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Posts Tagged ‘Timothee Chalamet’

Nothing else you see at the cinema this year is likely to be a soul-shreddingly harrowing as the PETA commercial currently running in front of certain screenings in UK theatres. They say that modern commercials don’t advertise products, they advertise the lifestyle which the product being flogged supposedly enables you to have – well, PETA have gone further ahead of the curve on this one and have made an advert for a lifestyle itself (it is, not entirely surprisingly, Veganism). The commercial features a cartoony lovable young turkey, a van en route to the turkey farm, a very suggestive moment when chopped tomatoes spray reddish fluid everywhere, and… well, you get the idea. Subtle stuff, guys.

Then again, I saw it before Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, for which it seemed strangely appropriate, even though the two things – on the face of it – seem to be pulling in diametrically opposed directions. On the face of it this looks rather like another slightly soft-centred, wet-between-the-ears YA novel adaptation (the book is by Camille DeAngelis, who is, and this may prove even more pertinent as we continue, a certified Vegan lifestyle coach); what Guadagnino (director of Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash) actually produces is something much more… well, something much more than that, anyway.

Taylor Russell plays Maren, a young woman living in the American midwest in the late 1980s; her mother is not on the scene, she and her father (Andre Holland) seem to on the fringes of poverty and are new in town to boot. One of the girls at high school invites Maren to a sleepover, even though she has to sneak out of their trailer to do so (her father locks her in at night: our first inkling that this story may be headed to uncomfortable places). All goes well until, in the midst of the trying on of different shades of nail varnish, Maren suddenly yields to an impulse, pops her friend’s finger in her mouth, and strips all the flesh off it with her teeth. Looking duly apologetic (then again, is it possible to look apologetic enough for trying to eat your hostess’ finger?) she flees into the night – what amplifies the sudden note of disquiet the film has acquired is that her father has clearly been anticipating something like this will happen.

They relocate, as you would. However, Maren shortly turns eighteen, at which point her father reasonably takes the position that he’s had enough of a pattern of behaviour going back to when Maren ate the babysitter, and that she’s old enough to take care of herself – so he exits the scene with alacrity, thoughtfully providing her with her birth certificate and some money. From the document she gleans some information about her mother, and sets off to try and learn more about her.

On the way, she encounters Sully (a monumentally creepy performance by Mark Rylance), a man subject to the same awkward dietary impulses that she is, and she learns something about herself and those like her (she and Sully share a meal, provided by an old lady they meet – if you get my meaning). They are Eaters, afflicted by the urge to eat human flesh from time to time – an urge that increases in strength and frequency as they age. (They don’t seem to get any special benefits from this, so it’s not like they’re vampires or anything; Eaters come across as pitiful as much as revolting.) Sully clearly has it in mind to be some sort of mentor to Maren, but she has different ideas: she bails as soon as she can and continues her journey.

But on the way she meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another Eater who is much younger and more handsome than Sully, something which seems to incline her to overlook the fact he goes around murdering and devouring people on a semi-regular basis (there’s a slightly spurious plot point where he claims to only eat bad people, but it doesn’t seem to take much to earn a place on Lee’s menu). Soon they are travelling together, and the spark of romance flickers between the pair of them…

Yes, it’s the cannibal romance roadtrip movie that you may have heard about. I can easily imagine many people reacting with disgust and moral outrage to a film like this, and maybe they have a point – but cinema normalises, maybe even glamourises, all sorts of socially-aberrant behaviour, so the crime here is really one of degree only. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which the whole film is a rather fragile construction, falling apart on some levels if you think about it rigorously – so it’s to Guadagnino’s credit that you generally engage with the film on its own terms. It’s not as if he’s glamourising cannibalism as a way of life, anyway – the film’s use of gore is not sensational, but makes it very clear what a messy and gruesome process it is. The whole film has a kind of measured thoughtfulness to it that makes the horror fade somewhat into the background, almost lost amongst the great midwestern skies and granular Americana of the film.

