Arts Review

Directors and Films

In the early 1990s, during the Afghan Civil War, a young boy named Amin Nawabi flees the country with his family. They embark on a harrowing decade-long odyssey that takes them first to Russia and then to Denmark, where Amin eventually establishes himself as a successful academic. Now 36, he is about to marry Kasper, his longtime Danish boyfriend. Amin has always told his friends that the rest of his family did not survive the immigration journey. But, in fact, his mother and siblings are alive and living in Sweden. Along the way, he was forced by human traffickers to disavow his family, for his safety and theirs. This lie has eaten away at his soul, and now, speaking to his friend, documentary filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he tells his true story for the first time. The result is the year’s outstanding documen­­tary, Flee.

Amin is still not ready to go completely public with his family’s ordeal, and so his name is a pseudonym. And the film is animated, which further disguises his identity. An animated documentary might seem like a contradiction in terms, but there is precedent (Waltz with Bashir, the 2008 study of the Israel-Lebanon war, is one superb example). All documentaries are constructed, mediated, aestheticized —and so animation is just another layer and not one that delegitimizes the pursuit of truth. That said, there’s no question that Rasmussen uses animation’s capabilities to amplify the emotion of Amin’s tale. Re-enactments of his family’s struggles, particularly the depiction of a traumatic Baltic Sea crossing in the bowels of a ship, utilize abstraction and exaggerated perspective that would not be available to a documen­tary crew shooting on film. At the same time, these sequences avoid the stilted quality that plagues reenactment scenes in many documentaries.

Any questions about the means used to depict Amin’s story pale in comparison with its powerful emotional impact. The intertwined refugee and immigration crises have rarely been depicted with such power. The details of the family’s journey reveal complicated personal and political nuances, which make vivid the dehumanizing condition of statelessness. The film also explores the uncertain nature of memory, particularly of painful situations. Amin’s narration contains contradictions, doubling back in time on occasion. His years of enforced dissembling is part of this, of course, as is the prismatic perspective of childhood. Layered within this rich work is also a surprisingly warm coming-out story. While still in Kabul, the young Amin plasters his walls with posters of his secret crush, Jean-Claude Van Damme. As an adult, he revels in the sexual openness of Scandinavia while navigating how to tell his Muslim family. In the midst of turmoil and upheaval, the quotidian realities of growing up and learning how to live and love endure.
A childhood rocked by political turmoil and emigration is also the subject of Kenneth Branagh’s new semi-autobiographical film, Belfast. Set in 1969, when sectarian violence erupted on the streets of the titular city, Branagh depicts a Protestant family modeled on his own: Pa (Jamie Dornan), who works in England but comes home on weekends; Ma (Caitríona Balfe), who clings to home and family; Pop and Granny (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench); older brother Will (Lewis McAskie); and nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the protagonist and Branagh’s stand-in. After a full-color tour of the contemporary city in the prologue, the film jumps back five decades, switching to black-and-white for the remainder, with the charming exception of several family trips to the cinema, where the films being watched on the screen are shown in full color, replicating the dazzling effect they must have had on the young Buddy/Branagh. Buddy’s neighborhood is a utopia where every shopkeeper and neighborhood parent knows his name and location at any given moment. Within five minutes of establishing this idyll, however, a group of rioting men and women careens down his block, smashing windows and lighting cars on fire. Buddy’s neighborhood is religiously mixed, and the rioters want the Catholics out.

Belfast has a narrow perspective—appropriate, perhaps, for a story seen through a child’s eyes. The background and context of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland are never explored. The story essentially consists of the disagreement between Pa, who wants the family to move to England, and Ma, who wants to stay. The ties and duties that bind one to the place of one’s birth are touched on, but without much depth. Both parents are idealized: Pa sturdy and saintly, Ma fierce and loving. The grandparents are even less dimensional, portrayed as twinkly charmers, and the one named character among the forces of unrest, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), is a thug. Branagh is really only interested in re-creating his personal experience of a pivotal year in his family’s life. This forces the screenplay into a series of awkwardly constructed situations in which Buddy has somehow to overhear or stumble upon every pivotal conversation among the adults. But fair enough: many great directors have created masterful films out of impressionistic visions of their childhood. John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, set during the Blitz, is an obvious model for Branagh, as is Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Roma—like Belfast filmed in shimmering black-and-white.

