So, last night while watching Cyrus, the word I repeatedly jotted down was “honest.”
Jay Duplass: Oh God, we’re gonna start crying now.
I’m wondering how you were able to keep and develop that honesty while working within a studio environment for the first time?
Mark Duplass: Well, we did work with a studio, but it’s Fox Searchlight, so you know, this is what they want to be doing. That being said, it was a production with an 80- or 100-person crew, so we did have to take some extra steps to create an intimate set that can give you the honesty you’re talking about. So the key for us was making sure that every set was a closed set. Jay on the camera, another cameraman, boom op, tops. And I would watch from a monitor and Jay and I would make sure to continue what we’ve always done, which is spend as much time as possible on the acting and with the actors. And keep everything technical that is happening out of the way of the actors. When you establish that set, it’s almost like theater. It’s just here, with the directors and the actors.
JD: But there were definitely many times where it was very hard. You can’t control that many people, and so many influences. And there’s a lot of money and a lot of pressure and there were definitely times where…honestly, my and Mark’s safe place was we would just walk away together. And, like, fuck all this stuff, let’s cut through all the fat right now and figure out what happened in that take. We would just get back to what we’ve always done which was…what do you want to see next, and are you happy with that? We would check in with each other. There was a constant litmus test of…what is happening in this story, and what is happening between these two human beings? And then how can we make it better? That’s how we got it to a more honest place.
Did you film the scenes in script order?
JD/MD: Yeah, we always do that.
How much does that help your process?
MD: It helps a ton. Occasionally we’d do little things out of order, non-emotional scenes, people walking in a house, but not the key scenes that are the progression of the story. For us, it’s critical how we shoot. The story itself doesn’t change too much but the nuanced interpersonal dynamics, we feel like you can never predict those things. So when you really see how passive-aggressive they’re being, are they more or less than you thought? That allows you to go into the scene the next day, knowing exactly what you shot and build right upon it.
What happens if you guys continue to progress and the studio, for budgetary reasons, tells you that you must shoot out of order? What are you willing to give up in your process?
JD: We’ll never give that up.
MD: Yeah. I mean we’re very amenable and we’re very easy filmmakers on a lot of fronts. We don’t require people to build us an elaborate, expensive set. Give us a house with eight-foot ceilings and we’ll shoot that shit. We don’t care, you know. So we’re very giving on a lot of fronts and what that says to people, when we say “no” we have to have this, they know we mean it. So you just save those important things. For us, the cast is crucial. The crewmembers being really nice, sweet, and sensitive people, and they have to believe in what we’re doing. And shooting in order is how we make our movies, so that’s a deal-breaker.
Have you guys ever thought about adapting a novel?
MD: Yeah, we adapted a novel for Sandra Bullock.
JD: It was a cool process.
MD: Yeah, it was really fun. So I think we, you know, we’re still in that phase where we have scripts in the drawer. But eventually, I’m sure we’ll, like, run out of ideas.
JD: Yeah, ha.
MD: So we’re not opposed to that, but right now we’re feeling like we got a couple more movies in the pipeline that we’d like to direct.
JD: But we also have a weird sense of authorship in that we are constantly re-authoring our art through production and editorial. Honestly, we worry about the responsibility of carrying someone else’s vision. Because, honestly, we trash our scripts. We’ll do whatever it takes to make something work and make a scene go.
MD: We’re so mean to our scripts. We’re brutal.
JD: We are!
So you don’t worry about potentially losing a character you wrote in the process of making a movie?
MD: We usually keep our characters, but if we had to lose a character to make a movie work—absolutely! Because it’s the worst thing in the world to be sitting in an audience and know what you’re giving them is a waste of their time. So it’s all about them, and this experience you’re creating for them.
After years of working on your micro-budget indie films, I’m curious what were the best things about working with a studio?
JD: Ooh, that’s a great question.
