natural light with a physical texturous quality that causes the film oftentimes to glow.
It foolishly relies on narration from Dylan’s Rebecca(one recalls the disastrous Blade Runner theatrical cut to mind, with Harrison as a lamenting noir-esque investigator), to instruct us on the experience of her youth and the man her father was. Rather than committing to show us it’s narrative, it tells the viewer unceasingly who these characters are and their experiences. Hopper Penn, Sean’s son briefly appears in the film, and though the Penn children are still young enough to develop, there’s very little put into the film here that seems indicative of a bright future. For either of the Penn siblings.
Flag Day is over edited. With collage sequences, and constant cutting when a weighty moment isn’t occurring. It’s plotted events are too cute, too tightly knit, nothing is afforded a chance to breathe. It forces perspective that doesn’t translate sincerity so much as severity. The well documented severity of by all accounts of a disillusioned Sean Penn who’s tried his hand writing a novel, won the lead actor Oscar Award twice(once for Mystic River in 2004 & once for Milk in 2009.), and now simultaneously has nothing and everything left to prove. A master performer who finds performing close to hollow and is now looking to other avenues of storytelling and unconventional stories to find meaning, purpose, or something of worth.
Despite all these faults Flag Day showcases that Sean does indeed still have it in front of the camera, despite the melodramatic absurdity that accompanies what it is that he is bringing to the table. No lines work as well as his, aside from the brief turns from respective powerhouses Josh Brolin and Eddie Marsan. This paired with Cinematographer Daniel Moder’s rustic American fabric like images demonstrate Flag Day does have some merit. Though it’s themes and narrative ring with as much resonance as a lone drumstick tearing thru a single sheet of paper.
Flag Day Trailer
Flag Day is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
Petite Maman will historically be known as the film that Celine Sciamma followed up her intimate, awarding winning and otherworldly Portrait of a Lady on Fire with. Perhaps unfairly, as her predecessor to that title, Girlhood bears none of the brunt of the comparison that Petite Maman must contend with. Petite Maman like Portrait feels like an enchantment. A storied fable comes to bright life in front of us, played so straight that it’s easy to think you’re the one getting things confused. Why is Nelly’s mother gone? And at what point exactly did this child, Marion enter and why does she seem so much like Nelly’s mother?
Petite Maman sets out with a family reeling from the loss of a matriarch. Not just a mother, or a mother in law, but a grandmother. It’s Nelly’s (played by newcomer Josephine Sanz)first exposure to the face of death. And it leaves an indelible mark on her. Sciamma is interested in and successful at expressing the longing for understanding of a child. The yearn for connection, to know undoubtedly what is true. Because a parent’s role after all is to protect a child from some of the harshness they’ll come to find in life. This protection indelibly becomes apparent to all youth as they age further and wonder about that boundary of distinction offered by a parents protection from reality.
At one point Nelly directly asks her father, aptly named le pere what he was like as a boy. Who he was, what scared him. It’s a long look back at identity from his perspective, but it’s her beginning to formulate the identities and lives of others around her simultaneously. To experience a child going through this step in person is something magical itself, and Sciamma magnifies just the right parts of that to bring it to life without losing any of the intimacy of such a monumental shift in growth to the screen. One can’t separate this maturity with the massive longing and loss of her grandmother, whose cane she procured before leaving the hospital. Part token of her grandmother, part totem to her. It, like so many choices in the film, feels real, relentlessly and intimately so.
Similar to Christian Petzold’s Undine from 2020 or Murakami’s magical realism behemoth Killing Commendatore that resembles a sculpture more than a book, you’re unsure exactly where the boundaries of this fable are. How is it that her mother is a little girl? At one point Marion (Nelly’s mother) asks, how she got there after Nelly reveals that she is her daughter. Her reply, “I come from the path behind you.” rings with a delicious metaphorical completeness. At once indisputable and incomprehensible. How else could she have come? How else indeed.
The 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to the 18th. To learn more about the festival and see this year’s lineup of films and schedule, visit https://tiff.net/
Want to know what we’ve seen, want to watch, or what we each thought the best films were? Reference the Letterboxd Links below!
Pascal-Alex Vincent’s Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a love letter to a master gone to soon. Vincent’s direction is notable in it’s unobtrusiveness, gently propelling us with sleek effortless editing along many beats that Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress fans already know. Long before this documentary was on my radar I longed to know the master more, to get a deeper sense of his creativity to understand how he came to be an artisan. I also suspected from cursory information that he was too reserved a man to ever give those secrets away.