But Boorman and Cuarón are masterful filmmakers, able to convey the savage innocence of childhood with clear-eyed artistry. Branagh is a sentimentalist with a taste for the bombastic, and Belfast struggles with tone throughout its fleet 98 minutes. It is always engaging, often funny and moving. But Branagh mostly goes for the obvious laugh and the manipulated tear and encourages his actors (and Haris Zambarloukos, his photographer, and Van Morrison, the composer of the score) to blatant excess. Hope and Glory used sharp humor and unexpected tragedy with subtlety, never pandering to mawkish nostalgia. Roma got under the skin of how children absorb and process information from the sometimes confusing world around them; it found moments of surreal beauty and understated emotion in the commonplace. And, crucially, both films outlined the price paid by children in troubled societies. Belfast retreats from anything too traumatic, as if Branagh were embarrassed by any implication of victimhood. Despite everything, he seems to say, his childhood was just fine, full of cute adventures.

Boorman and Cuarón used mostly unknown actors in their autobiographical films, whereas Branagh has taken a mixed approach to casting. Hill, in his debut, is adorable. Hinds and Dench are of course old pros, neither capable of uninteresting work, even when given little to play as is the case here. (And while I bow to no one in my admiration for Dame Judi, she’s a quarter century too old to play a working-class grandmother.) Dornan is best known for the Fifty Shades of Grey film franchise, and I wish I could say he reveals previously unexplored acting skills, but his work here is blandly adequate. Balfe, on the other hand, admittedly given more to play than her co-stars, is a fiery revelation. Best known for her leading role on the long-running television series Outlander, she is the only actor who breaks through the glossy plastic wrap that seems to enclose the film.

As a director, Branagh is a curious case: outstanding success on the stage in his early 20s, thanks to his preternatural knack for Shakespeare and his entrepreneurial initiative; a sensational film debut at 29, directing and acting Henry V to critical and commercial acclaim; a series of increasingly less successful Shakespeare films; and then a collapse into second-rate commercial fare in which his tendency to lean into pomposity has been disastrously indulged. In many of his later Shakespeare films, such as the overblown 1996 Hamlet and the almost unwatchable 2000 Love’s Labour’s Lost, the actors have almost no sense of how to modulate for the camera (although Branagh himself, ironically, is generally better at this than most of the colleagues whom he is directing). Branagh’s editing rhythms are often off, and he seems unable to create an atmosphere of lived experience. Everything feels hermetic, calculated, staged. While Belfast avoids his worst excesses, the sense of calculation still exists, although my opinion seems to be in the minority. The film won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, an accolade that has presaged an Oscar for Best Picture in many recent years. Belfast has given Branagh his best critical notices in decades and, as I write, is heavily tipped to dominate the awards season.

I feel a bit churlish coming down hard on Branagh; he is, undeniably, an extraordinarily talented artist. His gift for making Shakespearean dialogue feel colloquial and spontaneous is a rare one. As a film actor, he is best in hammy roles, like his delicious Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets or his alarmingly accurate portrayal of Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. And much of his stage work remains exemplary. His production of Macbeth in 2014 was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but his Winter’s Tale in 2015 (co-starring Dench, his frequent collaborator) was magical. Ultimately, I think the problem with Branagh is a fairly simple and obvious one: he’s an artist of theatrical sensibilities who approaches films without cinematographic chops but with (for better or worse) histrionic scale. In this sense, he is the opposite of Wes Anderson, a director who obsesses over the impact of each piece of visual information within the borders of the camera frame and who seemingly spends much time telling his actors to “tone it down”—at least as evidenced by the wry, understated delivery typical of an Anderson film. His latest opus, The French Dispatch, is as Andersonian as ever. Few directors today have established so specific and identifiable a profile.
Set in the offices of a fictional magazine, staffed mostly by Americans but located in a fictional French town named Ennui-sur-Blasé, The French Dispatch is a portmanteau film. Framing scenes featuring the magazine’s editors and writers surround three discrete sections, each inspired by stories ostensibly drawn from the publication. Bill Murray plays Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the taciturn Editor-in-Chief, who challenges and nurtures his writers. The first section concerns a prison inmate (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes an art world sensation after painting abstract nude portraits of one of the guards (Léa Seydoux), while a fellow inmate (Adrien Brody) attempts to exploit his fame. The “writer” of the story is J. K. L. Berensen (a typically unrecognizable Tilda Swinton). The second section depicts a 1968-style student revolt, led by a young firebrand (Timothée Chalamet), who has a brief fling with the “writer” of the story, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). In the third segment, the kidnapped son of a police chief (Mathieu Amalric) is saved by the police department’s chef (Stephen Park), as reported by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, playing a James Baldwin type). Other members of the magazine’s staff are played by Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, and Jason Schwartzman. Lois Smith, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan and Willem Dafoe, among many others, pop up in the three stories.