Perhaps this is something akin to what Sergio Leone did with the western over fifty years ago: an outsider coming in, taking an arguably quintessential American genre, and recreating it as something wholly new and startling. Whether that genre is the road movie or the horror film is a good question, for Bones and All functions as both, but it’s the craft and beauty of the film’s atmosphere and imagery that lingers with you. This isn’t one of those quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD horror films, but something more pervasive – it knows where your phobic pressure points are (to use Stephen King’s helpful phrase) and gently caresses them to create disquiet and unease, only very occasionally squeezing tight.

To be honest, there is something very much of Stephen King about this film, in its evocation of real-world horror and the careful detail of its world and characters. It reminded me rather of Doctor Sleep, but I think this is a better film, in almost every way.

Of course, if we’re going to discuss Bones and All as a horror film, then the question we should be asking is what it’s actually about, how does it function, what is it trying to say? That eating people is wrong, as the old line has it? Well, it seems to me that the device of the Eaters is a useful way of establishing the main characters as somehow apart and distanced from ‘normal’ society, an allegory for alienated youth, and the dispossessed generally (perhaps they are distant cousins to the redneck vampires of Near Dark). Feeling different and misunderstood is part of the deal when it comes to being a teenager, I suspect; being an Eater just legitimises this feeling. It’s significant that the cannibalistic urge in the film is depicted as uncontrollable, thus supposedly freeing Maren and Lee from much of the moral responsibility of their activities – the film pointedly includes a scene where they meet a ‘normal’ person who’s a cannibal simply because he enjoys it (played by David Gordon Green, director of the recent Halloween sequels), and Maren flees in horror and revulsion from him.

Is there more to it than this? Vampire films are about deviant sexual activity, werewolf films about the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac aspects of human nature – so what’s going on here when Maren and Lee feel their stomachs start to rumble? It’s not entirely clear, although I think it may be something to do with the desperation arising from their social backgrounds – all the Eaters in the film seem to be part of the underclass, steeped in poverty, scrabbling to survive. Society so often treats the underclass as sub-human – perhaps that is the metaphor here, and we are nearly back to H.G. Wells’ morlocks.  Life on the fringes certainly feels like one of the themes of the film.

Guadagnino sustains the film’s atmosphere and credibility brilliantly, aided by some great, committed performances. The climax and ending are perhaps a little predictable and obscure, respectively, but – as is usually the case with road movies – it’s much more about the journey than the destination. Bones and All is a strong challenger to Raw for the title of the best horror movie about cannibalism ever made, but it’s much more than that – not just a great horror film, but a great film full stop.

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The buzz has been building around Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune for some time now, even taking into account the fact that this is yet another of 2020’s big films which finds itself emerging into the world rather later than originally intended. This is no doubt partly because Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have given Villeneuve a claim to the title of the most important science-fiction film director working in the world today, but also because, well, it’s Dune, isn’t it?

If you know your science fiction history, Dune isn’t just one of those things which dominates the landscape, in many respects it is much of the landscape. The DNA of the book, and of the early attempts to film it, have been filtering into the culture for decades now, all without a genuinely satisfying screen adaptation ever being forthcoming. The TV miniseries from twenty years ago is now largely forgotten, while the 1984 David Lynch film, though retaining a cult following, is at best a horribly flawed and deeply confused take on the material.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings follow Dune around like seagulls after a trawler, but it’s easy to see why Villeneuve and his team decided the book could only be done proper justice as a series of films, rather than a single movie. Hence (although not billed or advertised as such) the new film is essentially Dune: Part One.

The story unfurls itself on a suitably epic scale, although it is ambitiously thin on the kind of non-diegetic exposition that has become such a cliché of this kind of film – there is no opening crawl, or prefatory monologue, or even much in the way of captions explaining where the various scenes are taking place. We are in the distant future, when the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism and vicious and bloody galactic politics occupies the various Great Houses and the organisations that connect them.

