Sacred Ground


Hey, remember me? Aye! I hope so.

Sorry again for the lack of content these past few months. There are at least five draft posts listed on my Substack dashboard that never quite came together, so it’s not like I wasn’t trying to think about films! But, writing is, you know, really hard, and sometimes inspiration eludes even the most seasoned of us. The good news is I’ve seen some great cinema in recent weeks that has lit a fire under my ass to get some words down on paper. Well, let’s get back to it.

Spain’s horrific history with fascism has been a central concern for Pedro Almodóvar throughout his entire career. Modes of remembrance have taken many forms, first in the subversive nature of his early dark comedies and satires, then the elegiac personal hauntings about past traumas in his masterpieces All About My Mother and Volver. Almodóvar’s recent films are more direct examinations of the past, both his own and the country he loves so dearly. All of this is to say that it feels like he’s been building toward something like Parallel Mothers for a long time.

The twisty yet sublime narrative involves two pregnant women (Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit) whose lives are forever altered after fatefully sharing a hospital room. Amazingly, their domestic melodrama provides Almodóvar an opportunity to excavate the national shame and political violence that still hounds Spain to this day, juxtaposing the fierceness necessary for survival with the forgiveness and empathy needed to heal, both collectively and individually.

Parallel Mothers is rich in the vibrant production design and mood-altering color schemes that has come to define Almodóvar’s visual aesthetic, but its greatness stems from how effortlessly themes of resistance and determination connect both the personal and national struggle for reconciliation. Cruz, who is sneakily one of the greatest actors in the world, comes to embody the film’s central idea about finding the strength to come clean, even when that truth will force open old wounds that have taken decades to scar over.

I was less taken with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which felt manic, hollow, and performative in all the ways Parallel Mothers is not. Throughout this mad-dash narrative about the eccentric writers, momentous stories and illusive subjects fueling the fictional presses of American-run newspaper in France, the film becomes a monument to the kind of newsroom fever, deadline madness and breathlessness felt by any beat writer no matter the country of origin.

All of the typical Anderson tropes - direct address, doll house mise-en-scène, flamboyant garb, rampaging pace, spitfire dialogue - are all dialed up to level ten in the film’s trio of central stories that make up this particular rag’s final print edition. Every corner of the frame is packed with detail, movement, texture, and layered sound design. But instead of invoking the spirit of rebellion, artistic creativity, and excitement associated with each vignette, this aesthetic approach quickly turns aggressively glib and suffocating.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy, but The French Dispatch may be the moment where the precious themes and stylings of Wes Anderson no longer hold sway over me like they once did. The joy and sense of possibility and heartache that so wonderfully fuels Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums is almost completely absent here, save for the final sequence in which Jeffrey Wright (playing a James Baldwin-esque writer) nearly saves the entire kerfuffle with his resolute voice and melancholy words.

It has been a banner year for genre films, with gems like Julien Leclercq’s Sentinelle and Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall recalibrating what revenge Westerns (classic and neo) look like. But as an action purist, it’s James Nunn and Scott Adkins’ One Shot that hit a nerve I didn’t know existed after spending so much time studying the spatial intricacies of on-screen violence. The gimmicky fake single-take format typically does nothing for me, but I’ve never seen a film respect the topography and infrastructure of its setting with this level of formal rigor and coherency.

Adkins plays a SEAL commander who, along with his three team members, is tasked with escorting a high level terror detainee currently being “interrogated” at an off the books black site located on a windswept island far from civilization. Once on the ground, they must endure red tape and bureaucratic jockeying despite the time sensitive nature of their mission. Just as they are packing up to take off, a highly trained group of jihadi insurgents (led by a beefy French Algerian) storm the base with precision and ferocious speed, setting off a prolonged and elaborate firefight that doesn’t end until the credits roll.

Nunn’s nimble camera instantly becomes another combatant. Thankfully, it doesn’t just stick to the SEALs, displaying a sense of creative directionality that moves across kill zones and through gun battles in order to juxtapose the movements and strategy of both sides. This gives the audience a chance to imagine what the rest of this chaotic sandbox looks like in real time, the corners and rooms that need to be cleared right beyond the frame.

I’ve watched One Shot three times now, and it strikes me as a major film in the action genre precisely because it brilliantly utilizes every corner of the island setting to create both intimate and impersonal battlegrounds of all sizes. Of course, none of this would work without Adkins’ physicality, skillsets, and stamina as a performer. His highly demanding and tactical turn makes one readdress the definition of a “great performance.”

More to come next week on Licorice Pizza, C’mon, C’mon, and The Card Counter.

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