So on the eve of the Oscars, we're still cleaning up 2022, which I suppose isn't that new here at Kinemalogue, and of course halfway through March there's still a fair amount left from the previous year that I want to see. It's entirely possible I won't be "done" with the year, then (though one is never done with a year, like, what does that mean, I'm never going to watch any other movie from 2022?), until April, which is of course a bother because newfangled release patterns means that these days we're already starting the new year in earnest by late winter, and there's already very important stuff I'm missing in theaters (Creed III, for example). Yeah, I say this, as if I actually felt like leaving my house. But whatever, here's a mess of semi-mini, semi-new reviews that shall at least begin to close the loop on 2022: Utama, The Woman King, The Menu, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, and Women Talking.
It kind of makes sense that, prior to this feature debut, Alejandro Loayza Grisi's been a cinematographer, and not an especially veteran cinematographer, at that, with his biggest deal being Planeta Bolivia, what looks like a tolerably cool travelogue documentary miniseries. It explains several things about the movie. One of them is, unfortunately, why Utama isn't edited very well. It's not, like, edited terribly or anything, but it's full of images just bonking into one another. For instance, we will eventually arrive upon a very long shot of our protagonist, Virginio (Jose Calcina), a Quechua llama herder and potato farmer living in the Bolivian Qullaw highlands; we see him cresting a roadside from long down the road, and this swings 90 degrees and several thousand feet to bonk into a very close axial shot of his face. Grisi may also be a cinematographer who was never asked the question "where is the horizon in this painting?", though a one-clause aesthetic philosophy is for the birds anyhow. "Being a TV documentary cinematographer" probably also explains Utama's extremely "nature doc" videography, which can be distractingly (sometimes unpleasantly) smooth, though, to Grisi's great credit, it's color graded for naturalism, and despite the overriding goal being a sort of poetic realism erring on the side of just plain realism, no doubt a well-attested mode in Latin American film though what Utama makes me think of is early Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, he even manages some rather interestingly narratively-weighted lighting set-ups inside the family cabin.
It, at last, probably explains "why Utama in the first place?", since he'd have been familiarized with the parts of Bolivia that I can only assume the indigenes were pushed into by the Spaniards, or by somebody, insofar as this is the kind of landscape that's mythic as fuck and apt to inspire your soul, but by the same token not one really remotely fit for human habitation. This is in fact the film's plot, as a drought threatens the livelihood/lives of Virginio, who's dying anyway, along with his also-elderly wife Sisa (Luisa Quispe), and the remaining vestiges of their community. Hence why their grandson Clever (Santos Choque) comes up to "help" and "visit," though, obviously, he's really here to convince them to come to the city—much to Virginio's chagrin, for he is attached heart and soul to his home (if I recall, this is what "utama" means in this Quechua dialect) and, wretchedly hard as it may be, as resentful as he may be, he is devoted to his simple but comprehensible life of herding llamas and growing potatoes and having his wife fetch water from increasingly-distant sources in a pair of buckets. And at no point did it stop bothering me that they don't use a more efficient method, possibly, I'm just throwing it out there, involving the llamas, if I recall a traditional Quechua beast of burden.
It's never stressed, but it's what the movie, I think, is fundamentally about, and what struck me like a slap to the face about halfway through, particularly while Clever assists them (never very diligently and certainly never very competently), is that—traditionally speaking—despite their firm and nearly-unshakeable commitment to it, Virginio and Sisa are not actually supposed to be doing this work. They're supposed to have already been replaced by younger people, while they expend their reduced energies on caring for grandchildren, such as Clever is, and indeed great-grandchildren, such as Clever has waiting on him back home. And it's kind of heartbreaking, for they are fading into oblivion right here on the screen—Quispe and Calcina are hardy as hell but terribly old (Calcina suggests to me Lee Marvin if he hadn't died but just kept on existing right up till present day)—and they embody a foreordained vanishing that's underlined, middling editing or not, in virtually every shot, by the severity of a landscape that frequently looks like it's about to melt directly into the sky and vanish itself. So Grisi does a fine job in that respect, moving through a simple and elemental story (that is, for the record, excellently right-sized at 87 minutes), that's also political and specific.
