In June of this past year, I popped in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Sidney Lumet, a film I’ve seen countless times and felt like seeing again. I suppose I was in the mood to plummet into a pit of distinctly Irish despair, or something like that. I have to admit that, during my earlier viewings, I was mostly focused on Katharine Hepburn or Jason Robards, and I took Ralph Richardson for granted (a huge mistake!), and barely noticed Dean Stockwell, as Edmund, the younger of two brothers, and Eugene O’Neill’s alter ego. But for whatever reason, in my viewing this past June, all I could look at was Stockwell.
The part of Edmund is under-written (just ask any actor who’s played him on stage or screen), and except for one or two crucial monologues, and the important plot point of his creeping tuberculosis, he doesn’t have much to do. He has to sit around, helplessly, watching his family shatter. Not an easy thing to do for an actor…who has to act. It reminds me of a great line from one of my acting teachers who would say to an actor who was overly obsessed with tears, or emotion: “Remember the name of your job. It’s actor. Not feeler.” Edmund, at times, is written just to stand around and feel. It’s tough to make that part active.
But Stockwell, at least for me in this past viewing, became the linchpin, the core of that entire film. He is how we see all the others. It’s crucial that he be sympathetic and lovable, because he’s our way in. Stockwell is marvelous in that part, and since it’s not as showy as the others, he doesn’t quite get the credit that I believe he deserves. He could have just stood around in the background emoting, and feeling—being tragic and so very Irish—but he doesn’t. He somehow makes that part active. He makes listening itself seem active.
The film began my own long journey into Stockwell’s entire career. I’ve been aware of him for years, naturally. He’s always been there. I saw Married to the Mob. I saw Blue Velvet. I even grew up watching films like The Secret Garden and The Boy with Green Hair on channel 56 in New England, afternoon double-features. But I didn’t put it all together, the true scope of this man’s career, and his very specific gift, until I watched Long Day’s Journey last June and decided to see for myself, again, what this wonderful character actor was all about.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes about Stockwell:
With the TV series Quantum Leap and with his regular work as a supporting actor in movies, Dean Stockwell may never have been better known. Yet he has experienced so many stages and changes already—the piercing child; the beautiful yet not quite penetrating young lead; the wanderer, hippie, and biker; the realtor in New Mexico; and now, for a decade at least, the versatile, reliable, yet never quite predictable character actor who seems blessed to play men brushed by the wing of uncommon experience—as if they might once have had green hair.
Longevity is the name of the acting game. Survival is the name of the game. Most stars have a shelf life. They trade on their youth and beauty, they get the plum parts, and when that beauty fades, they either segue into character parts, or their career ends. Someone like Stockwell avoided that issue, although he had other issues. He was never a Marlon Brando, or a John Wayne—someone who tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment, and then had to either go with it or perish. Stockwell has worked steadily since his debut in 1945 (in Anchors Aweigh, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), although he’s taken some self-imposed hiatuses.
He was one of the most successful child actors of his time. He was under contract at MGM, and went to school at the Little Red Schoolhouse on the studio lot, where Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor were his classmates. Stockwell found acting to be an incredibly tedious thing to do, and he was known, even then, as “One-Take Stockwell,” because he hated the repetition. There are stories, from back then, about how he would request not even having a rehearsal for crucial scenes. He just wanted to get up and do it, and have the camera catch it, and have it be over. He was just a little kid.
When his contract was up, he walked away from acting for a few years. He saw his contract as a prison sentence, and he felt dominated by it. He came back to acting in his early 20s and had a spectacular decade of work, including Long Day’s Journey, before walking away again. This time, he walked away because it was the ‘60s, Flower Power was raging, and he wanted to participate in it fully. He had never had an adolescence, so he figured it was about time. He moved to the Haight-Ashbury and dropped off the grid. He did a film here and there, and then, when he decided really get back to work, found that his name had dried up in Hollywood. The doors would no longer open. Then followed a long dry spell for him. For about 15 years, he struggled. He did theater, he did television, he raised hell with his best friend Dennis Hopper, he moved to Taos, New Mexico, he got his real estate license.
