by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Locarno Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1: Beckett, Respect, Zeroes and Ones

Credit: Netflix

Beckett

On paper, Beckett would seem to hold plenty of promise. Directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino and produced by his ex, Luca Guadagnino, the film also boasts the involvement of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, famous for his collaborations with Apitchapong Weerasethakul, and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. On top of that pedigree, it has an intriguing premise (an American tourist pulled into a Greek political conspiracy) and its stars, John David Washington and Vicky Krieps, contribute to the air of prestige surrounding this film. To put it bluntly, though, Beckett doesn’t work; it doesn’t even sport the recognizable touch of its famous crewmembers. Instead, it’s a boilerplate paranoid thriller content to follow the template of much better movies. So, a perfect example of when Netflix does it wrong.

While on vacation in Greece, Beckett (Washington) crashes his car into a house, killing his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). Though the police express relief that the house was empty at the time, Beckett swears he saw a boy, and when he returns to the accident’s scene, the police shoot at him. Beckett finds himself on the run, looking for answers and desperate to reach the American embassy, relying on the help of strangers like Lena (Krieps), an antifascist woman who knows who the mystery boy is and why his whereabouts might be covered up.

Throughout, Beckett hides from the police, who might be around every corner, and fights for his life whenever he’s found. These scenes are presented as plainly as possible, as if to ground the film in matter-of-fact realism rather than suspense. At least, that might be the rationale behind making this material as lifeless as possible, even as Beckett starts behaving more like Jason Bourne as the film reaches its conclusion. There’s little interiority to Washington’s performance and no subjectivity to the camera’s eye, making this paranoid thriller curiously lacking in paranoia, even as it checks all the boxes in the Three Days of the Condor playbook. This is not the sort of movie where the shadows are filled with danger and every stranger merits a second look, but instead a simple journey from point A to B, an inert chase that fails to establish any psychological atmosphere (if it even attempts to do so; it’s honestly hard to tell).

When Lena shows up midway through, the film introduces Greek politics into the mix — a moment before the pair meet, Beckett literally walks past graffiti that reads “antifa” — but Beckett is only as political as it is paranoid, instead using political buzzwords like window dressing. The plot Beckett is tangled up in might be the work of fascists looking to uphold austerity measures against a leftist coalition or it might be Communist sectarians, but the film doesn’t explore much further than the blank look on its protagonists’ faces. Perhaps this is the point — why should we expect an American tourist to have any clue about Greek politics? — but as it goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the film’s politics are entirely superficial, using troubled Greek political reality as merely a theater for its half-assed thrills. That the thrills of this ostensible paranoid political thriller conclude in a conventionally satisfying manner is just further indication that no one involved understood the assignment.

Writer: Chris Mello


Credit: Locarno Film Festival

Respect

When it comes to portraying pop culture icons known by millions of people around the globe, an actor or actress can approach the challenge in several ways. There’s the strict impersonation route, a la Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, a method which requires time-consuming research and a commitment to nailing the most minute details and mannerisms. On the other end of the spectrum, you have whatever the hell Renee Zellweger was doing in Judy, a gonzo interpretation that seems born out of a desire to not have to compete with such a singular force of nature. (Interestingly enough, both actresses in question won Oscars for their troubles.) It’s usually when a performer chooses to play it safe, then, and lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that trouble arises, which is the exact place where we find Jennifer Hudson and her portrayal of The Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, in Liesl Tommy’s biopic Respect. Marketing for the film proclaims, “Jennifer Hudson IS Aretha Frankilin!” when a more accurate description would be, “Jennifer Hudson is Jennifer Hudson, who occasionally tries to act like Aretha Franklin whenever she decides she feels like it.” But Hudson’s half-assed performance feels wholly appropriate for the standard-issue biopic that surrounds it, the type of flick that makes the overly familiar likes of Ray and Walk the Line feel risky, even experimental, in comparison.

Respect chooses to focus on 20 years of Franklin’s life, from 1952 until 1972, ages 11 to 31. One might think this narrowed focus would result in a more nuanced work, especially for that of a woman who accomplished so much in her 76 years of life, but one would be gravely mistaken. Over the course of Respect’s seemingly never-ending 145-minute runtime, the film tries to cram in as much drama as possible, rendering Franklin’s life nothing more than a series of chintzy soap opera theatrics interspersed with musical performances during which Hudson gets to show off her magnificent pipes. Before her death in 2018, Franklin actually gave Hudson her blessing in a big screen portrayal, saying no one else possessed the vocal range necessary to properly do her justice. Far be it for me to rail against the wishes of one of history’s greatest musicians, but the problem is that Franklin possessed such a distinctive, iconic voice that there exists no one alive, period, that could hope to match it, and while Hudson is indeed a fantastic vocalist, she simply does not sound even a little like Franklin. That’s to say, hearing and watching her perform such Franklin classics as “Respect” and “Natural Woman,” the viewer is always keenly aware that it’s Jennifer Hudson they’re watching, which creates a distancing effect that Respect can never overcome.