Many in this massive cast of actors have appeared in multiple Anderson films (Murray has been in 10; Wilson and Schwartzman in 8 each). Actors clearly love working with him, despite the fact that he gives them very little rein. Yes, he loves quirky makeup, prosthetics and costumes, and he prizes oddball timing when it comes to pacing dialogue. But, in contrast to Branagh’s love of the grandiloquent, actors in Anderson films never raise the emotional temperature. Every line reading feels slightly distanced, as if it were under glass, observed and studied but not really lived or felt. This anti-psychological approach is set against highly elaborate, yet brazenly artificial visuals. Anderson loves flagrant symmetry, rococo decoration, skewed perspective. Many of his sets resemble dioramas—indeed, many of them literally are intensely detailed miniatures that don’t bother to hide their constructedness. In one sequence in The French Dispatch, he switches to animation for several minutes, as if acknowledging that he can’t convey his artistic vision with real-life imagery.

So striking and powerful is Anderson’s visual approach that it has inspired everything from coffee-table books to Saturday Night Live parodies. All of which makes the experience of watching his films appealing, aesthetically satisfying, and potentially a little tedious. When he latches onto a great story with a strong protagonist—as he did with The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring a peerless Ralph Fiennes—his powerful aesthetic clicks into place and results in a splendid work of art. The French Dispatch has no center of gravity, a hazard of portmanteau stories, and therefore ends up feeling like an exercise in style, devoid of genuine emotion or energy. The titular magazine is a thinly disguised homage to The New Yorker, a debt Anderson makes obvious in the credits at the end of the film, wherein he lists all the great writers in that magazine’s pantheon. Watching the film is akin to reading an entire issue of The New Yorker at one sitting. One admires the craft, the variety, the meticulous excellence—and there are little bumps of emotion from time to time—but it’s essentially a cerebral experience.
The endlessly regurgitated tale of Diana, Princess of Wales, has been told from countless perspectives, albeit rarely cerebrally. Broadway this season saw a laughably dreadful musical, and several television documentaries premiered in the last few years. Most of us are probably familiar with the portrayal on the Peter Morgan-created Netflix series The Crown, a serious, conservative, if somewhat soapy take on the British royal family. Morgan’s baseline is a belief in the monarchy as an ideal, regardless of the pros and cons of individual members of the institution. His approach is literal—sometimes synthetically so, with characters employing dialogue that sounds lifted from their correspondence. The show got lucky with the casting, though, batting a thousand in all four seasons so far. Emma Corrin, the Diana, was particularly impressive, bringing remarkable nuance and transparency to a personage who, despite her media ubiquity, remains enigmatic. The new film Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín, is interested neither in literalism nor transparency, instead using the figure of Diana as a construct within a meditation on physical and mental captivity. Taking much the same approach he used in his film Jackie, which followed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days immediately following her husband’s assassination, Larraín strips his story down, laser-focusing on the narrow, highly subjective experience of his protagonist over a brief period of time.

