Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

From the Land of the Ice and Snow

The Northman

by Hope Madden

Robert Eggers releases his third feature this week, a Viking adventure on an epic scale called The Northman.

You had me at Robert Eggers.

On display once again are the filmmaker’s aesthetic instincts, his mastery of framing, and his ability to squeeze every ounce of brutal beauty from a scene. This film is gorgeous, simultaneously broadcasting the wonder and unconquerable ruggedness of its Nordic land and seascapes.

There are also familiar faces. Anya-Taylor Joy plays Olga, a spoil of war too cunning to remain long in bonds. She’s joined in smaller roles by Eggers favorites Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Willem Dafoe as a wizened court jester.

Now, if you’re not a fan of the director’s two previous features, 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, that does not necessarily predict your feelings about his latest effort. Eggers is working in a different genre with a different, far larger cast and scope this time around.

Alexander Skarsgård is the film’s titular hero; Claes Bang, his uncle and foe.

What you have is a classic vengeance tale: prince witnesses royal betrayal and the murder of his father. He loses his mother and his crown and vows revenge. You’ve seen the trailer.

I will avenge you, father.

I will save you, mother.

I will kill you, Fjolnir.

Skarsgård is cut to play a Viking. His performance is primarily physical: blind rage looking for an outlet. He’s believably vicious, bloodthirsty, single-minded and, when necessary, vulnerable. The entire cast around him is equally convincing.

Nicole Kidman – who played Skarsgård’s wife in the HBO series Big Little Lies, graduates to mother here, while Ethan Hawke plays his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven.

That’s a good name.

Oh, plus Bjork because Iceland. In fact, Egger’s co-writer here, beloved Icelandic novelist and screenwriter Sjón, penned not only last year’s gorgeous folk horror The Lamb, but also Bjork’s early work with Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark.

Classic is exactly how The Northman feels. The story is gritty and grand, the action brutal and the storytelling majestic. As is the case with Eggers, expect a fair amount of the supernatural and surreal to seep in here and there, but not enough to outweigh the meticulously crafted period realism.

Pride Before the Fall

Nightmare Alley

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Step right up, folks, and witness a master of the macabre! See Guillermo Del Toro twist the familiar tale of ambition run amuck! Gasp at the lurid, gorgeous, vulgar world of Nightmare Alley!

Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, good lookin’ kid on the skids taken in by Clem (Willem Dafoe, creepy as ever) to carny for a traveling show. Stan picks up some tricks from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), then lures pretty Molly (Rooney Mara) to the big city to set up their own mind-reading racket.

Things are going swell, too, until Stan gets mixed up with psychiatrist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) whose patient list includes some high rollers with large bank accounts ripe for the picking.

That’s already one hell of an ensemble, but wait there’s more! Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson all add immeasurably to the sketchy world Stan orbits.

What Del Toro brings to the tale, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (a solid slice of noir with Tyrone Power in the lead) dulled the edges of any seediness. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks – maligned as it was – found the unsettling carny life mainly wholesome.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Nathan Johnson create a delicious playground for Del Toro’s carnival to call home, one where even the most likable members of the family turn a blind eye to something genuinely sickening and cruel happening in their midst. The filmmaker plumbs that underlying horror, complicating Stan’s arc and allowing the film’s climax to leave a more lasting mark.

As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Cooper, Stan’s journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

And Blanchett – shocker – is gloriously vampy. She swims elegantly through the sea of noir-ish light and framing that Del Toro bathes her in, as Lillith casts a spell that renders Stan’s helplessness a fait accompli.

Nearly every aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Del Toro and Kim Morgan) creates a richer level of storytelling than the ’47 original. The dialog is more sharply insightful, the finale more dangerously tense and the characters – especially Mara’s stronger-willed Molly – more fully developed. All contribute greatly toward the film rebounding from a slightly sluggish first act to render the two and a half hour running time unconcerning.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply.

So as much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

Don’t believe me? See it with your own eyes, step right up!

Bloody Well Write

The French Dispatch

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Who’s ready for Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson-y movie to date?

It feels like we say that every time he releases a new film, but The French Dispatch is absolutely the inimitable auteur at his most Andersonesque.

The French Dispatch is a magazine — a weekly addition to a Kansas newspaper covering the ins and outs of Ennui, France, the town where the periodical is based. The film itself is an anthology, four shorts (four of the stories published in the final edition) held together not by the one character each has in common, editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), but by Anderson’s giddy admiration for France and The New Yorker.

Boasting everything you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson film — meticulous set design, vibrant color, symmetrical composition, elegance and artifice in equal measure, and a massive cast brimming with his own stock ensemble — the film is not one you might mistake for a Scorsese or a Spielberg.

Expect Anderson regulars Tilda Swinton, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Deydoux, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand and newcomers Benicio Del Toro, Timothee Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright. And those are the big roles (although truth be told, no one is on screen all that long).