There's some obtrusive symbolic imagery that sometimes bullies its way into this poetic realism, that works better than it probably even ought; and there will be some gut-punches toward the end where the inevitable things that happen, happen, but in different ways than I expected, sold by the strong rapport between Calcina and Quispe that generates some low-key surprises of its own. This film bears a genuinely phenomenal final shot, and a number of phenomenal ones beforehand, including a terrific visual echo between Calcina and his llamas. I'm not sure how much I like the exoticization that often and sometimes inescapably goes hand-in-hand with a project like this (there's a llama sacrificed for rain—staged, so I have no "how dare you?" complaints—which I didn't like in the moment but which I came around on: on one hand, I do not believe for an instant that even the ruralest people, who were still born in like A.D. 1960, actually believe this could possibly work; on the other, it's a salutary reminder that "animal sacrifice" usually just means "ritualized slaughter undertaken solemnly, for food," which is arguably better than you carnivores ever give). I shall note here that Utama is, by an enormous margin, the best movie I saw from 2022 (there being two) that is set in Bolvia.
I am, furthermore, incredibly impressed with Bolivia's infrastructure in some ways: Choque is on his cellphone, like, this entire film. Just bars like mad here on the roof of the world.
The controversy this engendered at the time of its release, indistinguishable from a GRU psyop as many controversies are, never failed to flummox me, because while I can remember many people coming out of Ridley Scott's Gladiator saying "they restored the Republic? that's not what happened", I don't recall anyone managing to get outraged by the moral dimensions of it not happening. But who knows? Maybe today there would have been a lot of Discourse about how the gauzy notion of "Republican Rome" held up as an ideal by Gladiator is a horrifying distortion of what the Roman Republic had been in practice. You know, a ravenous slave state. I mean, yeah, if this were me making The Woman King, I'd have run even further into counterfactuality—I mean, if this were me, I'd have counseled "the first major American historical epic of which I'm aware about West Africa should look for inspiration in the premodern period, perhaps" and wonder aloud if just because a movie's about West Africa it perforce must be about transatlantic slavery—but the goals of the film, which is not a textbook, aren't all that hard to get, and shouldn't prompt anything more than a brief, acknowledging furrowing of the brow, for basically any historical epic set earlier than the late 20th century is going to be about morally repugnant societies, and you've gotta figure out something.
Would that it were Gladiator, though. It's closer to Exodus: Gods and Kings—a little too drably by-the-numbers in tone and tenor, plus there's basically a whole character who's the line, "the economic implications alone"—but Exodus: Gods and Kings puts us pretty firmly in the realm of "still okay." The biggest problem, or at least the most fundamental, is that it might have the worst possible runtime for its story: it's not remotely short at 135 minutes, but the screenplay is more of a television show's worth of plotlines compressed into a small space where they can be pursued only with brusque functionality—it really, desperately wants for more space to breathe and heave, epic-style, or else to pare itself down to one focal point, rather than the two it actually winds up with. Perhaps it would've helped had it found itself much of a plot at all before the hour mark: we are introduced in the first scene to the all-woman combat corps of the Dahomey state, the Agojie, and their general Nanisca (Viola Davis), and Nanisca and the other Agojie soldiers we meet are of course around here and there, but they're backgrounded for a surprising, maybe even downright shocking amount of screentime, with the first half of The Woman King expended principally on Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who's refused to marry anybody and has accordingly been dumped by her cruel father on the Agojie's doorstep, kicking off the first phase of this movie, which is Nawi's bootcamp movie. Which is, in fact, a perfectly nice movie that still has no room for anybody besides Nawi and occasionally her chief contact with the established Agojie warriors, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), but, then again, Lynch (despite having a pretty loosely-sketched character herself; she likes booze) somehow manages to rattle the whole movie with bolts of off-center personality whenever she's onscreen, so maybe this should've been the movie. But that brings us right back to the core complaint, "this should either have been 100 minutes, or 180."
