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Review: Black Gold




Black Gold

Africa only seems to get face time in the news when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are on the scene. Bill Maher called this a coup on a recent episode of his HBO news show, extolling the actors for forcing news cameras to go to places in the world that most need our humanitarian attention, but the couple’s lecherous gawker stalkers are not so easily swayed by the wretchedness of the world: to them, Africa’s misery is a buzzkill (for proof, check out Gawker‘s insulting reaction to Jolie’s sit-down with Anderson Cooper), and if they had their way, they’d erase the bags of rice Pitt piles onto aid trucks and the starving children Jolie holds in her arms from pictures buzzing in from the continent. Which is to say, the priorities of the Western world are seriously whack, a perversity director brothers Nick Francis and Marc Francis diagnose throughout Black Gold, a documentary about a vigilant Ethiopian man’s efforts to save his cooperative of struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. This is a startling story of a continent excluded from world trade and wanting to wean itself off foreign aid. The humanitarian neglect implicit in the vast divide between the world of an impoverished Ethiopian farmer and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (and the auditoriums of pretentious coffee-brewing competitions) speaks for itself, and just as the film’s dialogue begins to repeat itself, the filmmakers pull out their trump cards, revealing how the scant return Tadesse Meskele’s cooperative of 75,000 farmers see for all their hard labor has led to a global drug boom (a narcotic called “chat” turns a better profit than the coffee bean) and abject poverty in Ethiopia. This is something to think about every time you order a Triple Grande Soy Latte.

Director: Mark Francis, Nick Francis Distributor: California Newsreel Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2005 Buy: Video



Review: Dragged Across Concrete Is an Uncanny Shot of Pulp Fiction

With his latest, S. Craig Zahler doubles down on the best and worst elements of the pulp film.




Dragged Across Concrete
Photo: Summit Entertainment

With Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now Dragged Across Concrete, writer-director S. Craig Zahler has refined a highly particular style of pulp that runs both hot and cold. The tone is communicated up front by the films’ titles, which are garish and plainspoken, as if to say that operatically bad shit happens as a matter of course.

That’s the attitude that Zahler’s characters adopt as well, as they tend to face atrocity with the air of people who derive their strength from low expectations. Violence erupts in Zahler’s films with an offhand suddenness that’s often authentically shocking, which is heightened by a variety of formalist contradictions. Zahler pays intricate attention to deliberately crummy, vague, “universal” settings, and invests stereotypical characters with behavioral curlicues that render them just human enough so that their deaths sting. Zahler’s scenarios are deliberately absurd, yet he pumps them up with all sorts of odd, nearly docudramatic details, and this mixture of the banal and the hyper-specific imbues his films with an element of the uncanny.

Following a bruiser as he killed his way toward the inner sanctum of a surreally hellish prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was pointedly unpolitical—implying, in a macho manner typical of revenge films—that politics are a luxury for those who’re insulated from the “real world” of killed-or-be-killed. Which is to say that this apolitical texture is actually reactionary, suggesting, via omission, the essential futility of liberal humanist ideals. Dragged Across Concrete renders this idea much more explicit. The film’s theme is articulated when the poor and multiple sclerosis-plagued Melanie Ridgeman (Laurie Holden) says that she’s as liberal as an ex-cop can be, and that she never thought she was racist until she moved into her current neighborhood, which is low-income and rife with juvenile delinquents of color, who’re shown, in a reductive scene, to harass Melanie’s daughter.

The various cops and criminals of Dragged Across Concrete, white as well as of color, take the fraudulence of liberal beliefs as a given, writing them off as fantasies indulged by a populace that’s prosperous enough to evade their ramifications. (This theme is in the air right now, also driving Jordan Peele’s Us.) The film’s plot kicks into gear when Melanie’s husband, Detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), and his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are suspended for exerting excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer, which a civilian films on a phone. Zahler acknowledges the detectives’ cruelty, while, per the dictates of the crime genre, also allowing us to revel in their bitterness and power.

