Brittany Runs a Marathon
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
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A fitting tribute to a man who was genuinely one of a kind
On March 29, 1987, the most significant pro-wrestling match of all time took place at WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silverdome, in front of 93,173 fans, as Hulk Hogan (the greatest of all time then and the greatest of all time now) defended his title against former best friend, André the Giant. It's not the greatest contest of all time; for a WrestleMania main event, it's very short (12 minutes), with Hogan extremely restricted as to what he could do with André, whose mobility was severely compromised and who was in immense pain due to acromegaly. But it didn't matter, because the match culminated with Hogan doing the impossible and slamming André.
Which brings us to Jason Hehir's excellent documentary, the emotional high-point of which is that match. Sure, it's not always successful in its attempts to separate the man from the myth, often falling back on the very mythological elements it's trying to sidestep, and it's neither as insightful nor as objective as one might wish. However, it's respectful, informed, and entertaining, avoiding hagiography, and featuring some superb archival footage.
Choosing to forego a narrator, and using only archival footage and talking-head interviews, Hehir allows the interviewees to tell the story. During pre-production, he and producer Bill Simmons decided to include only material which had been directly witnessed; there was to be nothing anecdotal; "we were only going to have first-person accounts. So, if someone said, "I heard André drank 156 beers," well, were you there? If you weren't, it's not gonna make it in. But when Ric Flair says "he drank 106 beers in front of me", that makes it in." This affords the documentary a sense of personalised intimacy – every interviewee is talking about things they saw rather than things about which they heard – which works towards Hehir's mission statement of depicting the man rather than the myth.
In this respect, one of the most important sections is the disappointingly brief depiction of his time in his adopted home of Ellerbe, NC, which is where Hehir is most successful in dividing the man from the mythos. André loved living there because he could be himself and because he was left alone – he could be a regular citizen. This comes in the middle of a section about how logistically difficult André's life was (as Flair points out, he couldn't put on a disguise and stroll around New York, and as Hogan explains, everything was too small for him, rendering mundane tasks such as eating in a restaurant hugely difficult). The Ellerbe section is one of the most low-key, moving, and human parts of the documentary, and it's the only part where hyperbole seems entirely absent.
Another moving section concerns the making of The Princess Bride. In a direct rejoinder to colleagues who humorously extol his legendary drinking, Cary Elwes points out that André drank as much as he did because he was perpetually in so much pain. Along the same lines, director Rob Reiner and actress Robin Wright discuss how surprised they were at how difficult André found it to perform even the simplest physical tasks (a pseudo-wrestling scene with Elwes had to use a (hilariously bad) stunt double, and for a scene where he catches Buttercup (Wright), she had to be supported on wires because André couldn't hold her weight.
In this sense, although the tone is never melancholy, André's story does emerge as something of a tragedy – not because he failed to achieve his dreams, but because in doing so, he dissuaded himself from availing of the aid that could have lengthened his life, and would certainly have eased his suffering.
In terms of problems, the most egregious is Hehir's failure (for the most part) to disentangle André Roussimoff from André the Giant. Hogan, Flair, WWE owner Vince McMahon and, André's best friend, Tim White all talk about the man behind the persona, but none of them knew him before he became André the Giant. This is why the Ellerbe section and the brief material on his life in France are so important, as they speak to who he was rather than who we believe him to be, with many of the (probably hyperbolic) stories fitting more comfortably into the image of André the Giant than the life of André Roussimoff. Additionally, more than likely due to WWE's direct involvement, there's nothing even remotely negative said about the company, although Hogan does point out that André probably shouldn't have been in the ring at WrestleMania III. The implication is that McMahon may have exploited André's passion for the business, but this is buried under more mythologising and is quickly forgotten.
Nevertheless, this is a very fine tribute. André was vitally important to an industry at a pivotal crossroads, and the film captures why he was such a compelling character, able to elicit pathos (and later antagonism) from wrestling audiences the world over with relative ease.