It has to make enough compromises that Nanisca is effectively rendered secondary for the vast majority of the first three-quarters of her own movie, and when she's present, she's mostly a vehicle to get the top-down politics across and justify the film's name by lobbying for the titular honorific bestowed on the baddest broad in Dahomey (and, obviously, while Davis was never going to be inadequate in this or any role, I do not hold that she was snubbed by the Academy—it's just not that interesting a role or a performance, no more than the third most interesting one in this very movie—but even if I did hold her to have been snubbed, she would've been snubbed for Best Supporting Actress, and any notion that she should have been nominated for plain Best Actress is tantamount to category fraud, as I can't imagine anyone watching this movie and not immediately recognizing that Mbedu is the lead; we can have a conversation about the irrationalities of our gendered awards categories some other time).
But Davis and Nanisca is not the only one affected: Lynch, by some margin the film's MVP, doesn't get nearly as much to do as you'd like; Sheila Atim, playing Nanisca's confidante Amenza, is jammed into some very small corners of the screenplay, a supporting player to a supporting player; John Boyega, despite being the "economic implications" guy who's necessarily pushed into complete instrumentality, winds up with what I'm perfectly willing to call the second-best performance here anyway as King Ghezo ("what if Johnny Carson were a West African king?" is undoubtedly a terrible way to describe it, but "late night talk show host energy with concealed sharp edges" is where my mind went and it's a rather rare and precious energy in this film, only outmatched by Lynch's and Lynch's is still more conventional); there are the other Agojie recruits, two of them in particular, and they're around but I don't remember their names or exactly what they looked like because they're ultimately featured extras—for even though the movie is principally about Nawi for over an hour, that's only principally, and it still can't quite find the room for her to actually have these friendships with her peers, beyond quickly establishing them, then quickly forgetting them. There's a whole "wives vs. generals" courtly subplot and that's four aggregate minutes. There's a romantic subplot for Nawi with a Beninese-Portuguese traveler come back to his mother's homeland, that I don't object to by any means except, again, it doesn't amount to very much. It eventually finds a double-edged set of personal stakes for Nanisca—our Woman King, right? the lady on the poster?—that, happily, unites this story's wandering threads, though by the same token I'm not sure it wouldn't benefit from moving this up pretty substantially, or, I know I'm repeating myself, simply moving the end another hour further away from the beginning.
The 1950s version of this would be 180 minutes long, or longer, as an absolute rule of epic storytelling, and one sad fact about historical Hollywood racism, which kept such a film as The Woman King from being made until 2022 years after Jesus came to tell us to stop doing things like that, is that the 1950s version of this would have been inestimably better as a spectacle, and this winds up having qualitative narrative impact. Partly as a result of that runtime, partly as a result of the uniquely-crimped production realities of filmmaking in the early 2020s, the geography of Benin feels incredibly pinched and small in this rendition, and while I realize Dahomey was not some enormous sprawl, the entire Dahomey armed forces would appear to be able to fit into one single courtyard, and that courtyard is not huge.
But while I realize even my compliments have been backhanded, I don't want to sound too down on it; given the restraints, it manages. The story we finally arrive at is a blunt one, but it absolutely hits those necessary beats; the braiding isn't very detailed or rich, but it certainly ties its threads together well enough. The much-maligned battle scene cutting isn't really that bad, even—it's a bit overcooked, but it's not, like, genuinely terrible, and, for that matter, somewhat covers up choreography that has gotten praise for reasons that are pretty unclear to me (I assume it's because some people really dislike the editing, but don't want to just say "the action isn't good at all"), but whatever the case, it's choreography that, maybe unsurprisingly, can devolve into "stand here politely while I do gymnastics on you" stage-fighting. (That's unsurprising, but also so unnecessary: let's take a look at Spartacus and count how many Romans Spartacus killed by doing tumbling at them.) Ultimately, if it's not especially satisfying as an actioner, it's down more to the armies of roughly fifty guys and gals apiece—and I'm dead sure the PG-13 rating doesn't help. (The "normal" scene cutting isn't exactly amazing, for the record: it never really uses editing to heighten the charge in the relationships, and while the denouement of this story genuinely got me, I swear it feels like director Gina Prince-Blythewood was doing everything in her power as director to not sell its soaring emotions in any way whatsoever. And that mid-credits scene is one of the most weirdly ill-judged structural gambits of 2022 short of Tár's opening credits junk.) Ah, hell, I keep badmouthing it, I realize. But it's a perfectly watchable thing even if I don't intend on watching it again anytime soon.
