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Review: 13th

As with Selma, filmmaker Ava DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence.




Photo: Netflix

Ava DuVernay’s careers in activism, publicity, and filmmaking have demonstrated a defiant belief that not only can Hollywood change in a short span of time, but also popular opinion. 13th will leave you hoping, at the very least, that she’s right: As with Selma, DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence, tracing an undeniable disparity between legislative and de facto rights for black Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present. How and why the United States ended up housing 2.5 million prison inmates is a paradox posed by none other than President Obama in the film’s first minutes, and 13th spells it out with the enraged mettle of an extralegal filibuster. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery except as punishment for a convicted crime; “criminal” is thus the noun into which 13th digs its analyses, while an upward ticker sees the number of prison inmates mushrooming over the last few decades.

The mass-incarceration era as we know it today began in the 1970s, which Angela Davis explains to DuVernay is when “crime” became a stand-in for race. This Nixon-era rhetorical inversion is key to the film’s inquiry: DuVernay explicates ways in which declarative, open-ended “wars” (whether Nixon’s on drugs or, it’s implied, Bush’s on terror) can, by default, avail themselves to extremist interpretations at every level of the law-and-order apparatus. It’s also a study of semiotic historicism, considering at one point George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton campaign spot in the context of the century-long stereotype of the “menacing negro evil” described by scholar Jelani Cobb, threatening the peace of a white status quo. (Bush strategist Lee Atwater himself appears in a candid audio recording from 1982, breaking down the coded language used to scoop new Republican voters in the post-LBJ South; once “nigger” was no longer acceptable for candidates to say out loud, verbiage about “states’ rights” and “cutting taxes” knowingly took its place.)

The influence exerted on taxpayers’ actual lives by mythmaking and demonology is a running theme, from the Klu Klux Klan’s adoption of cross-burning after seeing it in The Birth of a Nation, to Cory Booker musing that our assumptions of due process probably owe too much to TV melodramas. That aside comes out during a devastating passage on plea bargaining, whereby many young black men who can’t afford a legal team have traded their right to due process in favor of a lighter prison sentence. Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Rikers Island on a bogus charge, was interviewed for DuVernay’s film shortly before taking his own life; he describes his refusal to reach such an agreement on false charges, literally weighing his own freedom against justice. The film switches between hard findings like this and piercing insights in passing, like when activist Bryan Stevenson affirms that the American judicial system is “better to the rich and guilty than the poor and innocent.”

Bill Clinton comes under special scrutiny for his signing (and championing) of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which normalized a number of the statutes DuVernay finds to have solidified the crisis in perpetuity—including one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, elimination of in-prison education systems, and a three-strikes policy resulting in longer sentences for the previously convicted. Chastised in 2016 for referring to black criminals as “superpredators” 20 years earlier, Hillary Clinton has allowed herself to be caught on camera nevertheless defending Bill Clinton’s 1994 bill as a political necessity while decrying it as an overreaction; her husband’s recent rebuttal to a group of Black Lives Matters protesters that “you are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter!” imbues the documentary with a profound skepticism toward the about-face’s sincerity, which may disappoint Hillary’s supporters in powerful places. But the record speaks for itself, as do Donald Trump’s wistful invocations of “the good old days” to his supporters as they encounter an African-American dissident at one of his rallies—an audio selection made horrifying in repeat playbacks by DuVernay, against images from the 1960s of a black man being assaulted by a white mob.

No theoretical frameworks are required for the cellphone footage of police victims like Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Philandro Castile—but it’s in keeping with the enduring pragmatism of DuVernay’s approach that 13th’s interviewees actively question the pros and cons of using this kind of imagery to shock people into paying attention. By the time that sequence begins, the videos have made manifest a paranoid environment of carceral thinking whose evolution 13th has taken pains to outline; without slogans or banners, this is an ideology nonetheless, and given the preponderance of police abuses in the news daily, there’s a sense that DuVernay’s editing could have gone on forever.

The outsized influence of the lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to pass bills supporting the private-prison industry—as well as laws like Stand Your Ground, whereby George Zimmerman escaped conviction for the murder of Trayvon Martin—is explored in jaw-dropping detail. One of DuVernay’s interviewees describes a vision of law enforcement whereby ankle bracelets and GPS help the state keep track of potential offenders, would-be or otherwise. These revelations don’t just speak to racism against African-Americans; they form a shadow history of privatization-as-ideology that applies just as well to ongoing congressional paralysis in the face of, say, NRA lobbyists following yet another mass shooting.

