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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Venice 2019: The King, About Endlessness, Babyteeth

Due to a heretofore unprecedented concatenation of scheduling quirks, I ended up seeing way fewer new films at this year’s Venice Biennale than I found satisfactory. I promise it won’t happen again. I’ve already weighed in during a previous dispatch and in a stand-alone review (and I wish to thank all the kind social media souls who pointed out the errors of judgment and taste in my “Joker” review); here are some thoughts on the three others I was able to see. (I was very frustrated that I checked into my hotel last week literally just in time to miss “Marriage Story” and “Ad Astra”; it happens every year, somehow.)

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David Michôd’s “The King,” scripted by Michôd and co-lead actor Joel Edgerton, turns Shakespeare’s Henriad on its head a bit, most radically in transforming Sir John Falstaff from a boisterous, sly, physically cowardly foil and victim into an old warrior who’s able to provide much wise counsel to onetime drinking buddy Prince Hal AFTER he’s been crowned King Henry V. No “I no thee not” for this Falstaff; instead, the stout but hardly obese knight plays Obi-Wan to Henry’s Luke. Given that Falstaff was an almost entirely fictional creation in Shakespeare’s history of these reigns, the idea of trying to rehabilitate him seems kind of ... gratuitous? 

Which is not to say that portions of this new-style historical epic (f-bombs abound in the dialogue) don’t work. Timothée Chalamet starts out the film prancing in such a way that you don’t trust his ability to mature into ruthless warring king mode, but he does. Edgerton is satisfyingly gruff. With Netflix's help, Michôd has enough production apparatus to get his Kurosawa on in the film's battle scenes. Robert Pattinson deploys an outrageous accent as the Dauphin; I’m surprised he wasn’t permitted to just come out and say, “I fart in your general direction.” These discrete pleasures notwithstanding, "The King" has not been resonating in my memory since.

It’s rather kind of the Swedish director Roy Anderrson to bring in a film called “About Endlessness” at under eighty minutes. A lot of directors could really abuse the latitude that title implies. 

The endlessness Anderrson shows here is rather light (the movie opens with a shot of a couple floating above a formation of gray clouds) and related to the idea of eternal return. “There was a man who did X,” “There was a woman who was X,” the female narrator announces, and the screen shows a perfectly composed single shot, the camera never moving, in which an invariable pale character enacts the described action or an ironic variation of it. The overall effect is a cross between a mordant New Yorker cartoon and a tableau from a Karel Zeman film. Andersson ought to approach Brian Cox to appear in one of his films; he is exactly the physical type for them. If ever a movie could be called insouciantly profound, “About Endlessness” is it. 

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There’s more sweetness in “Babyteeth” than you might expect from a first time feature film director who lists Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier as influences, but that quality is one of the several disarming ones present in Shannon Murphy’s picture, adapted from a play by Rita Kalnejais. 

16-year-old Milly, played by the radiant Eliza Scanlon, has cancer, and it’s not getting better. She’s an only child, daughter of a psychiatrist (Ben Mendelsohn) and a one-time musician who gave it up for motherhood (Essie Davis), and they’re trying not fall apart, and falling apart and trying not to show it. The supportive and mildly permissive parents get a curveball thrown their way when Milla falls for Moses (Toby Wallace) a homeless wastrel with a crazy gorgeous smile and crazy bad habits. The wry but compassionate mini-stories of dysfunction that divide this film actually reminded me more of American director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker,” “20th Century Women”) than Murphy’s stated faves—although I did see touches that reminded me of one of her cited influences, Andrea Arnold

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