Victor Kossakovsky’s striking black-and-white portrait of a farm in Norway, Gunda, opens with its titular critter, a pregnant sow, giving birth to a dozen piglets. As the collection of newborns swarm the teat, someone offscreen misses out. This is the runt of the litter, and who then gets dug out of the hay by its mother. It all seems everlastingly sweet, in a Babe-esque fashion, that is until Gunda accidently crushes her smallest offspring under her dropped hoof, cutting off any of the awing that might have been coming from the audience. Thankfully, the piglet does seem to survive — as we later on see a pig with a slightly messed up leg. The thing is, though, we can’t know for sure, because Gunda doesn’t identify, by name or text, any of its subjects, not even Gunda herself. This isn’t your typical nature documentary; you won’t be hearing any comforting human voices of the likes of David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. In fact, humans are completely absent, outside of a late arrival of an ominous truck.
With Gunda, Kossakovsky is interested only in immersion — in offering an intimate tour of this grubby corner of the animal kingdom. Straying occasionally onto other animals of the farm, for ninety minutes we lock into the animals’ business through only the sound and images of their world (there isn’t a note of music) — this a doc that seems perfectly aligned for those who love to spend an hour per exhibit at the zoo and-or prefer their docs to be light on facts/figures and heavy on splendor. Presented as a monochromatic marvel, Kossakovsky never humanizes his subjects. But you can see hints of personality in their everyday behavior, if you watch close enough. Or that may just be projection? Part of the film’s tightrope act is that it gets you thinking about sentience and searching for inner life in animals that it stubbornly resists sentimentalizing or ascribing more advanced emotions to. Then again, maybe just filming their routines will inspire audiences to go the extra distance of identification. It’s said, after all, that humans can see themselves in anything, even the so-called “lesser” lifeforms they consume. It’s not so hard with pigs, which are smart and social; putting their daily activity next to a chicken’s certainly makes the distinction clear.
You won’t learn much from Gunda, at all. It’s an art-house pastoral mood piece, not an educational tool. Which is not to imply it lacks a philosophy. It’s no accident that Kossakovsky has chosen to film creatures (pigs, cows, chickens) we regard almost exclusively as food. Gunda doesn’t manufacture characters, but it does, in the end, find something like an arc for its collective, closing as it does with an extended final shot that communicates the harsh reality of farm life in a way arguably just as upsetting — but much less expected — than a trip to the slaughterhouse. There isn’t any word, shock imagery or lecturing needed to get the feeling across, and Kossakovsky shows that. A patient, wordless, hypnotically beautiful mood piece, Gunda is a touching and immersive work of barnyard art.
Gunda is playing now in Virtual Cinemas
A chase for relevance happens throughout various capitalistic markets, so it’s not too shocking that someone would attempt a Coronavirus-centric movie. And now we have Adam Mason’s low-budget sci-fi film Songbird. It sets itself in the mid-2020s, where the country has been ravaged by another pandemic: the more lethal COVID-23. L.A. is under permanent lockdown, and daily health checks are mandatory, the sick carted off to the ominous Q-Zone by armed sanitation workers in yellow hazmat suits. Only a small number of the immune are allowed to walk the streets, leading to a lucrative black market in counterfeit immunities. The dynamics are somewhat straightforward, but, then again, it’s not like any thought has really gone into this film. Shot in July of this year, Songbird has the dubious honor of being the first American movie to be conceived, filmed, and released in the current climate. That it happens to have been produced by Michael Bay seemingly dangles the possibility of poor taste, but, unfortunately, bombast is nowhere to be found here. In fact, Songbird looks like any other terrible straight-to-streaming action movie, with a couple industrial warehouse locations and a supporting cast of familiar (and presumably very available) faces who spend most of the movie sitting in place.