But I'll say one more negative thing, though it's not a criticism of The Woman King individually: as far as "this should be more like a 50s movie" goes, a 50s movie would never have sweated the players' native American or British or South African accents like this one does, and attempted to unify them in one (West?) African accent. Like, do they have Italian accents in Quo Vadis? Do they speak Yiddish in Ben-Hur? Obviously not. (And as I think they're just trying to match Mbedu's South African accent, the appropriate question might be more like "do they speak Swedish in Ben Hur?") Either way, it's pointless, it doesn't really add verisimilitude when they're still, you know, speaking English, and it probably impinges on the performances. But that's what happens when you spend half a century elevating dialect uniformity as an issue of cosmic importance just short of a theory of quantum gravity.
I don't know if I'm actually giving extra points for it never doing cannibalism, or if I even should: "cannibalism" would've been the laziest route open to The Menu—it is a thriller about a group of wealthy diners, especially, for our purposes, obsessive foodie superfan Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), going to a very exclusive food experience hosted by mega-chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), so I don't know, maybe it's actually a little disappointing that director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy restrained themselves. In any case, I respect it, and what we actually have is a clunky but okay thriller... but my word, what clunk.
It has the downside of being about one of the few art forms I genuinely have no time for in "food preparation as ephemeral performance art," and it doesn't help that this art form is used pretty much exclusively by rich people to conspicuously consume, so even if I realize the movie emphatically agrees with me on this, it still is this, because it wants to be a satirical comedy about class as well as a thriller about evil food service workers who aren't going to put up with your shit (who even at the lowest level presented here would still likely make more than you or most the people you know, but—hey, it's about class, everybody!). Which points to its problem, beyond its own sense of aesthetics being so painfully common (you know, steely color grading, a lot of focal crap going on, lackluster cutting, and the dull "elegance" of contemporary minimalist spaces; it's not godawful, though, and the dishes, prepared by a real-life art chef—ugh—have some nice parodic oomph to them).
Well, more annoyingly than "this 2020s movie doesn't look good," which I get tired of saying and I'm sure you get tired of hearing, it wants to be roughly half a dozen different things and, avoiding any decision about this, tries to be all of them at once. And so: it's a movie replete with mid-century art comedy surrealist inhumanity that it's nonetheless happy to lampshape with modern action-movie quips. It's sometimes "about art" but because the art it's determined to use is defined entirely by class, it's "about class" often enough to be distracting. To an extent it even feels like it's using this for filler, and to buff up the cast (the finance bros are especially vestigial—hypothetically slasher film meat, but total time-wasters, in part because the "satirical" part of the set-up prohibits any of the victims from dying for a really long time here), and it is very obviously really just using being "about class" as a marketing hook (there's big "rich people sell your class resentment back to you" vibes here, which along with the overcooked muddling is the essence of the "produced by Adam McKay" touch, though it's never nearly as bad as that sounds, and it's at least my favorite ineffective class satire to come along lately).
But frankly, it needs the filler these side modules provide, because The Menu runs out of setpiece ideas, something the movie at least is halfway-successful at hiding, though it's borne out anyway by how the movie noticeably starts huffing and puffing once it realizes it still needs twenty minutes before it can end, because it's 2022 and 80 minute movies simply cannot be for some reason. Of course, because it's above everything a movie "about art," the art it's about is easier to identify as "cinema, metaphorically," and it's actually pretty good at this, which is why my very favorite scene by a substantial margin involves Hoult stealing the show, with the film's most interesting performance as a faux-intellectual dweeb reduced to anxious stammering the moment he's given the attention he's always craved from his idol (and he's been pretty great all along, by far the most reliable source of off-center laughs amidst the violent thrills). It's my favorite scene because us faux-intellectual dweebs deserve every insult that can be thrown at us. We do ruin the art form. That said, do I wish that Ralph Fiennes made Nicholas Hoult cook and eat his own flesh? After some weeks of reflection upon the matter, yes. That will almost invariably improve a movie. I keep referencing Ridley Scott B-sides, but 9 out of 10 foodies agree on the best individual moment in Hannibal.
