What (and What Not) to Watch from the Palm Springs International Film Festival

The first few days of the Palm Springs International Film Festival included screenings of Bombshell, So Long, My Son, and Motherless Brooklyn.

We flew southwards to find out which films kicking off the Palm Springs International Film Festival are getting too much credit — and which films need a bit more spotlight. From controversial biopics to thoughtful historical dramas, here’s what we saw, hated, and loved.

Bombshell

Bombshell was going to be controversial from the pitch. The film, directed by Charles Randolph and written by Jay Roach, follows the sexual harassment cases that ousted Roger Ailes and changed Fox News forever. At the center of Bombshell are three white women who have been abused by Ailes’ gross assaults: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and the fictional Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a no-name who aspires for greatness at Fox News. While the acting is stellar and the prosthetics flawless (I did a double take seeing Theron on screen, her likeness to Kelly so vivid thanks to an incredible makeup team and Theron’s own dogged commitment to the role), Bombshell fails because it tries to construct a myth about these women that just doesn’t exist in reality.

Instead, Bombshell advocates for a girl power narrative that ignores intersectional feminism, which is kind of important when your heroines are powerful anchors who have openly advocated for some really racist shit. There’s a halfhearted attempt at it within a subplot about the difficulties of being a lesbian at a conservative news outlet that could use more screentime than it actually has. But otherwise, Bombshell illustrates a portrait of Kelly and Carlson — semi-progressive advocates for justice for everyone — that isn’t true. A better move would’ve been portraying these women for what they are: people who really did take down a horrible man while simultaneously perpetuating racist ideologies with their power. Instead, Bombshell asks us to worship Kelly and Carlson, which I’m not exactly prepared to do.

So Long, My Son 

So Long, My Son doesn’t follow chronology, but it’s one of few films that doesn’t treat its anachronistic timeline like a gimmick. Flashbacks to the past melt into the present, while the future keeps climbing closer in sporadic bursts. Sometimes filmmakers like to hide tragedies with this method, saving the movie’s emotional energy for one punch in the gut at the end of the film. But So Long, My Son subverts these expectations of when to hold back, and when to push forward. The traumatic event that defines two families forever happens early on, and the ensuing onscreen events act as a slow burn, fleshing out the pain with a quiet hand.

Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, So Long, My Son is visually engrossing, filling its long three-hour runtime with careful shots: immense grief seen from a stranger’s distance; waves crashing like ripples of silk onto stone steps; the dark glow of city lights at twilight. 

It’s also a brutal critique of China’s former one-child policy, a law that resulted in an unimaginable number of forced abortions and child abductions. While the policy was enacted in an attempt to avoid a population crisis, the damage it had — especially for working class people — is undeniable, and dramatized with a biting, suppressed anguish throughout the film. Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei play a couple (Liu Yaojun and Wang Liyun respectively) coping with grief after the loss of their only son, bringing stunningly deft performances to complicated characters.

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn tries desperately to be an engaging 1950s detective noir, but suffers from an agonizingly slow pace, poor tension, and satire that veers into cliche. It’s hard to salvage the cheesy dialogue that Motherless Brooklyn seems to love to lean into, but lead actors Edward Norton (as Lionel Essrog, a talented detective with Tourette syndrome) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Laura Rose, a housing rights activist) try. 

Motherless Brooklyn’s mystery has too many moving parts with no grounded way of pulling them together, and the final triumph never happens onscreen, so it’s hard to find any satisfaction through its 2.5-hour duration. The twists are unfortunately unsurprising, and there’s little creativity in the cinematography or enough tension to justify its long runtime. Motherless Brooklyn is about gentrification and disability — topics that need more cinematic spotlight — but runs into a strange white savior complex in the process. It’s a movie that really could’ve been great based on its premise. But the execution faltered, lending little gusto for this noir attempt to thrive on.

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