This have-it-both-ways quality is another of Zahler’s provocations, as he’s explicitly saying that we come to these sorts of films to see the rough and cathartic exertion of force, and in spite of whether we think that force jibes with our real-world ideals. Zahler is right. The cruelty of his films, which is laced with a biting wit, has a way of clearing pop-cultural air that’s often inhabited by preachy think pieces and well-meaning Oscar bait, or even by genre films that nevertheless feel the need to solicit approval via a redemptive theme. Zahler heads for the gutter instead, asking us to empathize with characters who refute our idealisms.

After subduing the drug dealer, Ridgeman torments the dealer’s sexual partner, Rosalinda (Liannet Borrego), by showering her with cold water and forcing her to stand in a bedroom in her underwear while they question her. This footage isn’t filmed by other parties, so the extent of Ridgeman and Tony’s vigilante tactics are unknown by the public, prompting us to wonder what else they’ve gotten away with over the years. Yet they feel cheated for being suspended—feelings which their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), casually shares. Such scenes elucidate the thorny specificity of Zahler’s vision while deliberately screwing with our moral compass. Ridgeman and Tony’s treatment of Rosalinda is disgusting and Zahler sensitively dramatizes her humiliation. So are the racist jokes the cops exchange with Calvert, though the actors’ performances and Zahler’s dialogue and staging are kinetically snappy. Zahler recreates that discombobulating split in sympathies you may have when someone you like says they voted for Trump, or rues the days of comparatively less fettered police brutality.

Yet there’s also a sense that Zahler is outside of Ridgeman and Tony’s self-pity; one suspects that politics mostly matter to the filmmaker in terms of aesthetic. If he’s nostalgic for the good old days, presumably before our culture grew so “politically correct,” that nostalgia is primarily directed toward genre films. Zahler is fighting for art’s right to be offensive and disreputable, voicing sentiments that are shared by many people in this country which cannot, and should not, be aired without scrutiny. He grooves on straight talk, however nasty, fashioning crime thrillers that force even liberal audiences to confront their inner fascists.

Zahler particularly appears to miss the days when violent Mel Gibson vehicles were relevant, and he concocts a role for Gibson that weds the actor’s own prejudices and controversies with his masochistic “Mad Mel” persona—two sides that were always closely intertwined anyway. Gibson rises to the occasion with a tightly coiled performance that’s so unapologetically closed-off that it’s deeply and disturbingly poignant, bringing to mind the conflicted range of emotions that’s elicited by John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers. Ridgeman’s feelings of being put out to pasture are aligned with Gibson’s stint in movie jail after recordings of his abusive rants at his wife were released. It’s no accidental coincidence that recordings destroy Ridgeman not once but twice over the course of Dragged Across Concrete.

Ridgeman is the film’s central avatar of rage—an embodiment of working-class American discontent that Zahler reveals to be shared by characters of varying colors, genders, and social statuses, most notably Henry (Tory Kittles), an African-American ex-con with limited options, with whom Ridgeman forges an uneasy alliance. Tellingly, given the aversion of Dragged Across Concrete to left-wing politeness, their emotional epiphany springs from their mutual willingness to call one another, and to each be called, the n-word.

Zahler takes a standard action-movie scenario—in which crooked cops try to rob drug dealers—and stretches it out to an epic, ultraviolent, and comic study of the petty, often working-class-centric nonsense that stymies people on a daily basis. When Henry rousts his mother’s john out of the house, Zahler lingers on the man as he fumbles with the locks on the door. Following Ridgeman and Tony as they tail a requisitely heartless Eurotrash killer, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), Zahler fashions an elaborate and ingenious set piece that alternates between two cars’ worth of men talking strategy. When a struggling mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), returns to work at a bank after a prolonged maternal leave, Zahler devotes a lengthy, weirdly touching and funny moment to the speech her verbose boss, Mr. Edmington (Fred Melamed), gives for the occasion. And this scene only intensifies the pain of what follows, which Zahler foreshadows with a masterful composition where we see a van of killers pass Kelly in the reflection of a window as she checks her make-up.