Like Branagh in Belfast, Larraín in Spencer is not interested in context —historical or otherwise—nor in any objectivity that multiple viewpoints might bring. His goal is to re-create what it felt like to be inside Diana’s head over a three day period in 1991, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, spent at the royal estate of Sandringham with her husband’s entire family. The film opens with Diana, lost and late, driving herself in a sports car, as the staff prepares for the holiday with military precision, supervised by Timothy Spall as a calm but unyielding ex-army martinet. Larraín portrays the massive, moated dwelling as a waxwork museum, a house of chilled horror. The royal family barely speak, standing stiffly and staring at each other with glassy eyes. The staff are automatons at best, faithless spies at worst. The only shafts of human light come from Diana’s interactions with her two children and a friendly dresser, Maggie (the always wonderful Sally Hawkins). Otherwise, she is put through a punishingly controlled routine, her every move regulated and even her dresses pre-selected, each of which has a note attached to it reading “P.O.W.” It took me a few seconds to realize the abbreviation referred to “Princess of Wales.”

About halfway through the film, Spencer becomes as much ghost story as historical docu-fiction. Reading a book on Anne Boleyn, Diana begins to see herself as the doomed queen, sure to lose her head now that her husband has a lover (we catch a brief glimpse of Camilla Parker Bowles at a local church service). The ghost of Anne appears and leads Diana on an extended nighttime excursion to her old, boarded-up childhood home, which happens to abut Sandringham. Jonny Greenwood’s score becomes particularly obtrusive in this scene, cuing us to read the second half of the film almost as one long mad scene. Larraín’s approach here is Kubrickian, with lengthy, low-angled steady-cam shots running up and down distorted hallways. It’s all expertly done, and a bit of a slog. Thankfully, Hawkins is given a marvelously unexpected scene toward the end of the film that lightens the otherwise humorless mood and brings a flash of warmth and humanity to the chill.

Spencer will probably be most remembered as a vehicle for its leading lady, Kristen Stewart. This still-young actress shot to fame thirteen years ago as the lead in the massively popular Twilight films and seemed on the Hollywood starlet track until she took a left turn and began doing strong work with highbrow directors like Olivier Assayas (in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper). Her performance as Princess Diana will undoubtedly figure heavily in this year’s awards season, and she clearly worked hard to give a committed performance. For my taste, her approach was a bit unvaried, as if she had found a handful of behaviors that perfectly captured the essence of Diana and then employed them repeatedly throughout the film. In fairness, Larraín’s highly subjective approach is one-note to begin with, lacking the range of time, place and mood that Corrin got to portray in The Crown. I can’t really fault Stewart, but I wish the film had let her take a more multifarious approach.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a director as technically controlled and focused as Larraín but with a markedly larger range of perspective and expression. His latest film, Licorice Pizza, is his most sheerly entertaining in years, a loose, goofy, episodic romantic comedy set in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), an awkwardly exuberant 15-year-old who is aging out of a period of some success as a child actor, meets the 20-something Alana Kane (Alana Haim) when she is assisting a photographer taking school pictures at Gary’s high school. He’s instantly smitten, and, while she’s wary and properly discouraging, she can’t help but like this confident, oddly mature kid. They develop a friendship, bonded by their shared entrepreneurial spirits: they are both born hustlers, both eternal optimists. The film follows them through a series of disconnected episodes, during which they launch several businesses (waterbeds, pinball machines), have run-ins with the law and with figures in the entertainment industry, and constantly argue and make up. Their chemistry is palpable, and only the age difference keeps them apart romantically. It’s a story of passionately intense friendship that almost eclipses sexual desire, although the end of the film leaves no doubt as to the inevitable destination of their relationship.

