Talk to Me, a biography of pioneering Washington, D.C. disc jockey Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle), is a frustrating film—superbly acted, heartfelt, entertaining throughout, but so formulaic in its conception that the two astonishing sequences that unshackle themselves from formula cast an unflattering light on the rest.
The first such sequence occurs early in the film, when the recently-released ex-con Petey and his fiery, devoted girlfriend, Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), meet Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the program director of the R&B music station WOL, at a local poolroom. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss Petey’s relentless badgering of Dewey by means of protests against the station. The protests are ostensibly about the station’s unresponsiveness to the needs of the black (then Negro) community. But they’re really about Petey’s anger that Dewey didn’t give him the job he believes Dewey implicitly promised him years ago when the men first met, during one of Dewey’s trips to visit his own incarcerated brother. Up until the poolroom meeting, Petey has been portrayed as a charismatic, funny hustler and Dewey as a stick-up-the-ass assimilationist, a brother who’s carved out a niche in The Man’s world and doesn’t dare risk losing it by betting on the likes of Petey. The station’s other DJs—morning host Sunny Jim, played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, and deep-voiced love daddy “Nighthawk” Bob Terry, played by Cedric the Entertainer—are very successful but also apolitical, packaged and safe.
Except for the racial aspect of Petey and Dewey’s animosity, which is fascinating but underdeveloped, their dynamic is boringly familiar—the “snobs vs. slobs” contest showcased in comedies from Animal House through pretty much every other Robin Williams film from Good Morning Vietnam on—not to mention the Howard Stern biography Private Parts, which the first half of Talk to Me too often resembles. The terrific poolroom scene revises, nearly shatters, what came before. Dewey makes a nine-ball bet with Petey: if Petey wins the game, he gets a job, and if Dewey wins, Petey must agree to walk away and never bother Dewey again. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa give the sequence to Dewey, who lets slip a few facts that contradict Petey’s (and our) preconceptions: he grew up in the ghetto and spent a fair amount of time in poolrooms, which is why he’s about to kick Petey’s ass. Suddenly Petey’s cocky baiting of Dewey as a Sidney Poitier wannabe (Petey even sneeringly calls him “Mister Tibbs”) seems singularly clueless; Dewey’s life demonstrates principles of success that Petey could never understand and has never had cause to consider. “Negroes always think that if you speak correct English and wear suits other than clown suits, then you’re not real,” he says before he sinks the four ball in the side pocket. As Dewey stalks around the table, sinking ball after ball—nearly every tricky shot showcased in a single take by Lemmons, so that you know that Ejiofor, not a double, is handling the cue stuck—he schools Petey in every sense.
But the biggest surprise is yet to come: Petey, Dewey and Vernell linger in the bar after Petey’s defeat, drinking and shooting the shit, letting their respective facades fall. Dewey admits to growing up in the projects. Petey talks about his lifelong desire to be on the radio, how he scammed his prison warden into letting him do announcements, and how his aunt provided him with the first record he ever played on the air for his fellow inmates: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Vernell reflexively tries to shill for Petey, and he tenderly raises a hand and holds her jaw as if to physically stop her from talking—a wonderful gesture amplified by the look of love and support that passes between them. In this scene, Petey doesn’t sound at all like the spotlight-hogging, motormouth, blacker-than-thou firebrand; Dewey doesn’t sound like the emotionally constipated, broadcast-standard-English-speaking company man. There are true selves, unguarded selves, inside both men, and they open up and let them be seen. The poolroom sequence dramatizes basic questions that movies rarely ask: Do we have one self or many? If many, then which self is our “true” self? Are the selves that we construct over a lifetime means to an end or roles that subsume us?
From the minute Dewey sinks his first ball through the end of this conversation, it’s a stunning sequence—and for a commercial American feature, a nearly revolutionary one—because it questions the very idea of authenticity, the starting point for nearly every argument about race, class and cultural appropriation in art or entertainment; and it does it in character, so to speak, encoding its political points within banter that moves the plot forward and enriches the characters even as it places their struggles within a wider context. This sequence shows us that Petey’s quick-witted, cynical, me-first posturing is as much a construct (forged by society and shaped by Petey) as the Poitier-like aura of impregnable dignity that Dewey shows in meetings with WOL’s owner (Martin Sheen) and the station’s mostly white executive staff—and that both postures are necessary and equally valid defense mechanisms for black Americans trying to survive and succeed in the United States. (An interesting directorial choice: Except for a brief medium shot showing Vernell, Petey and Dewey within the same frame, every other shot in the conversation sequence shows either Vernell with Petey, or Dewey by himself. Petey and Dewey reach out to each other with words, but they are not yet united in spirit. The cuts suggest the invisible wall that separates them.)
The poolroom scene and its aftermath also make a storytelling promise that Talk to Me unfortunately isn’t prepared to deliver on: it sets up the movie as a dialectical drama about assimilation (represented by Dewey) and separatism (represented by Petey), and how the conflict between those two impulses defined black American history, and American history. By rights, everything that follows should build on the information brought to light in the poolroom; instead, Talk to Me reverts more or less to formula, embodying our preconceptions about the Hollywood biographical drama when it ought to explode them. The movie’s specialness recedes from the moment that a drunk Petey goes out onstage to introduce a benefit concert by James Brown the night after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. This scene, like most scenes in the movie, and like most scenes in most showbiz biopics, validates Hollywood’s apparently unshakable belief that self-destructive entertainers are fascinating. The first part of the movie stuck pretty close to the the usual iconoclast-versus-conformists narrative, the same one that studios have sold us ever since the late ‘70s, redefining counter-cultural alienation as wiseass swagger, and fusing two high school stereotypes: the class clown and the bad-ass jock. The second half of Talk to Me is about an entertainer screwing up his success; that would usually be enough to power a dramatic feature if we hadn’t seen, mere minutes earlier—in the second great scene, the MLK sequence, which I’ll describe shortly—proof that the genre is capable of more. Petey’s disintegration (and more so, the disintegration of Dewey’s career as his manager) is based on fact, and emotionally affecting, but it’s nowhere near as electric as the film’s earlier unpacking of Dewey’s and Petey’s complex identities. The film has a gift for dramatizing the intersection of history and personal experience. Few movies even try to do do that; fewer do it well.