The poem is a masterpiece of esoteric science-fiction literature; and this is an impressive adaptation
The transitory nature of human existence, especially when set against the infinity of space and time, is a theme which has become more relevant in science fiction as we find ourselves facing an increasingly likely man-made extinction event. Adapted from Harry Martinson's 1956 poem of the same name, Aniara is about the crippling contemplation of meaninglessness that consumes the passengers of a vast spaceship set adrift in the void of space. The debut feature from writers/directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, this is an exceptionally well made film. Sure, the characters are underdeveloped, and the science isn't exactly kosher, but it's morally complex and existentially challenging, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Set at an unspecified point in the future, humanity is making a new home on Mars. The Aniara is a massive vessel that takes passengers on the three-week trip from a lunar docking station to the red planet. As the film begins, we meet the unnamed protagonist (Emelie Jonsson); an employee on the Aniara, she is in charge of MIMA, a semi-sentient holodeck-like technology that can scan people's thoughts and allow them to experience whatever is best suited for their psyche. A week into the voyage, Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) is forced to jettison the nuclear core after a minor collision with space debris. However, the ship is now off-course, and without the core, the crew have no way of turning her around, leaving them drifting into the darkness of space.
Much as is the case with the poem, the film looks at issues such as the impermanence of human existence and the sense of meaninglessness that can result when mankind is faced with the eternity of time and space. It spends a good deal of time on the idea that human civilisation is a construct that we use to shield us from the bleak reality of our insignificance, and when it's removed, we revert to barbarism. The passengers on the Aniara are unable to stave off the malaise born from the hopelessness of their situation and the meaninglessness of their existence, and one of the most important lines is "everything we do is peripheral".
Depicted as half-mind control, half-narcotic, MIMA becomes vital post-collision, as people become dependent on her, with the wealthy amongst them trying to bribe their way in. When another employee is hired, the protagonist says she'll need to "teach them to resist the images", recalling the way employees in pharmaceutical factories are randomly drug-tested. At the same time, when a passenger proves unable to handle reality and becomes violent, he is forced to experience MIMA against his will and is rendered unconscious.
Another theme is mankind's destruction of Earth, with the possibility that we may colonise other worlds no longer seen as exploration, but as survival. This theme is never examined explicitly – we never learn when the film takes place, whether or not Earth has already died or is simply on the way, nor what sent us into the cosmos – but it's touched on obliquely throughout and is a good example of how the film engages with themes without necessarily foregrounding them.
In terms of problems, perhaps the most significant is the lack of character arcs (although this is also true of the poem). Does this leave the viewer with no characters with whom to empathise? Yes, to a certain extent it does, but this is by design; the film isn't asking us to fall in love with a cast of well-rounded characters, it's asking us to engage with it at an esoteric level.
The science also has some issues. If the Aniara wasn't built for long-term habitation, why are there so many amenities, why is the life-support system self-regulating, and why are the algae farms designed to produce food indefinitely? Additionally, Mars is (on average) 140 million miles from Earth, so for the Aniara to complete the journey in three weeks, she would need to travel at an average velocity of 277,777 mph. Newton's second law states that "force equals mass times acceleration", so the greater the mass and speed, the more force it takes to slow down, and the power needed to slow something as vast as Aniara (4,750 meters long and 891 meters wide) and moving at such a speed is virtually unfathomable.
Nevertheless, this is a very accomplished film, as aesthetically impressive as it is morally complex, as esoterically fascinating as it is unrelentingly despairing. Equal parts haunting and provocative, the picture it paints of a humanity faced with its own extinction isn't a pretty one, but it is an urgent one. And as we hurtle towards our own extinction, rapidly approaching the point where, like the Aniara, we will no longer be able to turn around, at that time, our future will consist of nothing but the indifferent darkness and deafening silence of the infinite.