MD: There are a lot of cool little things, a lot of them are superficial, but they would mean a lot. Like, the food! It was insanely good. And it’s ready for you as soon as you get there. Or if you have to stay on set and work on a scene, someone will bring you food! And they ask you what you want and they bring it to you. It’s these little things that are normally, like, who needs that? But when you’re giving your entire person to a movie…when you say you’re tired, someone brings you a cup of coffee. It’s like—this is incredible!
JD: It’s actually better for the piece of art. We had a trailer, it was tiny, and we shared it. We’d sleep in the trailer; it was our special little nap space.
MD: Also in the post-production process, having someone there to organize everything. The post-production supervisor—that was so critical. Having a first assistant director who really organized and directed all of our extras for us. So when we showed up they were 90% there. So there was a lot of that pre-work, people who get it up to a first draft and then we can just finesse. It saved us a lot of energy. And that feels cool! I’m not above saying that. It’s like [in a high-pitched voice] we’re like REAL directors! You know it makes you feel good.
I lived in Austin for six years and love South by Southwest. I know you lived here for a while. How great does it feel to come back with this film? I know you’ve done it before but—
JD: This is a whole different thing.
MD: It was different.
JD: This is Paramount, Saturday night. It’s like the slot we dreamed of since the early ‘90s. Mark was saying earlier, we had dinner with our parents and we realized we were a little late and we were hustling down Congress—
MD: Scuttlebuttin’ I believe is the word.
JD: We walked up to the theater and we saw the name of the movie on the marquee and it totally knocked us out. We were like, “Oh my God, it’s happening right now!”…you know? Because we’ve looked up to [Richard] Linklater and [Robert] Rodriguez so much and just wanted to be them! And be in that place. And we’ve struggled for so long—
MD: Struggled for so long.
JD: To see that come together kind of snuck up on us a little bit. And honestly, that crowd in the Paramount. My God! They got every, tiny, little joke. Every little nuance that Mark and I…we always have them in our movies, and we’re like, oh, those will be for the seven or eight people in America who get it, but everyone in that theater was getting it all! We were like—oh my God, you get us.
And it seemed like the audience had a lot of Austinites in it.
MD: Yes, 78704 is our universe.
Speaking of parents, my dad doesn’t know who you are and hasn’t seen any of your films, but I told him I was doing an interview with you and he somehow convinced me to ask you a question of his.
JD: That’s awesome.
So he sent like 10, but the one I picked was: What question do you want to be asked, so you can answer the answer you’ve always wanted to answer?
JD: Wow! You have an awesome dad.
MD: Well, that is difficult. It’s a minute-to-minute thing…God!
Okay, well what’s something about Cyrus that you feel never gets asked?
MD: You know what I always want to hear from people, I don’t know why, it’s kind of small. But most people who watch our movies assume that we’re all just out there getting stoned and having fun and ripping with the camera. I would love to have someone basically ask me: You know a lot of people assume or think that your filmmaking process is fun, but watching your movies I get the feeling that it’s a torturous, difficult process. Is that the case?
JD: And then we cry and fall down!
MD: And then we say, yes, you get us!
JD: Honestly, what I would like to do with every interviewer who comes in is be able to ask them a question, because we get really tired of talking about ourselves. So the question I would ask is: What do you want more than anything else in this world?
[Mark and Jay laugh maniacally]
MD: That’s so weird, because as you said that, I was thinking of a different question that provides the same answer. Which is: If we were going to make a movie starring you, what would it be about?
JD: What’s your life trajectory? What’s your life story?
Well, oh God, how did this happen? Dad!
[Jay laughs maniacally]
MD: Son of a bitch dad.
Honestly, I’m writing my own first feature script. I can’t believe I’m talking about this…but the genuineness that came from Cyrus is something I really strive for with every film I make. That honest…thing that emanates from the screen when I watch very few narrative films…
JD/MD: Yeah, yeah.
That is so hard to achieve. So if I could accomplish that, not to kiss your asses or anything, but if I could get to that point as a director, that would be one definite goal.
JD: We understand that because we’re still trying to do that.
MD: You’ll have to tell your dad we say hi.
Oh, I will. So, what do you think about the Austin film scene? I know you’re both involved in a lot of projects.
