An enigmatic figure in the fashion industry, but one whose output has an everlasting appeal, Pierre Cardin’s stylistic choices feel prescient. They also represent an individual who has sequestered his private life away from prying eyes, while cultivating a brand that is distinct and pushes forth a public persona of eccentricity and boundless ambition. House of Cardin serves as a means of exploring the brand which Cardin has fashioned, and how it reinforces the prolific designer as an auteur. But as a look at Cardin himself, the film feels stunted.
Clearly a vanity project authorized by someone who has maintained a life of luxury and prefers to keep his life outside of the spotlight a secret, House of Cardin is a toothless but still relatively interesting beginner’s guide to Pierre Cardin. Focused primarily on his successful endeavors inside and out of the fashion industry, the documentary offers an extended look at the idea of creating a brand and preserving it as the world around is constantly in a state of flux. Littered with interviews with some of fashion’s biggest names, as well as other famous stars like Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and Alice Cooper, there is a lot of ego-boosting to wade through before finding the nuggets of compelling ideas. No matter how many people say great things about Cardin and his work, there’s a distance to the man himself that the film fails to narrow. This ultimately leaves the film feeling inconsequential, even with concepts that it easily attaches to Cardin.
The trouble with House of Cardin is that it doesn’t really have much of a thesis. It opens with talk of how Cardin’s private life is a mystery to many, but then moves immediately away from that and into his public-facing self. It’s less a biography and more of a career retrospective that feels disingenuous, at best. It plays the highlights, and despite a few extremely brief moments in his early life, much of the documentary places a further level of gloss on an already shiny exterior. There’s no real examination of any specific facet of his career, effectively declaring Pierre Cardin to be untouchable.
Now, whether Cardin is truly unassailable or not is one thing; how the film handles it is another. It feels like a lot of Cardin’s work is put in a bubble, separated from the outside world and therefore excluded from a critical perspective, as there is nothing within the bubble to immediately compare and use as reference. The film doesn’t take his work and put it in the context of his contemporaries, instead opting to treat it like a separate industry of its own making. It doesn’t place Cardin in the fashion industry, but instead looks at his works as components of his brand. Yet, even then the film simply identifies it as a strong brand without actually positioning it in the pantheon of commercial enterprises. Cardin is Cardin, and the documentary refuses to believe that any other external factors are worth exploring to explain why he is so distinct from the pack.
As an officially authorized biography of the iconic fashion designer, House of Cardin is still a substantial entry-point for those unaware of Cardin and his work. Clearly equipped with a unique style, the movie has plenty of imagery to gawk and drool over, simply reinforcing how influential and important Cardin’s work is in the industry. That being said, nothing is more depressing than watching a puff piece that omits key elements of any biography simply because the subject refuses to be candid about that. House of Cardin amounts to the kind of documentary that gets played in a museum exhibit that highlights career-defining moments in a succinct and easily digestible fashion. Perhaps it’s better to just go look at the work he’s done and form one’s own opinion than have it spoon fed by the creator and his followers.
The 2019 DOC NYC festival runs 11/8-11/15.
Sundance Film Festival 2020: Five Movies to Watch Out For
The Sundance Film Festival released its impressive and imposing lineup of feature films for 2020 back in December. Unlike other festivals that cater primarily to art films or to major releases from established auteurs, Sundance’s lineup is comprised primarily of smaller independent films, especially American releases. In the past, the festival has been criticized for anointing middlebrow films with an almost messianic force; many of the movies that were labeled “Sundance sensations” are now forgotten, or their titles are spoken of with the derisive air of regret. Maybe it’s the altitude that makes critics particularly loopy.
Though there’s plenty of truth in those critiques of Sundance, they’re also somewhat misguided, as every year features dozens of stunning and adventurous films, even if they’re not the ones getting the most ink. With that in mind, I’ve selected five of the many upcoming features worth checking out at Sundance 2020.
One of the best films of the past decade was Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (which he followed with the equally brilliant but polarizing The Square). The pitch-black comedy followed the misadventures of a Swedish family vacation in the French Alps. Early on, when an avalanche heads toward the outdoor deck where the family is enjoying breakfast, the father bolts, leaving his wife and children in the avalanche’s path. Luckily for them, it doesn’t quite reach the lodge, but the couple are left to simmer in the knowledge of just how delicate their bond really is, and how easily it might be snapped.
