Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It’s rare to see an actor’s screen persona complete disappear when playing a role but that’s what Jessica Chastain achieves in this potentially Oscar-winning performance as the wife of television evangelist fraudster Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Responsible much of the time for holding Bakker together when he was falling apart, backing diversity at a time when it was anathema to any organised religion, although a fool for love and with an appetite for self-deception that would have floored a rhinoceros.

A fascinating docu-drama into how an opportunistic couple became the fatted calves their religion deplored. The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the fund-raising activities of the couple any more than The Two Popes spent time wondering who funded the Vatican. Instead, it’s a character-driven study. There’s no doubt Bakker and Faye delivered on the motivational front to their legions (20 million subscribers at their peak), preaching about God’s love rather his downside of Hell and damnation. The fact that Faye got to sing and become an adored television personality was the least of it.

In keeping with a lot of modern biopics, it races through the years, new characters introduced with screen titles as we move from the trudge of freelance missionaries to low-grade television performers until, at Faye’s instigation, they set up their own television station. However big the bucks that roll in, it’s never enough, Bakker constantly in hock and coming up with more grandiose schemes to bankroll his grandiose schemes. It’s hard to say how much they actually achieved, since the film skips over this until Bakker is brought up on major fraud charges. 

Instead what we have is a four-ring circus, Faye happily getting richer but missing out on the expected sex life that goes with it, excoriated for nearly having an affair, Bakker playing fast and loose with male and female but his transgressions not coming to light until much later, rival preaching kingpin Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) stitching them up when they fall, and Faye’s tight-permed thin-lipped mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) herself a “fallen woman.”

Although falling into the “Stand By Your Man” cateogory, Faye’s continued effervescence in the face of mounting scandal is astonishing, lack of fear of male hierarchy (calling Falwell by his Christian name instead of his title, going against inbred conservative politics) and her genuine desire to help those eviscerated by the world, namely AIDS victims, would have set her up almost for saintood had the pillar on which she depended not been made entirely of salt.

The movie is a fascinating insight into how slick evangelism parts people from their bucks, almost a masterclass in maximizing frailty and playing the victim – more money rolls in when they confess infidelity and weakness than when playing superheroic good guys.  Forget the hypocrisy with which it paints the television evangelist and the viewers (i.e. suckers) keeping the enterprise afloat, the Catholic church made a mint from its parishioners, anybody who sought comfort in religion had something wrong with them as was pointed out to Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.  

As I knew nothing about any of the background and was only vaguely familiar with the real-life characters, I thought it was superb, but mostly through the acting. I have rarely seen an actor play vulnerability so well without an eye to self-pity. It’s ironic of course that Faye is so in favour of love when she is denied it first by her mother and then by her husband. Only an adoring wife would fail to see the weasely character she married.

Chastain transitions from giggly teenager, too enraptured by passion, to the self-possessed puppet-master and from thence to the all-engulfing stardom to which they have opposite responses, he overwhelmed by being found out, she believing every word he says and living the dream as if she was the original Kardashian. Garfield channels inner entitlement, entirely convincing as the ultimate salesman with the ultimate item to sell to a more than willing set of loyal customers, happy to sacrifice his wife’s shame at the altar of mammon while hiding his own indiscretions. But he’s also the preacher as businessman, learning from his predecessors, planning to out-do his rivals, praying that he can keep the devil at bay.

And that’s not forgetting an excellent turn by Cherry Jones as the repressed mother who would have been disowned by her own church except they had no one else to play the piano, fearful but never tearful, her only criminal act holding on to a cherished fur coat that should have been surrendered to the law. Vincent D’Onofrio relishes playing the sanctimonious thug, wooed by politicians, kowtowed-to by preacher underlings, with a whole pile of machinations up his sleeve.

Chastain’s performance belongs to those larger-than-life real-life characters imbued by Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000) and Jennifer Lawrence  (Joy, 2015) who turned their fragility on its head and fully deserves her Oscar nomination. A fascinating film with terrific performances, and enjoyable with it.

The 355 (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Serviceable actioner but proof that if you don’t have a star big enough to front  a shoot-‘em-up then sticking in another three – or four – actresses of equal, middling, or up-and-coming, status won’t do the trick, not if the characters lack the originality of a Bourne or Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008). There’s plenty of bang for your buck, but the story hangs on the old trope of an electronic device that can blackout the world.

I am not sure why Jessica Chastain has never become a bigger box office star. She certainly has the kudos – two Oscar nominationss – and is not shy of taking on difficult subjects (Miss Sloane, 2016) and she’s certainly enjoyed the occasionally leg-up from a series (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, 2015; It Chapter Two, 2019) to boost her box office credentials. But her last venture into the action arena (Ava, 2020) was a box office flop, though possibly you could put the blame on the pandemic. By my count she has been the top-billed star (excluding her X-Men appearance) in her last eight pictures and none have been a hit.

Her presence in the credits would encourage me to stump up my money at the box office but apparently I am in the minority. I could say the same about Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, 2021), the second biggest star here, and while she certainly retains top-billed status in her native Spain, otherwise she is occasionally a female lead but more likely a supporting player.

If I had been putting my money on anyone to take the action box office by storm it would be Diane Kruger who has the meanest stare this side of Lee Van Cleef. But she’s gone down this route to no commercial response before in The Operative (2019) and The Infiltrator (2016), neither fulfilling the promise she showed in Liam Neeson crackerjack Unknown (2011). Bingbing Fan, (Cell Phone 2, 2019) another X-Men alumni, has only recently achieved box office success, but in limited markets. Mexican Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o – here billed fourth and sporting a British accent – may well have the biggest fan base of the lot having clocked up appearances in three Star Wars pictures, taken top billing in Us (209) and third billing in Black Panther (2018).

But back to our story. On the run from the C.I.A. Mace (Jessica Chastain) teams up with Marie (Diane Kruger), a loner working for the German secret service, and Khadjiah (Lupito Nyong-o), a digital wizard formerly of the British secret service. Bing, who turns up later, represents the Chinese good guys. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is the rank outsider, a therapist just caught up in the shenanigans. The action rattles through Paris en route to Marrakesh before a final stop in Shanghai. As you might expect, traitors lurk in various corners.

There are plenty shootouts and opportunities for the team to show off their hand-to-hand skills, but the action is slowed down by soap opera, having to spell out all the backstories of the principals, only one of whom, Marie, has anything worth listening to. Far be it for me to complain about too much emotion, but it took us over a dozen movies to learn anything significant about James Bond’s past, Bourne had no idea who he was, and at the other end of the scale Bryan Mills was so emotionally driven from the outset it formed the film’s core. Here, emotional quandary pops up when convenient. A bit of mystery would have helped more and cut a good 15 minutes off an overlong playing time.

As to the title, that is the only thing that is kept hidden to the end and when the revelation is made you realize it won’t mean a damn thing to the vast majority of the audience. As an origin story, I doubt the current box office receipts are sufficient to spawn future episodes. Which is a shame because having dumped all the emotional baggage in this picture, the characters could have focused more straightforwardly on action and story in the next.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.