But when the movie's working, it never feels like that level of gratuitous spectacle is necessary, so that's why it so keenly feels like The Menu should have been carved right down to its real essence about fanboys and parasociality and the whole weird phenomenon of extremely-high-end artistic dining. Because even if we leave those overly-elaborate thematics aside, this screenplay is kind of crap on a purely mechanical level: Margot in particular feels like she was written by two different people who weren't communicating basic facts about her character to each other and, to a lesser extent, she's played by someone who's perfectly adept scene-by-scene but who still feels like she didn't read the whole script they wrote before she started playing the character (there's no way to square the Taylor-Joy of the first half with the revelations of the second, except I guess to say "wow, you're surprisingly terrible at your job"). And as long as we're bitchily nitpicking, let's ask: why, of all the people here, would Tyler take pictures of his dinner? Likewise, there's a late-coming scene with a radio that may bring our heroine (that's Margot, obviously) help, where the elision of the actual conversation had on this radio turns out to be the most feeble attempt to hide some excruciatingly desperate thriller writing. And, y'know, I worked in restaurants for about eight years of my life, like, real restaurants where actual poor people work, and you bet your ass I didn't feel "seen" by this or whatever.
But fundamentally, all it really wants to be is just a nice cheeseburger, so to speak, and it's fun enough on this basic level to give it a pass, particularly with Hoult, though that's not to just overlook Fiennes giving such good cartoon cult leader supervillain.
The score I'm going to give it is for the achievement more than anything else, and Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is not ultimately a truly satisfying movie (it is a very unsatisfying story). But I do this in the understanding that the achievement is the point: the whole purpose of every one of these 71 minutes, as far as I can determine (besides them being, I'd assume, a calling card for the triple threat skill of director-cinematographer-editor Junta Yamaguchi and writer Makoto Ueda as unignorable presences in Japan's post-One Cut of the Dead nagamawashi scene, to the extent this scene exists and isn't a delusion of the film's Wikipedia article), is to make you viscerally feel the vertiginous headiness of this time-travel scenario by shoving your face into the mind-bending, downright-psychedelic complications of doing this time-travel scenario within a single-take simulacrum of real time. It works absolutely terrifically on that count, and is—I hate to use superlatives, but I can't imagine anything beating it—the single most meticulously visually-managed time travel narrative ever made. I should be more specific about the actual premise: a guy (Kazunari Tosa) runs a coffee shop and lives upstairs; there's a TV monitor in both places; one day, the TV upstairs starts broadcasting a signal (these monitors appear to work like Star Trek viewscreens, but nevermind) from the TV downstairs; this signal is from two minutes into the future; with some minor effort, these small flatscreens can be moved around, so both can, in fact, be in the same room at the same time, and this creates telescoping video feedback with a temporal twist. It is, obviously, pretty wild, seemingly impossible to make work with the timing of actors working against prerecordings of themselves, often more than one. Yet it does work! But it amazes only up to a point, and it's awfully disappointing that with a premise so inventive and so joyfully challenging, the single most creative thing they ever figure out to actually do with it is some dumbass complications about some yakuza money the heroes find. Like, give me anything besides this. I kind of love how much of a small-scale wierdie thing the set-up is, so you certainly don't need anything big: the romantic "can this man gin up the courage to ask a lady out on a date?" plot that serves as the nominal emotional stakes here would be vastly more interesting pursued by itself. But I'll just throw it out there, Primer managed a conflict between its actual characters.
Also, no knock on Yamaguchi's choreography or concealed editing (which he's by no means overly-precious about, sometimes no more and sometimes even less sophisticated than the "hidden" cuts in Rope, which I personally find charming)—and as far as his direction of his actors' performances goes, this isn't a movie that invites you to give a shit—but he is making some photographic choices viz. overly-warm/real-damn-yellow color grading and (I think) shutter angle, that are pretty ugly and wearying. But I keep thinking about that achievement, and the woozy experience of simply watching Yamaguchi do this crazy thing, and while maybe Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes isn't "good" on a lot of metrics, I do think you need to see it and I'm beginning to wonder if I underrate it just because the last twenty minutes run completely plum out of workable little ideas on what to do with the awesome big idea it has in its the center.
