Early in “The Whale”, the new movie directed by Darren Aronofsky from a screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter (adapting his stage play), Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse volunteering to care for his friend Charlie (Brendan Frasier), notices that Charlie, who has an episode that convulses his entire 600-pound body, has a blood pressure reading of 238 over 134. Aside from being an unscrupulous high number, it is also an indicator of congestive heart failure.
Because Brendan Fraser doesn’t weigh 600 pounds himself, he wears quite a few prosthetics in his heartbreaking portrayal of Charlie, whose story isn’t the only one “The Whale” tells. A few hours ago, my British colleague Robbie Collins tweeted that he overheard a fellow participant at the Venice Biennale say that Fraser’s choice was akin to an actor performing in blackface. Collins was irritated by this statement, and there are many ways in which it fails to convince: logically, in terms of cultural history, and more. But let’s look for a moment at the alternatives for a filmmaker who wants to make a movie centered around a 600-pound man. Do you actually hire someone whose blood pressure is anywhere near 238 over 134? And if that person passes the insurance physically, what if they die on set? Who is the understudy?
I was emotionally devastated by “The Whale”, which is not only about Charlie, but very specifically about how he got to the state that the film is in, since it tells about a period from Monday to Friday in his life. It’s perhaps the most conventional narrative that Aronofsky has handled in his entire career; much of it feels like a play—arguably not in a bad way. But it’s clear early on that this film, unlike some other Aronofsky pictures, intends to clearly take you from point A to B to C and beyond. (Though several critics have noted that Hunter’s script is, among other things, overwritten, which is probably true, but didn’t register as strongly with me on my first viewing as it might have.)
The subject matter is unusual on the surface, but the story is one of varying levels of heartache and human misunderstanding. There is Liz’s relationship with Charlie; there’s the strange tale of the young missionary (Ty Simkins) who shows up at Charlie’s door during his episode and possibly saves his life; there is Charlie’s violently angry and possibly vicious teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), smoking with perceived abandonment. Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) arrives late with a metaphorical suitcase full of problems.
To all of them, Charlie, taking extreme comfort in this state after a loss of life, says “I’m sorry” over and over. And much more than that. His performance is a physical marvel, a strange inverted bookend to his object/object of desire in “Gods and monsters.” Does he have a right to this role? Charlie notes that in his past he was always a “big guy” and Fraser himself, having experienced some life traumas, became significantly larger than he was in his “Gods and Monsters” and “Mummy” days. These days, everyone is encouraged to speak their truth. Here are some of my own: At age 20, I stood six foot three and weighed 190 pounds. At age 49, I was just over six feet two and weighed three hundred pounds. The state was unpleasant both physically and existentially and medically dangerous. This has led me to view contemporary “body positivity” with no small skepticism. That said, I also believe in individual freedom, even the individual freedom to proclaim a condition that is obviously not healthy as being healthy. I also believe in artistic freedom. And in Fraser’s freedom to take an imaginative and physical leap into a condition that is beyond his own, but not quite separated from it With “The Whale” Aronofsky and Fraser have taken significant ri sici, in the name of an insistent empathy. I believe, and my tear ducts agree, that those risks paid off.
“The Ghost of Richard Harris“ Directed by Adrian Sibley, should interest any cinephile fascinated by film acting, which is to say, I suppose, every cinephile period. Harris had three sons with his first wife Elizabeth, all involved in the arts: actor Jared, director Damian, and actor and musician Jamie. They act as on-screen docents for much of the film, providing voiceover and on-screen appearances when they visit their father’s suite at London’s Savoy Hotel and the warehouse where his personal effects are kept.
Other personalities from Harris’ life enter, including “Gladiator” costs Russell Crowe“Camelot” team player Vanessa Redgrave and “McArthur Park” songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose memory is particularly poignant. Sibley makes it a point to emphasize how seriously Harris took his acting, and I learned a lot, sometimes implicitly. The film does not spend much time on his work Michelangelo Antonioni‘s “Red Desert,” but its overall account of Harris’ evolving attitude toward film work in the ’60s, and its display of the physical qualities of his acting, gave me some clues to unraveling his performance in that film.
The advance advertisement on “Don’t worry honey,” a dystopian retro satire directed by Olivia Wilde, has largely served the purpose of putting a target on its back. Wilde’s anti-charm offensive with reporters culminated in the film’s post-screening press conference today with the lead actress Florence Pugh a no-show and Wilde, who freezes at particular questions; a reporter was shut down trying to ask a question about Shia LaBeouf, which Wilde claimed to have fired; the disgraced LaBeouf said it wasn’t true and publicly produced damning evidence for his side. In any case, it is safe to say that this was not the Venice that Wilde had hoped for. The audience applause after the screening I attended was the most tepid I’ve heard at any festival, and it didn’t get any more enthusiastic when Wilde’s name appeared on the screen.
That’s why “Don’t Worry Darling” has become the movie to rally around, and I’m not one to approve of that syndrome. Although “Don’t Worry Darling” is unfortunately not THAT bad, it is not very good either. People think that auteurism was based on the principle that the director is the ultimate creative power on a film, but it wasn’t. Rather, it believed that certain directors were able to exercise a style that reflected their personality in their films. In this respect, “Darling” is truly an auteur picture, replete with traits that Wilde has let fly in recent interviews. It’s pompous (in its on-the-nose didacticism), humorless (satire doesn’t have to be funny, true, and this is an unfunny satire), condescending (the racial dynamic here, where the only black woman with a speaking part is relegated to a martyrdom prop, is a doozy), justified (the recurring Busby-Berkeley-meets-“Carnival of Souls” bit has no utility except to say “nightmare,” and it’s clear that Wilde shot this treat just because she could, okay fine), and more. On the other hand, every now and then it latches onto a groove of narrative momentum and goes with it to some purpose. The premise could have made for a memorable episode of Rod Serlings “Night Gallery.” This picture is almost two hours, so that’s a problem right there.