A landmark year for me as well as for the movies. Returning to school proved the right thing to do, despite all the concessions that go with such a decision. Not only did I find the vocabulary I’d always yearned for, and lacked, it keeps growing as I keep writing and reading. I giggle to think of how measly my first attempts at film writing were back when I joined the blogosphere a mere year and a half ago. I giggle more when I realize how right on I was about some movies back then without really knowing why (beyond “that made me cry” or “that was a dope edit” or “Wes Anderson’s wit speaks for me”). What makes me giggle the most is coming to understand how cool it is to change one’s mind. Before 2007 I was a staunch platformist: this is what I believe, deal with it. 2007 taught me some humility, in school and out. Not that I don’t stand by my arguments: I will continue to defend my use and experience with and understanding of the English language. Yet I find myself more willing to have a conversation about a topic, with a topic, to take my time with a topic (films, books, meals, loves, families, etc).
1. This topic of conversation finds its best example, perhaps, in my engagement with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou during the first half of this year. I wrote a big, long paper about Wes Anderson’s fourth film at the end of my first semester back at Berkeley detailing how I’ve come to appreciate the picture. I still think it a fine piece of writing, one I enjoyed revisiting this week, but I view it as a necessary step, a stage of my education, if you will, towards a better understanding of what film is, and how film works, and how to write about both, from my experience. More simply: I would not write the same thing about The Life Aquatic again, now. I would write something more film-specific about its liquid, eternal philosophy. But I may keep that final paragraph.
2. Part of the joy of school for me has been the exposure to all kinds of great texts—about film, yes, but in general about philosophy—that have provoked my thoughts, pushed me further, made me more aware. Helped me live a little better. One branch of philosophy I’ve become somewhat infatuated with is speech act theory for the simple fact that it forces one to pay closer attention to how language is used, how one uses language, how language acts. The conversation can be heady (Frege) and silly (Derrida) and stuffy (Searle), but the writers I’ve grown to love (Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell) find a way to make the serious conversation lively, and funny, while thoughtful and generous. Putting it all into action is still tough, but I’ve got a head start, I think, thanks in large part to my interest in writing on a regular basis outside of school. As much as I have trouble coming to grips with all the demands of blogging specifically, and the burden of writing in general, I look forward to more writing, with more frequency, in 2008 (and beyond).
3. A friend who just graduated in December said, “I felt smart when I started; I feel less smart now. I think that’s a good thing.” I’m apt to agree. I’m no expert. Never have been an expert. Just an expert at posturing as an expert. I aim to erase that posture, as best I can, and embrace my natural amateur perspective (pace Agee). For all the movies I’ve seen, there’s literally thousands of other movies I have yet to see. (Yes, 1 to 1000.) Still haven’t seen some key 2007 pictures. Oh well. All I’ve got is time and curiosity, health allowing.
4. Inland Empire didn’t open in the Bay Area until February so it counts on my list, okay? And if I were to make a numerated list it may top it. Big deal. Wanna fight about it? Nah, me neither. The great thing is, on any given day, any of the ten I list below could challenge for the crown. (Especially that 30-year old picture.)