The breakthrough came in the 1980s, when David Lynch gave him a crucial part in Dune, which eventually led to Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, a film that was an unexpected underground hit, with much praise coming his way in particular (he played the quiet concerned brother of Harry Dean Stanton). David Lynch’s Blue Velvet followed, and his eerie terrifying scene is one of the take-aways from that film. Who doesn’t remember that scene?
The mid-‘80s is when it all came back together for Dean Stockwell, and it came back together on his terms, bringing him satisfaction and joy. He has said that he didn’t actually enjoy acting until he was well into his 40s. You can tell, in all of these parts, that he has found a new kind of freedom and passion for his work…something that’s quite different from the truly natural ability he had as a young child. Married to the Mob got him his first and only (so far! I live in hope!) Oscar nomination, and that led to Quantum Leap, a phenom in its own right. Since then, he’s worked steadily, not in starring parts, but as a reliable character actor of the old school. (Think about his hysterical turn as the desperate screenwriter in The Player!) He still lives in Taos, he’s an artist (collages, mostly, although he’s been moving into sculpture as well), he appears as a regular on Battlestar Galactica, and age is settling well on him.
It’s hard to think of another child actor of that time who’s had such a long career. McDowall is one, but many of them lost their chops in the segue to adulthood. They couldn’t make the transition, or the public wouldn’t accept them as teens or adults. Stockwell walked away, at the crucial moment, disappeared from public consciousness at age 16, and when he returned, he was a young man in his 20s, slim, intense, with James Dean good looks. He didn’t segue to adulthood—he “quantum leaped”, so to speak. And so he survived. Thank God for that.
I wanted to pick “5 for the Day” that might be a bit off the map, since Stockwell’s career has been so varied. There are films out there that might not be as popular, but he’s terrific in them, and they’re all worth seeing.
1. Compulsion (1959); directed by Richard Fleischer; based on the best-selling novel by Meyer Levin; and starring Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles. The film is based on the Leopold and Loeb murders, although the names have been changed. The first half is devoted to the carrying-out of the “perfect” crime, and the twisted homoerotic relationship between Judd Steiner (Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Dillman). The second half shows the trial, where Jonathan Wilk (Welles) appears as the defense attorney of Judd and Artie. Wilk is based on Clarence Darrow, who in real life defended the boys with a ringing closing argument (12 hours long!) that became (to this day) an indictment of the institution of capital punishment in this country. Because Compulsion was filmed in 1959, the gay relationship between the two boys could not be made clear or explicit. But, boy, is it in their behavior. It’s amazing what they got away with here. Perhaps separately they would not have done what they did, but the combination of their two personalities, and how they continuously dared one another to go further and further, creates a murderous entity.
Strauss is the alpha of the relationship, a mini-fascist who controls Steiner’s every move. Steiner, the nervy snotty intellectual, needs Strauss’s approval and love. It’s not just something he wants; it’s something as essential to him as air or food. Stockwell is terrific in this part, just terrific. Steiner is an intellectual prodigy, a budding ornithologist (his room is full of dead birds) and a loner. Girls find him odd, kind of off-putting. There’s a scene at a speakeasy, where flappers Charleston about, bootleg booze flows, and the camera pans across the crowd and lands on Stockwell, sitting at a table with a girl his character likes and pontificating about Plato’s view of childrearing. You know, Steiner is a weirdo. But there’s something in Stockwell’s performance that’s touching—you can feel his fragility. This isn’t a well person. He has split parts of himself off, into compartments, and as the realization begins to dawn on him that he and Strauss have been found out, that their perfect crime was not so perfect after all, the terror is palpable. You can feel the knot in his gut. It’s all in Stockwell’s acting. It’s a tour de force, as far as I’m concerned.
