Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Mixed Bag

Jasna Djuricic in Quo Vadis, Aida?

This article contains reviews of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Uncle Frank and Georgetown.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, set at the end of the Bosnian War, is a remarkably taut piece of classical political filmmaking. The writer-director, Jasmila Zbanic, a Bosnian-Yugoslavian native residing in Berlin, has been working in film since 1998 and turning out features for a decade and a half, but I believe this is the first of her movies to open in North America, likely a happy side effect of its nomination for the Foreign Film Oscar. Zbanic’s subject is the series of events that led to the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, where a combination of the hatred of the Serbs for the Muslims of the town of Srebrenica and the pathetic inadequacy of UNPROFOR, the peacekeeping force of the United Nations, to protect them led to the slaughter of the entire adult male population and the dispersion of the women and children. The Dutchbat peacekeepers established a UN enclave within the town but were too lightly armed to stave off the Bosnian Serb Army under Ratko Mladić’s command, which forced its way in, separated out the men, and bused them to their deaths. (Earlier they lacked the supplies to offer food and water to the Bosnians inside the gate, and lack of space obliged thousands of townspeople to wait outside; some, terrified of the arrival of Mladić’s soldiers, escaped to the woods.)

Zbanic focuses the film on Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic), a sharp-witted, pragmatic high school teacher serving as a translator for the Dutch who becomes one of a handful of representatives of the populace during what is supposed to be a negotiation but is in fact an escalating chaos. The question posed by the Latin title – “Quo vadis?” or “Whither goest?” – traces her efforts, as she rushes through the compound, to accomplish several tasks at once, all of which, with the exception of her basic role as interpreter, turn out to be impossible to pull off. As the Dutch close the gate on most of her neighbors, those outside reach out to her for information she can’t supply and beg her in vain to let them in. She demands that the Dutch officers, Major Franken (Raymond Thiry) and Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), make good on the UN’s promise to keep the people of Srebrenica safe. But as Mladić (Boris Isakovic) and his army approaches and it becomes increasingly clear that the town is doomed, Aida zeroes in on the well-being of her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic), a history teacher and high-school principal, and their college-aged sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrovic). She manages to get the inside the Dutch gates, getting Nihad appointed as a representative and talking the office staff into giving the boys temporary shelter when Mladić’s soldiers begin lining up the men and women to board the buses. Then, with mounting desperation, she struggles to get them on the list to be evacuated with the UN contingent. In a scene that tears you apart, she and Nihad beg Franken to agree to put just one of their sons on the list – and when that fails, Nihad, whose name Franken has added, has to decide whether to save himself or cast his fate with those of his boys.

The dramatic situation is so potent that the movie feels almost as if it had made itself, but Zbanic’s unflamboyant visual choices, like her flawless direction of the actors, speak to tremendous skill. She’s swept everything unimportant quietly out of the way; the film is a model of clarity. Only afterwards do you realize how complicated the narrative is. The material is horrifying, and of course we know how it ends, but the dread we feel as it approaches its climax arises from what is the opposite of exploitation: it’s respect for the ability of the audience to find its emotional way through the story. The movie is also, I think, a model of tact – and that’s a compliment that, two decades into the millennium, fewer and fewer filmmakers have earned.  Given the nature of the subject, I think that more viewers may find their way to Quo Vadis, Aida? if they know that the inevitable violence occurs off-screen. (I have to admit that, even after trusted friends praised the film, I kept finding reasons to put off sitting down to watch it.)

Djuricic gives a superb performance in the title role – it’s a lesson in how one can act in extremis without taking a single step into the realm of histrionics. Among the supporting players I would single out Johan Heldenbergh as the Dutch colonel who is chewed up by his inability to figure out a way to rescue the people of Srebrenica. Eventually he can do nothing but retreat – he locks himself away in his office. You never see him again but you can almost imagine him blinding himself like Oedipus, entombed forever with his failure. It’s one of the most haunting exits in movies.

Paul Bettany in Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank begins at a family birthday celebration in a small South Carolina town in the mid-sixties. The birthday boy is an ill-tempered household tyrant known as Daddy Mac Bledsoe (Stephen Root) with a loving, warm-hearted, endlessly patient wife (Margo Martindale). His younger son, Mike (Steve Zahn), seems to have made pleasing his dad his life’s work; his older son, Frank (Paul Bettany), who fled long ago to teach English at NYU, remains tacitly on the outskirts, apparently having accepted long ago that there’s nothing he can do to earn Daddy Mac’s approval. There’s a sister, too (Jane McNeill), and an ancient, complaining aunt (Lois Smith), and Frank is the only sibling without a family of his own. But he’s an object of endless fascination for Mike’s smart, literary teenage daughter Beth (Sophia Lillis). In a tête-à-tête on the porch he commends her for keeping up her marks and urges her to exert the freedom to make of her life what she wants it to be. Four years later she turns up in the freshman class at NYU.