Dragged Across Concrete is a lurid ode to detail—to the professionalism that Zahler questionably admires in Ridgeman and Tony. (His lack of sentimentality, in the tradition of pulp writing, is ironically quite sentimental.) The film’s settings, like those of Brawl in Cell Block 99, are drab and anonymous, though Zahler shoots them with an exhilaratingly pared-down sense of purpose, with sharp physical details that complement the unexpected narrative flourishes. These backdrops suggest every place and no place at once, and are rendered with hard lighting and symmetrical framing that recalls the glory days of John Carpenter. The film’s dialogue is terse, intelligent, yet often somehow un-showy, suggesting the flip and funny things people often say while at work, which are rarely captured in cinema. These qualities cohabitate with a deliberately nasty vision of America—a union that Zahler embraces for its intense and suggestive social tension. He’s already a master of the pulp film, and with Dragged Across Concrete he doubles down on its best and worst elements.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Thomas Kretschmann, Liannet Borrego, Justine Warrington, Fred Melamed Director: S. Craig Zahler Screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 162 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Jordan Peele’s Us Stylishly Filters the Horrors of Economic Oppression

Peele’s follow-up to Get Out unnervingly speaks to the issues affecting a divided nation.




Photo: Universal Pictures

In Get Out, Jordan Peele smartly and unnervingly used the lens of horror to refract black anxieties about living in white America. The film’s central terror, “the sunken place,” a sort of limbo within the self, was a metaphor that encompassed issues of identity, consciousness, and the autonomy of one’s own black body. Peele’s follow-up, Us, suggests a more elegant C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, the new film is both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes.

Us opens in 1986 with a little girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wandering an amusement park in Santa Cruz, California. She drifts away from her distracted father and takes refuge during a storm in a hall of mirrors, whose signage invites her to “Find Yourself”—and she does, literally encountering her doppelgänger. In the present, Adelaide Wilson (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) revisits the same area with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their teenage daughter (Shahadi Wright Nelson) and prepubescent son (Evan Alex). A trip to the beach reawakens her fears of her shadow self, and that very night, her lookalike—also now grown—and red-clad lookalike family invade the Wilsons’ home and terrorize them.

These invaders are glass-darkly versions of the Wilsons, rawly animalistic semi-clones seeking vengeance for the cursed opposite-but-equal lives they’ve been forced to lead: Every time the Wilsons had a hot, tasty meal, their counterparts ate raw, bloody rabbit, and every time the Wilsons bore loving, well-enough-adjusted children, their counterparts birthed psychotics.

Peele’s script adopts an idea that Michel de Montaigne expressed in the title of his essay “Le profit de l’un est dommage de l’autre” (which loosely translates to “The Profit of One Is Harm to the Other”)—not just that capitalism has its winners and losers but that every gain a person makes directly correlates to another’s loss. The Wilsons are conspicuously upper-middle class—they have a summer house, a sweet car, even a boat—and their crimson-suited doubles represent a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I reckoning with a version of what their lives might have been like. This seems to play on the fears of some economically ascendant African-Americans: What do I owe to the community? Have I left others behind? Have I gotten soft?

As in Get Out, this film’s African-American characters come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. It’s a plot point that the filmmaker introduces with the unexpected—and quite violent—deaths of the Wilsons’ closest friends: the bourgie, boozy, and very white Tylers, including a mother, played by Elisabeth Moss, who sips rosé at the beach before it hits “vodka o’clock.”

In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo.

The film’s screenplay is carefully constructed, so much so that the punchline to a seemingly throwaway knock-knock joke is retroactively understood as a clever foreshadowing of horrific things to come. Drawing on his comedy background, Peele has an uncanny ability to insert laughs into moments of high dread, relieving the tension without diffusing it. And that tension can be overbearing; Peele’s filmmaking is sophisticated, crafting eerie atmospheres and maximizing suspense as his camera moves with the gracefulness of Adelaide the one-time ballet star, glimpses of whom the viewer occasionally sees in flashbacks.

The most striking visuals come near the end, as long-deferred exposition introduces a nightmarish sci-fi subterranean clone town consisting of tunnels that resemble hospital corridors. There, doubles were compelled to mimic the movements of their surface-dwelling counterparts. These damned bodies without their own souls then come up for air to kill and then hold each other’s hands, inspired by Hands Across America, a commercial for which opens Us. (And on the shelf next to the TV showing it is a VHS copy of C.H.U.D..) In the ‘80s, this collective action, we’re told, was meant to raise hunger awareness, and that’s what it does in the present as well, though in a different way. The nationwide mole people, come to eradicate their oppressors, are certainly hungry, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually—for the comforts and pleasures and basic necessities they’ve so long been denied.