Dillman, as the alpha, is also good, although he does a bit too much maniacal “Look how crazy I am” laughing. Stockwell never hams it up. His talent is such that it has always led him to the most truthful simple expression. Even as a child he had none of that shrill precocious obnoxiousness so common to so many child actors. He always seemed real, like a real little boy. And here, in what could have been a highly mannered actor-y part, he underplays, he hides and deceives, and yet, what he’s really playing (and why I think this performance is so good) is how much he loves Strauss, his partner in crime.
The script might have not been explicit, due to the mores of the time, but Stockwell plays it anyway. It gives the film a pulsing sense of tension and agony that would otherwise not have been there. It could have been a melodrama, and it is that, to some degree. But it’s also a twisted love story, breathtaking in its courage (if you see it in the context of the day and age it was made). Stockwell, with his twitchy head movements (very much like the birds that this character loves so much), his sensitive humorless face, his precise way of moving (this guy is wound tight as a top), and his sudden bursts of rage whenever anyone dares to criticize his “friendship” with Artie, is marvelous. Well worth seeing.
2. The Werewolf of Washington (1973); directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg; and starring Biff McGuire and Stockwell. Oh, how I love this campy movie. It was made during the dry spell of Stockwell’s career, the long decade of the ‘70s. Stockwell plays Jack Whittier, White House Press Secretary, who, unfortunately, is also a werewolf due to an encounter with a wolf in Budapest one misty terrible night. The film is obviously meant as a political satire, not just a scary werewolf movie. It was made in the early ‘70s when cynicism about the Nixon administration was reaching its peak. As they were filming the movie, the Watergate break-in occurred, and that sort of killed the satirical appeal of the film, which was pretty much dead in the water when it opened. Things had become far too serious, and a film which proposed to laugh at the boobs in Washington didn’t have much of a chance in the tense atmosphere of those days. Jack Whittier even lives in the Watergate.
The coincidences abound. Stockwell, with his slicked-to-the-side haircut, his immaculate appearance (well, except when he becomes a raging hairy werewolf, of course) is reminiscent of John Dean. But see the movie now, and see it in its original campy spirit, and it’s a blast. One of the reasons I really love this performance is because of where Stockwell was at in his life when he filmed it. He was struggling, he had become anonymous again, he had lost his cache as a star. He was job to job to job; it’s easy to be wonderful when you have the plum parts offered to you, when every decision in Hollywood somehow includes YOU. But when you are outside that charmed circle, when the material offered to you is not quite up to the level of your gifts, how do you survive then? How do you, to quote Tim Gunn, “make it work”?
Stockwell plays the part of Jack Whittier straight, as straight as can be, as though all of this is completely real. He has a big job, he has the ear of the president (who is a moron), and yet…when the moon is full…ohhhhh noooooo here it comes again…I’m becoming a werewolf again…someone help me before I kill again!!! There are scenes where he is in meetings with the joint Chiefs of Staff, and he can feel the change beginning. He tries to keep it together, tries to hold back the werewolf transformation … but as we all know, once you are a werewolf you can’t just say, “You know what? Not tonight, I’m busy…”
My favorite scene in the film is when Whittier and the president are bowling in the White House bowling alley. The moon is rising outside. Whittier, already a wreck emotionally, puts his fingers into the bowling ball, and then, tragically, his hands begin to swell up into the tell-tale wolf claws. He cannot get his fingers out of the bowling ball. Meanwhile, the president, bowling in the next lane to his heart’s content, jabbering on and on, remains oblivious. I cannot describe how funny and how awful it is to watch Stockwell try to get his fingers out of that bowling ball, while not letting on that that is what he’s doing. This isn’t an actor wink-winking at the audience, saying, “Ha ha, I know this is stupid, but let’s get through it anyway”—as so often happens in campy movies. Stockwell plays it real. You can feel the pressure on his fingers, you can feel his growing desperation to get out of there…he is going to become a werewolf in front of the president of the United States, and that just cannot happen! It’s one of my favorites of all of Stockwell’s acting moments.