JD: For us it’s thrilling because we’ve known all these people forever and we have felt like there’s some amazing stuff happening here.
MD: John Bryant, Bryan Poyser, the Zellner brothers…
JD: Bujalski is here and it’s like these are really special people and they tell unique stories and it’s awesome for us to see that rise and see other people appreciate it.
Is that why you are producers on so many projects?
MD: Definitely, because we love them. We don’t necessarily generate these projects. They are their own creative forces; they’re making their own stuff.
So what do you do to help them?
JD: We do whatever they need.
MD: Yeah, whatever they need. In the case of Bryan Poyser’s movie, it was a little bit of money to finish the movie. Doing some test screenings with him and giving him some feedback. Then when he got into Sundance, helping with some of the business stuff that we have experience with. Like, the right sales agent, and the right publicist and things like that.
JD: And it’s really awareness. We talk about them to people all the time in Hollywood. We live there now.
MD: And it’s fucking easy because we love their movies.
Right. How’s Hollywood?
MD: It’s nutty, but we live on the east side of town.
JD: We’re trying to replicate South Austin in Los Angeles.
MD: Yeah, we live in East L.A. And it’s pretty close, believe it or not.
Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.3
The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.
MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.
Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.
MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.
MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.
Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).
Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.
Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020
Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship
Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.2
Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.
That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.
When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.
When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More
The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.2.5
Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.
Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).
Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.
This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.
Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Noir City: International 2020
The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.
Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados the world over.
A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.
This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.
One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.
Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.
Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.
Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.
While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.
As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.
Noir City: International runs through November 30.
Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman
Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.3
In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”
It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.
Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.
Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.
For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.
Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.
That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Happiest Season Is Paint-by-Numbers but Earns Its Emotional Payoff
The film translates the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.3
Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season isn’t a radical holiday movie. Indeed, from a certain, say, militant queer-feminist perspective, it might be considered a counterrevolutionary one. Early on, it asserts its comfort with outdated notions of coupledom that are peddled by the average romantic comedy when Abby (Kristen Stewart) tells her friend John (Dan Levy) that she’s planning to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), on Christmas morning. Abbey reveals not only this affront to John’s anti-heteronormative inclinations, but that she’s going to first ask for the blessing of Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). “Way to stick it to the patriarchy, really well done,” John archly replies.
The rest of the film, like Abby, proves eager to mimic the innumerable non-gay Christmas movies that preceded it, trotting out the quirky family, the handsome hometown ex-boyfriend, the misunderstood suitor, the betrayal that must be rectified, and the final holiday moral—namely, that family is important. The plot of Happiest Season is best summed up, in short, as “gay Meet the Parents.” But this assimilationist bent certainly doesn’t stop Duvall’s film, which is stacked with a supporting cast of solid comic performers like Levy, from sharpening humor that surely seemed mild on the page. It’s even much more affecting than most of its heteronormative predecessors, in large part because the stakes of its comedy of errors are greater than whether or not one man “lets” another man into the family.
Abby and Harper begin Happiest Season as a blissfully happy couple, still young and in love enough to risk trouble with stunts like sneaking onto a stranger’s roof to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights, and, when they’re chased away, pausing their flight to make out in an alley—a clean alley, though, as they live in post-gentrification Pittsburgh. In the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby, whose family died tragically some years ago, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s only when they’re on the road that Harper finally brings herself to confess that she’s lied to Abby about being out to her parents; that her family believes Abby is her (straight) roommate; and that she told them that she invited Abby along because she’s an orphan.
Harper, it turns out, is the favorite daughter of an important local family whose priorities are dominated by her mild-mannered but ambitious father, the very embodiment of soft patriarchy. Ted’s running for mayor, and Harper can’t risk causing a scandal in her small Pennsylvania town by coming out in the middle of his campaign. We’ll learn that, in addition, favorite-child Harper also has to maintain her edge in her lifelong competition with her humorless, extremely hetero older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). With these characters’ gazes fixed on Harper’s strange new roommate, the masquerade that Abby’s forced into grows increasingly difficult—particularly as Harper’s first love, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), appears on the scene and lends Abby both a sympathetic ear and surprising insights into Harper’s past.
