Connect with us


Godfrey Cheshire on Close-Up

Can any slight, relatively little-seen film live up to the kind of reputation that increasingly surrounds Close-Up?



Godfrey Cheshire on Close-Up
Photo: Janus Films

Few figures in the history of movies leap from screen to become not just characters but paradigms, beacons that illuminate the paradoxical nature and power of the medium even as they exercise their own unique fascinations. The Little Tramp, Charles Foster Kane and a handful of others: these are the cinema’s resonant, iconic Quixotes, whose significance surpasses even the films that contain them. At the end of the 1990s we can add another name to their select company of unforgettables: Hossein Sabzian.

This review, the last I will write for publication in the year that marks the end of the century of cinema, concerns Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, a 1990 Iranian feature that I recently named the most important film of the last decade and one of the 10 most important of the century. That estimation certainly reflects my own ongoing fascination with Iranian cinema, but it’s hardly idiosyncratic. In 1990, when few in the film world were cued to the growing potency of Iranian filmmaking, Close-Up was passed over by high-profile festivals including Cannes and New York, but won prizes in Montreal and Rimini. Its renown has grown exponentially since then. After being voted the best Iranian film in history in a worldwide survey of critics published by the Iranian magazine Film International, the film has ranked at or near the top of critics polls regarding movies of the 1990s conducted recently in Canada and Europe.

And now comes a signal honor: Having previously appeared locally only in festival and retrospective settings, Close-Up at last has an American distributor (Zeitgeist Films) and will begin its first New York theatrical run on Fri., Dec. 31, at The Screening Room. Is it cause for chagrin that such a celebrated movie has taken a nearly a decade to reach our theaters? Say, rather, that we’re lucky it took only a decade, considering the steadily declining appreciation of truly adventurous foreign films, as well as the still-pervasive resistance to the cultural difference that Iran represents.

Can any slight, relatively little-seen film live up to the kind of reputation that increasingly surrounds Close-Up? Perhaps it’s inadvisable to introduce the movie with superlatives, which risk creating burdensome expectations. On the other hand, it is my experience that Close-Up tends to win out over whatever impressions audiences bring to it. Sure, it is extremely simple on its surface, rough-hewn and relatively nondramatic by conventional measures. Uninitiated viewers may find themselves restive and underwhelmed early on. But the film so subtly transmutes our normal sense of what movies can do that we are ultimately left defenseless against the extraordinary power of its final scenes, which are as transcendent—and as shrewd—as anything in cinema.

An unusual mixture of found reality and fictional elaboration, Close-Up documents the case of Hossein Sabzian, the Makhmalbaf impersonator. The film began with a story in the Tehran weekly Sorush which said that a man had been arrested for pretending to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most famous film directors, to a middle-class family. The ruse apparently was somewhat innocent at first. The family, the Ahankhahs, invited the supposed Makhmalbaf into their home after the wife met him on a bus. He regaled them with tales of his career and offered to put them in his next film.

But the deception soon began to unravel. “Makhmalbaf” didn’t know anything about an international award the papers said he had won. More crucially, he borrowed money from the family and didn’t return it. Suspecting they were being set up for a bigger rip-off, Mr. Ahankhah contacted the authorities. The ersatz auteur was picked up soon after at the Ahankhah house; Sorush’s reporter witnessed the arrest. Once his story was printed, Kiarostami entered the picture.

The film opens with the Sorush reporter, a cabbie and two soldiers talking as they drive to the Ahankhah house for the arrest. The reporter ebulliently hopes that this scoop will make him as famous as Italy’s Orianna Fallaci; one of his interlocutors expresses puzzlement that anyone would imitate a film director. The events depicted here, of course, happened before the film began; what we’re seeing is the first of several dramatic re-creations that Kiarostami staged and filmed after the fact, using the actual people rather than actors. These sequences he intermixes with real documentary footage (although this concept grows ever more problematic, as we shall see), shot as the case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator unfolded.

As Close-Up recounts it, Kiarostami’s involvement—as both a chronicler and a de facto participant in the case—begins in earnest when he goes to the authorities and asks permission to film Sabzian’s legal ordeal. Receiving that, he visits the defendant in prison to obtain his agreement. Sabzian, who seems nervous and abashed by his surroundings, recognizes the filmmaker and speaks approvingly of Kiarostami’s first feature, The Traveler. Kiarostami next applies to the cleric-judge assigned to hear the case, who seems bemused and mystified that anyone would want to film such an odd, unimportant incident; but he gives his permission nonetheless.

The heart of the film is Sabzian’s trial. Although Kiarostami occasionally cuts away to dramatic re-creations of some of the events alluded to (the wife meeting Sabzian on the bus, events in the Ahankhah house before Sabzian was arrested), the movie’s human drama remains gravitationally centered on the courtroom. For symbolic as well as practical reasons, Kiarostami used two 16mm cameras (the other sequences are in 35mm) to provide different perspectives on the action. Wide angles show us Sabzian with his accusers arrayed behind him, and, occasionally, the judge at the other side of the room. The close-up camera, meanwhile, gives us an intimate view of Sabzian during his appeals for justice and understanding.

Addressing a turbaned magistrate of the Islamic Republic, the trial’s antagonists argue passionately about cinema. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they argue about passion for cinema and what it can entail: solidarity, wishfulness, magnanimity, deceit, obsession, theft, rage. Obviously embarrassed as well as angry, the Ahankhahs (late-middle-aged father and mother, grown children) assert that Sabzian intended to defraud them. They shared with him their very sincere love of cinema, which he played upon and manipulated with devious, malign intent.