Nothing you haven't seen before, but it's very well-made and genuinely moving
The pitch for The Mustang is as hackneyed as it gets – a dangerous convict given a shot at redemption by working with a dangerous horse, and as the man tames the animal, the animal tames the man. However, despite its derivative underpinnings, The Mustang has been made with such craft that it transcends the clichés. And yes, chances are everything you think might happen does, but the acting, the emotional beats, and the authenticity all contribute to the whole, wherein it turns out the familiarity of the destination doesn't matter so much when the journey is so well executed.
In a Nevada jail, the emotionally shut down Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is serving a 12-year bit and upon being released from solitary, he's assigned to clean up the horse dung from the mustangs used in the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), wherein the inmates "gentle" the animals – essentially, tame them so they can be sold at auction. Given the chance to work with an especially unruly horse that's considered unbreakable, Coleman names him Marquis (although he mispronounces it as Marcus), and sets about trying to connect with the horse in a way he hasn't connected with anyone or anything in many years.
Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Norman Brock and based on de Clermont-Tonnerre's short Rabbit (2014), The Mustang is her feature directorial debut. As the opening and closing legends tell us, WHIP is real, with prisons in 13 states adopting it, and research showing there is a significant dip in recidivist rates amongst inmates who have worked with the horses.
Despite the narrative outline suggesting otherwise, The Mustang is not a sentimental film. De Clermont-Tonnerre avoids, for example, romanticising the relationship between Coleman and Marquis; they don't have a psychic bond, rather they connect emotionally, nothing more. Their relationship is not an opportunity for glib esotericism regarding the human condition, it's a simple friendship.
In terms of acting, this is Schoenaerts's film. We've see him do quiet brooding intensity before, in films like Rundskop (2011), De rouille et d'os (2012), and Maryland (2015), but he's exceptionally good at it and is rarely less than mesmerising to watch.
Aesthetically, Coleman is repeatedly connected with Marquis. For example, the film opens on a close-up of a mustang's eye, and the first time we see Coleman, it's a BCU of him opening his eyes. Later, there's a shot in which he's reflected in Marquis's eye and a scene where they are both pinned to the ground, facing one another. Also, when Coleman is confined to his cell, we see him pacing back and forth and punching the wall, recalling Marquis's earlier behaviour in his stall. Sure, none of this is subtle, but it is effective, with de Clermont-Tonnerre communicating emotions and themes visually.
A major theme is the danger of losing self-control. An anger management class sees the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) ask each prisoner how long passed between the thought of their crime and its execution, and how long have they been in jail. None say there was more than a few seconds between thought and deed. The point is clear; a split-second decision has landed then in prison for years. It could be a scene out of any prison documentary (it would have fit right into The Work (2017), about the Inside Circle program in Folsom), and it's a good example of de Clermont-Tonnerre hanging back when she needs to.
Of course, the film is not perfect. We've all seen pretty much everything in The Mustang, and for some, the familiarity will be off-putting. A bigger issue is a subplot involving Dan (Josh Stewart), Coleman's cellmate, who blackmails him into smuggling ketamine into the prison. This subplot feels like it's been imported from another film entirely, and these scene are the weakest and the most inauthentic in the film. The narrative needs Coleman to be at a certain place at a certain time, and de Clermont-Tonnerre uses this storyline to facilitate that. But there were far more organic ways to have accomplished this without resorting to a subplot that is so tonally divorced from everything around it.
On paper, this is a clichéd social protest film with a standard redemption arc, but de Clermont-Tonnerre fashions it into something emotionally authentic. She embraces, for the most part, non-judgmental restraint, simplicity, and sincerity, and more than once communicates meaning visually. Her intimate direction and Schoenaerts's committed performance allow the film to remain always genuine and respectful, as she suggests that when you treat someone like a human being, you may find their humanity. And the most fascinating and beautifully handled trope is that Coleman's humanity could only be found, drawn out, and nurtured by an animal.
