The Banshees of Inisherin
They aren’t having a row — Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just doesn’t feel like talking to his best friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell) anymore. That’s the simple setup for playwright and director Martin McDonagh’s almost fable-like fifth feature film. At the outset, amid some gorgeous aerial shots of the Irish countryside, we spot Pádraic walking down the same windy path that he does every day around two o’clock in the afternoon, sauntering up to Colm’s window and inviting him for a pint at the local pub. Except on this day, Colm ignores Pádraic; he sits stoically smoking inside, preferring the company of his trusted border collie to his puppy-eyed friend outside. Pádraic’s bewilderment at Colm’s unexpected snub sets in motion a series of (increasingly) darkly comic consequences that reverberate throughout the men’s small village.
Off the foggy shores of the made-up Irish island where The Banshees of Inisherin is set, we often hear gunfire, and characters sometimes make mention of the “Civil War” and the IRA. It’s 1923, and the fraught relationship between these two former friends on Inisherin is made to become a metaphor for the conflict that’s playing out on the Irish mainland. But the meaning is also even more malleable than that: McDonagh wants to look deeper at the creeping social and personal anxieties that can slowly tear at the fabric of a seemingly idyllic society. As Colm later explains, his intention in cutting Pádraic out isn’t one of unthinking meanness; he simply doesn’t want to waste away his days “chatting” with someone whom he’s begun to see as much duller than himself. But Pádraic questions that motive, and begins to see Colm as depressed — as does the local priest, who repeatedly asks, during weekly confessional, “How’s the despair?”
McDonagh seems noticeably more at home writing for characters with a strong Irish brogue than he was navigating the sociopolitical and class nuances of midwest America in his previous feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, even if some familiar weaknesses are present here: an overreliance on characters just repeating the same line at each other until it becomes funny, and a penchant for violence that would be more impactful if it were deployed just a bit more sparingly. There’s also one immaculately written and delivered joke involving a bread truck that made me laugh harder than I have at anything in a movie in years (and the audience I saw it with were left in a similarly hysterical state). What seems to elevate The Banshees of Inisherin most, though, is the dynamic brought by Farrell and Gleeson, and how it becomes a kind of reverse-engineered version of their roles in McDonagh’s earlier In Bruges. Instead of the standard odd-couple film, with two eccentric individuals finding common middle ground, here we get the less-typical pairing of two characters who go through their own distinct arcs in parallel.
This approach allows an expansion of the thematic and emotional scope of The Banshees of Inisherin, as both Farrell and Gleeson ably sell their respective characters’ sides of this conflict. For Farrell, the role of the dim sad sack loser could almost be second nature at this point, but the actor never lets the patheticness and plain futility of Pádraic’s efforts to win back Colm come without an understanding of the belief in the earnesty that guides that behavior — which makes his gradual disavowal of his most cherished social ethic that much more affecting. Gleeson, meanwhile, has to walk the line of making Colm’s passive-aggressiveness feel like a necessary act of self-preservation, while also grappling with the selfishness of the increasingly extreme actions that he takes to drive away Pádraic. Allowing these two perspectives to vie for victory over the course of The Banshees of Inisherin leads to a film that’s attentive to the range of ways that individuals cope with the nuances of life as part of a community, and affords McDonagh’s latest the shades of introspection that most of his other films can’t quite match.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
The first thing you notice about Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is the color palette. It’s desaturated in the extreme — isolated shots even look almost black-and-white. Pages of the press notes are devoted to discussing this choice (among other points, Polley’s identification of the narrative quality as that of a fable is reiterated). Regardless of intention, the choice is striking, and for many will prove alienating. It’s too bad that this overt aesthetic choice presents a potential obstacle to engaging with the film — it’s one that’s easy to regard as “important” on the basis of its content, but more so it’s a fascinating exploration of faith.
Based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, Polley’s film is largely set in a single hay loft, following a group that consists of two families of Mennonite women determining how to move on after they finally catch the men in the colony who have been sexually assaulting them for years. Though their specific goal is to determine whether to stay and fight or leave the colony, these options are merely the practical considerations, and the questions the women and the film ask are considerably larger. Can faith be a virtue when it has facilitated such harm to the women and their children? Can feminine strength still be drawn from a belief system built implicitly and explicitly to uphold patriarchy?
