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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Banshees of Inisherin,’ ‘Call Jane,’ ‘Wendell & Wild,’ and much more

With "Banshees," the "In Bruges" team creates another winner; "Jane" brings pre-Roe issues to post-Roe times; Oregon-made animation; unflinching "Western Front"; trouble for trailer parks.

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

It’s not news anymore that Colin Farrell has turned out to have a more interesting career than anyone could have guessed when he was first thrust upon the scene in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland all the way back at the turn of the century. Blessed with the soul of a character actor and cursed with the looks of a leading man, he played Alexander the Great, Jesse James, and the super-villain Bullseye in terrible movies. Then he played Captain John Smith and Detective Sonny Crockett in better movies.

But it wasn’t until his collaboration with writer-director Martin McDonagh and co-star Brendan Gleeson in 2008’s In Bruges that Farrell found his true calling. Putting his epic eyebrows to good use, he played a dim, impulsive Irish hit man with puppy-dog vibes opposite Gleeson’s world-weary veteran.

Now, in The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh pairs Farrell and Gleason once more, recreating in large part the dynamic of In Bruges but without all the gunplay. That doesn’t make it any less dark of a tale, however.

The setting this time is a fictional, titular island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923, where the regular routines of rural life recur while the sounds of the ongoing civil war occasionally echo from the mainland. Pádraic (Farrell) is a simpleton who lives with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and his beloved donkey Jenny. He’s been friends since as long as anyone can remember with Colm (Gleeson), but one day Pádraic arrives at the pub expecting to share the usual pint with his pal, only to be told by Colm in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk to him ever again.

Understandably puzzled, Pádraic persists in his efforts to find out what he might have done and how he can repair this breach, but Colm refuses to explain. In fact, he threatens to cut off one of his own fingers each time Pádraic speaks to him. (And he’s serious.) Eventually Colm lets on that he’s tired of rehashing the same inane banter day after day, year after year, and that he wants to focus on his songwriting and his fiddle playing. Basically, he’s decided he’s an artiste and doesn’t have time to waste on idle chatter.

Banshees is a story about male friendship and the pitfalls created by an inability to speak emotional truth. It’s also a story about the pros and cons of human connection in general. And, of course, it’s a story about the balancing act between darkness and light, between hope and despair, between luck and misfortune, that defines the Irish.

McDonagh, it seems, could write lyrically profane, hilariously cruel dialogue in his sleep. It’s endlessly quotable, but I won’t do so here, if only because lying flat on a screen doesn’t do it justice. Mouthed by the movie’s peerless cast, it becomes as much a musical experience as anything Colm summons from his fiddle.

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If Gleeson’s performance isn’t as impactful as Farrell’s, that’s only because he’s got the tougher role—and because it’s easy to think his weathered visage is doing some of the work for him. (Calling Gleeson’s face craggy is like calling Farrell’s eyebrows bushy–the adjectives are necessary but by no means sufficient.) The sneakily good Barry Keoghan does fine work as Pádraic’s buddy and sounding board, who suffers his own indignities as the son of the abusive local cop.

When I’m the king of cinema, one of my first dictats would be that McDonagh, Farrell, and Gleeson make a film together once a year until I grow tired of them. Until then, here’s hoping we won’t have to wait fourteen years for their next must-see team-up. (Opens Friday, Oct. 28, at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre.)

ALSO OPENING:

Call Jane: Elizabeth Banks gives her best dramatic performance to date as Joy Griffin, a Chicago housewife in 1968 whose husband (Chris Messina) just made partner at his law firm. She has a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and another child on the way, until she’s diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a condition that’s especially dangerous for pregnant women. Of course, this being 1968, she can only obtain an abortion if an all-male panel of physicians deems it necessary, a decision that, by design, does not account for Joy’s health or even survival.

Desperate, Joy responds to a telephone pole flier and enter the world of the Jane Collective, a group of women (and the occasional male doctor) who provided illegal, clandestine abortions during the years prior to Roe v. Wade. Sigourney Weaver is Virginia, the (fictionalized) founder and leader of the group. After undergoing her procedure at the hands of a brusque, youthful OB-GYN (Cory Michael Smith), Joy decides to join in the collective’s efforts, without, of course, telling her family.

Joy’s journey from getting dinner on the table every night to studying stolen gynecology textbooks features the inevitable joint-smoking and a growing sympathy for the wider counterculture. Call Jane includes, but hardly centers, voices that are critical of the group’s lack of engagement with racial and economic inequities, most vividly that of its sole Black member (Wunmi Mosaku). It’s the feature directing debut of Phyllis Nagy, who was Oscar-nominated for the screenplay of Carol, another film that tackled historic social taboos through a largely white, upper-class lens.

Still, this is obviously a timely tale, and a reminder of the realities of life in a pre- (and post-) Roe world. And if it plays a bit loose with the facts, a more educational (and at least as riveting) option is available in the form of the documentary The Janes, which premiered earlier this year on HBOMAX. (Opens Friday, Oct. 28, at Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters.)

