Thursday, September 28, 2023

Film Reviews: Enjoyable and Delectable Bon Mots by Two Auteur Filmmakers: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Strange Way of Life” and Wes Anderson’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”

Strange Way of Life (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Strange Way of Life 
At the New York Film Festival this Saturday
Opening in Limited Release Next Week 

The inner life of gay cowboys is being explored again. Even though Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain seems to be the definitive film to survey the ego and psyche of male sexuality in the Wild West, there does seem to be more to mine here. Jane Campion took a stab at it with The Power of the Dog and now Pedro Almodóvar is tackling the issue in his second short film (and his second in English), Strange Way of Life.  The film, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year, is actually pretty tame in the sexual lexicon of Almodóvar’s other films, and despite the best efforts of Alberto Iglesias’ sometimes melodramatic, sometimes angelic score, the film is firmly in a realistic mode. Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke) is investigating the murder of his niece when he is sidetracked by the unexpected arrival of his friend, Silva (Pedro Pascal), whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Silva says he crossed the desert to see a back specialist in town, but the sheriff feels his timing is suspicious. Their reunion leads to painful “why can’t we let dead dogs lie” memories being brought up, including Silva’s once hopeful dream that he and Jake could live together and run a ranch. Jake couldn’t even fathom such a thing (see the title), but before you can say “Jack Nasty,” old passions are quickly rekindled. Maybe because the film is only about 30 minutes, Almodóvar keeps the story lean and to the point. Is there still love between these men or could there be an ulterior motive that may be tied to the murder investigation? Hawke and Pascal have immense chemistry together, and when carnality finally takes over, it starts with the camera lingering on Pascal’s back — one of the sexiest, most male-gazey moments in film. The morning after scene panders so much to the audience’s expectation that you have to laugh at the baldness of it all. Also, at different moments in the story, each character draws his gun toward the other. Sure, sometimes, a gun is just a gun, but one can never tell in an Almodóvar film. 

Strange Way of Life (c) Sony Pictures Classics

One of the producers of this film is Saint Laurent fashion house, with its artistic leader, Anthony Vaccarello, also the film’s costume designer, including what could be the boldest choice to have Silva wear a gorgeous if anachronistic bright green jacket throughout the film. Pascal, who is currently at the height of his popularity, wears it well, so expect them to fly off their shelves soon enough. There is also a flashback scene of the men’s younger, more carefree days that feels like a classic Herb Ritts throwback cologne commercial. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. While it may seem that Almodóvar is teasing us with an ending that is sort of a cliffhanger, it’s a perfect short story device in which he gives us the set-up, and how we want the story to end is our Rorschach Test. The film is a perfect moment in time, filled with portentous meanings and motives. Almodóvar’s first English language short, The Human Voice, was essentially a flight of fancy Jean Cocteau monologue wonderfully orated by Tilda Swinton. Here, he sticks close to naturalism, and it’s one of his most complex, warm and, yes, romantic films in quite a long time. 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (c) Netflix

Film: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Netflix 

This may be a hot take, but I believe director Wes Anderson’s current obsession with multiple layers of storytelling (which started with The Grand Budapest Hotel) may be influenced by Christopher Nolan. Unlike Pedro Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life, Wes Anderson’s latest short film is a self-contained story told in such a complex structure that it must owe a debt of gratitude to Nolan’s Inception. Based on a Roald Dahl short story, Anderson starts The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar with Roald Dahl himself, played with dry wit by Ralph Fiennes, and for a while there, one would think the movie is about Dahl’s writing process and how the story came to him. But soon, Dahl begins to narrate the story of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a selfish and rich bachelor with no redeeming qualities. Sugar takes over with the narration that leads him to find a journal of one Dr. Chatterjee, entitled A Report on Imdad Kahn: The Man Who Sees Without Using His Eyes. Sugar starts reading the journal and soon it's Chatterjee (played marvelously deadpanned by Dev Patel) narrating his story about how he met Imdad Kahn (Ben Kingsley) one day at his Indian hospital, and how nonchalant Kahn seemed to be about his ability to see without his eyes. Kahn, of course, is the last of our narrators as he explains how he received this gift before the story slingshots back to each of our narrators to conclude their part of this “wonderful story.” Whew. 

The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar (c) Netflix

Like Asteroid City, Anderson’s popular feature film from earlier this year, he and his collaborators have created another world-within-world puzzle box. The theatrical artifice, it seems, is the point. Anderson goes deeper in this direction by writing the dialogue like prose, thus having each of the narrators feel like he’s reading his own story as he is enacting it. It’s all quite fun, and while all these layers of this Inception onion may feel indulgent, Anderson relishes putting his artistic vision over Dahl’s already clever story. All the main actors, except Fiennes, are new to the Anderson cinematic universe, and they adapt adeptly to his idiosyncratic world. The biggest part does go to Cumberbatch, who seems his most relaxed here than in any of his recent films. Sugar’s arc is surprisingly similar to that of Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, who starts out as a feckless narcissist before a spiritual discovery gives him powers (including, like Strange, the ability to levitate while he meditates–see the poster). The story culminates in a sort of Charles Dickens-like epiphany that perfectly ends the 40-minute film with the typical Roald Dahl social commentary moral. This is the first of four Roald Dahl shorts from Anderson to premiere on Netflix this week. The others are The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison, all with the same rotating cast of actors; Henry Sugar is the longest. It’s a spiritual kinship that is yielding imaginative and enjoyable dividends.

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