Among the cast, Rooney Mara as Ona, pregnant as a result of one of the assaults, is given by a hair the largest role, but also the quietest of the name actors, frequently functioning as a voice of reason (often to the other characters’ dismay). Claire Foy as Ona’s headstrong sister Salome and Jessie Buckley as Mariche of the Friesen family are given more opportunity for theatrics, and though both are able to thread that needle without drifting into extreme emoting, they are most affecting in their subtler moments. The rest of the cast of women are uniformly strong, each given moments to become the focus.
Also present at the meeting is August Epp (Ben Whishaw), asked by Ona to take the minutes despite none of the women being literate. Epp’s role is the largest departure Polley makes from the novel, which takes his minutes as its form. Rather than retain Whishaw as a narrator, Polley shifts that role to Autje, Mariche’s daughter played by Kate Hallett. As a result, Whishaw sometimes seems to be compensating for the comparative thinness of August’s character in his performance, which is the least consistent in the film, though his scenes opposite Mara and Foy are some of its strongest.
Many of the other changes Polley makes from the novel are cuts likely motivated by the length and scope of the film, though her portrayal of the character Melvin is substantially different. Having changed his pronouns in the wake of the assaults, Melvin’s queerness is left fairly vague in the novel, and in affirming his transness here, Polley clarifies that it’s not an effect of sexual assault even though his coming out was motivated by the trauma. It’s a necessary shift in the portrayal of a minor character, and one that illustrates how much our cultural awareness of gender identity has shifted in even the few years since the book was published.
The question begged by any adaptation is what the new form can provide to the material. Sometimes it’s enough that a film can reach a larger audience, and that may well be the case here. Though the narrative decisions Polley makes all have a positive or neutral effect, what’s less clear is how her formal decisions enhance Toews’ themes. That’s not to suggest that the film is bad — it isn’t — nor is it necessarily unpleasant to look at. But while Polley has earned plenty of goodwill across her limited directorial work, and it’s nice to see her jumping back in with material as challenging and thorny as this, Women Talking never quite makes a strong argument for its translation to the film medium.
Writer: Jesse Catherine Webber
A plaintive, largely melancholic coming-of-age story, writer-director-editor Anthony Shim documents his childhood as a Korean immigrant in 1990s Canada in the intermittently cloying but mostly affecting Riceboy Sleeps. Part autobiographical portrait of a difficult upbringing, the film is also a paean to his mother, a single parent struggling to raise a child in unfamiliar, mostly inhospitable surroundings. Loosely divided into three sections, the film begins with So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) forcing six year old Dong-hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) to attend the first day of kindergarten. He wants to stay home with his mother, and for good reason — the other children mock his appearance, make fun of the food he brings for lunch, and mercilessly pick on him on the playground. So-young faces similar adversity at her factory job, either ignored or harassed by her largely male, Caucasian co-workers. These early scenes are a litany of abuses, mother and child facing both inadvertent and bald-faced racism; a teacher cheerfully presents So-young with a pre-prepared list of anglicized names to call Dong-hyun, while a particularly hurtful scene finds young Dong-hyun fighting back against bullies who steal his glasses and spit on him, only for school administrators to suspend him but not his attackers. So-young protests the unfair double standard, but is ignored, referred to simply as “that Oriental lady.”
After roughly 30 minutes, the film jumps from 1990 to 1999: Dong-hyun (now played by Ethan Hwang) is 15 and a sophomore in high school. Much has changed in 9 years; he goes by David now, has dyed-blonde hair, and wears blue contacts. He has friends, but still deals with occasional bigotry. So-young is still at the same factory, although (in a nice, subtle touch) almost all of her coworkers are now immigrant women. So-young has a nice camaraderie with the other women, and is dating a foreman, Simon (played by director Anthony Shim himself in a gently self-effacing turn), a fellow Korean immigrant adopted as a baby by white parents. There’s a fair amount of typical teenage angst on display here, and for a while So-young’s daily routine at the factory becomes more interesting than Dong-hyun’s misadventures at school. But the plot thickens, so to speak, when So-young is diagnosed with terminal stage 4 pancreatic cancer and decides to take Dong-hyun with her back to Korea. After years of refusing to speak about it, she is finally prepared to relive the trauma of Dong-hyun’s father’s death and reconnect with her extended family.