3. Kim (1950); directed by Victor Saville; starring Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas, and Stockwell: Based on the Rudyard Kipling story of the same name, this movie has it all: wonderful performances, adventure, humor, and it still works today. It hasn’t paled or lessened in its appeal. Flynn plays Mahbub Ali, the Red Beard, and Stockwell, 12 or 13 years old, plays Kim, the little English boy who paints his face dark to pass as an Indian local.
Kim lives on the streets because he can’t stand school, and he knows how to survive. He runs errands for people, eavesdrops, does favors, aligns himself with the powerful, and, in general, evades capture by those who want to civilize him. Stockwell is in almost every scene. You never for once doubt that he’s who he says he is. He has stunts to do, he runs around barefoot, climbs trees, has crying scenes, he has scenes which show how precocious Kim is sexually (his lecherous wink at the Indian woman he gives a message to in the middle of the night), he’s funny, he’s touching, and also, the language he has to speak is quite flowery and poetic. Stockwell manages it all. Not once do you feel he is out of his depth.
Stockwell has spoken at length about Flynn, and how much he appreciated Flynn’s no-nonsense acceptance of him, a young boy, as a collaborator and friend. They truly had regard for one another, and it’s apparent in their dynamic on screen. I especially love the scene where Stockwell sits in a tub of soap and water, naked, and Flynn stands over him, scrubbing the dark paint off of Stockwell’s skin. They chat, they banter all the while, and sometimes Flynn scrubs too hard, and you can see Stockwell squirming, trying to get away, and there’s something so natural in their rapport, so un-selfconscious. You believe they’re friends. And you can feel Flynn’s generosity toward his young co-star. Stockwell never forgot him for that. He said, years later, “I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life—I was 12 or something—he was what he was: a truly profound, non-superficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.” Great movie, a great romp.
4. Tracks (1976); directed by Henry Jaglom; and starring Dennis Hopper and Stockwell. One of the first films to deal with Vietnam veterans and their challenges in coming home, Tracks is a small treasure. In true Jaglom fashion, there’s an improvisational feel to it. The majority of the film was shot bootleg style, on an actual train, where the crew would move from car to car, picking up shots, plopping the actors down in the middle of actual passengers to play a scene, moving on to the next car…no “professional” extras were used, just the people who happened to be on the train at the time.
The commentary track on the film’s DVD, with Jaglom and Hopper, is invaluable. Hopper plays Jack Falen, a 1st sergeant fresh out of Vietnam who’s accompanying a dead body across the country. Things are surreal for him to say the least. He’s on the train for four or five days. He circulates. He meets people. He meets a girl. He’s odd, he’s haunted, he’s trying to act his way back into being normal. He befriends a guy named Mark, played by Stockwell. Mark wears a flowery shirt and turquoise jewelry, so you might think that he would be hostile toward a man in uniform, given the feeling of the day. But that’s not the case. They click. They click as men. They sit in the dining car and chat up girls. They hang out together, and have long conversations.
Nothing happens in the movie for 95% of it, and for me, the ending—where something suddenly happens, with a bang—doesn’t quite work, but it’s forgivable. I understand the impulse, and I understand the point Jaglom is trying to make. It just doesn’t work for me because I was so riveted by the rest of the film, its aimlessness, its weird observations of human behavior, and its beauty. There are shots of Hopper, sitting alone in an empty car, dusk outside, his silhouette blue and shadowy against the twilight. We can only imagine what he’s thinking.
