Most years produce an incomprehensible movie that is celebrated by critics and audiences alike.
The year of Covid-19 looks likely to have more than its share since the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which many are hoping will lead to an industry recovery.
Nolan is a leading practitioner in the art of confusion – earlier examples include Memento (2000) and Inception (2010).
He follows other big names who have staked a claim in esoteric cinema, which in its most modern era began with the collaboration of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Italy’s Michaelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman were elevated to cult status by puzzling their art-house fans.
Other Europeans who keep festivalgoers guessing are Denmark’s Lars von Trier, Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos and France’s Leos Carax (Holy Motors).
A foreign language – at least to English speakers – was not a barrier once Hollywood entered the picture.
David Lynch established an early lead with Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, later adding Blue Velvet and the TV series Twin Peaks.
Not far behind was Terrence Malick, who veered from conventional movies into the esoteric with The Tree of Life (2011).
But no one in America tops Charlie Kaufman, whom I last wrote about in the May 3-16 issue of NZ Catholic, on what could loosely be termed his existentialist outlook on life.
Kaufman’s reputation rests on just two previous films as writer-director and three screenplays, one of which, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is now on Netflix. He has also just released a novel, Antkind.
His latest, I’m Thinking of Endings Things, a Netflix Original, is based on a 2016 novel by Canadian Iain Reid, and resembles Eternal Sunshine in its focus on a single relationship.
While, in the latter, the couple meet on a train, the main conversations in the former take place in a car, as they travel to and from a snowy winter’s-night dinner with his folks at a remote Oklahoma farm.
The topics widely reference cultural matters, from the musical Oklahoma! and Pauline Kael’s view of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence to Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and novelists David Foster Wallace and Anna Cavans.
All point to doubt whether a relationship between 30-something Jesse Plemons (who resembles a Kaufmann favourite, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his new girlfriend, played by Jessie Buckley (Beast, Wild Rose) can last. She gets calls from a friend who has the same name, and even that changes later in the story.
The centrepiece is the dinner, where oddball parents Toni Collette (Hereditary) and David Thewlis are initially impressed by their son having a potential mate, before they go through a crazy series of age changes.
The journey home takes an ominous turn when the couple visits his old school, where an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) plays a critical role; he has earlier been seen watching rehearsals of Oklahoma! and those who have read the novel will know why.
However, Kaufmann provides his own ending after planting enough clues for viewers to reach some conclusions, but insufficient for a full explanation.
Netflix rating: 13+. 134 minutes.
Steve Carell has the ability to create characters with enough charm to immediately engage your empathy, regardless of whether it is deserved. As a political spin-doctor, he is starting at a disadvantage, given this is soft-centred satire is written and directed by Jon Stewart, one-time host of The Daily Show. Carrell’s task is to re-engage the Democratic Party with blue-collar workers and hard-up farmers in the Republican heartland. He finds the ideal candidate in a Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) with a community conscience. In no time, Carell has wheeled in the heavy guns for a mayoral race in Deerlaken, Wisconsin, where a military base has closed and local businesses are dying. The satire eventually gives way to a serious message about election funding, based on a real event where $US55 million was spent on a single Congressional election. However, this is overshadowed by a surprise twist that exposes its underlying cynicism.
Rating: Mature audiences. 101 minutes.
Four Kids and It
Before Enid Blyton came E. (for Edith) Nisbet, author of The Railway Children and some 60 other books, mainly for children. She combined holiday adventures with fantasy, inspiring not just Blyton’s Famous Five, but also C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and movies such as E.T. In 2012, Jacqueline Wilson updated Nisbet’s Five Children and It (1902) about a Psammead, a cute sand-dwelling creature that can grant wishes. The updating dropped one of the children from the title, while the movie version downgrades their description to kids. Other changes include a bonus family arrangement that matches a separated white English father (Matthew Goode) with a solo African-American mother (Paula Patton). Their respective daughters are chalk and cheese: one is nerdy and reads (you guessed it) E. Nesbit, while the other wants to be a pop star. Michael Caine voices the Psammead, giving adults with preteens something to appreciate. Teenage audiences are more likely to be turned off by the adults’ emotional baggage, Russell Brand over-playing the villain and the lack of Disney slickness.
Rating: TBA. 110 minutes.
The New Mutants
(Disney/Marvel/20th Century Studios)
The X-Men franchise produced some of the best in the Marvel universe, but this long-delayed one from the pre-Disney 20th Century Fox isn’t one of them. The idea of capturing five X-powered teenagers before they matured has plenty of potential. But the execution is poor and the cabin-in-the-woods plot is thin because their captor is more interested in suppressing their talents. This is despite talent such as Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) and Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma) in the female-dominated cast attempting to bring more emotional depth than is usual for X-Men characters.
Rating: Mature audiences. 94 minutes.