There’s a delicate balance between comedy and distress that the films needs to strike in relation to Harper’s multilayered betrayal, because the scenario pulls double duty: It’s amusing when her oblivious, bougie family keeps treating Abby like a refugee from a Victorian orphanage, but wrenching when Abby must watch her would-be fiancée flirt with her old boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), to keep up appearances. Sometimes, DuVall doesn’t quite find this balance, and what’s meant as frivolous comedy elicits anxiety. At times it’s more intuitive to be feel distressed by Abby’s plight—like when she’s arrested by overzealous mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus) because she’s mistaken as a shoplifter after Harper ditches her to hobnob with Ted’s campaign donors—than amused by it.
But then, it’s remarkable that a film that’s in so many ways a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy actually delivers to much emotional heft. If by Happiest Season’s midway point it’s easy to write off Harper as too privileged and selfish to be truly worth all this trouble, Stewart makes Abby’s decision not to immediately split believable by leaning into her wallflower persona, communicating silent heartbreak and confusion on the margins of her character’s jittery, awkward interactions with the denizens of Squaresville, PA. It might be going too far to call DuVall’s film groundbreaking, but like the best rom-coms, it smuggles a few nuggets of truth into its predictable formula, translating the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Ana Gasteyer, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blue, Burl Moseley Director: Clea DuVall Screenwriter: Clea DuVall Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: The Two Sights Hypnotically Ruminates on Corporeality and Oblivion
With his first solo feature, Joshua Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind.3
It’s become something of a cliché for experimental docufiction hybrids to be shot on 16mm, and at this point it might even be safe to say that such works have kept Kodak from discontinuing production on the film stock. While the use of small-gauge celluloid within this body of work has occasionally felt pro forma, even in some cases pointlessly fetishistic, one of its more conscientious practitioners is multidisciplinary artist Joshua Bonnetta, whose 2011 conceptual travelogue American Colour traced the lifespan of the now-extinct Kodachrome stock—on which the film was shot—from the final Kansas-based lab to process it back to its origin place in Rochester, New York. And his last feature, El Mar La Mar, co-directed with Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki, embraced grain and other material defects as a corollary to the film’s emphasis on natural decay in the Sonoran Desert, site of an unconscionable death toll from unsuccessful border crossings.
In his newest and first solo feature, The Two Sights, Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind, this time in the remote climes of Scotland’s northern archipelago. Operating in such an exceedingly beautiful region, however, Bonnetta might as well have just chosen film for its pictorial incentives. A waterlogged expanse of misty steppes and vertiginous drops into crystal-blue waters, the Outer Hebrides islands in which the film is set—Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, and North Uint—total a population of just over 20,000 people, and Bonnetta keeps them largely out of frame, preferring instead to ruminate on grandiose bisections of land and sky. Composed of a series of mostly static shots, the film is visually reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s Iceland-set Skagafjördur, though Bonnetta, at least as interested in the sonic dimensions of cinema as he is in its pictorial qualities, centers a large portion of The Two Sights’s meaning on its soundtrack. That prioritization is rather forcefully apparent when the director himself plants a boom mic in the center of the film’s opening shot.
This moment, which comes halfway through the shot, triggers a sudden shift in the soundtrack from one field recording to another, making it apparent that what we heard prior wasn’t actually tethered to the image. That’s a hint that much of the sound to come will be layered and orchestrated rather than simply recorded along with the image—a truth that perhaps sounds self-evident when stated in this way, but which Bonnetta suggests may not be top of mind to audiences of films that appear to document objective reality. And while The Two Sights certainly does appear to be just that, there’s much to imply that Bonnetta is constructing a more multilayered tapestry, an archive of the unseen.