Blink and you might miss Saoirse Ronin, Willem Dafoe, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Ed Norton, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber and Jason Schwartzman.

In the segment filed under the “Taste and Smells” section, Dispatch writer Roebuck Wright (Wright) turns in a sprawling profile on master chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) that – to Howitzer’s chagrin – contains merely one quote from Nescaffier himself. As with the other pieces of the anthology, the many tangents of the piece are explained through Anjelica Huston’s narration, which can’t replace a truly emotional through line and holds the film back from resonating beyond its immaculate construction.

Anderson’s framing of symmetry and motion has never been more tightly controlled, and the film becomes a parade of wonderfully assembled visuals paired with intellectual wordplay and an appropriately spare score from Alexander Desplat.

As a tribute to a lost era of journalism and the indelible writers that drove it, Anderson delivers a fascinating and meticulous exercise boasting impeccable craftsmanship and scattershot moments of wry humor. But the layer of humanity that elevates the writer/director’s most complete films (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) never makes it from page to screen, and The French Dispatch ultimately earns more respect than feeling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0_hwGWen-I

Tilt

The Card Counter

by Hope Madden

The damaged man seeking redemption — it may be the most cinematic concept, or certainly among the most frequently conjured by filmmakers. When Paul Schrader is on his game, no one tells this story better.

Schrader’s game in The Card Counter is poker, mainly. But if he tells the redemption story differently than others, you should see what he does with a gambling picture.

Oscar Isaac and his enviable hair play William Tell, gambler. Where this film differs from others treading this territory is that, rather than being a man of a somewhat self-destructive bent drawn to the adrenaline, anxiety and thrill of the lifestyle, William is comforted by its mundane routine. When you play the way William plays, gambling is tidy. It is clean. It is predictable.

William learned to count cards — and to appreciate routine — in prison.

His routine is shaken up, as routines must be, by two people. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) wants to find William a financial backer, put him on a circuit, see him win big. Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan) wants more from him.

The precision and power in Schrader’s writing come as no surprise, but as a director, he wields images with more unique impact here. There are three different worlds in The Card Counter: prison, casinos, haunted past. Each has its own color scheme, style and mood. The haunted past takes on a nightmarish look via fisheye lens, creating a landscape that’s part first-person shooter, part hell.

Schrader’s on point with visual storytelling throughout, even though he relies on voiceover narration from the opening shot. Voiceover narration is rarely done well. It’s often, perhaps usually, a narrative cheat, a lazy device used to tell us something a stronger writer could convey visually. Not when Schrader does it. We learned that in 1976 when he wrote Taxi Driver, and he proves it again here.

It helps that Isaac is a profound talent and essentially flawless in this role. He is the essential Schrader protagonist, a man desperate for relief from an inner torment through repression, redemption or obliteration.

It’s at least the 4th performance of Isaac’s career worthy of Oscar’s attention, which means the Academy will probably deny that recognition again. But you shouldn’t. You should go see The Card Counter.

Beyond the Sea

The Lighthouse

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are no new ideas in modern film, that everything coming out is a sequel, reboot, adaptation or biopic. And then you spend an hour and 49 minutes with two men and a lighthouse.

What did we just watch?

Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies, on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.

Salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) keeps the light, mind ye. He also handles among the most impressive briny soliloquies delivered on screen in a lifetime. Joining him as second is one Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—aimless, prone to self-abuse, disinclined to appreciate a man’s cooking.

Eggers’s film is a two-man show, a dizzying, sometimes absurd and often flatulent descent into madness.

The atmosphere is thick and brisk as sea fog, immersing you early with Jarin Blasche’s chilly black and white cinematography and a Damian Volpe sound design echoing of loss and one persistent, ominous foghorn.

For everything Eggers brings to bear, from the Bergmanesque lighting and spiritual undertones to the haunting score to the scrupulous set design to images suitable for framing in a maritime museum – not to mention the script itself – The Lighthouse works because of two breathtaking performances.

Dafoe may be one of the few actors alive who can take this manic-eyed, gimpy-legged version of the Simpson’s sea captain and force us to absorb his every eccentricity. When Winslow finally screams “You’re a parody!” it both wounds and reassures, as by then we’re eager to accept any bit of confirmation that we can trust anything we’re seeing.

As our vessel into this waterlogged nightmare, Pattinson impresses with yet another fiercely committed performance. Winslow comes to “the rock” full of quiet dignity, only to become a soul increasingly tempted by mysterious new demons while running from old ones.

Winslow’s psychological spiral has so many WTF moments, it would crumble without the sympathetic anchor Pattinson provides from the film’s opening moments. Twilight seems like a lifetime ago, and in case you’ve missed any of the impressive indie credits he’s racked up the last few years, we’ll say it again: Pattinson is the real deal.

