Monday, January 23, 2023

In Passing

Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives.

This piece includes reviews of Thirteen Lives,The Good Nurse,Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and The Pale Blue Eye.

At the outset of Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard’s dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang Cave rescue in northern Thailand, we see the twelve pre-teen and teenage football players and their coach enter the cave and then the monsoon begin to batter it. But then Howard and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, make an unconventional choice: they don’t show us the trapped souls again until, about halfway through the picture, the British divers, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), come upon them near the mouth of the cave twelve days into the ordeal, when many participating in the story or following it on the news fear they must be dead. Naturally the filmmakers understand that presenting the facts of the narrative from the point of view of those outside the cave is dramatically effective, but I think there’s an ethical dimension to their showing us what Stanton and Volanthen discover as they discover it. Howard and Nicholson strive to avoid melodrama; they don’t want to rev up the audience by cutting back and forth between the deprivations the footballers are suffering and the efforts of the crew – a wide, disparate combination of divers, Thai Navy SEALS and other military, police officers, volunteers of every stripe and the representatives of about a hundred government agencies – to track them down. They are resolute about draining Thirteen Lives of sentimentality; I wouldn’t say there’s none at all, but given the nature of the material there’s remarkably little. It’s a film of great integrity as well as tremendous skill. And the subject matter is so gripping that you’re grateful for the foreknowledge that the coach and all the kids got out alive. (One of the SEALS, Saman Kunan, played by a charismatic young actor named Sukollowat Kanarat, did not survive the operation, and another died a year and a half later of a blood infection he contracted during it.) 

Much of the skill is in Howard’s staging. He layers and clarifies the action so that we have a complex sense of the simultaneous circles of activity, including the parents of the boys and the men who are working to divert the rainwater in an attempt to lessen the flooding of the cave system. And much of the credit for the movie’s directness and purity of purpose should go to the understated work of the actors, especially Mortensen, Farrell and Joel Edgerton (an actor I haven’t liked before) as Stanton and Volanthen’s friend Dr. Harry Harris, whose inventiveness turns out to be the element that enables the rescue. In smaller roles, Sahajak Boonthanakit shines as the outgoing governor of the province and Teeradon Supapunpinyo as the coach whose discipline, pragmatism, spirit and indefatigability keep his team alive until the rescuers can locate them. Each of these Thai actors has a moment that resonates like a revelation in one of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist dramas. Boonthanakit’s comes when the governor, agreeing to put the Brits in charge of the rescue mission, affirms that if it fails he will take full responsibility. Supapunpinyo’s occurs after the coach learns that he is being hailed outside the cave as a hero when he believes he’s at fault for leading the boys into danger. The first-rate editing is by James Wilcox and the lustrous cinematography is by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. 

Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in The Good Nurse.

In The Good Nurse Jessica Chastain plays Nurse Amy Loughren, who discovers that Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), a newcomer on her hospital’s nursing staff, has been killing patients by doctoring their saline bags with insulin. The movie, adapted by Krysty Wilson-Cairns from Charles Graeber’s non-fiction bestseller and directed by the talented Danish director Tobias Lindholm (A War), is creepy and tense and the two stars deliver precise, imaginative performances; they’re backed by an excellent supporting cast that includes Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha as the cops investigating the suspicious death of one of Amy’s patients and Kim Dickens as the hospital’s risk assessor. But the film feels closed in: it never strays from its single ominous note. And there’s an odd problem in the plotting. Amy, raising two young kids on her own, is dealing with serious medical issues but she hasn’t held her job long enough to qualify for paid medical leave. She and Charlie hit it off right away and having identified a glitch in the computer that registers scripts as cancellations, he scores drugs for her from the hospital store that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. It’s also, of course, the way he obtains the lethal doses of insulin, so we can see that, when Amy realizes what he’s been up to with patients, she’s somehow implicated. But the script doesn’t present this complication as a moral dilemma; instead it just drops that whole part of the story. (I haven’t read the book.) The result is a thriller with no subtext whatsoever. 

Daniel Craig and Janelle Monáe in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.

Since I didn’t share in the general enthusiasm over Knives Out – I thought the mystery could have been much cleverer and that most of the cast, especially the supporting women, Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis, didn’t have enough to do – I was pleasantly surprised by the sequel, Glass Onion, which is also written and directed by Rian Johnson. As a parody of an Agatha Christie whodunit, it’s much cannier, and the more tortuous the plot gets the funnier the proceedings are. Daniel Craig, who was the best thing about the first film, returns as Benoit Blanc, the southern gentleman detective who stands in for Christie’s arrogant Continental sleuth Hercule Poirot. As in And Then There Were None (a Christie without a detective), the characters have been summoned to a remote setting, in this case a remote Greek island, where the host, billionaire genius Miles Bron (Edward Norton), has planned an elaborate murder mystery game that, of course, turns real. The guests include Kate Hudson as a fashion designer, Kathryn Hawn as a politician, Leslie Odom Jr. as a scientist, Dave Bautista as a men’s rights crusader and Janelle Monáe as Bron’s one-time business partner, whom he has stripped of any credit for the empire they forged together. Glass Onion is flashy, noisy and silly, and it goes for nearly two and a half hours; for me it belongs in the category of comedies I would have expected to find more exhausting than funny, like the 1944 hillbilly farce Murder, He Says and the 1980 superhero burlesque Flash Gordon. But I enjoyed both of them and I enjoyed Glass Onion. Rick Heinrichs and Jenny Eagan score big with the production and costume design respectively, and the starry cast is embellished with a number of cameos. Craig and Monáe give the most polished performances but everybody seems to having a fine time except for Norton, who wears his part like a straitjacket. 

Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in The Pale Blue Eye.

At the other end of the entertainment spectrum from Glass Onion is The Pale Blue Eye, adapted by director Scott Cooper from a novel by Louis Bayard. It’s set at West Point in 1830, where a renowned gumshoe (Christian Bale) is brought in to solve a cadet’s gruesome murder and enlists the help of one of the victim’s classmates, a hard-drinking poet who’s the favored target of his peers. That the amateur sleuth is Edgar Allan Poe sounds like an appealing idea but the movie forgets to dream up a reason for putting him in the narrative. The Pale Blue Eye struggles to make a virtue of lugubriousness. There’s some amusement in making out the features of Gillian Anderson, Robert Duvall, Toby Jones and Timothy Spall under their elaborate make-up, but it runs out eventually, and most of the acting falls into one of two categories: strained (like Bale’s) or outright terrible (like Anderson’s). The only member of the cast I enjoyed watching was Harry Melling as Poe, whose quirkiness seems to be about something. Melling, best known for playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films and for The Queen’s Gambit, could be one of those one-of-a-kind actors who carry a mesmerizing weirdness around with them, like Giovanni Ribisi, Crispin Glover and Ewen Bremner. But he needs the right roles. 

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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