Östlund’s film was equal parts disturbing and hilarious, and a new remake written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (along with co-writer Jesse Armstrong) might just give the original a run for its money. Rash and Faxon previously co-wrote and co-directed The Way Way Back, and co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne, so they’ve proved a mastery over satire and a detached yet humane style of comedy.
Still, it’s the cast that’s the biggest draw for Downhill. Will Ferrell is set to play the husband, and it will be fascinating to see whether he tries something different with a more reserved performance that mirrors the original, or something more wildly comedic. Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ work on Veep in recent years ensures that she’ll be hilarious and piercing as the wife, and the Silicon Valley scene-stealer Zach Woods also rounds out the cast. It may not top the original, but Downhill will still be one to pay attention to.
Miranda July’s first two features, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), rank among my favorite films from the last two decades. Therefore, the promise of a new July film is cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. July steps back and only writes and directs Kajillionaire, which stars Evan Rachel Wood, the great Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez. Wood, Jenkins, and Winger play a family of grifters who allow a young woman (Rodriguez) to join their clan, only to set everything topsy-turvy.
There’s not much more to go on than that, but if Kajillionaire is anything like July’s previous films, it’ll feature a healthy dose of near-surreal humor and achingly personal connections. It’s a shame that the director won’t be acting in this one, as she was so arresting in The Future and last year’s Madeline’s Madeline. The cast as assembled features an intriguing mix of actors, and July is likely to coax something profound out of them. Her first feature took off at Sundance, and it seems possible she might make a repeat performance.
The Last Thing He Wanted
Director Dee Rees is another former Sundance sensation, whose 2011 film Pariah won the Excellence in Cinematography award at the festival. Her previous film, 2017’s Mudbound, made its way to Netflix and netted the writer and director her best reviews to date. Her previous films have often dealt with intensely personal subjects of race and sexuality, but now Rees is branching out into something new: a political thriller based on the novel by the legendary writer of all trades, Joan Didion.
The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a political journalist assigned to cover the 1984 U.S. Presidential election. But her plans are ripped to shreds when she’s forced to put everything on hold to care for her dying father (Willem Dafoe). Along the way, she’s swept up into a world of intrigue and conspiracy as she takes over for her father as a Central American arms dealer. Ben Affleck also co-stars as Treat Morrison, a U.S. government official who becomes entangled with Elena in the course of his oversight.
The original novel isn’t as fondly remembered as Didion’s early novels (or any of her non-fiction work), but it seems particularly suited for the present day, when the U.S. has once again been accused of meddling in Latin American elections while American weapons fuel armed conflicts across the globe.
After a very good 1960s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and a very bad ‘90s version, Shirley Jackson’s most famous novel got a Netflix series adaptation that had little to do with the book, and was great and abysmal in equal proportions. Though The Haunting and the short story collection The Lottery are among her most popular works, Jackson didn’t only write horror, and even when she was writing something darkly suspenseful, she seemed more interested in interrogating the malignancies festering with families.
Josephine Decker’s new film, Shirley, seems to focus on that broader view of Jackson’s writing. Elisabeth Moss stars as the writer, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. When a young couple moves in with Shirley and her husband, she begins to use drama created by their interactions as fodder for a new novel.
I didn’t love Decker’s rapturously received Madeline’s Madeline (2018) as much as others, though I consider Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) among the decade’s best. Decker is a master at charting a mind’s unraveling, whether it belongs to a young woman obsessed with becoming an actor, or a farmhand pursued by a demented farmer’s daughter. The question with Shirley is whether it’s the eponymous writer doing the unraveling, or the young lovers unlucky enough to feel safe in her presence.
Director Brandon Cronenberg is the son of that other famous Cronenberg, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would also share an interest in questions of identity and the nature of our own bodies. His sophomore feature, a follow-up to 2012’s Antiviral, stars the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, a corporate assassin of sorts who is able to temporarily implant her consciousness in the minds of regular citizens in order to get them to carry out assassinations for her. But when a mishap finds her stuck in the mind of a man (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), his mind threatens to swallow up her own.
