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Catching Up, Part 1: American Gangster, Mr. Untouchable, & We Own the Night

Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian seem determined to snuff out bright patches before they can catch fire.

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We Own the Night
Photo: Universal Pictures

The key scene in American Gangster, and perhaps in star Denzel Washington’s career, is the bit where 1970s drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who has amassed a fortune smuggling Asian heroin inside the coffins of dead U.S. servicemen, crushes a disrespectful associate’s skull under the piano lid in the middle of packed party, then reams an underling for wiping the blood off Lucas’ luxurious alpaca rug. “Blot that motherfucker!” Lucas barks, daintily patting the stain. Like Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, Lucas hates delegating even when the job is janitorial; but unlike Swearengen, Lucas is uncomfortable with the moral and physical muck associated with the life he’s chosen. The entrepreneurial gambits, the killings, the brinksmanship are aspects to be endured—inconveniences on the road to wealth. With his immaculate suits, lordly demeanor and penchant for my-way-or-the-highway lectures, Lucas is gangster cinema’s first homicidal drudge—a combination of Scorsese’s yin-yang Casino heroes, fretful visionary Ace Rothstein and slimy enforcer Nicky Santoro, yet less unsettling than either. The blot-the-alpaca bit is like the scene in John Landis’ Trading Places where the newly-rich Eddie Murphy character frets when his neighborhood pals sully his new bachelor pad—yet it’s not as funny, and not nearly as horrifying as the context demands. It’s horrorshow shtick.

American Gangster, a sprawling account of the real-life, black 1970s drug dealer’s attempt to build a heroin empire rivaling that of the Italian mob’s, seems an ordained match of star, director and subject. Man, I wish that were a compliment. For all his feral swagger, Washington always seems a tad diligent, logical and respectable; he tries to translate those qualities into scary anal-retentiveness—sort of a bloodlust for accountability—but it doesn’t quite happen. I enjoy Washington when he’s playing hounded exemplars of righteousness (Malcolm X, The Manchurian Candidate, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire) and human-scaled hustlers who are not as clever as they think (particularly in his two collaborations with Carl Franklin, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Out of Time); these roles seem perfectly suited to his talent and energy. But I was unconvinced by his chest-thumping bombast and fidgety smoking in Training Day; there were funny, scary moments, but they were undercut by the feeling that I was watching a straight-“A” drama club favorite spritz himself with stage blood and play Macbeth. Yes, he won an Oscar. But was it for playing against type, or for merely deciding to play against type?

American Gangster is more against-the-grain flamboyance: but it’s 157 minutes long and more full of itself than Training Day, and half its running time is eaten up by a competent but wearying parallel story of a cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). A detective notorious for finding a fat stash of drug money and turning it in, Roberts is professionally incorruptible but privately incorrigible. He builds a dream team of detectives to bring Lucas down while boozing and whoring, fighting his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) for custody of their child and rocking ‘70s badass white guy fashions: wide-lapel shirts, feathered hair, guitar hero shades. (With his steak-and-potatoes torso, Crowe is prematurely edging into character actor country; in a workout scene, his medicine ball gut pushing against his tank top, could be Ray Winstone’s kid brother.) The Roberts story is outsider cops vs. crooks and crooked colleagues, with echoes of Sidney Lumet cop-corruption pictures and Burt Reynolds’ cheesy, soulful Sharky’s Machine. The Lucas story is an ebony gloss on every other gangster picture ever made, with dialogue that all but adominishes the audience, “You’ve seen it before—but not with a brother!” There are a few fresh splashes—the Saigon sequences opposite Lucas’ local contact, a corrupt Army officer played with sleazy panache by Roger Guenveur Smith; the brief, early scenes between Lucas and his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III; what a Lucas he would have made in his prime); Lucas doting on his beloved mama (Ruby Dee), who vacillates between pride in Frank’s daring, fear for his life and look-the-other-way acceptance of his largesse; the country mouse-becomes-city-mouse arc of Lucas and the North Carolina relatives he installs as his East Coast crew. (The latter subplot reminded me of the sections of Blues People where author Amiri Baraka analyzed how rural gutbucket blues moved up north and turned into polished jazz and soul.)