5. The list below betrays the fact that HBO played a big part in the second half of my 2007. The summer was devoted to David Milch: I devoured Deadwood’s brief three seasons in time for John from Cincinnati to kick my butt for ten short episodes. What we were given is great but I, like so many, wish there was more. I can honestly say that Deadwood is one of the greatest things I’ve seen; or, it speaks for me as much as it speaks to me. John felt the natural response to its predecessor, kinda how David Lynch keeps making films as works of criticism of his own films by praising and investigating what came before in a novel way: John is as much about Deadwood’s idea of community (as a networked organism of individuals akin to family, regardless of bloodlines, and putting one’s faith into such a social agreement) as it is about transcendence at the end of the world. The fall was devoted to The Wire, which I’m less enthusiastic about, but still find astounding in stretches. I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid until the third season, which started something special by introducing Bunny, because, for the most part, I found that the first two chapters in this death of the city saga relied on the whole cops-versus-robbers premise just a little too much. What’s weird is that those first two feel more like pet sociological projects than the third and (masterful) fourth seasons, which are engaging drama first, sociology second. I’m curious to see how this current, and final, season plays out after a somewhat bland, however sure-handed, first episode (complete with a grating Steve Earle cover of the theme song) built almost entirely of exposition. Perhaps my inclination to call it bland is a dismissive attempt to corner what I sense as a lion of despair, ready to pounce on the little joy left for the underclass. However, my racial and economic privilege prevent me from fully understanding this, I imagine, despite growing up the only white kid in a classroom of black kids for six years. All I know is that The Wire, for all the great things it does (the dialogue, the plotting, the casting of so many black actors, etc.), does not lift me up the way the waves John surfs explicitly manifest my liquid philosophy.
6. The list below betrays another influence on my movie year: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangre, screened over two days last summer at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. I initially promised an essay about the film, and began to write one, pairing it with some notes on the finale of The Sopranos, but given my summer school work load I could not get the piece to where I wanted it, even after pumping out over 2500 words. The main thrust of the piece was about serialized stories spread across lengthy, wide canvasses; about how difficult criticism of such works can be. I didn’t get into the nitty gritty of Rivette’s masterpiece: how the second episode, as it were, of the second troupe improvising a birth of man scene inspired by Prometheus Bound, made me want to vomit and masturbate simultaneously (no, I’ve not seen Pasolini’s Salò yet, and I do not think it will beget the same sensation); how sexy Juliet Berto looks wearing a mask and short hair; how Léaud’s mute made me laugh out loud; how cool and complex the film’s argument for life-as-performance works out (it’s equal parts preparation, improvisation, faith, knowing your role); how the thirteen are arrayed; how one’s network is arranged across time and space, arrayed in the city or on the globe; how cute kids and turtles can act; how eternal each segment feels, and how rarely you notice edits during rehearsals; how much joy there is in walking down the street, speaking to no one in particular.
7. All this talk of networks. Of liquids and joy. Why, then, would I choose to speak of anything but that which I deem worthy of praise, of what there is to be thankful for? As I continue to write I find it ever less appealing to write something solely to denigrate the work of others because, at least on some level, or most often, that posture is an insecure expression of taste, not value. Hence, I hope to not have to write anything as bilious as my review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford again, nor indulge my urge to spew hate, as I did in the general direction of Pan’s Labyrinth; two movies I simply did not care for last year. However, people I respect think highly of both pictures, which almost compels me to revisit them. Or maybe just the Brad Pitt one, if pressed to choose. Life is pretty short as it is.
