Thursday, November 10, 2022

Film Reviews: Oscar Season Gears Up With Films From Ireland (“The Banshees of Inisherin”), Mexico (“Bardo”) and Mars (“Good Night Oppy”)

Good Night Oppy (c) Prime Video

Film: Good Night Oppy 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Prime Video 

Landing on Mars was the mission of robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched a week apart by NASA in 2004 for a 90-day tour of the red planet. The twins, looking like svelte Wall-Es, are remarkably expressive, at least in the recreating of their journey by the special effects team at ILM that brings them to life. The documentary is split between the rovers’ animated journeys and the talking heads of the scientists who were in charge of the mission as well as the archival footage and the actual photos taken by the rovers. The two explored different parts of Mars, well exceeding their 90-days (or Sol, as each Mars day is referred to) life expectancy as each mission went from a few months to years. Director Ryan White (“The Case Against 8”), with top notch narration by Angela Bassett, goes through the history of the mission, the many hiccups on the way to launch and the many obstacles Spirit and Opportunity encounter on the red planet itself. As the title suggests, Opportunity is the main character we follow, with occasional sidebars about Spirit. The documentary does a good job humanizing these oversized roombas (yes, I was on the edge of my seat many times when they would get stuck), occasionally overreaching with stories that the scientists back at NASA paralleling some things the rovers are experiencing like arthritis. And if you think the needle drops in “The Martian” were maddingly on the nose, you can blame NASA who wakes up the twins with pop songs as they used to do with their human counterparts. Special mention must be made for Blake Neeley’s magnificent and soaring score. But mostly, this is a story of pluck and can-do optimism that will be a great selling tool to spark children’s scientific imaginations. And please try to see this on the biggest screen you can find, but you will break out the tissues even if you ultimately catch it streaming on Prime Video. 

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (c) Netflix 

Film: Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths 
In Cinemas and streaming on Netflix on December 16 

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is known for his arty, very dour, misery-porn movies like “21 Grams,” “The Revenant” and “Babel,” and only when he decided to go lighter would he make his most accessible film, “Birdman.” That Oscar winning film was subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” so, it’s no surprise that his latest “lighter” film also has a subtitle, “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” which should clue you in on what he is up to with this Fellini-esque exploration of the life of an artist (a Mexican film director, like himself) named Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Silverio is receiving a prestigious award, which leads him down an existential rabbit hole of his life’s work and how it has permeated into his family life. Besides, “Birdman,” I have rarely enjoyed an Iñárritu, no matter how much I admired the craft and vision. This one, I can truly say, is his most successful film, blending creative imagery and metaphors in order to explore the mind of this man whose life has been devoted to telling the stories of others as a documentary filmmaker but rarely has rarely looked inward. Iñárritu doesn’t make it easy to embrace this film, you have to pay attention. Two surreal sequences start the film: the birth of a baby, in which the baby starts dictating where he wants to go next, and Silverio holding a plastic bag of water with a pet fish on a subway train that unexpectedly burst and the whole car is flooded with water that the other passengers don’t seem to acknowledge. These are two very striking moments back-to-back, but Iñárritu doesn’t explain any of it and doesn’t get back to why these moments are important until almost the end of the movie, when you may have already forgotten them. Ingeniously done. Where he runs into trouble is when he lets the characters talk about their lives either realistically or philosophically. There’s a long discussion in a men’s room that brings up interesting points about family but not in any dramatic way. But then again there’s a fantastic dance number that happens after that scene that’s pure magic. The movie has been shortened by 22 minutes since its premiere at Venice, which I didn’t see. This new version still feels long but necessary for his story, so I think the judicial cutting of the fat was probably wise. Many people will be frustrated by the train-of-thought narrative, but if you just go along for the ride, Iñárritu’s spiritual trip (Bardo is a Tibetan term relating to a limbo state of existence) can be quite remarkable. 

The Banshees of Inisherin (c) Searchlight Features

Film: The Banshees of Inisherin 
In Cinemas 

Director Martin McDonough has gone back to his roots for his latest film, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which tells the story of two friends who, out of the blue, are no longer friends. The two are played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who seems to be playing the spiritual grandfathers of the friends they played in McDonough’s first film, 2008’s “In Bruges.” It’s 1923, and Ireland is mired in a civil war. On the small island of Inisherin, where almost nothing out of the ordinary happens (even the town gossip is starved for any hint of irregularities), news has spread that Colm (Gleeson) woke up one morning and decided to cut off all ties to his old drinking buddy Pádraic (Farrell). Everyone is bewildered by this turn of event, trying to talk some sense into Colm, including the town priest, the local bartender as well as Pádraic’s restless sister Siobhan (the wonderful Kerry Condon). But, of course, the most confused person of all is simple Pádraic himself, who keeps hounding Colm, even when Colm threatens to harm himself if Pádraic doesn’t leave him alone. The joy of “Banshees” is that, at first, this doesn’t seem like a typical McDonough project, with its gentle setting and a seemingly benign plot starter, but don’t be fooled. The director of films like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and “Seven Psychopaths” and writer of plays like “Hangman” and “A Behanding in Spokane” has essentially fashioned a fairy tale about how the smallest of acts could possibly spark a civil war between countrymen. Even with the tonal shift in the plot, the superb acting, especially by Farrell (who may finally get his first Oscar nomination) and Condon, is the main reason to see this film. I didn’t even mention the wacky supporting role by Barry Keoghan as Pádraic’s best-friend-in-waiting, Dominic. How it all ends may not be to your liking, but like most fairy tales, things do take a violent turn on the path to the story’s moral. And the tale of Colm and Pádraic is certainly similar in tone to Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel in that respect.

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