It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master. Any sensible person will tell you so. On the subject of cinema, there is probably nothing more foolish and outright uncool than to question Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t question Hitchcock; you shut up, listen and learn. The man didn’t just revolutionize the medium, he wrote the official Book of Rules. Every filmmaker since, especially those with dread on the repertoire, builds on the foundations Hitchcock left behind. Steven Spielberg, Alejandro Amenábar, M. Night Shyamalan, Hideo Nakata: they all owe the one who is commonly referred to as the Greatest Director of All Time.
Like I said: it’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.
Wish me luck…
Anticipating the bang: the Suspense Formula
Why bother telling a story if no one’s interested? Surely, attention is the first thing a filmmaker demands from an audience. It’s easy enough to grab spectators by the collar, but how do you keep them intrigued? A movie must push them to the edge of their seats and gain momentum without running out of steam. Because no one could seduce audiences better than Alfred Hitchcock, his formula for storytelling has been studied and followed over and over. According to Hitchcock, the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer’s attention is suspense.
There it is, the magic word: “suspense.” Whisper it in a room full of cinephiles and watch them get all misty-eyed. Suspense! François Truffaut described it as “the stretching out of an anticipation.” Dictionaries define it as “a state of uncertain expectation,” “a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen” or “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.” If there is one guarantee for audience involvement, suspense is it. Just trust the Master of Suspense. Whenever he was preparing a script, Hitchcock always put himself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. Whenever there’s a pause in the mother’s narration, the child will always ask: “What comes next, Mommy?” Hitchcock knew that nothing is more fascinating to us than the Next Thing and he taught filmmakers how to dangle that carrot in front of our faces, barely out of reach. That is the essence of suspense: a tantalizing and often threatening hint of what’s to come.
Even though Hitchcock was no stranger to shock (he used it to memorable effect when he killed off his beloved leading lady, Janet Leigh, a third into Psycho), he always thought surprise was the lesser alternative to its twin brother suspense. In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”). Although critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than figure out a “whodunit,” and were quick to remark that the director had broken his own rules of dramatic tension by ruining the mystery, Hitchcock reasoned:
“To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”
In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock compares the two complementary dread-inducing techniques of surprise and suspense, and makes a convincing plea for the latter. To properly illustrate his argument, he used the setting of the interview itself as starting point:
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
A lecture like that makes a strong point about the limitations of surprise as a means to thrill an audience. Surprise is overrated, so it seems. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that decades later, Hitchcock’s argument for the superiority of the Suspense Formula still stands. Critics and academics alike continue to find it nearly impossible to punch holes in this mentor’s rock solid reasoning, backed up by a legacy of some of the most forceful films in the history of cinema. When it comes to keeping an audience alert, suspense is simply more bang for your buck, to use a fitting phrase.
So why bother questioning its lonely status at the top? Bear with me, please. Let’s not declare the element of surprise bankrupt just yet. And hold on: let’s not exclude alternative ways of building tension either. There’s no doubt that fear in the face of impending evil, otherwise known as dread, is unique in its way to fuel our immediate interest, but suspense is only one approach. Has Hitchcock’s groundwork really been so all-encompassing that he left no area unexplored for the generations of filmmakers following in his footsteps? I think not. The Dread District went through a couple of interesting changes since a few non-commissioned officers took over the reins. Yes, you heard it right: changes. The fact that Hitchcock practically invented the grammar of the modern thriller cannot stop a language from evolving.
Inside the bang: the Hidden Threat
When Roman Polanski’s Repulsion came out in 1965, it was heralded as a staggering work of suspense. It’s fairly obvious that his film about a young beautician’s descent into madness was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a classic that paved the way for all psychological thrillers in its wake. But is Polanski’s film really a work of suspense? To adequately answer this question, we may have to ask ourselves what suspense is not: Let’s listen to the Master himself:
“It is indispensible that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.”