8. Two things I found great joy in this year were the two (polar opposite) pictures from the Andersons, Wes and P.T., and their different approaches to how we define family. It is a most obvious split. [Spoiler warning?] Where P.T. offered a picture of disintegration, Wes gave us a film of delight—of our unflagging desires and wills to start over and to enjoy ourselves, to consume, to retell our experience as a string of joyful happenings. Wes gave us family as a haven, despite itself and despite its pratfalls. P.T., on the other hand, remains fearful of the family; of fathers in particular. Where Wes absents the father (“We lost our father and we’ll never get him back.”), P.T. blows him up Frankenstein big and lets him huff and puff and blow the house down. The Whitman brothers have each other, at least, as their story (their train, their world) continues, and travels on into the future; Daniel Plainview has no relatives (by blood or by marriage) at the dead end of his story. Here I cannot help but think of my 2007 muse, Stanley Cavell, and his complimentary pair of books on film genres: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage and Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Now, Cavell’s books are very much interested in females, and neither Wes nor P.T. made pictures with many women—nor is Darjeeling a “comedy of remarriage” to Blood’s “melodrama of the unknown woman”—so the analogy only goes so far. Best to say that the structure of conversation is what interests me: in the comedies there’s a resolution because the man and woman can have and meet at a happy conversation; in the melodramas the conversation fails. (This is explored further in Cities of Words, which may be Cavell’s best book.) Upon my first viewing of Darjeeling, aside from the continuing evolution of Wes’ visual sensibility, I was struck rather immediately by the overlapping dialogue, and how the family shares a dialect. The brothers’ resolution is an agreement not about passports or schedules but about how they will speak to one another without their parents, as their parents no longer offer a chance for that kind of felicitous conversation, and not because they do not love or wish to love their parents: love “isn’t over” for the three of them. Family is what you make it. Once H.W. goes deaf in There Will Be Blood, Daniel no longer has a comfortable companion in conversation with whom he has no fear of disclosure. Henry offers the idea of a new version of that kind of open-ended conversation, and Daniel accepts this at first (“Having you here gives me a second breath”), but Henry dies because Daniel can no longer trust those conversations; and because Daniel will not accept Henry’s usurping of Daniel’s true blood brother’s story to survive. Daniel’s shunting of H.W. and shooting of Henry and mauling of Eli are the literal spoils of Daniel’s decision to refuse the conversation of the city of words. His eponymous plain view of the world allows for one will alone—his own—to dictate how he lives and acts and speaks in the world. “I want to hear you say it.” He begins the picture in a hole he’s made underground, his first word, “No,” and he ends his story in another man-made tomb, his last words, “I’m finished.” (Plus, you know, that great symmetry of beatings: Daniel beats the earth with a pickax in the dark the same way he beats Eli with a bowling pin in the light.) Granted, this is only one aspect of a crazy-rich film, but I have yet to read much about how speech and language operate in this picture. For to sustain a family there has to be an agreement of what is said, and how that is said, as much as by sheer force (or through the stupid, unknown and perpetual ubiety) of bloodlines. (Further concession: this attention to speech seems central to No Country for Old Men for me, and remains the most intriguing aspect of the film to my ears, but that film is out to erase families just as much as Anton Chigurh is out to erase infelicitous speech. Lastly: Perhaps not as explicitly as Ratatouille, The Host offers family as food, as nourishment, which is a really cool thing, too.)
9. Since I couldn’t stay away from Cavell, I thought I’d go ahead and quote another normative passage from my perpetual education: “First, that in the modern period of the arts—marked variously by splits in the audience (and conception) of art between the academic and the advanced—the great arts together with their criticism increasingly take on the self-reflective condition of philosophy (teaching us, let us say, to see that King Lear is about theatre as catharsis, that Macbeth is about theatre as apparition, Othello about the treacherous theatre of ocular proofs, Hamlet about what surpasses theatrical show). The second contention is that the medium of film is such that—from the time of its first masterpieces in the second decade of its technological establishment—it could take on the seriousness of the modern without splitting its audience, between the high and low, or between the advanced and philistine.”
That’s from the first chapter (“Something out of the ordinary”) of his most recent book, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (another excellent, endearing and educational companion), introducing why he will turn to a clip of Fred Astaire as evidence of what he defines (over 30 pages) as “the ordinary”—and the need to return to it as much as step out of it. I found it so striking because it seemed so right on the money, such plain evidence of a long, rich career of thoughtful reading and writing and living. Given this premise, it seems plain to see, or simply possible, that There Will Be Blood is about film as catharsis, that Syndromes and a Century is about film as apparition, Inland Empire about the treacherous cinema of ocular proofs, Out 1 about what surpasses theatrical-cinematic show. It’s from this understanding that I try to approach film as the modern philosophy. That is as long as it’s great film.
10. Who cares if you’re a little late? There’s no time like the present. In fact, there’s no time but the present. Let’s get into it.
Some witty awards, second.