So is Eggers. His mastery of tone and atmosphere carries a weight that’s damn near palpable. The Lighthouse will leave you feeling cold, wet and woozy, as Eggers trades the literal payoff from The Witch for a series of reveals you’ll be struggling to connect.

This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy.

And we’ll tell you what The Lighthouse is not. It is not a film ye will soon forget.

Art for Art’s Sake

Pasolini

by Brandon Thomas

Abel Ferrera, the filmmaker behind Ms. 45, The Driller Killer, and Bad Lieutenant, was maybe too perfect of a choice to depict the final 24 hours in the life of Italian artist Pier Pasolini. While this love letter to Pasolini never quite succumbs to standard biopic syndrome, it also doesn’t fully rise above being anything more than hero worship.

After Pier Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) puts the finishing touches on his masterpiece, Salò, the provocative writer, critic, activist and filmmaker returns to Rome to visit with his family. During the course of this relatively normal day, Pasolini takes part in an interview, meets with fellow artists, and cruises the evening looking for a lover. While the day’s events seem mundane and boring for someone typically known as a notorious hellraiser, all of this leads to a tragic outcome on a beach outside of Ostia, Italy.

It’s evident early on that this movie is in awe of Pasolini. The film doesn’t depict Pasolini’s last day as much as it observes it. Ferrera treats the banal dealings of this 24-hour period with reverence. Pasolini’s life and work is church. The man himself is Jesus. 

Where the spirit of Pasolini is sincerely felt is when Ferrera brings the artist’s works to life. A segment from a novel he’s currently working on is realized with graphic depiction as Pasolini’s character, based on the author himself, has an intense sexual encounter with a young man. Another segment finds two men looking for the famed Feast of Fertility Festival where gay men and women come together for one night to procreate. Neither segment adds to Pasolini’s plot (or what exists of one), but they are so categorically Pasolini in tone, spirit and theme that the stillness of the movie is finally shaken alive.

While the lack of narrative momentum causes the film to stumble, Dafoe stuns as the titular character. He doesn’t play Pasolini as much as he channels the spirit of the late artist. Pasolini’s cool and equal indifference flows through Dafoe’s body language and speech like second nature. His Pasolini is a man equally at home with who he his, but also incredibly bored with the person he has become.

Ferrera’s biggest mistake with Pasolini is that he cares too much about the man himself. While Dafoe’s equal admiration leads to a strong anchoring performance, Ferrara’s unwillingness to push the narrative leaves the film largely lifeless and inert. 


The Dunce and Future King

Aquaman

by Matt Weiner

A movie that brings together Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Julie Andrews and Dolph Lundgren is inevitably going to have a lot going on. That’s certainly the case for James Wan’s Aquaman, a weird mix of origin story, Arthurian myth and anti-racist appeal to coexistence. If that sounds like a lot for the frat bro character from 2017’s Justice League, well… it is. But thankfully it’s also never boring.

The new movie takes place after the events of Justice League, allowing half-man/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) to resume his day job of serving as a one-man Coast Guard and drinking. Flashbacks piece together Curry’s life story: his father (Temuera Morrison) fell in love with the queen (Kidman) of the underwater kingdom Atlantis, who later had to choose between endangering her taboo love child or returning to the kingdom.

A series of tragedies pushes Curry on his hero’s journey, with enough family strife between him and his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to fill a Greek play. Together with the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), Curry strikes out in search of a golden MacGuffin along with his destiny, even finding time to pick up an archenemy for good measure (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta).

How much of a comfort it is that Aquaman is one of the better recent superhero movies depends on where you fall on the debate over whether distinctive directors should get picked for more of these big comic book projects (and given a long leash)—or if you wish we lived in a universe where they could pursue these visions without yoking themselves to Disney/Marvel or DC.

It is to the film’s benefit that Wan, veteran of horror franchises Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious, manages to tie Curry’s predictable Arthurian ascent to the most disturbing Lovecraftian horror this side of Hellboy. And it’s almost shocking to see the cotton candy brightness of Atlantis after the pummeling color palettes of Batman v. Superman and Justice League.

With his nonstop pace, steady stream of exotic settings and action that never gets bogged down in its own seriousness, Wan’s entry in the genre hits the mark as his loving homage to vintage Spielberg and Lucas—plus tentacles. Best of all, it’s a refreshing reminder that you shouldn’t need a flowchart and multi-phase corporate synergy to make a good popcorn movie.

Which is good because it doesn’t look like these franchises are going anywhere anytime soon, so if any other directors are looking to wed their creative vision to the corporate motherships then maybe I can learn to be more tolerant of the products they give birth to. It’s a message that sounds oddly familiar.





Stage Mother

Vox Lux

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

No doubt you’re hip to the talent of Natalie Portman.