According to this assertion, obscuring the facts rules out the very possibility of suspense. If we take Hitchcock’s word for it, as I suggest we do, how is Repulsion able to generate suspense by consistently withholding the facts from its audience? Polanski doesn’t achieve tension by supplying detailed information. On the contrary: Repulsion is all about surprise. A typical example is the scene where Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is walking around the apartment that she shares with her sister, unable to sleep. A minute passes by. No anticipatory music, no creepy camerawork, no manipulative cuts. Just the sound of a dripping tap. Suddenly, without a single warning, the wall cracks open with a thunderous sound. That’s it. The scares come from nowhere and catch the audience off-guard.
Hitchcock might have seen the implicit nature of scenes like these as a missed opportunity. Chances are he would have looked for another way of staging its dramatic potential, concrete enough so he could let his audience in on what’s going on and stretch out a few lousy seconds of shock to fifteen fat minutes of anticipation. Yet Repulsion almost categorically refuses to take this route. The only time a genuine moment of suspense comes along is when the audience is offered a glance at the knife that Carol hides behind her back while the landlord tries to come on to her; but this moment is strangely understated, and we are so “repulsed” by his sexual advances that we’re more likely to cheer Carol on to stab the bastard than to fear for his life. So, strictly evaluated from the suspense school of reasoning, Repulsion doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t explain, however, why the film is such a jolly effective nailbiter. How did Polanski pull it off?
Carol’s emerging insanity is the real threat in Repulsion. Much like Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, she is a danger to herself. We care for Carol’s safety, but cannot predict where this situation will take us, leaving us helpless. Since Polanski forces us to experience the narrative in first person, through the prism of Carol’s psychotic mind, the cause of our dread is not under the table, but all around us: we are inside the bomb. And trapped as we are inside Carol’s head, we lack a clear overview. Our anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect: a Hidden Threat. Under the blinding spell of subjectivity, we don’t know what will trigger the bomb. We’re left with no clue as to when precisely it will explode, because even when we do hear the clock ticking away in the background and nearly smell the skinned rabbit carcass rot in the living room as days pass by, time is nothing but an abstraction, a metaphor for mental regression. The irrational fractures in its dramatic flow give Repulsion a trippy, unnerving mood that gradually breaks down the securities of the audience in perfect sync with the protagonist’s twitchy sense of paranoia. The only thing that becomes clear to us is that we need to get out of that apartment quick, as soon as we realize it is a reflection of Carol’s crumbling state of mind.
When Madame Denise says to Carol: “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” she also articulates the reason behind the audience’s sense of unease. It is confusion and a lack of information, as opposed to Hitchcock’s abundance of it, what gives Polanski’s elliptical horror its edge. Repulsion is obviously shocking and masterly executed, but suspenseful it is not. Come to think of it, probably the most suspenseful thing about Repulsion is the chance to watch French goddess Catherine Deneuve in see-through nightgown. What a sly move to make a frigid woman so insanely attractive!
Polanski was the first to follow his own example, with the bastard child Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as the diabolical result. Slowly, other directors followed: Nicolas Roeg personified a couple’s sense of loss over their drowned daughter in the shape of a mysterious dwarf in a red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), Paul Verhoeven surreally depicted the Catholic revelations of an alcoholic, bisexual writer in De Vierde Man (1983), Adrian Lyne blew life into the paranoid hallucinations of a dying Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Christopher Nolan turned time backwards for a brain-crushing representation of amnesia in Memento (2000). No one has explored the twisted territory of the Hidden Threat more thoroughly, however, than David Lynch. While Repulsion carefully balances on the line between fantasy and reality, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) blur the same line into a shadowy region of its own. Lynch even dares to sacrifice his own story logic and leaps back and forth between present time, flashbacks, wish fantasies and foreboding nightmares to submerge the senses in the subconscious. If little Alfred would ask his Mommy “what’s next” two thirds into Lost Highway, I’m not sure the answer would clear things up. After all, his mother isn’t really telling him a bedtime story. She’s just talking in her sleep…
Facing the bang: the Revelation Response
The opposite to a threat lurking in the shadows is the kind that taps you on the shoulder and thrusts its tongue in your mouth. In the suspense camp, this kind of frontal assault is seen as more or less a dead end. “There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock experimented with subtle gore in his time, but as a rule he believed suggestion had greater impact. What could be creepier than one’s own imagination?