Elsewhere, the Z-grade script, courtesy of Tracey Scott Wilson, certainly doesn’t help matters. Every event that happens in Franklin’s life is portrayed in the same blasé way, whether it be child sexual assault or cliched familial drama. Respect is the type of film that makes Franklin’s alcoholism known by having a camera pan over an empty bottle of vodka while she lays passed out on the floor, and at one point it reveals her age by inserting a pointless scene where she has a birthday party and blows out candles on a cake that reads, “Happy 25th Birthday Aretha!” — to say this is the CliffsNotes version of Franklin’s life is an insult to Cliff. The film isn’t remotely interested in any part of Franklin’s past that isn’t sensationalistic, and then proceeds to double down and crank the theatrics up to 11. At one point, Mary J. Blige, portraying Dinah Washington, dramatically flips over a table in slow-motion before screaming “Bitch!” at Franklin; apparently someone here thought that what an Aretha Franklin biopic needed was to take inspiration from the Real Housewives franchise. This might be easier to take if the vein of camp pumping through the proceedings seemed intentional, but everything else is rendered with such a hushed solemnity that even Terrence Malick would take note. And on top of all that, the film is embarrassingly woke in the most shallow ways possible, particularly in its 21st-century politicization of the Civil Rights movement. Franklin was indeed a fierce proponent of Black rights, dedicating her life to the cause all the way until her passing, but Respect only brings this up whenever it’s convenient to the plot, and never does much of note with it, like everything else here. 

But most simply, Hudson just doesn’t have the dramatic chops to pull off this performance; her unconvincing accent is wildly inconsistent, and she often seems like little more than a fan cosplaying Aretha. A scene where she comes out on stage and performs drunk is community theater-level embarrassing, as is the work of Marlon Wayans as Franklin’s abusive husband and manager, Ted White, who confoundingly chooses to play the role in the key of Robert Reed, voice an octave lower than normal for good measure. While one would imagine that the broad strokes of their relationship are portrayed semi-accurately here, so much feels like manipulative beats that it’s fair to wonder if White really watched Franklin perform in concert, tears streaming down his face, before dramatically turning around and exiting both the hall and the film a la Streets of Fire. Then again, this movie also includes that old music biopic chestnut where a musician hears their song on the radio for the first time, although the context in which it appears here makes no sense at all, which is simply par for the course. Tommy brings nothing in the way of style or finesse or artistry to the proceedings, unless one considers a 360-degree turn of the camera from a young Franklin to a teenage one revolutionary. In its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the one thing sorely missing from Respect is, well, respect: for the artist at its center and for viewers’ time.

Writer: Steven Warner


Zeros and Ones

A supreme sculptor of the effects of spiritual and physical isolation, Abel Ferrara has made a good number of films that comment on our “current moment” well before the current “current moment” was truly upon us. 2012’s 4:44 Last Day On Earth narrated the eve of the apocalypse from a Lower East Side loft and its surrounding city blocks, where desultory temptation and Skype calls manifested with equal frequency; New Rose Hotel caps off its already impenetrable sci-fi skullduggery with Willem Dafoe’s enforcer hiding out in a spartan shipping container, and tumbling down a memory slipstream to deduce just how he ended up alone and on the run; while Welcome to New York left Gerard Depardieu’s DSK-inspired scumbag to wander his lavish house-arrest pad, self-aggrandizing in voiceover.

As expected, then, Ferrara’s ostensible pandemic movie isn’t really about the pandemic: the virus’ presence, embodied by omnipresent face masks and hand sanitizer bottles, is more of a coincidence, a challenge even, given the director’s recent prolificity. Zeros and Ones, a product of incredible turnaround time (principal shooting commenced only in November 2020) functions in the New Rose Hotel, ’R Xmas mold; it’s a hazy, almost half-assed genre picture with a peripatetic protagonist ensnared in an entirely inscrutable plot that seems to draw endlessly upon an unspoken history beyond the boundaries of the film. The pandemic inarguably exists, as Ethan Hawke’s quasi-mercenary, JJ, pulls into an Italian train station absolutely abandoned save for a hazmat-donning custodian, wiping down some railings — later, a pimp and drug dealer will tout her girls as having “tested negative” — but the exclusively nocturnal, depopulated world which he wanders through is inundated with obscure conflict rooted in religion, terrorism, and revolutionarism. About halfway into Zeros and Ones, JJ watches a video of his twin brother (also played by Hawke), a communist and revolutionary who’s assailed by mysterious figures who repeatedly ask “When, where?” He replies by invoking Woody Guthrie — until a pistol is pressed against his head.