On its surface, the film presents a smattering of voiceover testimonials from unseen Hebrides residents, who relate stories of strange happenings on the islands, most involving deaths or hauntings. The stories of these lost souls are never visualized, though Bonnetta pairs them with footage that feels roughly analogous, if not like an outright projection of a mental image. One fishermen’s recollection of getting dangerously caught in an eddy while seeking lobster is accompanied by shots around a fishing boat, with one floor-level angle of water lapping up on the vessel seeming to conjure up an approximation of his experience. Another distressing tale of a man’s confrontation with a beached whale finds Bonnetta’s camera surveying a shoreline, as if encouraging us to project our imaginations onto the scene.
As Bonnetta offers these fill-in-the-blank visual inducements, his soundtrack performs a similar act, blending—via long, imperceptible cross-fades—field sounds recorded by the director himself with archival audio sourced from the region. With the exceptions of folk-music clippings that are most obviously archived, the distinctions between past and present material become nearly impossible to discern and indeed negligible, as Bonnetta’s subject is, after all, the layering of history atop the current moment. The visual devices that he employs create impressions of liminality, of a fine line between corporeality and oblivion—namely through shots that would seem to be dead photographs were it not for the dance of grain or one single plane of movement, flipped camera perspectives that don’t immediately register as such, subtle plays with manual aperture shifts, and plenty of water reflections.
A similar impression is evoked by one resident when describing the entirety of the Hebrides region, which she calls “a thin place” where there’s “little distinction between heaven and earth.” That same mystery is, of course, tantamount to the allure of celluloid, it being a medium that preserves the past while at the same time being impermanent. The Two Sights hypnotically embodies something of a paranormal investigation, all the more haunting for being unable to extricate itself completely from the void opened up by its subjects.
Director: Joshua Bonnetta Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Collective Is a Searing Chronicle of Institutional Corruption
The film fiercely reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy.3.5
On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania.
In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. Hexi Pharma, the company that provided the antiseptics to hundreds of hospitals diluted them at 10 times the recommended ratio, leading doctors to operate with bacteria-laden scalpels and maggots to grow from the unwashed bodies of the survivors.
What follows is a familiar public relations spectacle that institutions unleash once their criminal incompetence has come to light: a cringe-inducing display of corporate speak, barefaced lies, evasion of responsibility, and crooked in-house investigations that find no wrongdoing. Nanau’s unobtrusive camera follows the events as they unfold, which puts the viewer in the anxiety-giving position of television audiences enthralled by the most surreal of breaking-news cycles. Collective inhabits that cinematic sweet spot where the national specificity of a film’s subject matter gives palpable rendition to a rather universal logic.
It turns out that corruption is a dormant metastasis. And uncovering it is like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other. Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer. Those filmmakers’ stories can, in fact, look tame in retrospect, as Nanau’s film unveils a national health care system where doctors bribe their managers so they can be transferred to clinics where patients are known to offer heftier bribes to the doctors who will operate on them.
In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective pays considerable attention to the collaborative nature of journalism and its minutia—the research, the phone calls, the laying out of a webpage, the brainstorming with colleagues, the intimidation and counter-attacks. The film reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest.
Director: Alexander Nanau Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Jiu Jitsu Falls Short of Its Predator-Meets-Mortal Kombat Promise
Nicolas Cage’s amusing turn as a kooky hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats often feels awkwardly spliced into the film.1.5
Despite his prominent placement on the poster, Nicolas Cage isn’t the central element of Dimitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu. Rather, Alain Moussi plays the main character, Jake, a conveniently amnesiac fighter in a group that battles a silent interstellar warrior, Brax (Ryan Tarran), who emerges from a portal in a Burmese temple every six years, demanding hand-to-hand combat or else he’ll destroy the Earth. But for as much as that premise may suggest Predator by way of Mortal Kombat, the film doesn’t display the mounting tension and proficient choreography that would otherwise make the material sing.
From a technical perspective, large chunks of this sci-fi martial arts film don’t quite hold together. Logothetis uses longer-than-usual takes for several early action scenes, but the results are deeply unflattering to the film’s stuntmen since most of the characters’ blows look weak and unconvincing, while mediocre sound design and overuse of slow-motion only highlight the issue rather than disguise it. Throughout, ugly comic book art serves as transitions and occasional establishing shots. And strangest of all, the film fails to create a sense that the actors share the same space even in basic dialogue scenes.