The “It’s Okay To Play Catch Up” Award: Killer of Sheep. Of course it would be more fair had Burnett’s film seen release sooner. But here it is, folks, primed for us to enjoy it. What weirds me out is that it won’t get half the year-end attention that Army of Shadows got last year, despite it being twice the movie as Melville’s grey-on-grey fatalistic downer. Not to say Melville’s film is weak (I really dig it), but Burnett’s is interested in the film medium (its history, its language, its actions as a history and a language) in a bolder fashion. There’s a joy inside its hurt, pushing outwards, brimming in its rhythms and compositions.
The “Wasteland” Award: Paul Thomas Anderson’s disaster-zone There Will Be Blood. Boy was it hard waiting, for two months, to see this bad mutha a second time. Still, I sure was happy to see it, and write something about it, a little earlier than the rest of the pack. I don’t quite agree with my friend who thinks she’s never quite seen anything like it before, but it certainly is smart cinema. And funny. Or, as I put it in an email: hilariously terrible. The first time I saw it I was too caught up in all of P.T.A’s flashy, horizontal and operatic formal flourishes to laugh much; the second time I guffawed twice and snickered a lot. I look forward to writing some more about Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in the future since my first missive was a somewhat vague tease and not really an act of criticism. Especially since one can find a lot to say in the film’s favor, which is a lot to condense here, so I’ll just say, for now, I enjoyed reading the essays about the picture written by Manohla Dargis and Michael Koresky, and all the blogging by Glenn Kenny, the best. (Could be retitled “The Wasteland is a Milkshake Award,” right?)
The “So Close” Award: David Fincher’s Zodiac is almost close to great. Or, after the murders it gets close to great, when it’s all about procedural and acting (ahem, movies). Otherwise its (early) attraction to pulp violence and its sometimes-sitcom dialogue cheapen the terrific ensemble acting and the central caveat that reading a film isn’t deciphering its code; it’s building the best argument. Just like life. Maybe if the film had been six hours long, like my friend said, it could have been one of the great movies. It remains Fincher’s best, and something tells me the director’s cut will be even better, even if Fincher added a scant four more minutes. (Formerly “The Worthy Failure Award,” which seems apt for this film thematically since nobody “wins” or whatever, but I worry such a name would be misconstrued as a wholly negative dig.)
The “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” Award. (three-way tie?): The rats in the kitchen are adorable. I still don’t want to know if some rats are cooking my 5-star meal, but Ratatouille’s egalitarian, joyful goodwill made me forget my prejudices with a big, stupid smile. It’s deceptively simple but oh so deep dished delicious, and brave. Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End offers a similarly optimistic and mutopic philosophy that most people seem to miss because it, too (maybe above all?), is deceptively smart. Wait: each time I finish the Aqua Teen movie I’m bewildered and fatigued in a great way. Its opening is genius, yes, as is the Oglethorpe and Emory flashback involving bed sheets exploding, yes, but I gotta say I wish there was more Carl.
The “Termite” Award: As much as I’d like to give it to the first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later, or to Death Proof’s grainy genre fun for continually halving itself, doubling back, and wrecking big at the finale, the award lands squarely on the doorstep of David Lynch’s time-collapse madhouse Inland Empire (which sits a house next door to Satoshi Kon’s Paprika): it’s all about passage, internal networks, rhymes, time mapped by an Escher architecture of film (as digital seems so apt to amplify), acting eating faces, seeing stars, one’s mirrored persona, rabbits, boobs and lust and cigarettes, and light. So much harsh and gorgeous light. For all of David Lynch’s soothsaying Magi powers, Laura Dern is Inland Empire. And she won’t quit. She doesn’t quit. That’s the beauty of it.