In a film where allegiances are otherwise porous, the moment is one of startling clarity. The relationships that are the most easily internalized are those that utilize brutal means of interrogation and torture (there’s a particularly unnerving waterboarding scene which toggles between Sean Price Williams’ grain-heavy cinematography and the digital video JJ is always recording while on the job). In this world, you’re either the victim or the victimizer, prisoner or captor. JJ navigates the gruesome death of his informants and the bombing of the Vatican, as well as a bizarre insemination plot enacted by presumed Russian adversaries, all the while trying to protect his brother’s wife and son. He’s often on both sides, riding along on a raid with a gang of fatigued soldiers, who later then attack JJ’s own apartment, raining a hail of bullets on his computer setup.

The most tangible facets of Zeros and Ones are its violence and, in keeping with its code-referencing title, its digitality. Ferrara, despite his age, fully comprehends the haptic qualities of living in the age of omnipresent technology; characters don’t just watch videos, they enter passcodes, swipe to unlock, pinch the screens to zoom in. Maybe it’s Godard a couple decades too late to arm Hawke with a DSLR in one hand and a pistol in the other, but Ferrara thrives in the spaces between knuckleheaded obviousness and total abstraction, and Zeros and Ones emerges as if from a bloody, deep-web ether, where smartphones are stowed in fridges and sextapes are used to trammel the enemy. The eddying images, which run the gamut from religious paintings to blown out home movies achieve a sickly transcendence, the peripheral threats never too far behind a method of montage that is practically Malickian in its free-associative capabilities.

Writer: Patrick Preziosi


Credit: Locarno Film Festival

Cop Secret

It’s the Icelandic homophobia-baiting comedy you didn’t know you needed, and wish you hadn’t seen: Cop Secret wears its mock-’90s blockbuster aesthetic on its sleeve with shredded guitar and large, bold titles. Forget Rodman and Van Damme, here come Blöndal and Einarsson (respectively, the host of Punk’d Iceland and renowned Motivational Speaker/DJ). These ingredients should add up to something unique, but director Hannes Þór Halldórsson (whom you may know as the goalkeeper of Iceland’s Football team) is too self-aware, and pulls his punches to no-homo effect. 

Blöndal is Bússi. He may be a supercop, but he has demons. His hard drinking and total lack of interest in his wife are explained when he begins masturbating over a men’s fitness magazine before pulling a gun on himself, “Stop it. Are you a cop or not?” Fortunately, his new partner is Hörður (Einarsson), a hunk who helps Bússi come out while modelling various aviator shades and waistcoats. 

Halldórsson manages to approximate the look of the action films he’s pastiching. Or, at least, the use of washed out colors and fast-cutting makes it clear that action films are being pastiched. This sometimes creates amusing dissonance with the goofy performances, as when Bússi’s colleague berates him during a car chase, “You humiliated me at the staff party!” It’s interesting that the film centers around an Iceland v England football match, because the nations share the same quaint, bathos-heavy approach to cinematic humor. But Cop Secret translates poorly. 

The villainous Rikki (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) even speaks in English, his pointed Icelandic accent giving him an almost Willem Dafoe-esque croak. It’s one thing to accept that this terrorist dons an enormous, Robbie Rotton-sized bouffant and specifically targets one closeted cop because of his own insecurities. But that the Icelandic characters can talk back to him in their own language, and they all understand each other, makes the film even more artificial. 

It would be one thing if this was used as an aesthetic strategy to heighten the humor, but Cop Secret feels so aesthetically false — a Chinatown obviously set up with lanterns and neon, a prostitute in a fur coat and stockings. Hell, if it had a glimmer of authenticity the viewer wouldn’t question these tropes, but Cop Secret does nothing to interrogate its world, even as it purports to flip the heterodoxy of the genre on its head. It doesn’t get more transgressive than a gay cop punching a female baddie and quipping, “Sorry, you’re not my type.” It all seems crudely designed to be remade into an American film — one has flashbacks to Sandler and James queering up in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007). Of course, Bússi will eventually have to choose between the badge and his pride, but as Cop Secret never develops beyond the original premise: What if a gay man was a cop? One begins to wonder if this blue life even matters.

Writer: Ben Flanagan


Petite Solange

It’s perhaps unfair to say that divorce dramas have had too great a resurgence in recent years. The genre is by its nature a prime, extreme avenue for filmmakers to explore questions of family, separation, and bureaucracy, but this vehicle for Big Themes can frequently falter if the subject is taken merely on face value, and not burrowed into and inhabited. With this in mind, Axelle Ropert would seem to be an ideal director for this sort of endeavor: she directed Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (2013, also known as Miss and the Doctors), one of the finest romantic comedies of recent years, a film that constantly expanded outward from its love triangle of brother doctors slowly falling in love with the same woman to capture the sense of city life and its ineffable connections.