Stockwell is at his wittiest and most charming here. To me, the part is reminiscent of his most endearing qualities as a child actor. He’s fresh, he’s funny, he’s spontaneous, he’s responding not just to external stimuli, but to some kind of internal dialogue that we can never know. He’s always thinking, pondering, speaking out, and, of course, listening. Just watch Stockwell when he’s listening. I’ve always thought that Humphrey Bogart is best when he’s listening to others. It’s almost like he makes the other actor more interesting, just because of how he’s listening to him. Stockwell has that. He takes Hopper in, he watches, he listens—not just to the words, but to what isn’t being said. It’s also wonderful because you know what good friends the two are in real life. There’s nothing about their dynamic that doesn’t feel real and un-selfconscious. The camera is there, yes, to capture the moment. But Stockwell and Hopper barely seem aware of it. They are too engrossed in their own conversation.
5. Quantum Leap (1989 – 1993): With Rear Admiral Al Calavicci, you can sense Stockwell at the height of all of his powers. He’s said that he prefers comedy to drama. He likes to keep things light, and as a child he dreaded “crying scenes” so much he would lose sleep the night before filming. The best thing about his portrayal of Calavicci is how broad it is, how he got to include all aspects of his personality: the cynical, the macho, the lecherous, the funny, the passionate. Calavicci, a man who was missing in action in Vietnam for five years and given up for dead has a regard for the underdog, for those who may be “lost.” He thinks everyone is worth saving. And yet he’s completely lacking in sanctimonious earnestness. Imagine how insufferable Quantum Leap would have been if Calavicci had been more of a “touched by an angel”-type observer, someone who was passionate about the “greater good.” Not that Calavicci doesn’t want to put right what once went wrong. He does. But he also usually has some naked girl in his bed back home when he’s called to Sam Beckett’s (Scott Bakula) side, and so he’s obviously distracted from the task at hand. And when, later, we discover Calavicci’s secret, what it was that he once had lost, the one thing he can never get back, it all makes sense, and it packs quite a punch because we have come to care about the man.
I loved the show when it was originally on, and I have been having so much fun reacquainting myself with it. It kind of slipped off the rails in the final season (like, evil leapers? Really?), but to my taste, it never forgot its mission. And it never forgot that the strength of the series was in the friendship between Beckett and Calavicci. Quantum Leap was not an ensemble series. It was about the two of them. They are so much fun to watch together. Stockwell, in his 50s, became more famous than he had ever been as a child actor. Suddenly, his ship came in. Couldn’t happen to a better person.
In October, I flew to Taos, New Mexico, to go to an exhibit of Stockwell’s artwork. He was there, in his black hat, his bolo tie, his black jeans. A marimba band played outside the gallery, and Stockwell danced around, his ubiquitous cigar in his mouth. He chatted with friends who had shown up, he was gracious to the fans who approached him (you could totally tell which ones were Battlestar Galactica fans), and he seemed to enjoy himself completely. His art is wonderful, reminiscent of the collages of Joseph Cornell, and I walked around the gallery, soaking them all in.
I had some very odd moments when I would glance over at Stockwell, deep in conversation with a friend, or jamming out to the music, and I would see him as the little boy from Secret Garden, or The Boy with Green Hair. The ghost of his younger self hovers around him, my associations with him through the years superimposed over his 71-year-old still-vital self. What a survivor. I don’t know the man, so I don’t know what his ghosts might be, his unresolved issues, his regrets. It’s not for me to know. But from my perspective, being in his presence, all I was aware of was my overwhelming gratitude to this man for his long career, his hard work, and his talent. It seems to me that he has always been there. How lucky we are to have him.
At the end of the night, the spectacular Taos sunset gleaming in the sky, Stockwell’s art dealer, RC Israel, who had befriended me earlier in the night, took me over to say hello to Stockwell. He had already introduced me to Dean multiple times, so it was like Groundhog Day. Israel said, “Dean, have you met Sheila O’Malley?” Dean, cigar in his mouth, said dryly, “About four times now, Israel.” Looking back on the moment, I just have to laugh. Stockwell was “over” me! My life is now complete.