The “Overrated But Still Pretty Good” Award: The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men is ostensibly “excellent,” maybe even “perfect.” However, I still find something missing: I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece as some critics (that I respect and am often willing to arrogate to) have named it. I was hoping I’d have a better evaluation of the picture by now but more important things, like life, got in the way. And, to be honest, I simply don’t care to extrapolate further than, “Cool, they understand speech-as-spectacle in the social practice of language,” and “Ouch, that violence hurts.” Maybe it’s a knee-jerk kinda thing, or maybe I just don’t want that kind of crisp brutality in my life all that often (both positions clearly barometers of my taste more than evaluations of the film), but I’d sacrifice seeing No Country again for another shot at Eastern Promises. At least the Cronenberg picture ends with a birth. (Still, stay tuned to Vinyl Is Heavy for some Coen Fatigue (pace Sean).)
The “Auteur” Award (tie): Carlos Reygadas and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It was not until this past spring that I found Reygadas, via Battle in Heaven. It took a summer screening of Syndromes and a Century to show me Joe’s funny bones. Since then I’ve watched all their available films, and enjoyed them all tremendously. Luckily, the two of them are after different things in film, but I wager we will remember them longer, with more passion, than, hmn, Noah Baumbach. (Charles Burnett lost in a close race; the DVD set Milestone put out here at the end of the year is a treasure.)
The “Sergei Urusevsky” Award: Too easy to name Stellet Licht and its sunspots, which were created by using oldish Russian cameras. I choose Robert Yeoman’s Darjeeling Limited turquoise and yellow widescreen delight.
The “Perpetual Education” Award: Immediately understanding why I love The Darjeeling Limited and rediscovering why The Life Aquatic is a special film this year. Stop ghettoizing Wes Anderson. For real. He’s the real deal.
Parts of these films were amazing, but they fall just short, in one way or another: 28 Weeks Later (best opening sequence of the year), Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (best make-out scene of the year), Eastern Promises (best balls-out sequence of the year), I’m Not There (best use of the word “pussy” of the year), Margot at the Wedding (best plant-fighting of the year), No Country For Old Men (best dog-in-a-river sequence of the year), Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End (best special effects, best giddy upheaval of the year), Zodiac (best male ensemble of the year). Still, I dig these flicks more than a lot of others, like Transformers (although the sand there looks good). I’ve watched a few of these multiple times, which means I did not see others, like Colossal Youth, for instance, even once. Funny that the two standing as polar opposites are probably the “best” of the bunch. Big points for guessing which two I’m thinking of; however, in all seriousness, the only prize I can offer is an Internet slap on the back. Unless I know you physically. But, wait, am I serious here?
An alphabetical and protean “Favorite Ten of 2007” list, finally.
I know it’s a little predictable (or redundant?) but aren’t most lists a little predictable? (Or redundant?)
The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson
Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino
The Host, Bong Joon-ho
Inland Empire, David Lynch
Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett
Paprika, Satoshi Kon
Ratatouille, Brad Bird
Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas
Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson
If you made it to the end, thank you for reading. Be well: enjoy yourself and enjoy your movie time. And I’m Out of here, fakers.
Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.3
Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.
Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.
This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, as she did in Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the Dyne clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.
Indeed, the precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban whimsy and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and hardships progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.
Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.
Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the Dynes are crashing).
Toward the end of the film, July provides some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the revelatory aphorisms that pepper her dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child energy is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills
Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.1
Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.
Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.
Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System
The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.3.5
If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.
The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.
Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.
At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.
Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.
The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.
Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.
Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
9. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
8. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
7. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
6. Session 9 (2001)
As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins
5. Before I Wake (2016)
Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez
3. The Guest (2014)
The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen
Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries
In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.2.5
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.
The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.
In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.
Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.
As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.
In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.3
Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.
Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.
The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.
The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.
The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.
One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.
Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.
Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.3
There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.
Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.
The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.
In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.
Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.
Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.
Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020
Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.3
The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.
The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.
The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.
The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.
Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.
Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life
The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.2.5
The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.
Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.
The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.
The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.
This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special
Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.
Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.
Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.
Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.
The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.
Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020