Women Talking is probably the worst version of itself while still being technically proficient, and there's an argument it's not technically proficient: I don't quite agree with a lot of folks that it looks horrible as regards its desaturated color grading—it doesn't look good, but it does look like how we'll remember movies from the early 2020s looking, and even if it's a somewhat egregious example of it, I don't think it's particularly special in that regard—and I was annoyed a lot more by the Malicky touches, which are used just horribly (the ending montage is a very special thing), and, this also being somewhat Malicky, the use of knifing flashbacks for emphasis or illustration ("let me tell you a story about my horses"). All told, there's a lot of fussiness, that never rises to the level of actual flair, that suggests that writer-director Sarah Polley, contra her film's title, has determined that, actually, static tableaux of women discussing things isn't that visually interesting. She's right, the way she does it. But interrupting it only ever jams up any momentum that accidentally arises out of the debates.
Which is the real problem, because this film is framed as a debate, but it isn't. What we have is a Mennonite community in Bolivia that has gone very wrong as reclusive religious communities sometimes do, though this one is—I should say was, for while this is an essentially fictional film, it is inspired by a true story—particularly nasty: over the course of the last several years, numerous men in the village have been using animal tranquilizers to knock out many of the village's women so they can rape them. It's not entirely clear what the full extent of this is, but definitely in the "many perpetrators, dozens of victims, hundreds of individual crimes" range, and with one of the rapists caught, and the others named, arrests have been made, though the entire male half of the community has marched down to the city to post bail, leaving the women alone, and also confirming that this is a systemic problem and (with some rounding errors) every man in the village is part of the problem, a point driven home by the elders' injunction to the women to forgive their trespassers upon their return.
They are not, as a group, in a mood for forgiveness—they hold a vote, and "forgiveness" loses in a landslide—and their other two alternatives "stay and fight" and "leave entirely" are so close to a tie that ten women from several victimized families (Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith McCarthy, Sheila Ivey, I hate to say "etc." but etc.) hold a colloquy to decide between those two courses, with one "forgiveness" partisan (Frances McDormand) leaving in the first few minutes, which is the kind of problem your movie should never have, Frances McDormand leaving in the first few minutes. But I get ahead of myself. One of only two men (the other probably wasn't invited) who didn't go to bail the creeps out (Ben Whishaw) serves to take the minutes of this meeting, as being from a freaky-deaky cult, the women are all illiterate, though why this is useful for an everything-or-nothing decision that will play out in the next several hours is unclear, but I get ahead of myself; however, why this fellow, whose excommunicated mother provided him an opportunity for a college education (I don't know why he came back), doesn't suggest a run-off election is less unclear, because suggesting things isn't his place... though that still threatens to put me ahead of myself.
So, in fairness, the movie is not titled Women Talking About This Specific Problem, and as I said, it's not a debate: it's sometimes fractious but mostly it's just spitballing together a functional feminist theory in a barn over the course of an afternoon. That's not necessarily fatal, but the screenplay that renders it into language is: there probably would've been some joy in seeing a bunch of illiterate Mennonites sealed off in a bubble universe actually whip up feminism from first principles as the natural outcome of their suffering and in words that sounded authentic to their lives, but there is absolutely none to be taken with stiff dialogue that makes every line feel like the closing paragraph of an essay recited by women who have access to every possible source of information in the world regarding feminism except for the actual words "feminism" and "patriarchy," and who also rarely remember they're actually religious people and that their religion is a specific sect (notably, one that forswears violence) and not a generic brand of Christianity. My spouse wound up laughing out loud at several points at how much these isolated Mennonites in Bolivia were made to sound like American undergrads. My spouse, incidentally, went to Smith for undergrad.
