Film Fest 919 Wrap Up: Bardo, She Said, White Noise, and Armageddon Time

Daniel Gimenez Cacho as SILVERIO in BARDO

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Mexico's official entry for Best International Film in the Academy Awards, Bardo walks the line between surrealism and mental chaos, which makes it a tricky film to critique -- especially on first viewing. From the very first moment, clarity eludes the viewer. A vast desert is interrupted by the sound of footsteps against the ground. A shadow alternates between gliding above the ground and landing heavily, only to run and try again. It's as if we are trying to get a foothold and finding it impossible. Then we shift to reality-bending birthing scene in a hospital, and all bets are off.  

Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a journalist-turned-documentarian prepares to travel back to his home country of Mexico to receive a prestigious award. Now a citizen of America, he is viewed by his countryman with envy, ridicule, and suspicion. We follow him and his family on their trip and watch him interact with an unfolding list of characters from his past. 

Bardo becomes an exploration of identity, family, culture, art, expression, and legacy -- a heavy load for any film to carry. At best, its a Latinx version of All that Jazz. At worst, it's a self-indulgent plate of mashed potatoes. Beautiful imagery and memorable scenes of axolotls offer little oxygen to viewers who might be gasping for the air of comprehension. A second viewing might enrich the overall story, but who has the time when there are so many excellent new releases this year? 

Final score: 2 out of 5

[L-R] Carey Mulligan as MEGAN TWOHEY, Zoe Kazan as JODI KANTOR, Patricia Clarkson as REBECCA BORBETT in SHE SAID

She Said, directed by Maria Schrader

Based on a best-selling book and adapted for the screen by playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, She Said chronicles the boots-on-the-ground lengths journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey went through to write and publish an article revealing three decades of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. 
The quest for this article is shown to be a Sisyphean task because finding women willing to testify against Weinstein in the court of public opinion proved an almost impossible task. It would be tempting to see the film as a straight story with little frills, but She Said is an exhausting journey. We are meant to feel the pain of Kantor and Twohey as they try and fail to "find the big story." Yet as the doors close, their resolve only continues to rise.  

Schrader uses the power of the Ziegarnik effect to capture viewer interest. They involve us in each aspect, from start to finish, even showing what Twohey and Kantor were doing before they began working together. From knocking on people's doors to fielding phone calls, we are privy to what went on behind the scenes and feel invested. We sit in and listen to the victim's confessions and feel their rage and helplessness tangibly. Both Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan disappear in their roles. This is more of an ensemble piece than a showcase for a particular actress, though. That being said, brilliant supporting and cameo roles abound with talent like Jennifer Ehle, Patricia Clark, Samantha Morton, and even Ashley Judd. 

With the #MeToo movement still fresh in political discourse, it would easy for the movie to disappear into an agenda piece, but Schrader and Lenkiewicz do a good job lending the plot suspense and interest. Whatever your political views, everyone enjoys following a lead and seeing where it goes. 

Accompanied by the brilliant score of composer Nicholas Britell, She Said is a blistering journalism process movie. You will be angry, anxious, indignant, sorrowful, and uncertain along with these women but heartened by their resilience.

Final score: 3 out of 5


White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach

Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, White Noise is an apocalyptic movie that left me lost in a Generation X haze. 

As I age and grow into my late 40s, films like this make clear a divide between me and my slightly younger colleagues. After the movie, it became clear that everyone loved it but me. Is it because I'm starting to see more movies? Or is that an inherent difference in our brains? White Noise felt very much like Don't Look Up to me, but if Don't Look Up was written by child raised by improv actors. 

We get to know the Gladney family, a quirky and lively crew of characters assembled from the failed marriages of one Jack Gladney and his new wife, Babette. Each has particular paranoias or dysfunctional ways of coping with the circus we call life. The family finds their lives uprooted when a chemical spill causes an airborne toxic event and forces everyone to evacuate their homes. 

Set in a college town, White Noise is very much an existential and post-modern look at fear and failure. It was wacky but not funny. Literary but too proud of that fact. Bleak, but with no vulnerability. The characters didn't feel honest or real. Like paper dolls made of spare parts, they seemed like figures you would invent to seem interesting instead of being interesting. 

I was disaffected by the entire experience and can't remember anything about it, except for fun trips to the grocery store. Give it a skip ... unless you are 35 or less. Then you may miraculously find it hilarious. 

Final score: 1 out of 5

[L-R] Banks Repeta as PAUL GRAFF, Anthony Hopkins as GRANDPA in ARMAGEDDON TIME

Armageddon Time, directed by James Gray

Armageddon Time proved the most disappointing film of the festival. Coming-of-age stories are my jam, as well as seeing talented young actors wrestle with the hard knocks of life. Usually in such movies, you see a kid with flaws, but they flourish under the guidance of a patient and wise adult. 

James Gray bases Armageddon Time on his childhood, but I didn't enjoy the trip down memory lane. While I can appreciate the acting, the sense of place, and the portrayals of blue collar American life, the experience is tainted morally reprehensible things on screen masquerading as life lessons. 

Paul is a dreamer and wannabe artist who frequently gets into trouble at his public school, often in cahoots with his friend, Johnny. When Paul pulls one too many pranks at his school, he gets transferred to a privileged private school with connections to the Trump family. Set in Reagan era New York, Gray wants Armageddon Time to be his confession to the world of his wrongdoings towards his family and his friend. 

Usually the reason these movies are successful is that you gain a base level of empathy for the main character. You see what home life is like and discover they aren't receiving good models at home. But Paul has no such excuse, he's the recipient of a loving and close Jewish family. His parents are attentive and hardworking. His grandfather spoils him to pieces. He's actually coddled and spoiled to no end. So what exactly is his problem? 

So the way things play out is that Paul is a spoiled kid who never has to take responsibility for his actions. He gets away with stupidity, while others suffer around him. The only shining light in the film, Anthony Hopkins, disappears partway through the movie and removes all hope that Paul will become a mensch. Much of the movie is spent at Paul's family home, where he is able to browbeat his parents into ordering him dumplings for dinner every night.

The other big plotline, Paul's friendship with Johnny, results in a "I learned about racism by watching my Black friend suffer," scene. Not a good look. The movie could have been a rare portrait of growing up Jewish in America. But this is hardly a positive portrayal of Jewish values. They say representation matters. We see a father teaching his son that it's better to get away with something than take responsibility. That life isn't fair and that's okay. I don't see this as a lesson anyone would be proud of. 

Final score: 3 out of 5 (begrudgingly)

Also, if you want to listen to Tyler Hummel and I discuss this head-to-head, here's a podcast.