The worst one can say against Talk to Me is that it had greatness within its reach but didn’t grasp it. It could have replicated Petey’s achievement—reflecting reality through media—on a wider scale. In the film, Dewey relents and hires Petey—and then returns to support him when he periodically fails or screws up—because he recognizes that Petey’s genius resides in his status as a conduit for the everyday truth of working class and poor black folks’ lives. As Petey tells Dewey—in the scene where he characterizes Motown founder Berry Gordy as a pimp on the air, is chastised by Dewey, then offers an apology that’s not really an apology—all he does is take the stuff that black folks talk about in the world and put it on the air. He shows the world its reflection. The mere act of doing that validates everyday black experience and exposes unfamiliar or unpopular opinions to the wider world—makes them part of the national black experience, the American experience, the human experience, rather than something that a handful of people talked about in a diner or a barber shop. Talk to Me should have been conceived in a similar spirit; as is, it’s just a better-than-average self-destructive entertainer biopic with many good scenes and two great ones.
I’ve already described the first great sequence, the poolroom; the second, the assassination sequence, is greater still. Petey goes on the air and expresses the incredulity and pain of his community; then he learns that riots have started (“They’re burning it down,” a fellow employee reports) and goes outside with Dewey to observe the madness—lootings, arson, assaults. Then he returns to the mike. “Y’all hurting,” he tells his listeners. “I know how angry you are. You want revenge. Want that quart of blood. And I don’t blame you…Look outside and tell me what you see. You see a city on fire. That’s my city. That’s your city. And that’s not what Dr. King would have wanted…I went to jail because I was a knucklehead. Dr. King went to jail because of what he stood for, fought for and died for. And this ain’t it, y’all.”
The MLK sequence deftly links the conflict between establishment man Dewey and hardcase rebel Petey to the psychic state of America, particularly black America, after King’s murder. Just as the assassination temporarily sidelined class resentment and united King’s admirers in fury and sadness, it temporarily halts conflicts between Dewey and Petey, Dewey and his bosses, Petey and Vernell (whom he’d cheated on earlier), Petey and his resentful fellow DJs. Lemmons and her screenwriters give the event the weight it deserves and then some. The only misstep is Terence Blanchard’s music, which is fine elsewhere; here should have roused itself to the peaks of mournful fury heard in sections of Blanchard’s extraordinary score for Malcolm X, but it settles for smooth-jazz doldrums.
There are thoughtful compositions and camera moves throughout. When Petey begins speaking, one shot begins focused on a photograph of Dr. King on the wall behind Petey, then refocuses to reveal Petey at the mike in the foreground, a move that visually links King to Petey and gives the sense that King’s spirit has entered him.
When Petey finishes his marathon stint and cues up “A Change is Gonna Come” (a Civil Rights movement touchstone, likewise employed in the tragic last act of Malcolm X) the camera pans from Petey at the mic to reveal Dewey looking at Petey through the studio glass. The unbroken camera move is the antithesis of, and the reply to, the cuts that separated Petey and Dewey in the poolroom. The pan from Petey to Dewey—timed to the third word of the opening phrase of “A Change is Gonna Come,” Cooke’s plaintive “boooooooorn”—shows that despite their superficial differences, on this day they inhabit they same psychic space. The invisible wall has fallen.
When Petey finally leaves the booth, he gets a round of applause. But it’s not the standard “Your greatness makes us realize our own smallness” slow clap—the reward Hollywood routinely bestows on its wacky truth-telling iconoclastic heroes. It’s an exhausted tribute, and the smiles on the onlookers’ faces suggest that they are simply recognizing an important job done well at great emotional cost—that it’s not a great performance that’s being acknowledged at this moment but the catastrophic loss that summoned it.
Petey signs off that broadcast by quoting King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” In subsuming his firecracker persona, speaking from the heart and demonstrating more concern for the world than for himself, Petey has lived up to King’s quote, and shown through his example that King’s vision did not die with King. More moving still is the shattering punchline of this sequence: Petey goes downstairs—Sam Cooke rising in volume—and sees that for all the good he did, the city is still on fire. He returns to Vernell, who has been up all night listening to his broadcast. She looks distraught and worn-out. She has a pistol in one hand. She doesn’t care about what Petey did to her before; she’s just glad to see him alive. She embraces Petey and says, “You did good, baby.” She never lets go of her gun.
To read the first article in this series—about American Gangster, Mr. Untouchable and We Own the Night—click here.
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.
The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
TR: I’d love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!
TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.
Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment
It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.3.5
In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.
Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.
The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.
Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.
Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.
Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.
While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.
Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.
Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family
The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.2.5
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.
Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.
Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.
The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.
But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com
The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.3
The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.
Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.
The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.
Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?
This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.
Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.
As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once
The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.3.5
The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.
Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.
Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.
Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.
And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.
The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.
Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.
But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.
Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
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