“Three thousand years of nostalgia” and “The good boss”, commented
How you become a genius is anyone’s guess. Maybe you get a MacArthur Genie Grant or something. What matters is that once you’re in office, you’re there for life, but be warned: that life may not be as free as you’d like. Robin Williams’ genius opening statement, in “Aladdin” (1992), recounts a painful detention. “Ten thousand years will give you such a stiff neck!” he shouts, finally springing from his lamp.
Time is of the essence in George Miller’s new film, ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’, and the essence is kept in a bottle, which is found in a Turkish bazaar by Alithea (Tilda Swinton). Her name is derived from the Greek for “truth” – a quiet joke, given the height of the tales she favors. Lively and muscular, neither wife nor mother, she lives in London but is currently in Istanbul, where she is giving a lecture on “Adventures in Narratology”. (It could be an alternate title for the film.) The ship, uncorking into his hotel bathroom, releases a djinn (Idris Elba), who has a soothing manner and pointy ears, one of which pokes out. bitten, perhaps in a magical catfight. His lower limbs, like Pan’s, are shaggy.
This is Miller’s first film since “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), which sucked the breath out of the lungs of countless viewers and hit them like the very definition of an action movie. He followed with so much confidence, every perilous incident and momentum-accelerating landscape change, that Miller’s decision to do things differently in “Three Thousand Years of Longing” seems proudly perverse. The film, while a frenzied feast for the retina, is also oddly inactive. Alithea stays in her room in Istanbul, orders breakfast, listens to the djinn recount the highlights of her life, and later brings him back to London in another bottle. That’s it. What happens is that almost nothing happens.
The highlights are all historical flashbacks. The first, filled with famous names, finds the jinn doing the kindness of the Queen of Sheba, only to be usurped by the arrival of Solomon, please. (Solomon’s selling point is not his wisdom, which seems minimal, but a special musical instrument that plays on its own, with tiny clapping hands.) The next port of call is the courtyard of Suleiman the Magnificent, where a sinister slugabed retreats to a lair hanged with sable fur and cultivates a harem; its inhabitants are so generously proportioned that Lucian Freud would have peeked and sent for more paint. Finally, we race through the Ottoman Empire, until we meet the jinn with a solitary scholar – a proto-Alithea, so to speak – who spends her days walled in a tower in Istanbul, exploring the shores wildest of human knowledge.
Notice how much of this mythmaking is about size – with the swelling and shrinking of physical forms. Miller has always been drawn to elasticity. The main villain of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was a colossal brute, and as ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ (1987) reached its climax, Jack Nicholson transformed into an ogre, his gargantuan features framed in a window of kitchen, and then in the simplest mini-head, which burst like a bubble into nothingness. In short, don’t let yourself be surprised by the jinn that springs from its bottle in Alithea’s suite. His hand alone is enough to fill a room, and my favorite shot shows his wandering finger, the size of a canoe, brushing the keyboard of a laptop computer, which, with a soft TO DOlights up.
The echo here is of a huge foot, with curved nails, which descended on an Aladdin-like boy on a beach and threatened to crush him. The foot belonged to another giant genius, in “The Thief of Baghdad” (1940). As with the 1924 film of the same name, which starred Douglas Fairbanks in his happiest bodacious, we were invited to gorge on orientalist exoticism; Miller follows the same recipe, adding a pinch of eroticism and dollops full of CGI. Where he deviates from custom is in his approach to wish-granting. Alithea, an expert in the matter, is suspicious. Based on the principle that “there is no wish story that is not a cautionary tale”, she initially refuses to place her order, to the chagrin of the jinn. You can see him thinking, just my luck getting tenured at a college. And you can see his thinking, as she calmly regards the djinn through her glasses, What if what I want from him is him?
The back and forth between Swinton and Elba has a thoughtful tenderness. It is unusual and gratifying that a saga so lavishly adorned with wonder revolves around two characters who refuse to marvel, and that the chasm between mistress and servant, as legend demands, be opened for an affectionate rapprochement. If only that touch of normalcy had been allowed to spill over further into the film. As it stands, this charming and relaxing work is dulled by unworldliness. Far too much attention is lavished on the never-never lands of eastern reverie, and when we are spirited towards modern realms, towards the end, implausibility reigns; no lecturer would live in a house as large as Alithea’s London residence, and his elderly xenophobic neighbors are an entertaining cartoon. Three thousand years, to be honest, means a lot of nostalgia. How about a three-week fairy tale, with wishes granted – or blocked – on WhatsApp, and a genie bursting, in a sugar-free spray, from a can of Diet Coke?
It seems only fitting that ‘The Good Boss’, a new film by Fernando León de Aranoa, should star Javier Bardem in the title role. After all, much of Bardem’s career has been spent seductively portraying power brokers. Consider the sadists with unorthodox hairstyles in “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “Skyfall” (2012) and “The Counselor” (2013). Think of the roles Bardem has played in the past year – the expansive Desi Arnaz, the ruler of a broadcasting fiefdom in “Being the Ricardos,” and the sapphire-eyed leader of the Frenemy tribe, or whatever he’s called, in “Dunes”. Bardem confessed that, in the latter’s sequel, he would very much like to ride a giant sandworm. Wouldn’t we all?
The boss of the new film is Julio Blanco. He runs a business he inherited from his father, in a Spanish town – the kind of place where he can phone an editor or someone with legal clout and try to get a favor or a problem. resolved. The company makes scales, finely crafted for symbolic purposes: everything from precision instruments to a towering contraption for weighing livestock, which Blanco invites trainees and visitors to step on. The funniest.
No wonder, perhaps, that the plot revolves around work-life balance. Blanco is married and childless, but his paternalistic boast is that the company is his family. He fears, for example, that Miralles (Manolo Solo), his right-hand man, continues to make professional errors: a laxity caused, as Blanco learns, by the age-old pressure of the cuckold. Another worker, recently laid off, sets up a personal protest camp in front of the company’s factory, thus winning the sympathy of the vigilante. A third has a delirious son, whom we first see engaging in an act of violence; Blanco gently puts him on a more respectable path, only to take advantage, much later, of the boy’s reliable talent for brutality.
The film is peppered with such ironic reversals and decent intentions that turn into disarray. No pattern goes without a mix. What appeals to León de Aranoa, I think, is the necessary comedy of the reward – neither wild nor boisterous but carefully angsty, and never more apparent than when Blanco contrives to seduce a new intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor) , only for his intrigue to be slammed back into his face. Piece by piece, what he considers his rights (not that he has ever thought about them) begin to crumble. Liliana outwits him, delightfully, and there’s a devastating moment when Khaled (Tarik Rmili), the company’s head of logistics and most efficient operator, tells Blanco, “Don’t tell me that family shit. . Look at my skin. I am not your son.
“The Good Boss” pulls more weight than you think, and Bardem is in charge of the draw. Here is one of his most charged performances – often funny, but never meant to be laughed at alone, and persuasive in its portrayal of an essentially weak soul who persists in dreaming of strength. Although anything but innocent, Blanco is no monster; instead, he’s kind of a lost jerk. Social embarrassment leaves him unmanned and on the verge of collapse (notably when he and his wife host a dinner party for Liliana and her parents), and when a woman in a supermarket gives him a well-deserved slap in the face, in payment of his presumption, he suddenly looks aged and disheveled, tenderly working his frail jaw. In close-up, on the other hand, he acquires a veneer of genuine creepiness, especially while cruising in his car, and any seasoned Bardem watcher will recall the villains’ past. Be sure to save your seat for the mysterious balance of the film’s final shot: is it a prelude to murder or not? The scales tremble. They don’t tip. ♦