But Scott and his screenwriter, Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), seem determined to snuff out bright patches before they can catch fire. And throughout, they counterbalance Lucas’ ruthless innovation with Roberts’ musty diligence, and avoid betraying a fully formed opinion on what they’re showing us. The movie periodically reminds us that Lucas’ drugs enslaved the same East Coast African-Americans that his Robin Hood-like cash infusions were supposed to liberate—but in the end, the turncoat truce worked out between the antagonists just makes it seem as though the filmmakers really do view Roberts, the good cop in a corrupt department, and Lucas, the maverick smack dealer shaking up an ossified criminal system, as sides of the same coin, even moral equals. This may satisfy the sorts of viewers who discuss the careers of gangsters the way other people discuss the careers of filmmakers or baseball players (as human repositories of trivia and statistics). But it’s half-assed drama. Heat sold the old cliche that cops and criminals understand each other because they’re both outlaw types, but it stopped short of telling us that one group was innately no better than the other. Revising the standard gangster film template, American Gangster plays not like a street allegory of assimilation and capitalist ingenuity, but a business school case study whose subject happens to be a gangster. That’s a legitimate approach, I guess, but the end product plays like the tawdriest corporate motivational video of all time. The tone the movie takes toward Lucas’ social striving is cynical, too. Lucas is partly motivated by a desire to stand toe-to-toe with the Mafia even more defiantly than his mentor did—the tells Roberts that the Italians have been “bleeding Harlem dry since they got off the boat.” But Steven Zaillian’s script hits this point in such an incessant, pandering way that racial animus becomes up-by-your-bootstraps inspirational hokum.

Scott’s direction is efficient but uninspired, and in places, slightly hack-y. Shelving his preference for the wide frame, he shoots in the blockier 1:85 to 1 ratio, perhaps as an instant signifier of intimacy and “realism,” but the result makes me question how much of Scott’s mesmerizing style is bound up in ’Scope compositions, filters and film processing tricks. American Gangster’s images lack those tells, and they seem drained of verve. Maybe the Madison Avenue pallate is to Scott’s visuals what the paper lampshade was to A Streetcar Named Desire heroine Blanche Dubois: a means of hiding plainness. If any Scott film needed a dash of visual glamor, it’s American Gangster, a blockbuster that seems to have been conceived to pander to the built-in audience for gangster pictures, any gangster pictures. A prestige movie faking seedy toughness, Scott’s film mostly lacks the vicious ironic humor that distinguishes Scorsese’s gangster epics, which were so thick with acrobatic camera moves and “Didja know?” factoids that they pretty much created a new genre: the expressionist docudrama. American Gangster is never more phony than when it’s aping Scorsese, as in the Alpaca exchange and in a similarly “audacious” setpiece in which Lucas interrupts a conference with his crew at a diner to walk down the street and shoot an enemy at point-blank range while surrounded by witnesses. Even if it really happened, the staging feels badass-phony. (Scorsese’s characters behave like savages because they are who they are; Scott’s behave that way because the director wants to hear the crowd exclaim, “Motherfucker’s crazy!”) The film’s bifurcated structure (right down to the ambitious work life/troubled home life dynamic) recalls Heat, but without Michael Mann’s Zen pulp delirium and his sense of karmic balance: emotional loss versus egocentric gain. The final image of Heat—cop and crook holding hands as a plane takes off overhead, hinting at the escape and evolution the crook sacrificed because he could not overcome his nature—has no emotional rival in American Gangster. The last 20 minutes—which find Lucas and Roberts forging an alliance to punish their mutual enemies—are so flatly played that they make both men seem as though their hearts weren’t in their work.