But if you only know Brady Corbet as an actor (Funny Games, Melancholia, Simon Killer), or maybe don’t know him at all, get to know Corbet the visionary filmmaker.

Corbett writes and directs an astute and unusual pop ballad about celebrity—American celebrity, at that.

Vox Lux opens in 1999 as young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and her high school class are visited by a disgruntled young white male. Corbet’s camera plays with the horror of the scene as it dawns on those in the classroom as well as the audience what is about to happen.

As Celeste heals from a bullet to the spine, she and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) work through their collective grief and trauma by writing a song, which Celeste later performs at a memorial vigil.

Thanks to the astute strategy of a no-nonsense manager (Jude Law) and straightforward publicist (Jennifer Ehle), the song becomes a healing anthem and Celeste—her protective sister at her side—is launched into pop stardom.

Corbet’s chaptered “21st Century Portrait” (the proper subtitle to his film) offers infrequent omniscient narration from Willem Dafoe, a glib narrative device that’s part “Behind the Music” and part sociological commentary. Tragedy is commodity in modern America, a fact that can only mean more tragedy.

When the timeline shifts forward and Portman takes over in the lead, we see a new character fully formed from years of living that are only hinted at. Celeste is now a veteran megastar with a daughter of her own (also played by Cassidy) and strained relationships with everyone around her.

Portman’s performance is such an all-in tour de force it effectively divides the film into parts: with and without her. She commands the screen with such totality you’re afraid of what Celeste might do if you dare to shift your focus somewhere else.

Corbet knows better than to do that. With Portman as a mesmerizing guide, he crafts a fascinating fable with two uniquely American pillars – gun violence and celebrity culture. Vox Lux is shocking, funny, sad, and haunting, with plenty of visual flourish and even some new songs by Sia.

It’s a statement, and coming from a relatively unknown writer/director, a pretty audacious one.

Keep ’em coming, Corbet.

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dolxUIZzb3w





Real and Spectacular

Mountain

by George Wolf

“How big a screen ya got?”

That’s what you need to be asking for Mountain, a nature documentary that puts the breathtake in breathtaking.

Director and co-writer Jennifer Peedom provides a majestic canvas for the truly stunning cinematography of Renan Ozturk, gracefully pondering the evolution of humankind’s quest to climb upward.

Intermittent narration from Willem Dafoe dots the landscape of footage from the world’s highest peaks, and though the writing seems overly dramatic at first (“the holy or the hostile…nothing in between”) the sheer grandeur of what you’re seeing quickly demands nothing less.

From swooping aerial shots featuring tiny specks of humanity to tight, miraculous skiing sequences a la Warren Miller, Mountain beautifully reminds us how truly small we remain. For those enthralled by such things (my hand is up) it might as well be mountain porn, questioning our fascination even as it’s feeding it.

But again: big screen.





Tragic Kingdom

The Florida Project

by Hope Madden

Full of the raucous rhythm of an unsupervised childhood, The Florida Project finds power in details and tells an unadorned but potent story.

Co-writer/director Sean Baker follows up his ambitious 2015 film Tangerine with another tale set gleefully along the fringes of society. Where Tangerine used weaves, stilettos and spangles to color the Christmas antics of Hollywood hustlers, here Baker fills the screen with bold colors and enormous, cartoonish images to create a grotesquely oversized playground.

The film begins with as perfect a movie opening as you will ever see.

Six-year-old Moonee (an astonishing Brooklynn Prince) wastes her summer days wandering the Orlando strip surrounding her home, a vivid purple bargain motel catering less to Disney World tourists than to tenants who can’t afford the security deposit world of traditional housing.

When she’s not out finding adventures with her besties Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee’s probably hustling wholesale perfumes to tourists with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite).

The one true grown up in the mix, motel manager Bobby, is played with charm and tenderness by Willem Dafoe.

Baker’s many talents include an ear for authentic dialog, a knack for letting a story breathe and an eye for visual details that enrich a tale. But maybe what’s most striking is his ability to tell fresh but universal stories. We all remember elements of unbridled recklessness in our childhood, although very few of us grew up the way Moonee does.

Baker creates a bridge into Moonee’s life, revels in her freedom and bravado, but keeps us always aware of the dangerous edges when you’re blurring childhood and adulthood.

It’s the concept of childhood and adulthood that preoccupies Baker and his story, set in this absurd, low-rent amusement park of a world. As Mooney’s mother, Vinaite offers a fierce mixture of childishness all her own as well as street-savviness. Halley keeps the ugliness of the world away with her own whimsy, and Vinaite’s onscreen chemistry with Prince is authentic and full of tenderness.

As much as Tinsel Town was the perfect backdrop for the struggling glamour of Tangerine, the shadow of Disney World is almost too perfect a setting for the grinding poverty and perverted innocence of The Florida Project.