Short takes on three recent films

Exclusive to MeierMovies, October 4, 2020

If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t shuttered cinemas earlier this year, we’d probably have heard more about Onward, The Hunt and Waiting for the Barbarians. And the movie’s creators certainly would have made more money. Though only the latter is worthy of a thumbs-up in my book, all three deserved better than they got.

Image copyright Disney/Pixar

Disney/Pixar’s Onward (2 ¼ stars on 0-5 scale) is a weird one, and not in a good way. Though Pixar has embraced odd storytelling countless times before, this tale of two brothers trying to reconnect with their dead father is a drawbridge too far. More specifically, it’s the tale of the brothers’ quest to literally reconnect their father. (Explaining those references would ruin the surprises.) Though the father’s physical predicament leads to some absurdist humor – something Pixar has, thankfully, never shied away from – that gag is not enough to support a film that, in its current state, never should have been greenlighted. When compared with Disney’s 80-year tradition of buddy comedies, this one (with Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) is just plain annoying. And despite some superbly rendered (but not particularly imaginative), ultra-realistic animation, Onward is arguably the weakest Pixar release since the Cars sequels (and the Planes spin-off).

Betty Gilpin stars in The Hunt. (Image copyright Blumhouse Productions)

The Hunt (1 ¾ stars), directed by Craig Zobel, is on the other side of the cinematic spectrum from Disney. Though the action-satire is unnecessarily brutal, it’s a clever take on the political divide facing our country. The film has been skewered, ironically, by both the right and the left, who seem to misunderstand its message and leanings. Proving again his idiocy, President Trump criticized the film when, in fact, it is more complimentary to conservatives, particularly when it repeatedly and hilariously mocks the radical left. The right receives its fair share of zingers too, but the filmmakers seem slightly more intent on targeting liberals. And in Hollywood, that takes guts. Unfortunately, we also get guts in the form of human intestines, blown apart by bombs, bullets and booby-traps. And that’s where the cleverness of The Hunt gets wasted: in over-the-top, brainless, cartoonishly graphic (though well executed) violence. It makes me feel sad for Betty Gilpin, who gives it her all as a sexy action hero. Hey, I’m all for sexy action heroes when the story calls for one. But in this case, we need nuance.

Image copyright Iervolino Entertainment / Ithaca Pictures / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Of these three films, I feel saddest for Waiting for the Barbarians (4 stars). After the movie’s premiere last year at the Venice Film Festival, director Ciro Guerra’s English-language debut (written by J.M. Coetzee, from his own novel) screened a few more European festivals before being relegated to a mostly online release. This visual stunner – set in a remote outpost of a fictional empire – offers a profound commentary on government overreach and the absurdities of war. It’s Wag the Dog in the desert. The film offers some interesting supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan and Greta Scacchi. (Depp – in a love-it-or-hate-it performance – offers yet another visual eccentricity to his character, though it’s not of his own invention and rather tame compared to his usual embellishments.) But this film belongs consumingly to Mark Rylance, arguably the world’s greatest actor of stage and screen. As the morally upright yet hopelessly outnumbered magistrate of the outpost, Rylance is haunting. And though this probably isn’t the type of role to garner him another Oscar nomination, he deserves it, particularly for the way he brings unexpected tenderness and emotional impact to the tiniest lines and moments. Even if you have issues with the film’s pacing and story – as do some critics – you must see this film for Rylance. And until a better movie comes along, I’m placing this one atop my 2020 list.

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