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon Director: Jordan Peele Screenwriter: Jordan Peele Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: MS Slavic 7 Grapples with the Existential in the Simplest of Ways

In its balance of a wispy narrative and long, quiet episodes of textual close reading, the film feels incomplete in a productive way.




MS Slavic 7
Photo: Lisa Pictures

For a film shot on the intangible medium of digital video, writer-directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s micro-budget investigative drama MS Slavic 7 is remarkably preoccupied with what its protagonist repeatedly describes as “objecthood,” or the value that archived materials carry beyond their ostensible content. In her repeated trips to a Harvard University library, Audrey (Campbell) obsesses over her deceased great-grandmother’s letters and poems, in which she hopes to find deeper traces of a woman she never knew, such as the nature of her relationship with the male poet with whom she regularly corresponded. However, her painstaking attention to primary sources, which the film dryly dramatizes in real-time passages of reading, photocopying and exegesis, seems as much an archaeological exercise as a literary study—a pursuit analogous to that of a film archivist, who can discern the life cycle of a reel through its permutations of decay.

Can physical materials be separated from their intended utility to tell audiences something about the time and place in which they were made, and especially the affective states under which they were produced? By attaching such concerns to a slim but nonetheless deeply felt narrative, Bohdanowicz and Campbell’s film, which is named after a library call number, ushers these matters out of the realm of the esoteric and into the immediate and personal.

In an ingenious sleight of hand not immediately apparent to the viewer, Audrey is positioned as a stand-in for Bohdanowicz, whose own extended family appears in a series of group gatherings that punctuate Audrey’s solitary research excursions. Shot largely in disembodied close-ups and telephoto long shots, these scenes strike a cold, detached tone that’s nowhere more apparent than in Audrey’s increasingly combative interactions with an aunt (Elizabeth Rucker) who opposes her niece’s research for reasons clearly related to her own stake in the family estate (though which she cloaks in the language of journalistic ethics). These familial tensions are implicit in Audrey’s stoic, seemingly despondent presence, and go some way toward explaining her desire to seek emotional succor in the past.

If Audrey uses her research as a way to assuage her alienation from her family, there are also intimations that her larger social life is also depleted. The few people who Audrey interacts with beyond her callous aunt are either unfriendly, as is the case with the terse librarian (Aaron Danby) who dispassionately recites to her the institution’s rules and regulations, or barely responsive. In one static-camera setup repeated three times over the course of MS Slavic 7’s seemingly compressed chronology, Audrey recaps her findings and reflections to a silent and unseen interlocutor off frame—if there even is one there.

As examples of extended, off-the-cuff intellectual deliberation, these monologues represent the peak of Campbell’s nuanced performance, yet their content—considerations of Audrey’s Polish heritage, romantic life, and relationship to nature—is obscured somewhat by the filmmakers’ ambiguous staging. Suspicions that Audrey is speaking only to herself are partially resolved in a sudden third-act “twist” that recontextualizes the question of her social life and proposes an alternate dimension to her research, but many questions linger.

In its balance of a wispy narrative and long, quiet episodes of textual close reading reminiscent of the work of Straub-Huillet, MS Slavic 7 feels incomplete in a productive way, giving us just enough of the outline of a young woman’s psychological existence to project the rest into the implied absences in her great-grandmother’s poetry and prose. As Audrey searches for a spiritual bond with her long-dead ancestor, Bohdanowicz and Campbell reflect the commingling of past and present in the aesthetics of the film itself, which has the hard, sharp neutrality of digital photography while also incorporating blasts of baroque organ music (an anachronism it shares with Ricky D’Ambrose’s similarly academic Notes on an Appearance).

Are the delicacies of Audrey’s research project—in its meticulous emphasis on the artisanal, the implicit, and the unreproducible—somehow antithetical to our modern world? And does that dissonance help explain Audrey’s own sense of being out of step? In a breezy 64 minutes, MS Slavic 7 evokes these existential riddles with just the simplest of means.

Cast: Deragh Campbell, Aaron Danby, Elizabeth Rucker, Mariusz Sibiga Director: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell Screenwriter: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell Running Time: 64 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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