Throughout American Gangster, Frank Lucas is shadowed by Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes; as played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in pimpish finery, he’s a glorified wannabe, an established rival who’s theoretically as powerful as Frank but will never be as innovative or cool. He’s Chester the Terrier to Lucas’ Frank the Bulldog; when Lucas storms into Barnes’ club and intimidates him for copying his signature brand of heroin, Barnes stands his ground but looks like he’s a couple of insults away from peeing his pants. It’s startling to see Mr. Untouchable, Marc Levin’s biographical documentary about the real-life Barnes, hard on the heels of American Gangster. In it, Barnes—who has been in witness protection since turning state’s witness in the ‘80s, and is photographed via silhouettes and insert shots—describes the Newark-based Lucas and his crew as a bunch of ruthless bumpkins who “dressed country” and “acted country.” That throwaway line suggests the extent to which American Gangster might have shaped the truth in order to flatter its star.

Granted, everyone shades their personal history to make themselves seem more in control than they really were, and career criminals in particular aren’t known for their self-deprecation. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a man who amassed as much power as Barnes could be as comical, insecure and altogether second-rate as the character played by Gooding. There’s a pivotal scene in American Gangster where Lucas, who believes that if you’re not wearing a proper suit you can’t be taken seriously, tries to please his young, adoring wife (Lymari Nadal) by wearing wear a pimp-looking fur coat and hat ensemble to the Ali-Frazier fight. Within the context of Scott’s movie, the outfit seems uncharacteristic; but within the context of Barnes’ rueful but tough recollection, it seems like what a country-boy-made-good might wear to a championship fight. It’s a given that if you split the difference between the two film’s depictions of their heroes, you might get closer to truth than you could get from watching either film individually; but if I had to pick one film that I thought better represented that time and place, I’d throw down with Mr. Untouchable. (Neither film, however, is as memorable as New York Magazine’s interview of Barnes and Lucas, “Lords of Dopetown.”)

Which isn’t to say that Levin’s film is any less calculating than Scott’s. Barnes’ underlings’ admissions that their boss was a self-serving, monomaniacal killer and that the drug business is a fearful, nasty trade are ultimately overshadowed by tales of Barnes’ awesome charisma, fearlessness and creativity. When Barnes tells how the mostly young women who counted money and filled smack bags were forced to work naked so they couldn’t steal anything (an image also showcased in American Gangster), Levin cuts to fake “period” shots of mocha titties bobbing in close-up—an image that also occurs in American Gangster—and throughout, the director is a bit too VH-1 with his music cues. (When a street war erupts, Levin cues Edwin Starr’s “War.”)

All in all, though, Mr. Untouchable is more honest in its assessment of why it exists, and why you’re sitting there watching it. The appeal of gangster stories is partly visceral and vicarious: we want to experience, for a couple of hours, what it might feel like to amass a fortune at the point of a gun, bed down with worshipful young admirers and kill anyone dumb enough not to awed by our scurvy cruelty. But there’s a second appeal intertwined with the first: the chance to see what it’s like to live in a world where ethics is completely divorced from morality. Barnes and Lucas—like Scorsese and David Chase’s gangsters—were amoral but ethical. They abided by the conventions of a vicious subculture that was attached to mainstream life but not really a part of it, like a tick riding on a dog’s back; their list of do’s and don’ts was written in Bizarro World, but it was fairly consistent through the ages, which is why brazen depatures from standard business practice—like Lucas’ scheme to import cheap heroin directly from Indochina and sell it at half the Mafia’s price—were such shocks to the underworld’s system. The world you know is the world you know, period. That’s what criminals mean when they talk about having a “code.” “If you turn on television at night and you see picture of a young person who was a suicide bomber, in your mind, it’s incomprehensible how someone could do that,” Barnes tells Levin. “But to those people inside the system of values, that’s totally acceptable.”

