Fragile Creatures: The Beauty And Pain of The Rider

the rider

Chloé Zhao’s contemporary western drama, The Rider, starts out with a young man in pain, recovering, as we later see, from injuries sustained during a rodeo.

The following ninety minutes or so explore that pain further: not just the physical injuries, but the mental scars inflicted on someone whose dreams are taken from them and crushed, when he finds his body will no longer allow him to do the thing he loves most.

Shot with a cast of non-professionals (Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott, and Cat Clifford) who play versions of themselves in an almost documentary style, and with a magnificent eye for beauty (several shots made me literally gasp), Zhao’s film is intimate, harrowing and painful, but also majestic, and sweeping.

Zhao keeps the camera tight on Jandreau for much of the film, and the young, non-actor gives an astonishing performance, with a minimal amount of dialogue we share his joy and pain, as the recovery he appears to make is short-lived. This world of horse trainers and rodeo riders is fragile and fraught with physical peril, but Jandreau’s character, Brady, desperately wants to stay in the saddle.

The film feels like a mixture between a later period Springsteen song and an early period Terrence Malick film (before he became TERRENCE MALICK and disappeared off into the edit suite to cut yet another interminable version of Tree of Life). Malick could benefit from watching The Rider, for while this film could stand to lose a few minutes, even with the extra fat Zhao never loses sight of the cinematic story she’s trying to tell.

So much of The Rider is ambiguous: should we admire Brady as he puts himself through another agonising experience just to keep riding? Should we sympathise when he takes on a stultifying job to make ends meet, or pity him for giving up what he loves? Zhao smartly doesn’t provide pat answers, but allows the complexities of Brady’s path to carry us through.

The Rider is a quiet, purposeful and powerful movie, shot with a true cinematic poetry, whether out on the plains or in a run-down trailer. With her second movie, Zhao has established herself as an exciting voice in cinema.

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There’s Something Happening Here – The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Trailer

handmaid

If you haven’t yet caught Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, starring the brilliant Elisabeth Moss, you’ve missed out on one of the finest TV dramas of 2017.

Now would be a good time to catch up with this harrowing story, as Hulu have dropped the trailer for the second season and announced an airdate of April 25th.

This timely series takes place in a brutal, dystopian future of gender politics and the new season steps into new territory as it expands the storyline past Atwood’s novel. Thankfully, the author is very much involved and if season two is even half as good as the original then the TV landscape for 2018 will be shaping up very nicely.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite…

Netflix’s Empty El Chapo

chapo

I’m a sucker for a good series about crime lords, gang wars and drug trafficking, so when I saw articles suggesting Netflix’s El Chapo might be their answer to The Wire, I was practically drooling.

Sadly, anyone seeing this show as being anywhere near as dramatically satisfying as David Simon’s classic tale of the narcotics trade in Baltimore is probably getting high on their own supply.

Co-produced by Netflix and Univision, El Chapo recounts the beginnings of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 1985, when he was a low-level member of the Guadalajara cartel until his rise to power and his last fall.

Guzmán’s story makes for rich dramatic picking. From 2009 to 2011 Forbes magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world, and named him the 10th richest man in Mexico in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$1 billion. The magazine also called him the “biggest drug lord of all time.” The U.S. federal government considered him “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet.” So, you know, there’s quite a lot to get your teeth into here.

There is a wealth of great material: the cartels and their various squabbles, the involvement of the U.S. government, the rise of a lowly government official to a position of power involved with the underworld, a crusading reporter, appearances by Pablo Escobar (and the show’s first real dropped ball by not getting Narco’s Wagner Moura to reprise his role, robbing us of the chance to experience a Narcos shared universe) and of course, the trials and tribulations of Guzmán himself.

The show looks fine, though it doesn’t exactly drip with period feel, but what really lets down the whole endeavour is the writing.

As I’m typing this review I’m six episodes into the nine episode run and I know literally nothing more about Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán than I did at the beginning of the first episode. Oh sure, the events are all in place and there are sporadic bursts of excitement and bloodshed, but Guzmán remains nothing more than a cypher, as in fact does every single character in the show. Guzmán stays unknowable, as does his wife, his girlfriends, friends, allies, rivals and enemies.

No one speaks about their emotions, nothing happens that’s character-driven, and no one has an inner life of any kind. The scripts must have been a doddle to write, because never before have I come across a high-profile show of this kind where the dialogue is 100% functional. Characters tell us where they’re going, what they’re going to do, who they’re going to kill or pay off… but never why.

The nearest we get to an actual living, breathing character is Humberto Busto as conniving politician Conrado Higuera Sol “Don Sol”, but even he never gets a single line of dialogue that does anything but gloss over the veneer of his actions.

As a result El Chapo is purely functional, moving people you’re not allowed to care for, empathise with or hate from one situation to another. The events themselves are interesting, but ultimately it’s a hollow shell. As drama it’s a complete disaster and an object lesson in how not to write compelling, nourishing TV because there’s no meat on El Chapo’s bones.

UPDATE: the final two episodes deal with Guzmán’s internment and also give us a glimpse of his formative years (and therefore something passing for character development). It’s a mystery why this material wasn’t spread out as flashbacks throughout the season, as it would have added sorely-needed depth.

So finally, the show ends with some improvement but sadly it was a case of too little, too late for me.