The cast of actors the writer-director, Alan Ball, has assembled for this opening – including Judy Greer as Beth’s mother – is really classy. The acting in this sequence is so marvelously detailed that, even though it takes us about five minutes to work out that Frank is gay and that’s what has alienated his father, we look forward to seeing how Beth’s coming-of-age story is going to develop, and exactly what role Frank will play in it. That’s especially the case because Lillis is such a refreshing presence: emotionally and intellectually alert and without an ounce of actorish vanity. But though early on Beth begins a romance with another freshman (Colton Ryan), Uncle Frank doesn’t turn out to be her story at all. Shortly after she and her beau Bruce elect to crash a party at Frank’s and his long-time lover, a transplanted Saudi named Walid (Peter Macdissi), whom Frank calls Wally, answers the door, the focus shifts to Uncle Frank. That is, it shifts to his first love affair, which his father ended summarily by threatening to kill him and waving hellfire and damnation in front of him. In this tired, bathetic plot, rendered in melodramatic, badly directed flashbacks, sixteen-year-old Frank (Cole Doman) breaks up with his boyfriend Sam (Michael Perez), repeating his father’s conservative Christian imprecations and driving the benighted kid to suicide. The flashbacks aren’t even well shot: when Frank leaps into the lake to retrieve Sam’s sodden corpse, he seems to be swimming in root beer. (Khalid Motaseb is the cinematographer.)

The only person who gives a bad performance happens to be Macdissi (an alumnus of Six Feet Under, the TV series that put Ball on the map), which is unfortunate since once he enters the picture he’s in more than half the scenes. His Wally is a jolly, portly gay guy with a bushy beard, and though it’s clear we’re supposed to see his direct access to his feelings and his life-affirming personality as an antidote to Frank’s repressed, guilt-laden upbringing – which has driven him into alcoholism – I kept wanting to throw things at him. I didn’t buy the two men’s relationship for a minute, because Macdissi’s Wally isn’t a character at all; he’s a therapeutic device. But Paul Bettany gives such an effortlessly naturalistic performance as Frank that, bad as the movie is, I never wanted to leave. No one ever makes a fuss over this actor, yet he always seems to come through, and his best work, in movies like Master and Commander, Wimbledon and The Secret Life of Bees, is sneakily resourceful and imaginative – he doesn’t repeat himself.

Vanessa Redgrave and Christoph Waltz in Georgetown.

In Georgetown Christoph Waltz plays Ulrich Mott, a German émigré who settles in D.C., manages to charm a much older widow (Vanessa Redgrave) into marrying him and, with her financial assistance and connections, infiltrates Washington high society. The playwright David Auburn based his script – structured as a series of flashbacks from the murder of Mott’s wife, Elsa Breht – on a New Yorker piece by Franklin Foer called “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” though he’s changed the names of the characters. Foer’s article is one of those juicy truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories that you read with growing amazement, yet the movie, directed by Waltz but signed, for some reason, “C. Waltz,” is utterly implausible. What is it about Waltz? He’s bizarre enough to hold the camera and he seems to have convinced a great many people that he’s a fine actor (including the Motion Picture Academy voters, on two separate occasions, but frankly I’ve never thought he was an actor at all, any more than I considered, say, Klaus Kinski to be one. (The only movie I’ve ever liked Waltz in was Roman Polanski’s Carnage, where his oddness and the disdainful tone that appears to be his stock in trade fit the style.) Well, now he’s behind the camera as well as in front of it, but Georgetown is inept. The scenes are badly staged and shot, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a picture with a duller supporting cast – they start to blur in your mind while they’re still on screen. Redgrave and Annette Bening (as her daughter Amanda) act with intelligence, though Bening’s role consists of nothing but unease building to outrage and the formidable Redgrave, who might have stepped down from Valhalla, is made to look so ludicrous in one scene after another that I felt offended for her. (Even her costumes all all wrong.) Georgetown is about a self-deluding fake who manages to persuade many people that he’s a hero, and God knows such figures exist. (Take a look at Alex Gibney’s mesmerizing 2019 documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.) The only mystery in the movie, however, is how “C. Waltz” persuaded anyone that he was a director.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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