Not everything here works; the film begins with narration that explains the death of Dong-hyun’s father, the aftermath of which lingers like a specter over the rest of the narrative. There’s some heavy-handed contrivances on display, as well, namely Dong-hyun being assigned a family tree project at school that precipitates his interest in the father he never knew while forcing So-young to confront long-buried emotions. There’s a shapeless quality to the proceedings, with lovely moments of carefully observed, lived-in experience butting up against screenwriter 101 platitudes. Shim can shape wonderful individual moments, but can’t always connect them in meaningful ways. Still, the entire cast is remarkable, papering over the occasional rough spot.
And Shim, working with cinematographer Christopher Lew and production designer Louisa Birkin, has constructed a stunningly beautiful-looking movie. Clearly indebted to Malick (particularly The Tree of Life) and Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, Shim deploys an extremely active camera to enliven the proceedings. Elaborate steadicam and dolly shots are constantly moving in and around each scene, as if probing for the perfect angle. Shim likes to begin and end sequences with the camera slowly pushing in on its subjects, adding a kind of tension to otherwise quotidian moments of conversation or mild conflict. Everything is constantly shifting, rearranging, shuffling, the camera movements carving up space in curious but fascinating ways. There’s a fine, minimalist score by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee that compliments with an ominous mood while never overpowering the actors on screen. What eventually emerges is a powerful ode to community and family, a movement away from isolation and forced stoicism toward embracing one’s emotions. Shim suggests that while the fight-or-flight response might never fully go away, it can be alleviated by communication and togetherness. There’s much to admire in this imperfect but honest film, and Shim is a filmmaker to watch.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
On the Come Up
After Rosie Thomas shot to literary stardom with breakout YA sensation The Hate U Give, a couple things became inevitable: 1.) A film adaptation would follow in short order to capitalize on the zeitgeist appeal and contemporaneous socio-political immediacy; 2.) Thomas would quickly write a next novel occupying the same discursive and demographic lane. Of course, both came quickly after The Hate U Give’s initial release — the film adaptation was released 19 months later, and follow-up work On the Come Up hit bookstores another 5 months after that — but more surprising is that the film adaptation proved surprisingly adept. Surprising because The Hate U Give, which directly addresses the plague of police violence against Black populations, was primed for schlocky Afterschool Special territory given Hollywood’s penchant for reductive interpretation of basically all substantive rhetoric. And while it does take ill-advised turns into such territory — landing on the wrong side of the debate (or at least ignoring the larger systemic picture) when it comes to criminalizing drug dealing, presenting caricatural racism as a bigger threat than the fake woke or middle-ground equivocators — and is certainly didactic, there’s a genuine authenticity and emotional potency, as well as exceptional and vulnerable performances, that carry the film through. Or to put it another way: it mostly strikes an affecting and workable balance between activism and art.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of On the Come Up’s film adaptation. Bri is a high-school-aged rapper trying to live up to the legacy of her father, a hip hop legend who was murdered when she was young. Her mother (Sanaa Lathan; also here directing for the first time) is a recovering heroin addict whom Bri keeps at somewhat of an emotional distance, while her maternal aunt, Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is both a local drug dealer and her manager. After bombing her first go in the Ring, the legendary rap battle HQ of the film’s fictional Garden Heights neighborhood, Bri bodies more established rapper Milez — he even has a number one radio hit — on her next attempt, and begins to find whirlwind success in the music industry, as well as a morass of ethical, personal, and interpersonal complications in what amounts to a pretty basic too-big-for-your-britches narrative arc. This familiar rise-to-the-top plotting is here given some hip hop culture specificity in the form of debates about authenticity, the sometimes violent nature of rap music, and other generic notions about selling out, but it’s all a far cry from the more universal and even existential concerns addressed in The Hate U Give, delivering platitudes rather truths.
But far more problematic than the softer thematic concerns is On the Come Up’s utterly artificial feel. The film takes obvious cues from the likes of 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow, but has none of the lived-in texture or underground griminess of those films, with Lathan instead shellacking everything here in Hollywood sheen to the point that this bears little DNA with those early-aughts battle rap touchstones. A closer analog in style would be Joseph Kahn’s slicker, excellent Bodied from 2017, but On the Come Up fares even more poorly by that comparison: not only do this film’s sociocultural concerns seem downright Mickey Mouse by contrast, but the actual lines spit here feel like something you might overhear at a flyover playground rather than from ascendant MCs. The distancing effect this creates is a difficult one to overcome, with things feeling specious at best and Disney-fied at worst, and that’s before you bring in the likes of GaTa and Lil Yachty to engage in a little cornball battling with Bri. The vibe is actually more in line with the latter Step Up films, but if their sense of style and play was instead replaced with the po-faced seriousness of someone deeply out of touch with hip hop culture (a co-sign from Method Man playing a smarmy producer doesn’t change that calculus).