Licorice Pizza (the title, never explained, references a long-closed chain of record stores) is the shaggiest of shaggy dog movies, a 133-minute linear progression of incident with no real arc, just a bunch of increasingly screwball incidents which have the feel of tall tales, told a half century or so after the fact. Indeed, the film is full of half-disguised real people and actual, if exaggerated, incidents. Anderson has made clear that Gary is based on his good friend Gary Goetzman, a former child actor and waterbed salesman and, more recently, a co-founder of Tom Hanks’s production company. Goetzman was in the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Lucille Ball, and, in the fictional narrative, Gary Valentine is in a copycat film entitled Under One Roof. An early, hilarious scene shows him appearing at a press junket with the film’s star, “Lucille Doolittle” (played by Christine Ebersole, having a ball). Several scenes in the film take place at the actual one-time Studio City restaurant, Tail o’ the Cock. In one of these, Gary and Alana have a run-in with “Jack Holden,” a thinly-disguised version of William Holden, here played by Sean Penn as a hard-drinking hell-raiser. Alana briefly works for local politician Joel Wachs (played by Benny Safdie) and discovers that he is closeted. Wachs was, in fact, a real-life Los Angeles City Councilman, who came out in 1999 after a thirty-year career. In the film’s best sequence, Gary and Alana deliver a waterbed to film producer Jon Peters, here not disguised but still outrageously exaggerated from his real-life hard-charging persona. Bradley Cooper plays Peters in the funniest performance of his career.

All of these “guest star” appearances (and there are many more, including marvelous turns by Harriet Samson Harris, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John C. Reilly as Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster) are the backdrop to two remarkable lead perfor­mances by two actors both making their feature film debuts. Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was in five Anderson films before his untimely death in 2014. Even if you didn’t know that, you’d guess it immediately as Hoffman Jr. looks exactly like his father, with the same robust physical presence and shambling charisma. Alana Haim is part of the popular rock band Haim, along with her two sisters, who are also in Licorice Pizza, as are their parents, all playing Alana Kane’s family. (Anderson has in fact directed several music videos for the band.) Haim’s presence in the film can only be described as explosive. She seems like a 70s version of Rosalind Russell —all fast-talking hubris and dazzling determination. While Hoffman’s Gary is the center of the film, she is its soul as well as its motor. She provides a momentum not otherwise found in the plot, with electric energy and camera-ready intensity astonishing for a novice actor.

Most of all, Licorice Pizza is a loving evocation of the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that captures that era so effortlessly. Every hairstyle, item of clothing and accessory feels genuine but never cartoony as so often happens in ’70s throwbacks. The score is again by Jonny Greenwood, but he has much less to do here than he did in Spencer. Instead, the heavy lifting is done by a wonderful compilation of songs of the era, all evocative, none too on-the-nose. The whole tone of the film is similarly balanced. Events are often outlandish, but the context is always authentic, the emotions rich and real. And the look of the film is stunning: beautiful without calling attention to itself. Anderson (working as co-cinematographer here with Michael Bauman) still shoots on real 35mm film, and the result—especially as I saw it, on a big screen in a flawless 70mm blowup—has the exact sense of film grain and analog richness to evoke the great cinematographic efforts of the 1970s, with their gorgeous shadows and burnished colors.

Anderson is inarguably one of our greatest living film directors; he made what I consider the finest American film of the past two decades, There Will Be Blood. Anderson’s early work (Magnolia, Boogie Nights), heavily influenced by Robert Altman, was uneven but protean, full of bravura acting and sensational set pieces. He then moved into a more controlled period, creating works suffused with wonderful strangeness and meticulous mise en scène (The Master, Phantom Thread). In this, his ninth feature film, he returns to an Altmanesque looseness, to that sense of capturing overheard dialogue, that ineffable quality of real life that contrasts so starkly with Branagh’s manipulation and Wes Anderson’s precious affectation. Yet even within Paul Thomas Anderson’s rediscovered looseness is a paradoxical mastery over every aspect of the film. He can infuse a scene with a sense of profound unease or dread by employing tiny flicks of visual or aural information. And then jump headlong into blissful joy without any sense of scratching the record. Licorice Pizza is in many ways what might be called a minor film. Its subject matter is inconsequential, and it has absolutely no narrative stakes. There’s nothing we are moving toward—which is, perhaps, why time feels oddly elastic in the film; it could end 30 minutes before it does, or go on for another hour, without substantially changing its effect. Yet none of this laxness matters when we’re in the hands of a director as talented as Anderson. The auterists were (at least in this case) right: a great director matters just as much, if not more, than great material.