And I still don't think "we invented proto-feminism" is the really interesting version of this movie, which might've found its way to that, but only in between the hugely-urgent material questions that surely would've necessarily animated whatever the real-life version of this discussion was. This movie is a 105 minute conversation about "fighting" or "leaving" that never defines what "fighting" actually means, either in terms of the significant tactical challenge it would present or in terms of what ultimate goals are to be secured, nor what will happen 24 hours after "leaving," were "leaving" to occur. From this movie, I don't know if they even speak Spanish, but this is probably just fine because they and their movie seem to operate under an assumption that right over the horizon is just empty land they can resettle on. They make pro/con lists, and yeah, that's whatever (these illiterate Mennonites know what "pro/con lists" are—if this had kept going, they'd have whipped out some SWOT diagrams and Gantt charts on their progress), but no pro or con column ever gets more than three items. It's so airy in its discussions it almost never feels attached to any stakes within the movie itself, only to ideas outside of it; meanwhile, personalities aren't revealed by the conflicts, as, rather, the predetermined conflicts indicate what personalities get put into the box. And the very closest it ever gets to "brass-tacks logistics" in the whole thing is during the discussion of where to set the age cut-off for the boys they intend on taking with them if they leave, which still avoids all the questions it raises, like "what's Bolivian law re: child kidnapping?", though it appears to be a pure hypothetical anyway because boys older than 13 don't actually exist in this movie, as the final scene makes amply clear.
There is never really a recognition, either, that on an individual or even factional level so much of this is false choices (for instance, Mara and Whishaw's characters, vaguely expressed as potentially romantic, can't think but in the most binary terms about their relationship, which seems utterly ridiculous in light of their characterizations, but the story demands it), and as far as religion goes, you'd think some Exodus references here would be a gimme. Then it just up and wastes its time on completely tangential things, like a transman subplot that's the purest Doin' a Representation imaginable, with a character that it cares so much about it makes him literally mute (August Winter). I mean, I'd watch his movie, since his movie would probably be made to be remotely plausible in this setting and in this scenario in ways it never is here—not even on the hyper-arch "gender theory" level the movie solely wants to exist on—and that movie might be equipped to have conversations this movie clearly isn't, required, as it is, it to stop cold to very carefully explain they're definitely sure he wasn't raped into wanting to be a guy. I know I complain all the time about the content of modern movies being too literal, but this one makes me second-guess myself: this is so abstract it barely feels like the movie this content is in actually exists. I realize perfectly well this isn't actually about "Mennonites in Bolivia." For all that, it feels overliteral anyway.
The performances are largely okay: Buckley gets the worst of it with a character whose primary role seems to be to snap at Whishaw (whose primary role seems to be to model the most unappealingly self-abnegating kind of allyship possible), while she argues for courses of action that are inconsistent with being this mean; Mara and Foy get the best of it for opposite reasons, Mara because she's the one best capable of going with the chilly flow of the didactic screenplay and Foy because she's actively fighting it to put a heartbeat into it.
Then again, that's also just their characters as written anyway (Mara is "leave," Foy is "fight"), and it's not really a movie that can have "good" or "bad" performances, as this is the most actor-unfriendly film I've seen in years, just a circular and frequently superfluous discussion on basic principles we (I guess this is a narrower "we" than we'd like) pretty much all already agree upon, ranging from "rape is bad" to "transfolk deserve dignity and respect" to "stop shouting at Ben Whishaw," communicated in arid language that's kind of dull when it's not accidentally funny, and so I've been continually unsure who this movie is for. It's for people who like to have their ideology reflected back at them in ways to the side of anything that's actually entertaining, edifying, or novel, I suppose; more obviously, it's for Oscar voters who vote for things for extrinsic reasons, and so this movie's primary constituency is just a few hundred specified people. But as for it having any sort of actual utility that I'm apt to recognize, I could really only recommend it to parents to watch with, like, their five year olds, maybe? It's a movie about ideas, but what if the ideas are couched as overworked and repetitive metaphorical platitudes and I'm already very familiar with them anyway, because I've glanced at the Internet more than once in the past ten years? I do despise being put in the position of being so cruel to a standard-bearer like this. But I can't be anything else to a movie that begins with the title card "this is an act of female imagination," a pretentious but somewhat-clever-in-the-moment inversion of what the Mennonite men told their victims, and then has every character—in a setting only chosen in the first place for the starkness of its consequences rather than for anything like an exploration of its specific culture—talk exactly like that, and then doesn't actually imagine much of anything anyway.