Well—maybe a lack thereof. A new breed of filmmakers was less convinced of the public’s ability to form their own picture and filled in the gaps for them. And it has to be said: some of all time’s most terrifying movies could not for the love of God be typified as “less is more” material. The tolerant spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s opened up the door to new levels of carnage and exploitation, spawning a wide range of cinematic subgenres, from the zombie flick and the splatter movie to the Italian giallo and the occult thriller. Some of them were grounded in harsh realism, while others delved deeper into the fantastique for some old-fashioned grand guignol. Unapologetic nasties like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) pretty much put aside the idea that implying is more effective than showing. Across the Atlantic, European shock maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento dispensed with suggestion altogether by serving piles of gore on a platter. No anticipation there: the audience is thrown before the wolves barely halfway into the first reel. Just the grueling details—on the double please!
Whereas Hitchcock usually chose to keep his audience in the know at the cost of revelation, this radical movement excelled in what Clive Barker, writer and director of Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990), called “the Revelation Response”: the appeal of the morbid and surreal. “Appeal” may seem an odd word in reference to horrors designed to appall, but this paradox is integral to a concept that no longer strictly revolved around throwing the monster out, but embraces the monstrous as a part of ourselves—or in the case of Barker: invites a bunch of them over for an orgy in the dungeon to celebrate “the intricacies of perversity.”
This time, Hitchcock’s bomb under the table is exploding right before our very eyes and we’re forced to witness the anatomy of destruction. Hell unfolds in slow motion as we face the biggest threat of all: the Bitter End. We see body parts twitching, we smell the stench of burned skin and we hear the victim next to us utter his last breath. This is as close to a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper as we can get without actually having to stop living for it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is just the introductory scene. If our stomach is up to it, we can stick around to watch the decomposing corpses transform into flesh-eating creatures of the night…
Needless to say, this no-holds-barred mentality could not count on a lot of affection from the refined critical establishment: hence the generalization that an inordinate application of the gross and grotesque indicates an incapacity for building tension. That’s about as crude a statement as saying that pornography is unable to arouse. What it all boils down to, like it frequently does, is taste. There is plenty of tension left in the explicit, and the tremendous anxiety these graphic confrontations generate in the spectator can be attributed to our ambiguous response to the question: How much farther will this movie go, and do I really want to go there? Sure I do! Like hell I don’t! The Revelation Response taps into our darkest hopes and fears and beguiles and disturbs in equally extreme measures. Exactly the kind of push-pull attraction that keeps the hardcore crowd coming back for more. For recent evidence, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and James Wan’s Saw (2004).
Echoing the bang: the Pavlovian Minefield
The element of surprise made an unexpected comeback in 1976, when audiences around the world were treated to the mother of all shock endings in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It is fascinating to see how different De Palma’s surprise tactic was to the way suspense is achieved. Instead of building tension by feeding expectation, it sets the viewer at ease until it seems there’s nothing left to fear.
After a bombastic climax in which Carrie subsequently unleashes her full telekinetic powers at the high school prom to quite deadly effect, causes a fatal car crash, impales her God-fearing mother with a set of flying kitchen knives and gives up the ghost during an apocalyptic inferno, things finally seem to calm down. The night fades to black and sunlight appears, introducing the obligatory epilogue. Composer Pino Donaggio lays over one of his most soothing adagios as good girl Sue Snell, played by the angelic Amy Irving, strides towards us in a slowed-down pace. Sue is dressed in white, lensed in soft-focus, with her long, wavy hair lit up by magical backlight. Tears well up in her almond-shaped eyes as she bends down to lay some flowers on Carrie’s grave. We’re almost completely reassured: the nightmare is over… And just when a sigh of relief escapes our lips, Carrie’s bloody arm shoots out from the gravel and grabs Sue by the elbow. Then we wake up. And just like our reminiscence of an actual dream, it is only in hindsight that we recognize the surrealism of the scene.
