We’re in the thick of the holiday movie season now, when Oscar bait dangles like Christmas tree ornaments and auteurs from Steven Spielberg to Guillermo Del Toro to Jane Campion parade their latest wares. So, naturally, the best movie opening this week is a Romanian sex farce that turns out to be a scathing satire of hypocrisy in the age of COVID.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn kicks off, even before the opening credits, with a two-minute-long, hardcore home movie in all its explicit glory. So, I guess, be ready for that. It turns out that the participants are a high school history teacher named Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband Eugen, and that the film has somehow been uploaded to the internet, prompting an upcoming meeting between Emi and a group of concerned parents.
But director Radu Jude isn’t interested in something as simple as provincial, puritanical, scandalmongering. The film is divided into three parts, the first of which follows Emi as she runs various mundane errands while anticipating, with anxious reserve, the meeting later that evening. It serves as a time-capsule-quality portrait of life under COVID—this is the first film I’ve seen that, rather than being shot in quarantine or being thematically inspired by the pandemic, is simply set in a work of masks, social distancing, and increasingly stressed-out people. Jude’s camera follows Emi as she moves through her day, but often pauses when she leaves the frame to linger over the quotidian detritus of late-stage capitalism. Everyday pedestrians, not extras, occasionally wander into the picture, sometimes taking a moment to glance at, or even curse at, the camera.
Bad Luck Banging then abruptly transitions to its brilliant second segment, an extended montage reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Some of the references are culturally specific, but the cumulative message is that, in a world of environmental degradation, the perversion of religion, and relentless commodification, it’s almost absurd to brand consensual sex, no matter how explicitly depicted, as something irredeemably obscene.
In the final act, Emi arrives at the anticipated meeting, sits behind a desk in the school courtyard, and gets subjected to the moralistic, bureaucratic, and simply petty slings and arrows of the concerned parents, all of them (some reluctantly) masked. At one point they collectively insist on replaying the video for those who may not have seen it, while Emi sits nearby, dead-eyed, her quiet fury building. The overall dynamic and several of the archetypes should be familiar to anyone who has attended a dysfunctional PTA meeting.
Emi is the lone voice of reason in this group of hectoring, narrow-winded scolds, and Jude makes no bones about that fact. Toward the end of the film, she reads aloud from her phone a lengthy passage by the Romanian education specialist Doru Căstăian, a manifesto on the neurological benefits of memorization and a critique of the idea that learning must always have a practical end. Meanwhile, the parents’ objections are revealed to be rooted in anti-Semitism, nationalism, and general ignorance.
All of this is enough to stir a mighty rage in the viewer, but it’s nothing compared to that which emerges from Emi in Bad Luck Banging’s climactic moments, which should not be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that this is a sneakily radical, absurdly dark-humored fable that culminates in the most jaw-dropping, and applause-worthy, final shot of the year. (Opens Friday, Dec. 10, at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre.)
THE PRESTIGE PICTURES dropping this week, on the other hand, range from the overly familiar to the poorly plotted to the disastrously miscast.
We’ve waited an extra year for Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which has been getting largely positive reviews but which I found ultimately unnecessary. Yes, the iconic musical has been tweaked to reflect a more modern sensibility, most significantly (and appropriately) in its more authentic casting. Rachel Zegler, making her screen debut, is a breakout star as Maria, and Ariana DeBose manages to fill Rita Moreno’s shoes as Anita. Spielberg stages some of the big dance numbers, especially “America,” in a way that’s more classical than the hyperkinetic contemporary norm, but—and maybe I’m being too much of a purist here—there are still too many cuts. Just let the dancers dance, Steve! Most fatally, any goodwill or rapture that begins to stir in the soul of a viewer is drowned like a kitten in a bathtub every time the soulless shell that is Ansel Elgort appears on screen. Yes, Tony is supposed to be a basic lunkhead, but there’s just nothing behind Elgort’s eyes and there’s certainly no chemistry whatsoever between him and Zegler. Maybe someday he’ll leave his heartthrob origins (and disturbing allegations) behind and mature into an interesting character actor, a la Colin Farrell, but for now he’s about as exciting as a pot of paste. (Opens Friday, Dec. 10, at theaters everywhere.)
Nearly as miscast, though far more innately talented, is Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s ill-fated attempt to pay tribute to the couple who changed television forever in the 1950s. Adding to the clumsiness is Javier Bardem, too old for the part, as Desi Arnaz. The film chronicles an unrealistically eventful week in the lives of Lucy & Desi. Tabloids are publishing stories implying that Desi has been unfaithful, Lucy is being accused of being a Communist, and the couple attempt to figure out a way to incorporate their pregnancy into the storyline of I Love Lucy. Juggling these crises while rehearsing that week’s episode leads to a surfeit of rapid-fire, Sorkin-esque dialogue, much of it lobbed between Kidman and Bardem. The supporting roles are much more satisfying, with J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as the actors playing neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz. And it’s fun to get glimpses of pioneering TV writers and directors such as Marilyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy of The White Lotus), and Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale). But when the most convincing scenes are the ones replicating famous sitcom moments rather than the ones purporting to be real life, that’s not a good sign for a biopic like this one. (Opens Friday, Dec. 10, in theaters, and Tuesday, Dec. 21, on Amazon Prime).
Last and, frankly, least, 2020 Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed gives a committed but wasted performance in Encounter, a sci-fi film that’s not really a sci-fi film and one that thinks it’s much more clever than it is. The first few minutes are electrifying, as we witness the arrival on Earth of the microscopic parasites, carried by insects, who have infected and taken over most of the planet’s population. (Think toxoplasmosis on a grand scale.) Ex-Marine Malik Khan (Ahmed) is on the run, hiding out in motel rooms and spraying himself with bug repellent to repel the invaders. He decides to rescue his two young sons from the home they share with their mother and her new partner, and arrives in the middle of the night to spirit them away. There’s a big twist to all this, however, which director Michael Pearce should have done a much better job hiding. As is, I was reminded of the far superior 2006 Michael Shannon film Bug almost immediately, and if that’s a spoiler, well, sorry. (Streaming on Amazon Prime starting Friday, Dec. 10).