Cage’s amusing turn as Wylie, an idiosyncratic hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats and an insistence on calling Brax “the spaceman,” often feels awkwardly spliced into the film. Most group shots show a stand-in from the back or at a distance, with all characters except Jake appearing to give him the silent treatment. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film is a cut to Frank Grillo’s Harrigan finally, though still vaguely, reacting to something Wylie says after long stretches where the hermit might as well be Jake’s imaginary friend.
Still, Jiu Jitsu’s shoddy production isn’t without its diverting charm. For one, the film manages to offset Moussi’s void of charisma by bouncing him between more dynamic actors like Cage, Jaa, and Grillo, while Tarran’s portrayal of Brax as a guy in a suit rather than a CGI creation gives him a tangible, Power Rangers-like sense of presence. We even get a bizarrely memorable first-person sequence that follows Moussi until he momentarily steps out from behind the camera’s point of view, engages in a fight, and then seems to absorb the camera into his body as he’s knocked into the lens. Even though Logothetis succeeds at very little of what he’s experimenting with—he even botches a recreation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator—it isn’t totally boring to see him try.
Cast: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Eddie Steeples, Ryan Tarran Director: Dimitri Logothetis Screenwriter: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath Distributor: The Avenue Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Embattled Is an MMA Drama Told as an Afterschool Special
The film muddies its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.2
With his slick sense of style and brash, arrogant swagger, Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff) feels like a clear nod to MMA fighter Conor McGregor. For his part, Dorff nails the verbal bravado and many of the physical tics of his real-life counterpart, but unfettered machismo is pretty much Cash’s sole defining trait in Nick Sarkisov’s Embattled, which fails to sufficiently interrogate the character’s inner turmoil or explore the circumstances that led him to become the bitter, enraged man that we see on screen.
The film’s paper-thin story tells us that Cash was abusive toward his first wife, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), and their two boys, and we sense the looming shadow that he casts over their lives. That he’s seemingly kinder to his second wife, Jade (Karrueche Tran), and taken a recent interest in his older son Jett’s (Darren Mann) nascent MMA career initially suggests that he may be turning over a new leaf. But rather than show the humanity or psychological conflict of a man looking to make up for lost time, David McKenna’s screenplay revels in the force of his being as he berates Jett during practice and refers to his ex-wife and their younger special-needs son, Quinn (Colin McKenna), with hostile epithets.
Cash’s borderline cartoonish villainy makes it difficult for the audience to emotionally invest in the film. Even as the man’s contentious relationship with his older son leads to the 18-year-old emerging as the most sympathetic character, the subplots involving Jett’s conflicts indulge in all sorts of clichés. Scenes where Jett takes care of Quinn, looking out for him both at home and at school while their mother works extra hours to make ends meet, are overly familiar, though they bring a much-welcome tenderness to the film. But the storylines involving Jett’s ups and downs in math class and his setting his mom up with Quinn’s teacher, Mr. Stewart (Donald Faison), exude the garden-variety sentimentality of an Afterschool Special and feel particularly trite in comparison to Jett’s intense preparing to enter the MAA ring.
In the film’s last act, after a leaked video showing Jett knocking Cash out during a private dispute goes viral, there’s a wild and preposterous tonal shift. As the MMA league throws tens of millions of dollars at setting up a fight between the reigning world champion and his extremely inexperienced teenage son, Embattled becomes something akin to a revenge fantasy. Given the astronomical disparity in skill between the older and younger Boykins, the fight, and the half-hour leading up to it, is difficult to take seriously. But in positioning this fight as something of a hurdle that Jett needs to clear in order to put his troubled past behind him, Embattled commits a more egregious misstep, muddying its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elizabeth Reaser, Darren Mann, Donald Faison, Said Taghmaoui, Karrueche Tran, Drew Starkey, Ava Capri Director: Nick Sarkisov Screenwriter: David McKenna Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 117 min Rating: R Year: 2020
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