In review: 'Three Thousand Years of Longing,' 'Funny Pages'
George Miller follows up 'Mad Max: Fury Road' with a fantasia for the mind as well as the eye. And Owen Kline makes his directorial debut with the Daniel Clowes-like tale of an aspiring cartoonist.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Dir. George Miller
It isn’t often in stories that, when presented with three wishes from a genie in a bottle, the beneficiary opts to think over the prospect first. Wishing for world peace or a Scrooge McDuck treasure pile might seem like obvious places to start, but wish stories have made clear that disrupting the natural order of things often comes with unanticipated negative consequences. So it’s novel that when Dr. Alithea Binnie, a “narratologist” who studies the role stories have historically played in our effort to make sense of the world, happens to luck into the right bottle in Istanbul, she stops herself from saying “I wish.” For one, she’s read all the stories about the trickster genies whose wishes manifest themselves as curses. But Alithea is trying another argument, too: She professes to be content with the life she has. She doesn’t need anyone else to augment her happiness.
A feast for the head and the heart and the eyes, George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing turns Alithea’s dilemma into a rare existential fantasy, as full of rich philosophical conversation as it is a millennia of vividly realized myths. With Miller confidently orchestrating the action, it alternates nimbly between expansive and intimate, spinning off into Scheherazade-style stories within stories while anchoring itself in the specific emotional needs of two complex souls. Working from the A.S. Byatt short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” Miller conjures all the magic you might expect from the gonzo stylist of the Mad Max movies and Babe: Pig in the City, but what’s most surprising here is his willingness to hold back when the material demands. At times, this is a simple two-hander about strangers getting to know each other in an Istanbul hotel room. It expands and retreats from there.
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Tilda Swinton is the best possible casting choice for Alithea, given her unique combination of intelligence and uncanniness, like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. A feeling of predestination powers the moment when Alithea lands in Istanbul for one of her scholarly lectures on how cultures have used storytelling to explain the unknown and how that tradition has evolved as science and technology have resolved some of nature’s great mysteries. Before she happens to stumble upon an eye-catching glass bottle at a bazaar, ghostly forms appear to her at the airport and lecture hall. While toddling around her luxury hotel room in a bathrobe, waiting for breakfast, Alithea pops that bottle open and out comes a Djinn (in the giant form of Idris Elba), grateful to be liberated after centuries of confinement. Or almost liberated, anyway. He must grant his savior three wishes first.
Not so fast. It’s not that Alithea isn’t properly wowed by seeing a Djinn materialize in her hotel room—and a handsome one at that, despite his immense size, chipped ear, and dusty aura. She happens to be an authority on this subject and won’t be fooled into making wishes that backfire. This puts them at an awkward impasse. He attempts to earn her faith by telling her stories about his brief periods of freedom between his long purgatories in the bottle, like his time with the Queen of Sheba or a stretch with a concubine in Suleiman’s court. He wants his intentions to be understood, and he wants to challenge Alithea’s pragmatic nature. Does her seeming contentedness mask a deeper loneliness—something they might have in common?
Three Thousand Years of Longing is first and foremost a celebration of storytelling, an opportunity for one of cinema’s most unrestrained stylists to cut loose on Arabian Nights tales. But the contemporary setting, along with Alithea’s particular area of expertise, allows Miller to dig into the purpose of storytelling itself, how it still helps us account for a world that’s now much more graspable to us than it was even a century ago. The biggest mystery left is love, and that’s where Alithea and the Djinn inevitably find themselves. And so within this dense nesting doll of myths, Miller strives for insight into the universal and relatable question of how people negotiate a place for themselves in a relationship—their wants and needs, and what they can offer each other in return. A mere wish is too simple for that. — Scott Tobias
Three Thousand Years of Longing opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
Dir. Owen Kline
Funny Pages, the directorial debut of Owen Kline, is one of those movies that gets so much right it’s all the more frustrating that its pieces never quite fit together. A coming-of-age story inspired by Kline’s own past interest in becoming cartoonist, it stars Daniel Zolghadri as Robert, a high school senior in Princeton, New Jersey, encouraged to pursue his artistic ambitions by Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), an art teacher with a passion for underground and alternative comics—in the opening scene, Katano insists it’s time to go pro because “college is a pinheaded proposition.” “Always subvert,” he tells Robert, a vague piece of advice he might later have clarified if he didn’t die in a freak accident shortly after dispensing it.
Adrift, Robert decides to take his fate in his own hands, telling his parents of his intention not to return for the second half of his senior year. Instead, he rents a room in a Trenton basement apartment already inhabited by a pair of middle-aged eccentrics who keep the heat way too high but share his love for the art and culture of the recent past, and he takes a job with Cheryl (Marcia Debonis), a public defender who helped him beat a burglary charge, the result of an attempt to retrieve some items of personal significance from Katano’s office.
Kline’s smart about the world of the film from specific references (Tijuana Bibles, Pogo, Peter Bagge) to the thrift store clutter of Robert’s apartment to Robert’s art itself. Created by Angry Youth Comix’s Johnny Ryan, it convincingly suggests the work of an almost-but-not-all-the-way-there talent. The film ultimately does, too. Heavily influenced by the work of cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) — many of the supporting characters resemble the kind of unkempt weirdos that populate a lot of Clowes’s work — Funny Pages settles into a story about Robert’s attempt to find a new mentor in the wild-eyed, perpetually enraged Wallace (Matthew Maher), a client of Cheryl’s who long ago was a lowly color separator at Image Comics during that publisher’s early-’90s commercial heyday of garish musclemen and big guns.
Wallace’s loose connection to the comics industry — particularly that mostly unbeloved corner of the comics industry — bafflingly leaves Robert starstruck and willing to humiliate himself to win Wallace’s favor. The relationship seems to be there more as a hook on which to hang the story’s darkly funny, nicely observed slices of life than because it makes sense for an artist with Robert’s ambitions and tastes. When their fractious, often grating relationship takes over the movie, it’s not clear what, if anything, is being subverted or why we should care. —Keith Phipps
Funny Pages opens tomorrow in theaters.