As with The Hate U Give, it’s tough to be too critical of works of such representational worth and which are willing to engage these kinds of topics in the commercial mainstream. There’s occasionally an incisive bit of commentary to light upon, and Gray delivers a performance of legitimate presence, one that frequently helps distract from the generic template undergirding the material’s littered rap-centric specifics. But the presentation of hip hop culture is too counterfeit and the path to an inevitable feel-good destination too uncomplicated for Lathan’s film to muster much genuine weight. Instead, On the Come Up is bodied by its own glib designs.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Return to Dust
Like his (still-undistributed, in North America) previous film, 2017’s Walking Past the Future, Li Ruijun’s latest, Return to Dust (an official selection of this year’s Berlinale), straddles the line between a sensitive and more politically assertive view on the rural/urban divide in today’s Mainland China. However, whereas Walking Past the Future focused on a younger generation’s active pursuit of the opportunity and promise seemingly afforded by modernity — following a migrant worker’s experience moving from her agricultural upbringing to a factory job in one of China’s megacities — Return to Dust stays situated in its rural Gansu province setting, observing both the small and the more substantial ways that modern government programs and other subtle forms of postsocialist intervention shape the lives of a farmer and his wife.
Both middle-aged and unwed, the quiet and introverted Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin) and handicapped Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) are looked at as black sheep by their respective families — such that their arranged marriage is almost regarded more as a means of unburdening kin than it is looked at for its potential to create a successful union. Despite these dubious beginnings, though, Youtie and Guiying quickly fall in love, finding in each other a kindness and empathy that neither has seemingly known much in their lives. Li keys into this spirit, and it becomes an extension for what he’s doing with his film — daring us to write off his modest ambitions, his mostly unsentimental but never uncaring view of rural life, in the same way many in Youtie and Guiying’s orbit disregard their simple contentment.
That effort works, in part, because of the careful balance struck by Li’s filmmaking. Return to Dust is a visually lush film, full of beautifully composed frames and golden-hour lighting, but it also doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh and difficult work undertaken by its central couple (especially the tireless Youtie, who has to compensate for the physical labor that Guiying’s body isn’t capable of performing). Some moments here derive their uncommon grace from the way that Li captures these two essences at work simultaneously – as with the many sequences of the couple gradually building their own home, placing one mud-formed brick at a time in a great spiral around their plot of land. Like many arthouse filmmakers, Li relies some on duration to communicate hardship, but his camera tends to be more animated, his attention to images more acute. The balance of Return to Dust is that it depicts difficult work, but it also recognizes that the two people performing it are at the same time finding themselves in the throes of an unfamiliar and deeply meaningful emotional relationship.
Beauty is often justified within the visual field of this film because darkness, various insinuating threats to the couple’s happiness, always feel present somewhere outside the frame. We learn that, in the past, Guiying was a victim of physical abuse by her family, the result of which left her handicapped. We’re also introduced to a number of estranged family members and assorted local authorities who flit in and out of Youtie and Guiying’s life, a reminder of the economic, social, and political forces that rend agency away from even those who endeavor to remain rural farmers with their own land. In particular, Return to Dust articulates the drivers of spatial dislocation, as the couple first have to leave the temporary housing that was allotted to them by family, while they worked to construct a house on their own land; are later confronted with the aggressive policies that the government uses to demolish uninhabited or unsafe structures; and finally are subjected to a relocation initiative that pressure trading plots of land for small apartments in developed urban areas.
There is clear and incisive socio-political commentary embedded in Return to Dust, but it’s probably been less noticeable for some because of the direction in which Li decides to take his film. Instead of having the tragedy that strikes here be the result of some nefarious force of modernization or government initiative, Return to Dust opts for a low-key denouement, one in the spirit of the Biblical verse from which it takes its name. As with the rest of the film, nothing is sensationalized — even an initially wrenching death transforms into a cause for quiet reflection and an earnest effort to reconcile loss with the happiness that preceded it, and to then decide what comes next. There’s a uniqueness to that approach — to the specific resolution that this film accepts — which serves to elevate Return to Dust to more than the sum of its cultural commentary or dramatic beats, and allow it to become an almost spiritual inquiry into what it means to go through life enduring pain in order to know some joy.
Writer: Sam C. Mac