David Bordwell’s reaction to We Own the Night mirrors my own: “Further evidence that today’s cinema is classic studio cinema, with more sex, violence, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” Too bad. I was pumped for this movie ever since I heard about it, and not necessarily because I had the same faith in its writer-director, James Gray, as some of his boosters. Gray’s 1995 debut Little Odessa, starring Tim Roth as a Russian hitman who returns home to his Brighton Beach neighborhood and confronts the dysfunctional family that created him, was heartfelt, sometimes wrenching, but often seem a bit schematic, and the end result seemed to demand an empathy for the hero that Gray’s script didn’t earn. His follow-up, 2000’s The Yards, about an ex-con pulled into New York railyard corruption, was a quantum leap forward in style—the movie’s dark, sharp widescreen photography had a nightmarish clarity, and Gray’s direction was glossy and respectable but never dull. But the plot, mood and themes struck me as too obviously indebted to On the Waterfront; Mark Wahlberg’s conscience-stricken hero evoked the meaty decency of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, but it was more a matter of how Wahlberg was photographed, and his position in the narrative, than anything the filmmaker or the actor brought to the table; likewise, as the film unreeled, sinking deeper into American Tragedy mode, I started to wonder if Gray wasn’t a video generation visionary whose filmmaking chops exceeded his dramatic instincts: an extraordinarily talented and obsessive mimic. The movie carried itself with a Godfather II-style self-importance that didn’t match up with its B-movie characterizations. Although their styles were (and still are) quite different, I had the same misgivings about Gray that I had about Paul Thomas Anderson prior to Punch-Drunk Love: he had not yet figured out how to transform his influences into something unique.

We Own the Night isn’t that, and I remain unconvinced by arguments that it’s a near-triumph (the most nuanced: Dan Callahan and Oggs Cruz.) This tale of a nightclub manager, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix, who played the best friend/bad guy in The Yards), who’s torn between an adoptive family of Russian gangsters and the blood family of cops that wants him use him as an informer is consistently engrossing, and the action scenes (and the lead performances by Phoenix, Wahlberg as the hero’s super-achieving cop brother, Joseph, and Robert Duvall as his police chief father, Burt) are suitably intense. (I have to say, though, that while Wahlberg is convincing as a cop, he’s a tad dull. He’s almost always likable, but he doesn’t really have a star’s spark unless he’s playing brutes or dopey eccentrics.)

But too often I felt as though I was nodding off during a long night of channel surfing and briefly waking up to find that one old movie had blurred into another, then another. We Own the Night’s setting is 1988; the music is half ‘80s jukebox, half urban tragedy orchestral score; the pallette is desaturated and the camerawork somewhat loose—at least by the standards of The Yards, which boasted stately compositions and a faux-Technicolor vibrancy that reminded me of Rebel Without a Cause. The Yards’s greatest scene was an extended fistfight between Wahlberg and Phoenix, much of it showcased in one unbroken, lateral, molasses-slow tracking shot that diminished the combatants against a streetscape whose gloomy yellows, blacks and browns might have been painted by Edward Hopper. Gray has learned to dance since then: from the smash-cut opening to Bobby finger-banging his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), on a couch in a back room of his club to the justly-heralded car chase-shootout in the rain—told mainly through Bobby’s eyes, the whole bloody mess scored to the ominous swip-swipe of of the hero’s windshield wipers—through the climactic manhunt sequence in a weed-choked field, Gray’s style melds Sidney Lumet’s easygoing grit and Scorsese’s visual dexterity.

The problem is the drama: there really isn’t any. Bobby’s Russian gangster colleagues and patrons are sketchily drawn compared to similar characters in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; Bobby’s hyper-extended family of cops epitomizes honor, tradition and legacy without making them concrete; and throughout, we never really get to see Bobby grapple with the implications of the choices he’s asked to make. Gray’s script keeps pushing him from one situation to the next, one deception or tragedy to the next, so briskly it’s hard understand what it’s like to live in his skin, much less feel the psychic damage inflicted by offers he can’t refuse. The film’s chief virtue is its casual narrative audacity: it shifts from True Confessions to Serpico to The Godfather without settling into any one mode. Gray’s genre decathalon plotting staves off boredom; every 15 minutes there’s a shocking plot development that makes you wonder, “How can they keep going after this?” Yet the movie’s speed is its undoing. We Own the Night wants to bring the Coppola-Lumet-Scorsese urban corruption drama into the new century, but it’s more persuasive as a sincere but ludicrous cops-and-robbers action picture (the idea of the NYPD deputizing and arming an informant, cop relative or no, would be easier to accept if Gray’s direction didn’t genuflect toward grubby realism). In the end, I prefer the The Yards and Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way: hackneyed B-movies re-imagined as sensuous dreams.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Gemini Man Erects a Cardboard World Around Its Special Effects

Whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, the film is just another assembly-line reproduction.

1.5

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In centering its action melodrama around the confrontation between its main character and a duplicated version of himself, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man joins some dubious company: the forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Replicant, the late-pre-governor-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Sixth Day, and Richard Lester’s abortive superhero sequel Superman 3. These films relied on split-screen techniques and misleading cuts to split their respective heroes in two—tricks that had, in essence, existed since Georges Méliés. New digital technologies appear to have spurred this old Hollywood hobbyhorse back into action, as Gemini Man’s preternaturally gifted, recently retired secret agent Henry Brogan (Will Smith) confronts not just a clone, but a younger clone, logically dubbed Junior and also played by Smith, de-aged via facial scanning and semi-automated digital animation.

If the special effects industry has devised some new tricks, however, Gemini Man is hardly evidence that Hollywood screenwriters have. Co-written by Billy Ray, Darren Lemke, and David Benioff, the film never successfully redirects our attention from its naked exhibition of advanced CG and toward some sort of meaningful conflict. The broadly sketched attributes that define Brogan are either totally utilitarian (he has a bee allergy, which comes into play in a manner so haphazard that one suspects that the payoff was added at the last minute) or completely unexplored (such as his insomnia). Sometimes, the script’s sense of characterization also betrays its undercooked thinking about its ostensible main subject. To wit, the film dwells both on how Brogan’s traumatic upbringing shaped his psychology and on how different Junior’s youth has been, but then it has Brogan assemble a precise and specific psychological profile of Junior based on his own mind. Nature or nurture? Whichever one, apparently, is convenient to producing a teary-eyed Will Smith in a given scene.

Given Benioff’s writing credit here, it’s also hard not to draw a connection between the phony female badassery of HBO’s Game of Thrones and how Gemini Man treats Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent to surveil Brogan in his retirement. When Brogan, attempting to relax and do some boating, outs the attractive young woman working at the dock as an undercover D.I.A. agent (definitely not C.I.A., for whatever reason), he observes, ostensibly impressed, her distinguished record: how she never received a single demerit despite her expansive resume of operations throughout the globe. Brogan then spends the remainder of Gemini Man explaining standard spy procedures to her, like going on the lam, as if she were a rookie. (Lee, Benioff, and company also stage an egregious scene that sees Danielle the seasoned spy strip for an awkward pat-down from Junior.)

Junior has been sent to kill Brogan by Clay Verris (Clive Owen, doing his best to menacingly hit those American diphthongs), Junior’s surrogate father and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor. Brogan, it seems, constitutes a proverbial loose end for both the D.I.A. and Gemini, which cloned him in 1995 and now has his replacement ready to go. The seeming arbitrariness of Verris choosing Junior to assassinate Brogan is hardly accounted for by the film’s explanation, which has something to do with Brogan being Junior’s “darkness” that he must vanquish in order to…become a real man? It’s unclear, particularly as it appears that Verris didn’t want Junior to discover that they were actually the same man.

Perhaps appropriately, Gemini Man suggests a hybrid clone of Bourne, 007, and Terminator flicks. An internecine conflict between shifty agency types divided over what to do about Brogan plays out in dry cellphone exchanges, a pursuit through mostly random places around the globe provides the film with exotic backgrounds for motorcycle chases and extended fisticuffs, and a late-film revelation about Gemini’s ultimate goals raises the specter of a post-human world. Throughout, the action is underwhelming, as Lee uses rapid cuts and tight angles to disguise faulty CG—but to no avail. The problem is less Junior’s digitally altered face—which, while not perfect, can actually emote—and more the rubber bodies that bounce around the frame, rolling out of car accidents and flipping into karate kicks.

