The Whale is a Big Triumph



THE WHALE (2022)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

A24, 117 minutes, R (By idiots for: “sexual content,” language, drugs)




The Whale is another example of how the Oscars long ago jumped the shark (ahem!). At least Brendan Fraser, the star of the film, was chosen as Best Actor. The Whale polarized audiences. Some thought it was anti-religious–it was, but with reason– others thought it was grotesque–ditto–and the snowflake crowd said it was fat-shaming, which is certainly was not. It also got an R rating to reinforce the twisted reality that it’s fine to kill people on screen, but they can’t swear, smoke pot, or pretend to masturbate (no nudity involved).


Darren Aronofsky directed the film version of Samuel Hunter’s play. Play-to-screen often leads to claustrophobic filmmaking and this one never leaves the house. But if it did, you wouldn’t believe it. Fraser donned 300 pounds of fat suit and prosthetics for his role as “the whale,” the morbidly obese Charlie, who is eating himself to death. Charlie is too despondent to go on after the death of his lover, Alan. It’s implied that Alan was anorexic before committing suicide and that Charlie is atoning for Alan’s sin by eating for him. He’s also an online writing/literature instructor, so the film is bathed in white whale Moby Dick references. Charlie’s students have no idea of what he looks like; he tells them that his camera is “broken.” It’s Charlie that’s broken, though his gentle demeanor and I-believe-in-you coaching casts the illusion that Mr. Rogers might be the disembodied voice they hear.


Is Charlie as unhinged as we suspect? Let’s do the math. His only friend is Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse resigned to being an enabler. He lives in a downscale apartment in Idaho, not exactly a gay-friendly state. Before he met Alan, he was married to Mary (Samantha Morton in a cameo), with whom he has telephone-only contact. He’s not allowed to see his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). She will see him years after Alan’s death, by which time she’s  a sullen and manipulative 16-year-old. His only other human contact is teen New Life missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkin), who wants to “save” him. Even a young guy like Thomas can tell Charlie is dying. Not much to go on, is there?


But here’s the deal. Charlie is hiding inside his body and through his online identity, but everyone else is running from something. Or barely moving at all in Charlie’s case. He needs a frame or an oversized wheelchair to use the lavatory, flop into bed like a proverbial beached whale, or go to the front door to pick up his pizza deliveries after the delivery guy plucks the cash from the porch mailbox. It’s two large ‘zas at a time, which he gobbles in ways reminiscent of Mr. Creosote in the old Monty Python sketch of a glutton who literally explodes. The difference is that Charlie isn’t playing for laughs. When Liz reads his blood pressure and begs him to go to the hospital, Charlie isn’t alarmed. It brings him closer to his goal.


The film questions whether anyone can “save” another. Thomas thinks he can redeem Charlie, Ellie might be trying to rescue Thomas, Liz has reasons to tell Thomas to stuff his salvation message, Charlie thinks he can liberate Ellie–who he insists is “amazing”– and Mary tells Charlie she’s actually “evil.” Who’s right? Believe me when I say there are other secrets and complexities I’ve not touched upon.


Without strong acting, most of this would be a cruel joke. As in a play, though, Aronofsky directs an actors-forward film. Fraser is startling in appearance and stunning as Charlie. He did his homework to learn how such a person would move and how people with disabilities negotiate everyday life. He also excels as a man whose calm exterior barely contains his inner guilt and rage. Sink keeps us on our toes to the point where we aren’t sure which way she really tilts, Chau makes us understand why a nurse would honor Charlie’s wishes, and Simpkin is equal parts starry-eyed, naïve, and furtive.


Can ugliness be beautiful? Can a tragedy be uplifting? Can the revolting be beneficent? Yes, it can. But what does it say about Hollywood that it honors a filmed video game featuring a cosmic bagel over “disturbing” movies such as The Banshees of Inisherin or The Whale?


Rob Weir    


Empire of Light Lives Up to Its Title


Empire of Light (2022)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Searchlight Pictures, 113 minutes, R (for ridiculous!)*




What a beautiful little film! Ignore the cranks who reviewed Empire of Light as underdeveloped or dull. Many were American reviewers for whom anything more subtle than an oil refinery explosion is too subtle. I will concede, though, that the film’s rom-com billing did it no favors.


Empire of Light is one part Cinema Paradiso, one part a look at personality disorder, and one part probe of British racism. Call it a pastiche of charming, serious, and sad. Such a difficult mixture takes a director as skillful as Sam Mendes to stitch together. It is filmed in the British seaside resort (an oxymoron?) of Margate, which even during the films’ setting of the 1980s had seen better days. The Empire is a grand old movie house barely hanging on. The top floor has been closed for so long that pigeons rule the roost, but the staff still dress sharp, keep the theater clean, and take pride in their work. Its oddball crew includes geeky Neil (Tom Brooke), punk wannabe Janine (Hannah Onslow), and diminutive projectionist Norman (Toby Jones). Much of the drama, though, centers on theater manager Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), Jill of all trades Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman), and new hire Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward), a black man in a town in which just 0.5% of the population looks like him.


We sense that Hilary is a bit “off,” and learn that she is on lithium to control bipolar disorder. She’s an emptied out loner looking for human connection, which isn’t easy in a workplace that’s a collection of oddballs with their own baggage. That also makes her easy prey for Donald’s sexual advances, which are grounded more in power than consent. Though she essentially runs The Empire, Hilary has never even seen a movie. Enter Stephen, a breath of fresh air by virtue of being the most normal person in the room. He wanted to be an architect, but he’s adrift after being rejected for college and his girlfriend. To his surprise, he likes working in the theater and becomes close with its employees. Too close to Hilary, actually, as the two embark on an unusual affair. He finds out the hard way about her fragile mental state.