As the film opens, the House of Atreides, who seem to be a generally benevolent lot, have just been assigned the job of overseeing the desert planet Arrakis, source of the most important substance in the universe – a psychedelic spice which facilitates interstellar travel and thus allows the empire to function. Control of Arrakis grants immense power and wealth, but are the Atreides being handed a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? Certainly, the arch-enemies they are displacing, the brutal House of Harkonnen, don’t seem that worried…

Nevertheless, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees this as an opportunity, for Arrakis is also home to fierce native warrior culture, the Fremen, who he is keen to make an alliance with. His son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is also excited to visit this new world, partly because he is having strange precognitive dream concerning the place. Paul is disturbed to learn that he is the product of generations of selective breeding to produce a superhuman with immense psionic powers, and that the people of Arrakis have been primed to recognise him as their long-awaited messiah or Mahdi – but is this a destiny he is prepared to accept?

The challenge in adapting Dune for other media is basically one of balance: the richness of the setting is fundamental to the novel, but it’s how one retains this without swamping the story so it grinds to a halt or becomes unintelligible. The decision to chop Dune in half for the new film is probably a good one (always assuming the concluding movie gets the green light): the narrative gets room to breathe, retaining all the key incidents of the story, while at least a sense of the detail and texture of the wider universe is still communicated.

Of course, something’s still got to give, and one does receive only a vague impression of some elements of the background. There are a lot of characters, and some of them are in the film only quite briefly: Dave Bautista, for instance, is near the top of the bill as Count Rabban, but probably only on screen for less than ten minutes. The same is true of many others; the film is more about striking miniatures than in-depth characterisations, though Jason Momoa is more prominent than one might expect as the Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho and the same is true of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (yes, the Progressive Agenda Committee have had a word).

The whole film feels like it’s operating on a greater-than-human scale, anyway: there are immense vistas, ships the size of small cities hanging in the sky, colossal sandworms lurking under the surface of the deserts, and more. As a spectacle it is never less than impressive, the visuals backed up by an extraordinary score from Hans Zimmer, almost more like musique concrete in places than a conventional piece of orchestration (that said, the soundtrack album also contains a Pink Floyd cover, which can’t be a coincidence considering that over forty years ago the band were on board to provide the music for an earlier attempt at the novel).

There’s a huge amount to admire about Dune, but perhaps that’s the problem with the film – it’s a film which impresses and provokes admiration, but never really excitement or delight.  Frank Herbert himself thought he had identified fourteen separate clear points of identity between Dune and George Lucas’ own tale of a young man on a remote desert planet discovering his own mystic heritage and battling the forces of a corrupt imperium, but this film doesn’t have the same kind of swashbuckling, eye-catching verve: it’s much less a piece of pulpy space opera. Villeneuve works so hard to keep the story focused, relevant to contemporary concerns, and naturalistic that the sense of wonder which is a central part of the appeal of science fiction is never quite there when you’d expect it to be.

Nevertheless, this is a film which easily eclipses its predecessors and is likely to define this story in the minds of generations to come – especially if the concluding episode, which we are assured is almost a done deal, matches the virtuosity of this one. I am very curious to see how Villeneuve handles some of the more metaphysical aspects of the story, and the epic spectacle which to some extent is only promised at here. Perhaps no movie of Dune could ever really live up to expectations, but this one comes impressively close.

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I know one should judge a movie on its own quality, rather than that of its publicity material, but even so: something about the blurb promoting Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the local multiplex website smells awfully whiffy to me. ‘Greta Gerwig has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and… is both timeless and timely.’ Well, that ‘timeless and timely’ line must be a good one, because I used something similar myself a couple of years ago, but – ‘crafted’? Honestly? I know this is a prestige movie gunning for gongs – it’s that time of year – but the implication seems to be that while most of those non-award-contender films were just slapped together out of spit and bubblegum, Gerwig emerged, exhausted, from a shed, having painstakingly ‘crafted’ her movie single-handed, possibly using a chisel.