Antiviral has become a cult horror classic of sorts in recent years, which makes Cronenberg’s second feature of great interest. And as long as his dad isn’t making movies, it might be the next best thing. But it’s the stellar casting of the film’s leads that is of most interest to me. Riseborough is never anything less than fascinating, even when she’s cast in bad movies. In the span of less than a year, she gave a hilarious turn as Stalin’s daughter in The Death of Stalin (2017), the doomed title character in Mandy (2018), and a disturbed woman posing as a couple’s missing daughter in Nancy (2018). Similar to Tilda Swinton, simple changes of clothing and hair can make her almost unrecognizable, which means every performance is imbued with a sense of discovery. Christopher Abbott has shown himself to be a mercurial presence on Girls, as well as in James White (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), but he’s often stuck in smaller roles that don’t let him show off the extent of his talents. Any movie that can pair these two actors is worth checking out.
‘Harpoon’ — A Nasty Thriller that Mostly Hits the Target
Harpoon is best described as Dead Calm meets Alive. It follows Jonah (Munro Chambers), Sasha (Emily Tyra), and Richard (Christopher Gray)— a trio of unlikable friends with some serious issues who do horrible things to one another for roughly eighty-two minutes.
After Richard, the son of a mob boss suspects his best friend Jonah and long-time girlfriend Sasha are having an affair, it sends him into an uncontrollable rage that leaves Jonah a bruised and bloody mess. Only it seems Richard is wrong (or so they say), and after convincing Richard the allegations are false, Richard invites them on his family’s yacht to celebrate his birthday. It was meant to be a fun day trip in order to win back their trust but as tensions boil and the yacht’s engine fails, Richard’s anger management issues kick in and his birthday present (a speargun mistaken for a harpoon) becomes a threat. Stranded without food, drinking water, and other supplies, their only hope of survival is to set aside their differences and work together. But as secrets continue to be revealed and accusations are made, it seems this fuc*ed-up trio has little to no hope of ever reaching land alive.
At its core, Harpoon is really a film about friendship, albeit a toxic friendship between three young adults who have drifted apart but somehow remain bound only by the amount of time they’ve known each other. When the trio are left stranded in the middle of the ocean, both their friendships and their lives are tested in excruciating ways. Rob Grant and co-screenwriter Mike Kovac’s script features an unseen narrator (Brett Gelman) who offers insight into the interpersonal background of the trio along with a clever and amusing history lesson about sailors and their superstitions. It seems the uncontrollable nature of the sea has given way to many a nautical lore, each one as curious as the next and Harpoon dives deep into these myths and legends feeding us snippets of info during a swift montage. As the plot twists, and turns (of which it does plenty), the trio realizes they’ve jinxed themselves in a barrage of ways. As they wait in hopes that someone will come to their rescue, they pass the time looking for ways to survive while discussing stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the true tale of Richard Parker, whose life at sea unbelievably mirrored the plot of Poe‘s writing which was released 50 years earlier.
For what is essentially a horror film shot on a single location, director Rob Grant does a superb job in delivering a nasty little thriller. In spite of the short running time and limited claustrophobic setting, Grant keeps the film interesting with his camera choices and clever editing. As the film progresses the camerawork slowly draws in ever tighter on the three leads heightening the suspense at key moments while also further adding to the claustrophobic feel. It really is impressive how much mileage the filmmakers get when working with so little.
Held together by three impressive performances, Harpoon deftly plays with our emotions as we become less and less sympathetic to the trio, no matter what horrible things they may be experiencing. What makes Harpoon different than your average survival thriller is how it continuously encourages the audience to laugh at the series of unfortunate events. No matter how deceitful, violent and psychotic these three friends are, Harpoon somehow manages to remain darkly funny.
I must once again stress how annoying these characters are and because of this, Harpoon is a film I admire more than I enjoyed. Often the trio’s bickering is exhausting to sit through and despite a running commentary on toxic masculinity and male insecurity, Harpoon eventually runs out of steam— or rather, is left with no more wind in its sails. In the end, these terrible human beings couldn’t be any more deserving of each other but I can’t say I enjoyed their company.
- Ricky D
Editor’s Note. The review was originally published on August 7, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival. Harpoon is now streaming on Showtime and available on Sho Extreme & on-demand.
‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer
The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.
The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo has crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.
Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.
Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonic scape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.
Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involve R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.
That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.
There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and the way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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