Although The Empire might be on borrowed time, it remains a place where magic happens. It even gets an unexpected boost by scoring the Southeast England premier of Chariots of Fire. Unexpected things swirl around that as well. After all, hope was as fragile as Hilary for people on the bottom looking up in Margaret Thatcher’s England. If you need further confirmation of what happens in a society ruled by privilege-stirred anger, observe the skinhead sequences in Empire of Light. Credit goes to Sam Mendes for finding small redemptions amidst anger and injustice. Although some might find these insufficient or naive, I’ll take hope over relentless gloom. When Norman schools Stephen on how arc projectors work and explains how light at 24 frames per second tricks the eye into not seeing the black between the frames, it feels like a motto for our time. Also make note of what’s on the screen when Hilary finally enters the theater. It too is–dare I say it?–a subtle message quietly sent.


The film works in large part due to strong performances. Coleman has established herself as a topflight actress. Much like Cloris Leachman was in her prime and Tilda Swinton is now, Coleman has a clay-like face that she molds as the moment demands. At times she is frumpy, but when her spirit is unleashed, she makes us believe that a young man half her age could find her alluring. Ward’s role could have used more depth, but he deftly showcases his liminality as a black man in a white world, and again by toggling between disaffected, kind, or optimistic. Toby Jones also turns in an affecting turn as a doleful man whose life is in the projection booth–shades of Philippe Noiret in Cinema Paradiso–but no longer recalls exactly how or when he got that way. It’s also a departure to see Frith as a smug villain.


Empire of Light isn’t a perfect film. Some of the drama unfolds to improbable contrivances, for instance, and other moments skirt being saccharine. Yet, there’s much to be said for a tale in which we root for everyone to find what they’ve lost.


Rob Weir


*R because we see Ward’s naked bum, and people make out in the shadows. Gimme a break!    


Triangle of Sadness: The Rich Get Filthy



Directed by Ruben Östlund 

Lionsgate, 147 minutes, R (language, adult situations, vomiting)





Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but flew under the radar screen in the United States for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it was a foreign-made film with no recognizable lead stars. It was directed by Ruben Östlund, who gave us Force Majeure, which divided film fans into two distinct camps: Those who loved it and those who were bored out of their skulls. (I pitched my tent with those in the second group.)


Like Force Majeure, Triangle of Sadness is languidly paced and doesn't encourage sympathy for those in the lead roles. It also takes its time working out key relationships. Luckily it mutates into a uniquely crafted and twisted pastiche of The Devil Wears Prada, Ship of Fools, and Swept Away (The 1974 Lena Wertmuller version, not the dreadful 2002 Madonna remake.)


That triple comparison also indicates that Triangle of Sadness is divided into three distinct parts. “Carl and Yaya” is fashion industry beefcake with a bevy of bare-chested men in low-slung pants traipsing back and forth with intermittent cheesy smiles and scowls. Each seeks to be chosen to be one of those faces you see in ads for ridiculously priced designer jeans. (The auditions also reveal the secret of the film’s title.) We eventually notice the camera lingering on one hunky guy, Carl (Harris Dickinson). We later see him in a posh restaurant with another icon, Yaya (Charlbri Dean Kriek), an “influencer.” Their discussion and bickering over who should pay the bill is insipid and freighted with airheaded manipulation. Who are they to each other?


In “The Yacht,” we find out that they are the “Beautiful Couple” du jour. Yaya has wrangled free fare aboard a luxury cruise in exchange for what we assume is a tit-for-tat promise to blog about the glories of the ship, the gourmet food, and the crackerjack staff catering to passenger dreams and whims. One reviewer called it a tale of the “have-nots and the have-yachts,” a terrific line that’s literally on the money. The passengers are filthy rich, insufferable, clueless, and thoroughly insensitive to those who serve them. Even several of the crew, especially head of staff Paula (Vicki Berlin), buy into the charade as if it’s the natural order of things. That’s not the case below decks whose working class and immigrant staff echo the stratification dynamics some might recall from Titanic. Östlund sharpened his critique by casting Woody Harrelson in an extended cameo role as the captain, a drunkard and a soon-to-be uncloseted communist. If that surprises, wait until you find out the vocations of some of travelers when they’re not cavorting like strutting peacocks.  


An unexpected event sinks the ship, the prelude to “The Island” with its Biblical “the last shall be first” reversal of fortune. Only a few make it to shore, but what does a pretty boy, a pirate, a fluffheaded influencer, a rah-rah gal, and a handful of toffs know about finding water, catching fish, building a fire, or improvising shelter? Power shifts to Abigail (Dolly de Leon), whose shipboard duty was toilets manager.


What exactly is Triangle of Sadness? A black comedy? A polemic? A drama? A satire? All of the above, though you could bet a few more chips on satire. Östlund clearly has little sympathy for the heartless monied classes, but they’re such a soft target that he realized more complexity was needed to underscore their social parasitism. Those touches redeem the meandering part one of the film.


Strong performances carry the film. Numerous reviewers singled out Kriek for praise, in part because she tragically died of sepsis at just 32. She was an intriguing figure, lovely in an emaciated way with a slightly askew face that made her stand out in a lineup of perfectly-featured interchangeables. She nailed her role as a simpering, privileged brat. For me, though, Dolly de Leon stole the acting crown. At age 54, she was the anti-Yaya, a fading flower and slightly plump, but also the embodiment of how toughness trumps ephemeral beauty.


Triangle of Sadness comes to a surprising and ambiguous ending. It is prefigured by a “why didn’t anyone think of this before?” discovery. We know the answer, but it still packs a thudding wallop. It’s also in keeping with Östlund’s preference for making points, not la-de-da saccharine endings.


Rob Weir