Stevie, my friend who had accompanied me to the exhibit, said to Stockwell at one point, when the two of us were standing there, outside the gallery, “Mr. Stockwell, Sheila just loves you.”
Stockwell grinned, gave me a kind of awkward one-armed hug, and corrected the sentiment gently, “No. She loves my work.”
Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed
The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.2
At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.
Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.
The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.
The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.
Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age
Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.3
Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.
The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.
Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.
Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.
Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.
The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.
Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas
The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.3
Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.
As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.
Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.
The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.
Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture
On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.3
Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.
As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.
The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.
Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”
There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)
On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.
Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord
Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.1.5
Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.
At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.
Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.
Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.
Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming
Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.3
Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.
In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.
Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.
Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.
Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.
When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.
Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists
Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.2
Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.
At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.
The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.
While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors
Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.3
For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.
The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)
In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.
We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.
Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.
The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.
One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.
Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.
Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Inheritance Is Elevated by Simon Pegg’s Effective Anti-Typecasting
Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of the film’s fairy-tale premise.2.5
Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance pivots on a good sick joke that suggests a near-literalization of the idiom “skeleton in the closet.” Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) is a district attorney who pursues Wall Street hustlers as symbolic atonement for the wealth of her family, which includes a congressman brother, William (Chace Crawford), and a father, Archie (Patrick Warburton), who seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. William is running for reelection while Lauren is trying a huge case, and it’s believed that her victory will cement her brother’s own. But Archie dies suddenly, his will nearly stiffing Lauren of his money, though there are mysterious instructions left behind for her to investigate a family secret. Under the woods on the Monroe property is a bunker containing a man who calls himself Morgan (Simon Pegg) and claims to have been imprisoned by Archie down there for years.
The notion of a mogul keeping a prisoner underground on his property is delectably strange, suggesting the sickness—a true soul rot—of Archie’s ego. Morgan also resonates as an embodiment of Lauren’s fear that she can’t be free of her family’s sins, and that, if nudged by opportunity and desperation, she’s capable of committing those same sins. As Morgan says, if Lauren’s as good as she believes herself to be, she’d immediately spring him from his cage; instead, she plays a game of cat and mouse, somewhat reminiscent of the relationship at the center of The Silence of the Lambs, in which she hectors and consoles Morgan into revealing why Archie would take such insane effort and risk to contain him. Lauren even asks a question that will have occurred to most viewers: Why didn’t Archie just bump Morgan off?
The resolution of the film’s mystery is ordinary, though that isn’t surprising given that Matthew Kennedy’s script is host to all sorts of missed opportunities. Based on the opening montage, one expects the narrative to ping-pong between Lauren’s big case, William’s reelection campaign, and Lauren’s verbal duels with Morgan, but the various subplots are essentially left hanging by an ending that seems to be missing scenes. Inheritance also lacks the obsessive sense of interiority of a great thriller; it’s almost entirely composed of plot, with only passing emotional reverberations, which might’ve been stronger if Morgan’s presence were vividly shown to have an effect on Lauren’s relationships with her work and family, or if she had been more tempted to indulge her father’s potential penchant for evil. Lauren lacks the fevered torment and poignant self-loathing of Clarice Starling, as she’s essentially a tour guide leading us through the traps that Stein and Kennedy have devised.
Yet Inheritance is enjoyable nevertheless, mostly for Pegg’s effective anti-typecasting. Slim, with long gray hair and a region-less American accent, the actor informs a potentially gimmicky character with striking elegance. There’s an unexpectedly lovely moment when Lauren takes Morgan out of the bunker and he savors the darkness of the surrounding woods, observing that “it’s more beautiful than I remembered.” Pegg invests such scenes with pathos, allowing Morgan’s crisp voice to become momentarily, poetically halting. And Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of this fairy-tale premise, allowing one to savor the film’s central question: Is Morgan a figure in the key of Hansel or of the big bad wolf?
Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Patrick Warburton, Chace Crawford, Michael Beach, Marque Richardson, Rebecca Adams, Alec James, Josh Murray, Mariyah Frances, Lydia Hand Director: Vaughn Stein Screenwriter: Matthew Kennedy Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Trip to Greece Is a Bittersweet Tale of Mortality and Transience
The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot.3
Though its tone is set by the effortlessly charming, mostly improvised back and forth between its two stars, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series has often succeeded in exploring some relatively weighty topics, including aging, masculinity, and the nature of fame. Under the pretext of reviewing local restaurants for a newspaper, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a tour of historic regions around the world, and the films (edited down from six-part TV shows initially broadcast in the U.K.) have increasingly used their locations’ historical significance to cast these trips in a philosophical light. Previous installments were structured around trips taken by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and now, The Trip to Greece sees the pair retracing the journey of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, from Turkey through modern Macedonia and Greece.
Among the pleasures of this series are Coogan and Brydon’s virtuoso celebrity impressions. Their competitive deconstruction of the vocal textures of Michael Caine was one particular highlight, proving not just hilarious but also fascinating on a technical level. There are some diminishing returns on this front in the final installment, though Brydon’s career-spanning Dustin Hoffman recital is a worthy addition to the canon. The progression of the films up to this point has also seen these compulsive impersonations, and other impromptu riffs, settle pleasingly into a leitmotif that suggests ideas of performance and identity.
Along with the notion of retracing the steps of some imposing cultural predecessors, the pair’s bantering hints subtly at the roleplay that’s often forced upon them, by their profession and their advancing years. Brydon mostly embraces the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, and his status as a “light entertainment” figure, while Coogan’s philandering and restless yearning for prestige casts him as the romantic hero of the tale. The conflict is spelled out plainly in one scene in The Trip to Greece, where the pair pose for photos with comedy and tragedy masks. This kind of gentle, surface-level symbolism has usually served the series’s themes in a more intriguing way than its occasional forays into contrived drama.
While this might seem an odd criticism to level at actors portraying themselves, there’s the sense that four successive installments of these travelogues have perhaps made the leads a little too comfortable in their respective roles. Despite the frequent references to Coogan ultimately being defined by the various iterations of beloved comedy creation Alan Partridge, he has now played himself on screen almost as often as his most famous character. This marks the sixth time he’s appeared as some version of the insecure, self-aggrandizing persona on which Patridge itself was based, with The Trip preceded by A Cock and Bull Story (another collaboration with Brydon and Winterbottom), and before that a segment in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. The conceit has become familiar enough that it no longer generates the same amount of meta-textual tension that it once did, but it’s still refreshingly honest, and Brydon’s more grounded self-portrayal continues to serve as an effective foil.
The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot, which sees Coogan worriedly inquiring about the health of his elderly father, who’s hospitalized back home in England. In one of the most lyrical moments in the whole series, he dreams that he’s being rowed along a body of water, before confronting his dad on the shore. Alluding to the dead being ferried across to the underworld in Greek mythology, this also foreshadows the inevitable outcome of the storyline, and brings an even deeper undercurrent to the mostly unspoken loneliness of his character.
As usual, the climactic moment of pathos is juxtaposed with a more light-hearted moment of familial joy, as Brydon’s wife, Sally (Rebecca Johnson), arrives to accompany him for the final leg of the trip—at the exact moment that Coogan leaves to pay his respects to his departed father. This synchronicity is an effective way of marrying together the film’s contrasting moods within its own strictly realist framework. The reassuring consistency of Winterbottom’s series over the last decade may have called for a more satisfying ending than The Trip to Greece offers, though it’s perhaps fitting that a bittersweet tale of mortality and transience should ultimately expose some of its own limitations but still leave us wanting more.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Richard Clews, Kareem Alkabbani Director: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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Review: Wildfire Is a Stealth Game of Thrilling Unpredictability
Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord
Review: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws Celebrates 45th Anniversary, Surfaces on 4K
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Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed
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