‘Women Talking’ imagines what it wants, but not what it needs

As horrible as the premise is, it isn’t far at all from mainstream American life – Catholicism, as you know, brings many of the exact same hierarchal tools to create and protect rapists to churches in your neighborhood. Images courtesy United Artists Releasing.

5/10 In the mid ‘00s in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in Bolivia cut off from modern cities where women are not taught to read and only speak an outdated dialect of German, several colony men came up with a scheme to use animal anesthetic to drug and gang-rape women, then blame it on Satan and say they all needed to pray harder. Colony elders explained the attacks as either the work of demons, God’s punishment for something or other or simply as products of “vivid female imagination.” This went on for four years. The rapists attacked at least 130 women and girls – that’s just who came forward in court, the actual number of victims in those first four years is probably at least twice that – including one as young as 3 years old, before they were caught in the act and modern law enforcement was contacted. Seven rapists and the veterinarian who supplied the anesthetic were convicted in 2011, but reporting in 2013 indicated that these attacks were severely underreported, never discussed within the colony and were likely ongoing. This review describes scenes of the aftermath of these assaults, both real and fictionalized.

Miriam Toews’ novel “Women Talking,” and now Sarah Polley’s film adaptation, imagines the same scenario playing out in 2010 in rural Pennsylvania – and that’s the term, an opening title card reads, “What follows is an act of female imagination.”

In the film, the scheme has just been discovered, and with all the men gone to town to post bail for their rapist buddies, the elders left the women with an ultimatum – forgive all the men unconditionally, or be excommunicated. The women discover democracy, and hold a vote between forgiving the men as commanded, preparing to meet them with armed resistance or fleeing the colony, but when “fight” and “flight” tie, they forget all about democracy, and the women of three powerful families are selected to decide between the two remaining options. This discussion takes place on the second floor of a barn with a wall-sized window overlooking the field, a beautiful ticking clock as they must decide by sundown.

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‘All Quiet’ adaptation fails in every way, but especially upward

Images courtesy Netflix.

2/10 Netflix’ first-ever German language adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front leads the charge of international prestige movies in 2022, releasing pre-packaged with the announcement of its submission for the 95th Academy Awards as a Laser-accurate adaptation of the iconic novel. What’s happened instead is low-level MCU star Daniel Brühl has made self-insert “All Quiet on the Western Front” fan fiction for himself designed specifically for viewers accustomed to the shortcomings of MCU and Netflix movies, and I hate it so, so much.

Northern France, spring 1917- Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends eagerly enlist for the Great War and are immediately introduced to the horrors of trench warfare on the Western front. Then the worst thing you could ever put onscreen in a World War I film, the words “18 Monate später,” flash across the screen, and we spend two more hours surviving this horrible war with Bäumer and his friends, just with the knowledge that it’s almost over, with the sense of danger significantly lessened now we’ve been informed through onscreen text that 18 months have passed, and they’re grizzled veterans now because of all that time during which nothing exciting that you might want to put into a movie happened, I guess. 

In a B plot that’s historically accurate but wasn’t in the book and adds nothing to the story, new German Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger (Brühl, who also produces) negotiates the 11 November Armistice, clashing with both the German government that’s in a deep rut of sunk-cost thinking and a French government that will only accept an unconditional surrender. In a C plot that also wasn’t in the book and adds nothing to the story, the fictional Gen. Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) has tedious and obvious metaphorical meals and complains about liberals to make sure everyone remembers it’s a prequel to the Nazi movies. This is a prudent move – the continuity is pretty crowded at this point, and you need to make absolutely sure your audience knows where they are in the Real Wars that Really Happened Cinematic Universe.

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Edgelord of ‘Babylon’

Robbie’s casting is as nail-on-the-head as it gets after her debut 10 years ago in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, immediately becoming more famous and popular than the film she was starring in. Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

7/10 About five minutes into Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, an elephant shits directly onto the camera.

It’s a point-of-view shot for our main character, Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who is tasked with getting this elephant to a gigantic, depraved party at a Hollywood executive’s mansion. The anus is in the high center of the frame, perhaps a little above the top third, with the split of the beast’s legs acting as a leading line drawing your eye straight toward it. The image is so well-composed that, as the watery shit spurts out, it seems to explode out of the frame and straight down right onto my large, mostly full popcorn in my dead-center front-row seat. I had just farted as this happened, so I got to smell it a bit too.

Bel Air, California, 1926- At the party, Torres sets himself up as a fixer and begins to quickly rise through the studio ranks. The film roughly follows him, screen legend Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a New Jersey runaway who’s decided she’ll take Hollywood by storm.

The film is a party, and it plays out through parties, first the opening party and then the debouched, day-long party that is the next day of production. Then things flash forward to sound’s arrival in 1932, and the music stops as all characters struggle with the new technology. The arrival of talkies is portrayed as driving a decay in Hollywood extremity.

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Another, sadder lens into the past in ‘Empire of Light’

Images courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

5/10 Empire of Light is a good, quiet little movie that’s sad, thoughtful and breathtakingly beautiful, and I liked it.

The Empire Cinema, Ballroom and Restaurant in Margate, England, December, 1980- Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), who works as the theater manager, lives alone, takes lithium to manage the wild mood swings for which she was recently hospitalized and seems to accept sexual abuse from her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), as part of her job. Things start to change with the arrival of a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), with whom Small strikes up a relationship. Small sorts her life out while observing as Stephen, who is black, navigates skinheads emboldened by Thatcherism in the coastal English town.

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‘The Whale’ knows exactly what it’s doing

Fraser: 60% prosthetics, still 100% adorable. Images courtesy A24.

The Whale is a difficult film to watch, not because of its heavy subject matter, but because the movie’s bad. It’s got an unconventional story structure that’s difficult to enter, it’s designed to be unpleasant, and it’s really manipulative and tearjerky while also wearing its stunt casting and effects work proudly on its sleeve. Director/producer Darren Aronofsky has said he made the film with empathy for fat people and pushed back against critics, but the fact is everything in the film is built to exploit America’s unhealthy relationship with food and fear of being obese. It is a movie about a monster with a heart of gold, and you need to agree that Charlie, a 600 pound man, is a monster as an entry point.

In The Whale, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a writing teacher in late-stage heart failure, secludes himself as his life nears its end. He is beset upon by his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a callous, evil grifter; his loyal in-home nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who is bent on saving him; and a new face in Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who, as a missionary, believes he is bent on saving Charlie, but is actually a callous, evil grifter.

Charlie weighs 600 pounds and is so ashamed of his appearance that he deactivates his camera while he teaches remotely and will not allow his regular pizza delivery driver to lay eyes on him. He uses a walker, which he is shown hoisting his pendulous gut onto, and later a heavy-duty wheelchair, to get around his apartment, in which he has installed worn-out handles in the shower and above the bed. He has $120,000 in the bank from his days at university, but refuses to spend any of it on medical care beyond these mobility aids – Liz works out of loyalty. He also carries around his daughter’s eighth grade essay on “Moby-Dick,” which he frantically pulls out and re-reads in moments he thinks he’s about to die. The title ostensibly comes from this essay, but also happens to be what we called fat girls in middle school – I used to be a teenage boy, I’m sorry.

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