Ugly, bleak, gritty, and enjoyable
I guarantee you've seen this story before – a good man who either abhors or has renounced violence forced to take up arms so as to protect the innocent from a villain. You can find it deployed in westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Firecreek (1968), and in genre films as varied as Collateral (2004) and Death Sentence (2007). Filmed in Connemara (standing in for Oregon), Never Grow Old is the latest to roll out that narrative template. And although the script isn't going win any awards for originality, the film has been put together with undeniable craft. It's bleak and gritty, and whilst it won't change your life, it is rather enjoyable.
Oregon, 1849; the town of Garlow is governed by the local Methodist preacher, Pike (Danny Webb), who has forbidden alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. On the edge of town, the town's undertaker, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) and his wife, French immigrant Audrey (Déborah François), along with their two children, lead a simple life. That changes when Christopher 'Dutch' Albert (John Cusack) and his men roll into town looking for a man who stole from Dutch. After finding him, Dutch decides to stay in Garlow, procuring a group of prostitutes and reopening the saloon, killing anyone who crosses him. With his undertaker business thriving because of the spike in violence, Tate stays out of things as best he can, although Audrey is disgusted that he's prospering because of Dutch. Soon, however, Tate's family will come under threat and he'll be forced to decide what he must do.
Thematically, the idea of paradise awaiting us in the next life, specifically the notion that the afterlife will be a lot better than our earthly existence, is alluded to throughout the film. And it's really not too hard to imagine a better life than the one writer/director Ivan Kavanagh presents in Garlow, which is literally a one-road town. However, this isn't the parched, dusty environment of beige, yellow, and light browns that we're all used to seeing in westerns. Rather, it's bleak and forlorn; the buildings are dark brown, almost black, the clouds hardly ever part, it rains a lot, and the road itself is nothing but mud. The life of a European in the Americas of the 19th century wasn't easy, and one of the film's most successful elements is in showing us some of why that was.
Never Grow Old has the structure of a morality tale or a Mystery play, looking at issues such as religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It even takes time to briefly address the Native American genocide, with Pike sermonising about how the colonists saved the land from "savages". The most obvious theme, however, is greed. Tate is complicit with Dutch's violence insofar as he accepts and ignores it, even profiting indirectly because of it. Audrey and several of the town's more religious folk are disgusted with this, and there are multiple references to Tate getting his "30 pieces of silver". A recurring motif is to cut from Dutch killing someone to Tate cleaning the body to hiding his payment away in a tin buried in the house. When we first see the tin, there's little in it, but as the film goes on, it becomes fuller and fuller.
Indeed, the film has several visual moments like this which convey thematic points sans dialogue. The opening shot, for example, shows a tattered American flag hanging on a burnt building, immediately introducing the theme of violence. In another early shot, we see Pike preaching to a packed church. Later, however, after Dutch has reopened the saloon, Pike's church is shown to be almost empty, making reference to the dwindling church attendance that we're seeing today. Another nice visual touch is that the saloon is directly across the road from the church, symbolising the battle between hedonism and piety that continues to this day.
In terms of problems, the script isn't exactly original, with every character an archetype we've seen before. Additionally, Emile Hirsch joins a list of actors who have completely butchered the Irish accent; everyone from Tom Cruise to Tommy Lee Jones to Val Kilmer to Brad Pitt. Hirsch isn't as bad as any of these, but his tendency to drop in and out of the inflections on a word-by-word basis is distracting. Another slight issue is that towards the end of the film, Dutch starts reading from the Bible, quoting Revelation 19:17. It's more than a little on the nose, and really, a villain quoting Revelations is itself a cliché.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Never Grow Old far more than I expected. It's bleak and gritty, but it's very well made, with some nicely conceived visual shorthand. An uncompromising look at the harshness of frontier life in the 19th century, the film suggests that stoic individualism is no substitute for a vibrant community. There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but Kavanagh handles the genre elements well and has made a rather enjoyable film.