Even the roster of speakers testifies to DuVernay’s acumen as a producer and public presence, ranging from The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Van Jones to Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. There are moments when the slickness of the filmmaking works opposite the tragic material to uncanny effect, but the imperative to render discussion in conversational, human terms balances out the speed and force of 13th’s breathless delivery of the hard facts. The Black Lives Matter movement is revealed as a consequence of these abuses of power (whether by police departments, prisons, or multinational corporations), albeit a hopeful one, fully aware it’s just one step in a much larger process. Beyond sanity and fairness, white fear is how loopholes within law enforcement have become norms; duly, it’s hard to avoid a creeping sense that 13th will serve as harshest wake-up call for the white beneficiaries of these laws. As the documentary demonstrates time and again, none of these events have taken place in a vacuum.

Director: Ava DuVernay Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2016



Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.



Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Makes the Most of Growing Up

The film is noteworthy for its rumination on the subtle costs of its characters’ newfound prosperity.




How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World
Photo: Universal Pictures

Time plays a key role in the How to Train Your Dragon films, with each successive entry following up on the characters after several years in order to trace the impact of actions they took. The third film in the series, The Hidden World, sees these characters and their island in the sky greatly transformed from their humble beginnings. Berk, once a barren village inundated with brutal dragon hunters, is now practically impregnable, a haven for the endangered dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is also now its chief, and his companion, Toothless, is the reigning alpha male of all dragons. As a result, The Hidden World doesn’t lend itself as easily to the showstopping spectacle of its predecessors, which saw Hiccup and Toothless doing battle against stronger and often bigger enemies, but it remains noteworthy for its rumination on the subtler costs of these characters’ newfound prosperity.

Early in Dean DeBlois’s film, much is made of the way that Hiccup and his friends have come to take their dragons for granted; raids to free captured dragons only succeed as a result of the enormity of the freed dragons compensating for sloppy human error. Complacency has made the film’s heroes prone to negligence, and the holes left in their security are quickly exploited by Grimmel the Grisley (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who, having almost single-handedly brought the Night Fury species to extinction, is now targeting Toothless. Not unlike that of other villains in the series, Grimmel’s motivation is simple, but he differentiates himself from, say, Drago Bludvist in his calm, eerily playful demeanor. He easily slips through Hiccup’s lax defenses, and while he could easily kill Toothless within the film’s first act, he spares the creature for the purposes of playing mind games on humans and dragons alike.

Grimmel’s psychological torment results in short bursts of guerrilla warfare, and much of the film’s action scenes tend to revolve around the heroes contending with Grimmel’s own dragons, garish creatures with retractable tusks, scorpion-like tails, and an equal ability to breathe acid and flame. Their attacks feel truly frightening, in no small part for the way the camera tumbles along with these creatures’ skittering and rapacious lunges. Seeing such vicious, disorienting fights play out amid the vividly colorful world of The Hidden World is jarring, exacerbating the sense that Grimmel has completely upended the characters’ usual understanding of conflict and badly exposed their inability to adapt to new situations.

That struggle to evolve also marks the film’s secondary conflict: the internal debate that Hiccup comes to have over his and other humans’ relationships to dragons. The film’s title refers to a mythical realm of dragons that Hiccup seeks in order to build a new, more secure Berk in perfect harmony with dragons. Gradually, however, his notion of utopia is challenged by the increasing realization that even the well-meaning, dragon-loving citizens of Berk still treat their beasts as subordinates rather than as equals. This comes to a head when Toothless, thought to be the last of his kind, comes into contact with a radiant, white-colored female Light Fury and his erstwhile devotion to Hiccup takes a back seat to his biological drive to hook up. Much of the film concerns Toothless attempting to perform courtship rituals to impress his potential mate and increasingly pulling away from his human master in order to spend time with his love interest. Scenes of Toothless clumsily performing dances and other mating rituals are humorous, but underneath his stumbles is a mildly tragic reminder of how alone he’s felt despite living among so many other kinds of dragons.

The difficulty that Hiccup has in accepting his companion’s independence exposes that, for all that the character has evolved as a leader across this series, he’s yet to fully mature. The Hidden World, not unlike Toy Story 3, is fundamentally about the act of growing up and letting go, of coming to terms with the impermanence of relationships. If the film sometimes feels too small in comparison to its predecessors, it manages to make the most of its quietest moments, acknowledging that some aspects of getting older are scary, and that accepting the sacrifices of growing up is as much an achievement as overcoming any living, breathing villain.

Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, David Tennant Director: Dean DeBlois Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child

The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.




Photo: Netflix

Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.

Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.

Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.

Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.

Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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