All the buzz at the multiplex is about the technical wizardry of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, and we’ll get to that. For my money, though, the most inventive piece of cinema opening this week is Leonor Will Never Die, a startling and brilliant meta-movie from Filipina writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar.
Grandmotherly Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) used to be a screenwriter for the popular Filipino action films of the 1970s and ’80s. Now she lives a humble existence with her adult son Rudie (Bong Cabrera), struggling to pay the bills and haunted, literally, by the ghost of her other son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon).
Inspired to revisit some of her unproduced scripts, she decides to enter one in a screenwriting contest. In the process, however, she ends up getting hit in the head by a television that had been hurled from a window, knocking her into a coma and at the same time inserting her into the film she’s writing.
While Rudie and Leonor’s ex-husband Valentin (Alan Bautista) attempt to rouse her from unconsciousness, Leonor finds herself caught up in the saga of a hero (Rocky Salumbides) named after her dead son who’s trying to rescue a beautiful imperiled singer (Rea Molina). Ramirez Escobar helpfully shifts between different aspect ratios and film stocks to emphasize the difference between the real world and the reel one playing out in Leonor’s mind.
All of this is clever enough, and held together by Francisco’s committed and adorable performance. But the two levels of Leonor’s reality eventually begin to merge, and the film explodes its own self-referentiality in a final, jaw-dropping sequence that’s perfectly rendered. It reportedly took eight years to get made, but Leonor Will Never Die is one of the most promising debut features in recent memory, all the more thrilling because it comes from such an unexpected source. (Opens Friday, Dec. 16, at Living Room Theaters.)
Nearly as unexpected, just as powerful, and much darker, Holy Spider looks and sounds like an Iranian film, but in fact is this year’s Danish submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Watching director Ali Abassi’s third feature, it’s clear after only a few minutes that it could never have been shot in his home country.
Holy Spider is based on the true, widely publicized story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who murdered sixteen female sex workers in the holy city of Mashhad during 2000 and 2001. After he was apprehended, he proudly admitted to the crimes, claiming that he was attempting to cleanse Iran’s second-largest city of sin. Many conservative, fundamentalist voices in the country praised him for his efforts.
Abbasi introduces the character of a female journalist (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who arrives in Mashhad to investigate why the authorities have been so slow to capture the so-called Spider Killer. While she attempts to pierce the veil of chauvinist fundamentalism she encounters, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) alternates between a mundane daytime home life with his wife and children and evenings spent in pursuit of his prey.
Both lead performances are seamless. Bajestani captures the banal certainty of Saeed’s religious fervor, while Ebrahimi embodies her character’s tenacity and, at times, terror. Her work is especially impressive considering that she was originally the film’s casting director and only took on the role when the original actor bowed out at the last minute.
The multinational production was filmed in Jordan, and the response of Iran’s government to Ebrahimi’s Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was predictable: it condemned the film as insulting to Islam and compared it to The Satanic Verses. Ebrahimi has received hundreds of death threats for daring to play a woman who chafes against the restrictions of Iranian society and exposes its hypocrisy. In short, Holy Spider represents cinematic bravery of the highest order. (Opens Friday, Dec. 16, at Cinema 21.)
The sort of courage the makers of Holy Spider displayed makes the version exhibited by Brendan Fraser in The Whale pale by comparison. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but strapping on a massive fat suit to play a 600-pound pity party doesn’t risk much other than the disappointment of not getting an Oscar nomination and the opprobrium of those who think the role should have gone to an actual 600-pound actor.
That said, Fraser’s performance is impressive in its vulnerability and pathos, and The Whale deserves more than mere dismissal as a piece of fatphobic art. Saying that Charlie, the English teacher trying to commit suicide by gluttony, somehow represents all obese people as objects of pity and scorn, is like saying that Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas represents everyone who has a few too many now and then.
Director Darren Aronofsky, always willing to swing big, embraces The Whale’s stagebound origins, confining the action to the dingy apartment from which Charlie remotely teaches community college classes. Bereft following the death of his boyfriend, Charlie guzzles pizzas and meatball subs with fatal abandon, despite the entreaties of his boyfriend’s sister (Hong Chau), his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink), and a hapless door-to-door missionary (Ty Simpkins). His ex-wife (Samantha Morton) eventually shows up, too.
The intent of Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (adapting his own play) is clearly to depict Charlie as a sympathetic figure, a flawed man desperate for redemption but with no idea how to go about getting it. There are definitely moments when the focus on Charlie’s massive bulk or his sloppily ecstatic feeding habits veers into grotesquerie, and others where Fraser’s pathetically plaintive puppy-dog eyes nearly trigger one’s gag reflex. But, as I said, Aronofsky swings big, and when he makes contact the results can be transcendent. That happens often enough in The Whale to make it a fascinating curio worth taking seriously. (Opens Tuesday, Dec. 20, at Cinema 21 and other area theaters.)
Okay, so back to Avatar: The Way of Water, a 192-minute epic that basically reprises the plot of the first film and shows off the latest, greatest, 3-D motion capture technology in the process. Once again a band of ruthless human capitalists have come to the idyllic planet of Pandora to loot its natural resources and battle its indigenous resistance fighters, the feline humanoids known as Na’vi.
This time, our hero Jake Sully, now gone fully native, and his family flee the invaders and settle with a group of Na’vi who disprove the notion that cats hate getting wet. There are some cool sentient whales, too. And when the bad guys do catch up, the climactic extended battle sequence is, like the rest of the film, a feast for the senses.
But, like the first Avatar, you can’t help but wish that Cameron would use his directorial resources in the service of a story that doesn’t seem like it was written by an ecologically earnest 10th-grader. Back in the day, advances in cinematic technology were trumpeted in travelogues such as This Is Cinerama or hokey epics like The Robe. The Avatar films fall squarely in that tradition. (Opens Friday, Dec. 16, everywhere.)