Gemini Man is an action movie whose attempt to carry emotional weight is betrayed by the utter weightlessness of both its spectacle and its narrative. There’s a story here about middle age and the loss of youth, the uncanniness of knowing you were once a person you no longer are—the existential discomfort of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the film Lee thinks he’s making: Brogan avoids mirrors, as he avers on a few occasions, and interestingly, Lee frames close-ups almost frontally, the actors nearly staring into the camera, as in a mirror (or a Yasujirō Ozu film). There’s a self-reflexive element to Gemini Man, concerning the illusory preservation of youth in the cinema and the way Hollywood reflects ideal selves back to us. But Lee can’t do much with this idea, and even a soulful pair of performances from Smith can’t enliven the cardboard world erected around the special effects at the heart of the film. In the end, whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, Gemini Man is just another assembly-line reproduction.

Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Dead Center Is an Atmospheric Study of Human Futility

The film is in tune with the need to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity.

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The Dead Center
Photo: Arrow Films

People who work in intense environments, such as police stations, social services offices, and hospitals, are familiar with the strain of needing to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity. Primarily set in a hospital over a few days, writer-director Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, which follows a handful of medical professionals as they grapple with something that symbolizes their fear of succumbing to their patients’ sickness, is profoundly in tune with this sense of strain.

Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing capture the hard white and sickly yellow light of a hospital in the middle of the night, as well as the eerie alternation of droning white noise and silence that can define such a setting. The filmmakers allow this hospital, especially the psychiatric ward, to creep into our bones. (It certainly helps that the staff here isn’t composed of actors who appear to be out of central casting, as they suggest truly harried and exhausted members of the working class.) Occasionally puncturing this nocturnal twilight are the piercing sounds of patients in crisis, and Senese expertly captures this ebb and flow between the expectation of violence and weathering it. At its best, The Dead Center exudes some of the concentrated lo-fi intensity of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.

The Dead Center has a horror-movie hook, which often lingers at the narrative’s margins and screams of Chekhov’s gun. The film opens with an ambulance delivering to the hospital a John Doe (Jeremy Child) who sliced his wrists and chest. Senese films the ambulance’s trip from a god’s-eye view, suggesting a supernatural presence that might not be all that friendly. Later, after John Doe is toe-tagged and bagged, he sits up, and Senese springs an unforgettably creepy sound effect: the crinkling of the body bag, which suggests the crackling of electricity. And this effect is complemented by the poignant sight of the quivering John Doe rising from the bag and wandering the hospital and slipping into an empty bed for warmth. In this moment, Senese grounds resurrection in the textures of a very realistic setting.

John Doe is discovered by the hospital’s staff, and psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is charged with discerning his identity and illness, though Forrester, a renegade with considerable emotional issues himself, doesn’t get far with this endeavor. Carruth invests a familiar type—the hotdog professional with little personal life—with a haunting and unusually opaque vulnerability. He keys us into Forrester’s desperation to hide his own weaknesses from his staff, though his pain is only partially explained. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative thread, medical investigator Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates John Doe’s origins. This trail leads him to a motel room drenched in blood, and, in another bone-chilling detail, Graham drains a tub of blood to reveal a spiral carved at the bottom. Uncovering John Doe’s identity, Graham discovers a man marked by death, who has become a corporeal Grim Reaper.

The Dead Center is ultimately an atmospheric study of human futility. John Doe might be a monster, but he’s also the ultimate incurable victim, who destroys any degree of control that Forrester and Graham fight to assume over their surroundings. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft, Senese allows his audience to feel as if it’s only seeing but a tip of a malign iceberg, and that ineffable impression of vastness is existentially frightening.

Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely Director: Billy Senese Screenwriter: Billy Senese Distributor: Arrow Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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