Wendell & Wild: The Oregon-made latest from stop-motion maestro Henry Selick bears plenty of evidence that it came from the mind of Jordan Peele. Memorable characters, clever fiddlings with genre, and a fairly seamless incorporation of political content dominate this seasonal story about a 13-year-old orphan named Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) who blames herself for her parents’ death in a car crash years earlier. Now bitter and rebellious, she’s shipped back to her economically blighted hometown as part of a program for at-risk youth and enrolled in a prestigious (i.e. snobby) private school.

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Meanwhile (yes, there’s more) a pair of demons named Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele) toil away slathering hair tonic on the scalp of their giant-sized underworld father (Ving Rhames). They dream of opening an amusement park, of all things, and in order to do so they need to escape the underworld. I forget exactly why. Their plans eventually involve raising Kat’s parents from the dead, which naturally doesn’t come off without a few wrinkles.

The stop-motion animation looks amazing, sometimes too amazing when it relies overly on assists from CGI. The design, like the story, is quite busy, but original and convincing. The diversity of the characters, who include a nonbinary classmate of Kat’s and an indigenous bus driver (complete with Link Wray tee shirt), is both welcome and unforced—these characters’ identities aren’t mandated by the plot, they simply are.

Like Coraline, Selick’s previous feature, Wendell & Wild pushes the envelope of intensity and scares for a “kids’ film.” (It’s rated PG-13.) But its emotional and social messages (private prisons: bad, overcoming survivor’s guilt: good) are worth getting out to viewers of all ages. (Currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre; streaming on Netflix as of Friday, Oct. 28)

Please Baby Please: Taking a page, or even a chapter, from the Rocky Horror playbook, this campy, gender-bending trifle centers on a white-bread couple, Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling), who get drawn into a world beyond their limited libidinal imaginations after watching a 1950s street gang beat a man to death in front of their apartment building.

The leader of the gang, the “Young Gents,” is played by erstwhile Portlander Karl Glusman, whose original claim to fame came in Gaspar Noe’s hyper-explicit Love. He brings a louche, leather-boy charisma here, as he and Melling increasingly eye each other over the course of repeated encounters. The other ace up director Andrea Kramer’s sleeve is none other than Demi Moore, who gets a glorified, swanning cameo as a rich wife who grants Suze the use of her appliance-equipped penthouse. Beyond that, Please Baby Please is an overly familiar assemblage of tropes and transgressions, shot in a stylized, neon palette and saddled with perfunctory jokes. (Opens Friday, Oct. 28, at the Living Room Theatres.)

STREAMING PICKS:

All Quiet on the Western Front: Almost every war in human history has its heroic narratives, at least on movie screens. One exception is the First World War, an unmitigated, unnecessary, and uninspiring disaster by almost any historical or moral standard. Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel chronicling one German soldier’s nightmarish experience during the war has been made into two previous films, a potent but hidebound Oscar winner from 1930 and an overly earnest 1979 telefilm starring Richard Thomas.

Neither holds a candle cinematically to this unflinching, epic treatment from German director Edward Berger. This film wants to be both the Apocalypse Now and the Saving Private Ryan of World War I cinema, and it gets impressively close to those goals. The story of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is the story of the Every Soldier, whose martial and nationalistic fervor quickly runs face-first into the bloody, muddy reality of trench warfare and the murderous incompetence of the men running the war. Berger’s greatest accomplishment is keeping things visually and narratively compelling without compromising the story’s essential anti-war sentiment or devolving into numbing despair. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one that should be seen on a big screen. Alas, that’s not the world we live in. (Streaming on Netflix as of Friday, Oct. 28)

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A Decent Home: As a resident of what was then called a trailer park during my entire elementary school career, I have a special interest in this documentary about the challenges faced by mobile home communities in the conditions of late-stage capitalism. Such communities have for decades provided one of the rare avenues toward home ownership for less wealthy Americans. The catch, of course, is that you might own a home, but not the land it sits on.

Director Sara Terry explores a recent phenomenon in which wealthy investors or hedge funds buy up mobile home parks, raise the rents to drive out the residents, then develop the property in collaboration with municipal governments only too willing to increase their tax base at the expense of some of their most vulnerable citizens. Terry’s primary focus is on a park in Aurora, Colorado, and the biggest villain in the film is Aurora’s mayor.

Despite the obligatory scenes of motivated political organizing, and scattered success, the overall picture is grim. But one thing A Decent Home does accomplish is to humanize the folks who’ve made mobile home parks into communities: the working poor, immigrants, and retirees who confound the usual slurs and condescension directed at “trailer trash.” It’s not size or opulence or even location that make a home decent, after all, it’s who lives in it. Which is something the greedheads looking only to add to their piles of wealth will never understand. (Available on demand through a variety of online and cable providers.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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