It wasn’t until two years later, however, that surprise fully emancipated itself from the degradation it got from Master Hitchcock and evolved into a technique that deserves a category of its own. Halloween (1978) was danger stripped down to its bare essentials and taken to its extremes at once: Michael Meyers, a faceless, unstoppable murdering machine without a motive, was out on the loose. Turn the wrong corner and he’d be there to slice you to threads. Like Carrie, Halloween had its feet firmly planted in classic suspense, but it had more up its sleeve. While De Palma saved the best for last, John Carpenter was in a generous mood and perforated his narrative with “popcorn flyers” from beginning to end. He multiplied Hitchcock’s bomb under the table and changed it into a minefield, where every step you take can be your last. The trick payed off. Whereas Hitchcock mainly concentrated on the period leading up to the bang, Carpenter exploited the aftermath of the explosion. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he explained his method as such:
“I always thought that you could also have another effect on the audience if you blow the table up suddenly. If you do it suddenly, everything after that is changed a little bit. You won’t trust the movie anymore, and you will have doubts about what you think it will do. So you have a different level of suspense.”
Here is an example where suspense is generated by the apprehension of surprise. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. The repetitive use of meticulously timed jumps as a tactic to evoke a nerve-wracking atmosphere has a lot in common with the famous way that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov got his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, just because it was the sound they heard each previous time food was served. In the course of just one movie, Carpenter conditions his audience to recognize repeating patterns, like a catchy yet creepy musical cue or a slow crawl of the camera followed by a shock appearance of the killer, to elicit a trained reflex. By echoing what led to a bang before, the Pavlovian Minefield stimulates a feeling of dread that turns spectators into petty little Pavlov puppies, masochistically awaiting the next jolt to give them that much-expected rush of adrenaline. It is this roller coaster aspect that has made the Pavlovian Minefield so commercially lucrative. Halloween spawned not less than seven sequels and became the definitive blueprint for the slasher genre, resulting in highly popular franchises like Friday the 13th (1980-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994), Scream (1996-2000) and countless others.
Beyond the bang: the Cerebral Spiral
The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?
Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining—the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis—what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery—the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”
It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people… that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense. Identification? With these people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony—the boy that lives in his mouth—freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him…
It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.
Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.
True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King’s fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.
Kubrick’s creation is open to an infinite number of readings, of course, but it’s fair to presume it is less about an all-American family being torn apart by a malevolent supernatural force than it is about, say, the trappings of social convention or one man’s struggle with his own insignificance. Jack suffers from some good-old existential angst, doomed as he is to aimlessly wander the inscrutable paths of Destiny’s maze, forever and ever and ever. Who can blame him, really, with the evil Overlook as his hermetically sealed universe. In nearly every shot, the hotel and its surroundings loom large over the Torrances, at once intimidating and claustrophobic. Kubrick frames the lobbies, rooms and corridors with an obsessive eye for realism and geography, consistently showing both the floor and the ceiling of each area through wide-angle lenses, as if we’re looking into a kid’s diorama. In sharp contrast with the almost reassuring use of darkness, shallow depth of field, skewed angles and subjective points of view that have become stereotypical of the Gothic haunted house flick, Kubrick disorientates the viewer with labyrinths bathed in broad daylight, crystal clear symmetry and curiously objective camerawork, evoking a distanced, Brechtian feel that in a substantial way discourages emotional involvement—the very purpose of suspense!—, and urges us to focus on the grander scheme of things. Meanwhile, page after page of dialogue is recited in long, lingering takes that would make Andrei Tarkovsky blush, giving the spectator oodles of time to contemplate the Big Picture. When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it’s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it’s not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn’t notice it moving.