Ropert’s newest film, Petite Solange, playing in the International Competition at Locarno, falls into more conventional lines. Its eponymous character, a 13-year-old played by Jade Springer, leads a relatively average life with her parents Antoine (Philippe Katerine), a music store salesman, and Aurélia (Léa Drucker), a theater actress specializing in wronged women, along with her bookish elder brother Romain (Grégoire Montana). Indeed, aside from an evident brightness of spirit, the most distinctive fact about Solange initially is her last name, Maserati, an Italian name inherited from her father, which is commented on numerous times throughout the film.

But the family begins unhappy, with Antoine engaged in a surreptitious affair with his coworker and Aurélia frequently absent, and things only worsen as the film goes on. What sets Petite Solange apart from a run-of-the-mill divorce film, however, is the question of Ropert’s interest. Solange remains front and center throughout the film, with most of the divorce aspect conveyed in overheard shouts, tentative tête-à-tête conversations with her parents, and the normal vagaries of familial interaction. More than anything, this is a patient, quotidian film: for much of it the only substantial shift in these dynamics is Romain practically fleeing to the relative refuge of a graduate degree program.

Instead of constant struggle, Ropert opts for a certain creeping sense of unease, a slow evolution in Solange’s character and outlook on life. Sometimes, this runs the risk of cliché: a certain subplot with Solange becoming more and more troublesome in school as a result of domestic stress feels too pat. But more often, Ropert’s signature interest in little subplots, reflecting the unsettled and capricious nature of life, comes through, especially in a tentative flirtation Solange has with a piano-playing bad boy at her school.

All of this builds to a sudden release, a rupture in the film’s final 20 minutes that jumps an indeterminate number of years to a greatly changed Solange. Springer’s performance shifts radically in this moment, and it illuminates the extent to which the film principally relies on her initially ebullient presence, along with Ropert’s careful sense of direction and the beautiful 16mm cinematography by Sébastien Buchmann. This is not a radical film about divorce, but it continually demonstrates an interest in burrowing just a little deeper, going in a slightly more interesting direction, and the agglomeration of these choices results in something gratifyingly warm and complex.

Writer: Ryan Swen


Credit: Locarno Film Festival

Actual People

Kit Zauhar follows up her promising short film, Helicopter, with an equally talky debut feature. Actual People is an episodic chronicle of a failed graduation, as Riley (Zauhar) finds her life — or her hopes for it — melting away. Across the end of her school year, friends abandon her, her professor gives her a failing grade, and she loses her apartment. Riley struggles to separate the genuine alienation that living in New York causes from her tendencies toward self-pity, and the audience is put through each excruciating part of the process.  

This set-up suggests the type of meandering, post-college-comedy that is often tagged with the terribly unfashionable “mumblecore” tag, but maybe Actual People scans better because Zauhar doesn’t have the Duplass Brothers’ penchant for cloying sentimentality and sickening music, or Joe Swanberg’s inability to compose a shot. Maybe it’s because the winking cynicism of those millennial mumblecorers is here replaced by earnest Zoomer despair. Zauhar’s gloomy frames have a rigor that makes the semi-improvised dialogue instead pass as part of a precise schema.

The occasional cut to cell phone footage will remind the viewer of the film’s limits, with portrait-mode clips of Riley and friends cavorting in The Big Apple. Zauhur’s montage here illustrates what a whirlwind college can be, and how empty one might feel on the other side of it, but these clips can’t avoid cheesily distancing the audience from Riley’s plight. Her torment of isolation might remind you of Hong Sang-soo’s women, but in the sustained litany of misery, Zauhur achieves something closer to Rohmer’s The Green Ray, to whose Béatrice Romand the curly-haired Riley shares some resemblance.  

In one of her worst embarrassments, Riley’s nefarious, probably alt-right ex-boyfriend appears out of nowhere to offer the olive branch of friendship, but she sees him as a controlling braggart. That she is reading Miranda July’s The First Bad Man as he appears may be on the nose, but it’s no worse than the character-detail-through-book-covers you will spot in HBO’s The White Lotus. Really, Riley pines for the hunky Leo (Scott Albrecht), whom she hooks up with in the film’s early scenes. Though he seems gormless, she is attracted to their shared status as Chinese-Americans. 

Zauhur weaves race commentary through this and a number of other scenes where Riley is intellectually dismissed — is it her, or her race, she wonders. And a climactic act when she returns home to visit her parents in Philly adds another level of complexity to the pressures, expectations, and economic ease that she navigates. One might roll their eyes at scenes where students roll their eyes at the thought of a night out in Brooklyn, but Actual People captures actual truths about the ways that young people behave.

Writer: Ben Flanagan

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