The beginning of the film lay the groundwork of his life pre-motion animation. His interest in Manga and some of his influences. After that brief introduction we’re introduced to perhaps his most notable film these many years later and what I think is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. Perfect Blue. An adaptation of the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. In which an Idol transitions to acting and an obsessive stalker begins to threaten her life. Aronofsky who makes numerous interview appearances in the film tried to get a live action adaptation off the ground in the early 00’s and has cited it as influence for multiple projects, most notably Black Swan.
It then continues along to Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika. Cited and focused on in their order of creation and release. We learn that Kon was including characters from his next would be film Dreaming Machine within the world explored in Paprika. Along the way many collaborators chime in citing shared experiences with Kon, his creative process, work ethic, dual personality, often remarking on Kon’s ethereal personality that even his closest collaborators cite when asked who he was. They don’t really know, they describe what he did and how, but “who” Satoshi the man was seems to escape definition.
The film also details Kon’s television series Paranoia Agent. Which he used to leverage opportunities for burgeoning animators fresh out of college, and to experiment with collaboration. Assigning a different director to each episode he explored numerous ways to detail a coherent story with a revolving door of artists and artisans along the way. Moments of deep emotionality are detailed by a few in the cast and crew, Junko Iwao explains that she was insecure taking the role of Mima in Perfect Blue and that she didn’t want to play a character who’s being beaten for the directors pleasure. Kon opened himself up to her and shared perhaps more than he did with other collaborators that he put himself within the actress, that she was a representation of him as an artist within the industry of Japan feeling exploited and used. His frequent composer Susumu Hirasawa refused to work with Kon on his last project Dreaming Machine, and tearfully wishes he could apologize and thank Kon for believing in him, giving him opportunities, and bequeathing a career onto him that he may not have otherwise achieved.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a comprehensive and quick look at one of the most influential animators of the century. Though it isn’t one, it does feel a bit like a gravestone that one places their hand on, and drags their finger along in search of understanding what was, and what may yet be that this person had a hand in. Pascal-Alex Vincent should be commended for his work as assembler and director, when you’re detailing a life lost it’s easy to get beleaguered, the quick runtime and filmography backbone to the film propel it along far quicker than one might expect. If you’ve spent time with Kon’s films before, this a great way to appreciate the artisan that made them, and maybe find out which of his projects that you haven’t seen and would like to. If you haven’t seen any yet, this would serve as a lovely introduction.
Mark O’Brien’s directorial debut The Righteous is a severe film detailing Frederic Mason’s (Henry Czerny) and Ethyl Mason (Mimi Kuzuk) next steps after losing their adopted daughter. Near the outset of the film Doris the biological mother is sitting across from Kuzuk’s Ethyl asking about how the service was. She was unable to come due to working at the local steakhouse. It feels like a typical scene at first, until we realize the role each plays, and watching Ethyl try to be strong in front of Doris, while she’s grieving for her lost child internally directly after her funeral.
Following this event Mark O’Brien’s character, Aaron Smith appears under unusual circumstances. He’s hobbled with an injured foot or ankle, and lost in the woods. Frederic agrees to take him in for the night, against Ethyl’s wishes. Ethyl convinces a local cop to stop by on her way home and on her arrival Frederic invents a story, claiming Aaron as his long lost nephew and hustling Officer Hutton on her way. Frederic and Aaron share an odd late night cup of tea, and Frederic wakes up with a start to Aaron and Ethyl cooking and chortling with laughter in the kitchen.
Jason Clarke’s no frills production design, offer a believable secluded cabin and small town feel. Scott McClellan serves as cinematographer and captures a few meticulously crafted shots that are captivatingly lit and terrifically framed. The outdoor sequence detailing Aaron’s arrival is one such particular shot. Editor K. Spencer Jones weaves the film together in a coherent and captivating way that doesn’t seem like it could be improved upon with any change.
While I’m not convinced by O’Brien’s first feature screenplay, it certainly seems like he’s come to play as a director. With masterful lighting, and industrious acting from perennially overlooked performers O’Brien seems to know how to lean on talent. The Righteous might be the first in a long line of films from O’Brien. But the journeys still out on whether those films will continue to be written by him, and I take no satisfaction from my lack of confidence in his writing. I’d be happy to see him grow, and be proven wrong.
“It’s an honor putting art above politics. Politics can be seductive in terms of things reductive to the soul.“
This week on the Podcast we discuss: First Impressions of Outlaw King & The House That Jack Built, as well as the Feature Films: The Sisters Brothers, Ordinary People, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Old Man & the Gun, and HBO’s The Deuce (Episodes 3&4).