Kubrick’s The Shining is constructed like a Cerebral Spiral that draws the spectator in with the kind of slow-burning tension that gets under your skin in retrospect, exactly because it appeals to sluggish thought processes rather than immediate instincts. By using our minds to trigger emotion, its scare tactic is considerably less direct than others, but those who are willing to take the detour are in for a long and bumpy ride. The thing about Kubrick’s bomb is that it’s not under, but on top of the table, where everyone including the protagonists can see it. We can try to defuse it, but we don’t know which wires to cut. We can try to escape the building, but we’ll get lost in its mazelike architecture looking for the Exit. And what’s more: that bomb on the table… it never goes off. Whereas the wicked in King’s novel comes from an external factor blown to pieces in the last act (along with the lost soul corrupted by its power), Kubrick’s film doesn’t offer such relief. Jack and the Overlook Hotel are not purged and destroyed in a climactic resolution, but literally frozen in time. There’s no release to the tension, no re-established status quo; Kubrick guides us all the way into his maze, offering endless possibilities for speculation, and then leaves us alone in a permanent state of uncertainty. Are we safe now or is the bomb still ticking? The epilogue only amplifies this lack of closure. When the camera closes in on Jack Torrance’s smiling presence in a group photograph taken in 1921, hanging in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, does that mean he has found in reincarnation an escape route to the past, that his spectre has been absorbed by the hotel, or does Kubrick imply that time is of no relevance in purgatory? (Remember the words of Delbert Grady: “You have always been the caretaker.”) No matter what the answer is, the characters in The Shining are caught inside a perpetual loop, and each time we revisit their story, we enter a little lower on the downward spiral.
Few filmmakers had the balls to pick up on Kubrick’s groundbreaking experiment in fear, but some names should be mentioned. David Cronenberg’s filmography shifted from visceral to cerebral in the ‘80s and ‘90s, although the Canadian director never turned his back on the fetishistic body horror of his early work, which typically falls under the aforementioned Revelation Response category. Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) flirt with cold existentialism in their own bizarre ways and share The Shining’s distancing storytelling techniques. So does the austere and highly disturbing Safe (1995), in which Todd Haynes terrorizes Julianne Moore as well as the viewer with a thought-provoking concept called “environmental illness.” To this day, the Cerebral Spiral remains the most easily misunderstood alternative to suspense. During a press-screening at the Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical Birth got booed by an audience that took its risqué subject matter at face value. Seasoned auteur Paul Schrader went through the humiliating process of having his finished film Exorcist: The Beginning rejected and completely remade by Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin, for being introspective and cerebral instead of fun. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Morgan Creek executive James G. Robinson told L.A. Weekly about his odd decision, “this is the entertainment business.” Coming from the man who brought us Freejack and Soldier, this is a notion decidedly scarier than the released end result.
Augmenting the Dread Palette
Fair enough: In the realm of audio-visual pyrotechnics, it is doubtful that filmmakers will ever discover a better recipe for gun powder than good old suspense. On the other hand, with a larger variety of alternative recipes to mix and mess around with, the door to a more lethal combination is still wide open. Hitchcock spent an entire career pioneering and developing devious cinematic devices as a means to thrill his audience in the most effective way possible. The thought of four daubs of extra paint on his Dread Palette might not have been so disagreeable to the Master of Suspense after all.
Alternative tension-building techniques like the Hidden Threat, the Revelation Response, the Pavlovian Minefield and the Cerebral Spiral do not undermine the strengths of the golden suspense formula, but they do enrich the filmic vocabulary. It is precisely this enrichment—a wider range of choice rather than the individual potential of said alternatives—that can be seen as progress. And progression is what this medium needs, for as any Latin professor can assure you: a language that stands still is a dead one.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick
Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.2
Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.
That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.
Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.
The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.
Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery
The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.3
Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.
Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.
Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.
Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.
Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.
Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.
The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.
Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.
Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen
The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.2.5
As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.
What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.
Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.
Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization
The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.2.5
While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.
In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.
Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.
Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.
Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.
Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing
Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.1.5
Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.
Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.
Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.
Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.
Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival
At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.3
On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.
The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.
From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.
Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.
Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
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