K.J. Apa stars as Nico, an immune bicycle courier who spends his days delivering packages to various Beverly Hills compounds for his boss, Lester (Craig Robinson), and chatting with Sara (Sofia Carson), the girlfriend he’s never actually met face to face. The reasons for this are pretty wonky. The film reiterates the idea that the immune can still get other people sick via particles on their hair and clothes, but since Nico never interreacts with anyone, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between immunity and being an asymptomatic carrier. Regardless, it’s a metaphor, touching on how the biggest problem in the future is going to be loneliness or an inability to express our feelings. It’s all trying to be about connection, as portrayed by a small, messily juggled ensemble of housebound, alienated L.A. residents. Among them are Nico’s favorite customers, the wealthy Griffins: Piper (Demi Moore), who’s selling phony immunity passes, and her sleazy record-producer husband, William (Bradley Whitford), who has continued carrying on an affair during the pandemic, venturing out with an air tank, burning his clothes when he returns. As a possible cartoonish parody of the modern elite, this is a lot more interesting than anything that happens with the blandly attractive romantic leads. But it becomes clear early on that, despite its cheap thriller trappings, the film is headed only in the most insipid direction, basically a love story of the kind traditionally told in phone commercials.
The romance doesn’t have the material to sustain a music video, let alone a feature, so Mason fills the rest with footage of Nico biking around (which also looks like an ad) and throws in some artificial stakes, which come by the way of Peter Stormare, who hams it all the way up as an immune, Gestapo-esque inspector for the all-powerful Department of Sanitation. Watching Stormare attempt to yell this movie awake is about as close to entertainment as it gets, apart from the occasional laughable final line of “We weren’t just delivering packages — we were delivering hope.” While the cashing-in of pandemic-sploitation has arrived, it seems Songbird works more as a warning to be heeded: The next one might be worse. Tactless, laughably earnest and with the nuance of a jackhammer, Songbird couldn’t be less insightful; stuffed with rote attempts at tension and the pungent smell of thoughtlessness.
Songbird is available on VOD
Wild Mountain Thyme
There are always bad movies, but it’s the very rare, more interesting occasion that we get ones that are bafflingly bad. Those of the latter are usually films that are caught in some rut, offering workable stories but mixing in a handful of elements that alters the whole thing into something perplexing. They’re a rare breed of movie, something only achieved by accident, leaving you to assume that Wild Mountain Thyme made much more sense on the page. To reveal what makes things so odd would be to spoil the moment which transforms the film from a knitted-together collection of post card Irish clichés — Guinness, sick cows, drunken sing-alongs, stubborn grudges, even more stubborn redheads — into a work of surrealism more reminiscent of Quentin Dupieux than some decades-long romance set among the misty hills. But, then again, the film is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley — the man who wrote Moonstruck and Doubt, but more importantly Joe Versus the Volcano, a film dismissed at the time of its release but has since been reclaimed as knowingly absurdist, rather than inadvertently so. It’s far too early to tell if the same thing will happen to Wild Mountain Thyme, but if Shanley’s trite version of Irish life is tongue-in-cheek, it’s difficult to tell.
The film centers on the Reilly family, who’s eldest patriarch, Tony (Christopher Walken), early on is grousing his son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan), about the dual gates that separate their property from that of the family’s next door. (If you suspect that those gates may be a guiding symbol throughout the film, that’s two points for you.) Tony is a crotchety old man who’s threatening to withhold his inheritance for no visible reason other than Anthony looks too much like his mother and is, as every repeats throughout, a bit weird. Which means that he falls down a lot, talks to a donkey, and walks around the farm with a metal detector, none of which make sense after the final reveal happens. But then there’s the girl next door, Rosemary (Emily Blunt), a smart, beautiful woman who Anthony clearly is in love with, no matter how much he insists he’ll never get married. She loves him back too, secretly, but their chemistry is less “will they or won’t they” and more “good lord, come on already.” But then there’s the obligatory American cousin, New York money manager Adam (Jon Hamm), to whom old Tony has offered to sell the family farm, because, well, he’s a prick. Adam’s money-loving ways proves distasteful for the country folk, however though, he rather quickly departs the story, only to return when something needs to happen already.
With all its puzzling clumsiness, Wild Mountain Thyme feels only left with its pretty setting, but when you take that away, all you’re left with is a romantic comedy that’s never romantic and only sparsely funny. That is, until the film’s feverish final act, when Wild Mountain Thyme transforms from a movie you watch slightly intrigued into one that leaves your jaw on the floor. It’s a long road to get there, admittedly, and unless you’re into things of this nature, you might be better off waiting for the scene in question to hit YouTube. But if you are one of those rascals who thrives for onscreen chaos, then inject Wild Mountain Thyme into your veins. With its tonal whiplash of the relentlessly whimsical to the trite willy-nilly, Wild Mountain Thyme can be intriguingly baffling but also haltingly tedious.
Wild Mountain Thyme is available on VOD