Well, you’re not responsible for what people write about you, so I should probably move on from reviewing a website advertising the movie and consider the film itself. This is, of course, an adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s classic and much-loved (not to mention much adapted) novel of the same name, a coming of age story set in the USA in the 19th century. It mostly concerns the siblings of one not-especially-well-off family living in Massachusetts: Meg, Amy, Little Jo and Hoss.

The novel was originally published in two parts (under different titles in the UK), but Gerwig (scripting as well as directing) has opted to tell the story out of chronological order. Thus it does take a little while for the shape of the story to become apparent, to say nothing of the difficulties one is presented with when trying to recap the plot.

So: the earlier part of the story is set during the American Civil War, with the father of the family absent and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. As noted, the March family are not exactly rolling in dough, and so it is important that at least one daughter makes a good marriage. But who is it to be? Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson), who seems to want to be an actress? Second daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whose mind is always fixed upon her writing? What about Amy (Florence Pugh) an artistically gifted but temperamental and sometimes difficult girl? Who will catch the eye of the somewhat feckless but wealthy boy next door (Timothee Chalamet)? Anyway, none of the girls seems to impress the family’s stern old matriarch (Meryl Streep)… (I presume Streep is in the role that Lorne Greene used to play in the TV series, though I could be wrong.)

Well, this may be a beloved piece of literature, but it’s also one aimed at young American girls, so I must confess to being almost wholly unfamiliar with it. If I wasn’t the kind of person who goes to the cinema as a matter of habit, then there’s a good chance I probably wouldn’t have seen this at all – hang on, though, perhaps that’s not entirely true. This is a Greta Gerwig film, after all, and while I am just as happy to see a movie with her as by her, I have been following her career with interest for years now. The same is true of Florence Pugh.

I am happy to report that neither of them have proved my faith to be unfounded. I will admit to feeling a bit restless during the opening stages of the film, especially before the structure of the thing became properly apparent, but in the end it becomes a richly absorbing and impressive film: the staging is excellent, the ensemble playing is also very strong, and I did find the story genuinely touching in places. I get the sense that the film has been structured to retain the bits that people who have read the novel remember – there is some significant breakfast-donating, book-burning and hair-cutting, amongst other things – but Gerwig has structured the script with great intelligence and subtlety, creating resonances between scenes set years apart (presumably in different volumes of the book). The contrast between the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the girls’ childhood home and the somewhat bleaker tone of later years is also very well achieved.

With the father of the family absent for much of the film and Chalamet playing a slightly ambiguous character – charming, but also quite callow – this is, obviously, a female-dominated film. I sense that we are in for a lot of these over the next few weeks, for the great beast of capitalism has scented there is money to be made from the MeToo movement, gobbled it up, and is now in the process of selling it back to people in carefully packaged chunks. I really feared that Little Women would likewise end up as a piece of thudding agitprop – its own trailer is big on stressing that it is about how the March sisters are individuals with their own talents and dreams, rather than just wives and mothers in waiting – but once again Gerwig proves she is smarter than this.

There are certainly scenes which feel – how should one put this? – proto-feminist, or even feminist full-stop – the economic importance of marriage to women of this period is made quite clear, for instance. But these are not laboured and do seem to fit quite naturally within the narrative. There is also a moment where Emma Watson’s character is permitted to say that she does actually want to get married and have children, and that this is a perfectly valid life goal. Nevertheless, much of the film is about Jo’s desire to stay in control of her own life, which basically means remaining single. How, then, to contrive a happy climax to the movie, especially when the book does end with Jo getting spliced? The script manages to negotiate its way around this with some deftness and perhaps even a little impudence.

This is a solid and impressive movie, and very enjoyable. Ronan is customarily good, but she is at least matched by Pugh, who has a rather trickier role to contend with. None of the performances are what you would call weak, though. In the end it is Greta Gerwig’s script and direction which really make the movie what it is: charming and pleasant, but not without serious and moving moments, and perhaps even the odd life lesson. Little Women may do very well when the awards season properly gets going: I would not object if it did.

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