THE BAD BATCH
starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves
written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson
written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo
starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt
screenplay by Noah Oppenheim
directed by Pablo Larrain
by Bill Chambers Three very different #TIFF16 films--a postapocalyptic cannibal western (The Bad Batch), a modestly-scaled kaiju eiga (Colossal), and a period docudrama (Jackie)--form a trilogy in my mind thematically linked by crestfallen female protagonists who discover reserves of strength in dire situations. The Bad Batch is the only one of these movies directed by a woman, though, and dare I say you can tell, not only in how the camera softly caresses Jason Momoa's Olympian contours, but also in the way the framing and blocking of the heroine imply the constant peril of being a woman. Working through the neophyte filmmaker's genre playbook, director Ana Lily Amirpour follows up her vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with this dystopian flick most reminiscent of the Australian strain in terms of vibe/aesthetics, what with its shantytown sets, symbolic names, and obligatory feral child. (The only thing missing is a car fetish.) Winsome Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is exiled to the other side of some Trumpian fence in Texas with only the clothes on her back and a tattoo that identifies her as an undesirable (or bad batch). Almost immediately she's dragged away to a cannibal camp, where they chop off her right arm. Missing a leg, too, by the time she escapes, she finds refuge--and prosthetic limbs--in the village of Comfort, whose denizens mostly give her space. Time and body-image issues stoke her desire for revenge, however, putting her on a collision course with Momoa's Miami Man, a brilliant sketch artist who's also a fearsome, unsympathetic consumer of human flesh.
It's plausible that Mad Max: Fury Road had a late but powerful influence on The Bad Batch, with details like its amputee heroine and Keanu Reeves's svengali The Dream, a more benign Immortan Joe with his own harem of pregnant women, suggesting the pop shrapnel that shows up in the shaggy-dog stories told by media-addled children, which Amirpour's screenplay in this finished state indeed resembles. But she is already such an adept visual storyteller that the real disappointment of The Bad Batch is its decision to start speaking after opening with a lengthy but ultimately misleading stretch of wordlessness. It's like watching a soufflé collapse, especially since Waterhouse and Momoa not saying anything allows us to pretend they're Gish and Valentino as opposed to former models in one of their more avant-garde runway shows. Suddenly, too, the picture turns into a Chatty Kathy about its themes and metaphors (particularly where The Dream is concerned), exposing their thinness. Downshifting to a more hallucinatory rhythm once Miami Man and Arlen finally meet, The Bad Batch is soporific enough without this tedious need to annotate its cleverness.
In her Twitter feed, Amirpour comes across as a hopeless romantic, if a scatologically-minded one. The amputations and cannibalism in The Bad Batch, though mainly conveyed through sound design, sent many at my press & industry screening gunning for the exits (they hadn't seen anything, i.e., Raw, yet), but deep down The Bad Batch is a geek-love thing about two misfits fated to be together. The perversity of the ending--Miami Man is essentially a more civilized Leatherface, contemplating a relationship with his supper--creates something of a frisson, but only in the rearview; in the moment, it merely feels inevitable. Still, the way that Arlen seems to always be in motion, propelling the camera alongside her, is fascinating for how it draws attention to the hazards she avoids by continuously moving, shark-like. (It's whenever she stops that she's captured, or needs rescuing.) These perilous little treks across the wasteland, a look of aloof alertness plastered on Arlen's face, have an allegorical quality that resonates in this era where women coveting their personal space is somehow controversial enough to inspire rebukes like this loathsome article. And did I mention the soundtrack is great?
In Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal, Anne Hathaway is Gloria, a hot mess with alcohol issues who returns to her quaint hometown when her Wall Street boyfriend (Dan Stevens) puts the brakes on their relationship. A childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), now runs her dad's bar and offers her a chance to work there and hang out after-hours with his motley crew (Austin Stowell and the weirdly ageless Tim Blake Nelson). Cutting to the chase: Near her house is a park, and when she stands in the sandbox there at a specific time of the morning, a giant monster materializes in Seoul, Korea, psychically tethered to her every move; she can wreak havoc on the other side of the world simply by taking a step. Gloria confides in her newfound friends about this, whereupon Oscar discovers that for whatever reason he has the same gift. (His avatar--too bad that was already taken as a title--is a giant robot.) The two learn a little Korean so that as their alter egos they can promise the good people of Seoul they'll stop terrorizing them, but only Gloria keeps her word, while Oscar regularly uses the playground to blow off steam. He has a lot of steam.
A movie that would only make sense in a post-Andy Serkis world, Colossal also has its finger on the pulse with Oscar, a two-faced misogynist--when he tells Gloria he admires her for having escaped to the big city, he's really rubbing in the fact that she's back at square one--who loses a few screws when Gloria friend-zones him and presumes to pacify his desire to keep stomping Koreans, becoming threatening and territorial towards her and alpha-dogging his bros in a classic example of emasculation panic. At first exhibiting the potential to become a strong romantic lead, Sudeikis is very good at gear-shifting his performance to make his spiritual blackening not just horrifying but profoundly disappointing as well. Alas Oscar is such a thorough portrait of toxic masculinity--or MRAs or red pillers or whatever the nouveau nomenclature is--that the movie hardly has time for anything else, including, ironically, women (I can't recall another speaking part for a woman in the entire film)--something it tries to balance out by making Gloria a hard-partying man-boy in drag. (You know, a dude's idea of a strong female character.) The ending is primitively satisfying, but why Koreans? Is it because imperilled Asians are a classic, or is it because it's easier for us to disassociate ourselves from their humanity and, initially at least, see humour in Gloria's predicament? Either way, not a great look for this white-het-cis-male-driven film. A Godzilla movie with a cast you can count on one hand, Colossal does a lot with so little, but it also does so little with so little.
Last though hardly least, Pablo Larrain's Jackie is an unconventional, fragmentary biopic of Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set primarily in the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination. One of the framing devices sees a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for a magazine article a week removed from the pivotal event, giving the picture a Citizen Kane-ish aspect as it probes the enigma wrapped inside a riddle that is Jacqueline Lee Kennedy née Bouvier, who's something of a stranger to herself. Defined by her proximity to wealth and privilege, Jackie is scurrying towards self-actualization before she loses all agency to the men around her in the tending to her husband's posthumous affairs and before her personal identity evaporates with the dream of Camelot. And she's doing this while machete-ing her way through a fog of grief she's forced to share with a nation. How Portman, performing in an entirely new, adult register, plays this is exactly right: like broken china, trying to withstand weight before the glue is dry.
Jackie humanizes Jackie without necessarily demystifying her. It's still a bit of a beauty pageant that will satisfy fetishists of her iconic style on a superficial level, and Under the Skin composer Mica Levi's groaning cellos, while embracing the dirge, put Jackie on the same unearthly plane as Scarlett Johansson's alien from that film. (The Kennedy lifestyle, no matter how well intellectualized, will always be science-fiction to civilians, anyway.) Every scene in Jackie is kind of perfectly-honed, though I will say that, at a humble 90 minutes, it's such a concentrated onslaught of images and ideas that it gets a tad numbing, and that this is very much a director's movie by a director whose other work has evaded me 'til now, meaning I feel like I'm missing the pieces I need to complete the puzzle. That being said, Noah Oppenheim's screenplay is nothing if not wise about the grieving process and how the tangle of sorrow and survivor's guilt can seem inextricable in the eye of the storm. When her closest ally in the White House, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, likewise in a departure), consoles a bereaved Jackie by reassuring her she still has her whole life ahead of her, Jackie shrieks, "That's a terrible thing to say!" The Bad Batch – Programme: Vanguard; Colossal – Programme: Vanguard; Jackie – Programme: Platform