Built upon a fascinating temporal/cognitive dissonance that works well, but the narrative is painfully dull and the characters taciturn
Based on Anna Segher's 1942 novel of the same name about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage from Vichy Marseilles to North Africa, Transit is built upon a fascinating structural conceit – although it tells the same story, it is set in the here and now. Well, parts of the milieu are from the here and now. So, although cars, weaponry, and police uniforms are contemporary, there are no mobile phones or computers, and people still use typewriters. This means that the film is set neither entirely in 1942 nor entirely in 2019, but in a temporal halfway-house, and this works well, as Petzold doesn't suggest that history is repeating itself, but rather that there's no difference between then and now. Unfortunately, aside from this aesthetic gambit, not much else worked for me.
In Paris, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is entrusted with delivering some papers to George Weidel, a communist author. However, he finds Weidel dead, having committed suicide. Taking a manuscript, two letters from Weidel to his wife Marie, and Weidel's transit visa to Mexico, Georg travels to Marseilles. When he goes to the Mexican consulate to return the belongings, he is mistaken for Weidel, and he realises he has a chance to escape, with Weidel booked on a ship sailing in a few days. As Georg waits, he has several encounters with a woman, who, it is soon revealed is Marie Weidel (Paula Beer), who is waiting for word from her husband. Not telling her that Weidel is dead, Georg finds himself falling for her.
In terms of cultural signifiers, Petzold keeps it vague, although there is a reference to Dawn of the Dead (1978), with the closing credits featuring "Road to Nowhere" (1982). However, for everything that locates the film in the 21st century, there's something to locate it in the 1940s. Along the same lines, Petzold keeps the politics generalised, with no mention of Nazis, concentration camps, or the Holocaust.
The combination of liminal elements of modernity and period-specific history sets up a temporal/cognitive dissonance which forces the audience to move beyond the abstract notion that what once happened could happen again. Instead, we are made to recognise that the difference between past and present is a semantic distinction only, and that that which once happened never stopped happening.
The other important aesthetic element is voiceover narration. Introduced as Georg begins reading Weidel's manuscript, there's no initial indication as to the narrator's identity or when the narration is taking place. Additionally, he's unreliable, as he often describes something differently to how we see it. The narration also "interacts" with the dialogue at one point – in a scene between Georg and Marie, their dialogue alternates with the VO; they get one part of a sentence and the VO completes it, or vice versa.
However, although I liked the temporal dissonance, the VO didn't work, pulling me out of the film as I tied to answer questions such as where and when is the voice coming from, are we hearing a character speak or someone outside the fabula, how can the narrator have access to Georg's innermost thoughts at some points but not at others, etc?
But the film has more problems than just the VO. To suggest the disenfranchised nature of what it is to be a refugee, Georg is a non-person; he's passive, less a protagonist than a witness. This passivity combines with a dearth of backstory and character development, whilst Rogowski plays the part without a hint of interiority. Easily the most successful scenes in the film are those showing his friendship with a young boy, Driss (Lilien Batman), because they're the only moments where he seems like a person rather than a narrative construct, they're the only scenes that ring emotionally true.
In relation to the lack of forward narrative momentum, I understand that Petzold is trying to stay true to the experience, that the life of a refugee involves a lot of waiting, repetition, and frustration. But it's the extent to which the film goes to suggest this. Yes, inertia is part of the theme, but it doesn't follow that the film needs to be so unrelentingly dull.
Easily the most egregious problem is one that arises from a combination of these issues – it's impossible to care about any of the characters. There's no pathos; none of them have any psychological verisimilitude or interiority, and they simply never come alive as people.
An intellectual film rather than an emotional one, Transit is cold and distant. The temporal dissonance works well, but it's really all the film has going for it. Petzold says some interesting things regarding the experience of refugees in the 21st century vis-à-vis refugees of World War II, and the mirror he holds up to society isn't especially flattering. If only we could care about someone on screen. Anyone.