Sabzian is a thin, bearded man in his late 30s, though his age is hard to determine by appearances: called young by some, he admits to dyeing his hair. He has worked as a bookbinder, but appears impoverished; in fact, this is essential to his defense. It seems he was once married with two children, but has lost his family due to his obsession with movies. Evidently a successful autodidact, he quotes Tolstoy and speaks with a taut, pressured, sometimes very moving eloquence, saying such things as, “Ill will is the veil that covers art.”

Explaining his deception, he describes an arduous but liberating simulation of artistry. “It was difficult enacting the role of director, but it gave me confidence and I gained [the family’s] respect,” he says. “They did everything I told them. I would for instance tell them to move a cupboard from a certain place and they would do it. Before that, I had never succeeded in making people accept my views; they would obey me hesitantly. But in that house and under the guise of that assumed personality I could make everyone obey me. But when I left that house and had to accept money from them in order to buy something for my child and pay for my way home to the suburbs, I realized I was the same poor man who could not provide for his family—that I still had to accept my lonely lot among the poor.”

“That was why,” he continues, “when I woke up the next day, I still wanted to go back and play that role. It was very difficult, but I still wanted to do it because of my love for the cinema and also because they respected me and gave me moral support. So I went about the job very seriously. And I had come to believe I really was a director. I was not acting anymore. I was that new person.”

Cinema loves dramatic transformations like the one just described, but the Ahankhahs don’t buy it for a second. They reject Sabzian as an imaginary director, saying he was only a lying actor, and still is. At this point, the film has our sympathies in its cross-hairs.

If virtually every filmgoer is a cinephile to some degree, few will readily sympathize with the duped, polite cinephilia of the bourgeois family. This despite (or perhaps because of) the likelihood that the Ahankhahs resemble us far more than we resemble Sabzian, the poor man who carries cinephilia—cinemania—to dark, Dostoyevskan extremes. Close-Up likewise casts its lot with the accused; which is to say that it identifies with Sabzian rather than that it necessarily believes him. It wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps to redeem the guilty obsession it finds in (and shares with?) him.

It is impossible not to be touched by Sabzian, in any case. He refuses to be reduced to a “case,” a pitiable member of the class where poverty’s desperation and mental disturbance so often converge. As he maintains his stoic dignity and appeals to a justice beyond the grievance lodged against him, the court in its way comes around to him. The judge maneuvers Sabzian and the family away from their hostile stances, toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

The film’s remarkable final sequence begins as Sabzian is released from prison. As he emerges from the gates, he is met by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and breaks down weeping. Kiarostami’s camera observes the scene from inside a van some distance away; the hidden mic Makhmalbaf wears breaks up, providing fragmentary sound throughout. Then Makhmalbaf takes Sabzian on his motorcycle and sets off through the Tehran traffic; the theme music of Kiarostami’s The Traveler comes in. The two men stop to buy flowers. They are heading for the Ahankhah house—and the epiphanic meeting that ends the film—yet the most exultant image of all is simply the director and his admirer pressed together on the motorbike, removed from suffering and indignity, united, for once, in friendship and art.

The image of improbable union recalls something that Sabzian said during his trial, in that strangely poetic way of his: “I asked the Muse why he was hidden. He answered, ’It is you who are hidden. We are slaves of a selfish part behind which is hidden our real being. If we get rid of the selfish part, we can behold the beauty of truth.’” Close-Up shares that mystical dedication to unveilings and beauty. It also knows that at times truth can’t be had through the facts, but must be approached indirectly, by way of deception.

In every way imaginable the film stresses duality; extremes and contradictions; mirror-ideas which are innumerable but begin with art and nature, or perhaps God and creation. The fact that its themes touch on our notions of identity and role-playing and such is largely incidental, though important to the film’s transnational appeal.

It’s almost impossible to encounter Close-Up, I would say, without in some way being startled by it. It was one of the first Iranian films I encountered, in 1992, and I recall my lingering surprise that it seemed more deeply sophisticated than any contemporary American or European film. What possible viewership could it have been made for? The Iran it conjured appeared somehow both medieval and postmodern—and little in between. (Visiting Iran later only bolstered this impression.)

When I met Kiarostami for the first time, in New York in the fall of ’94, I told him straightaway that Close-Up was my favorite of his films. He said it was his own favorite, and that it seemed to have a growing following, though in Iran it had initially been misunderstood and derided; someone he’d just met, he said with mild wonderment, had compared it to Citizen Kane. This last remark typifies the filmmaker’s exquisite tact; its veil of bemused modesty covers Kiarostami’s astute and healthy sense of his own artistic worth.

The comparison obviously shouldn’t be stretched too far, but Citizen Kane and Close-Up both adapt the techniques of documentary to fiction, suggest multiple paths to “the truth,” and focus on men whose final quality is their unknowability. Most of all, the films are anomalies that somehow became paradigms of their respective eras, and that now bear reputations which encompass not only the works themselves but also the auras of opinion that have grown up around them. Kane, after all, is not just a major Orson Welles creation but “the greatest film of all time,” a largely mythic accolade that took over two decades to coalesce and that had a lot to do with the emotional and intellectual buttons the movie happened to push in France in the post-WWII period. Close-Up’s still-coalescing renown has a similarly international basis, since it reflects, in part, the West’s evolving view of Iran’s cinema.

That cinema began emerging from the systemic ruin of revolution in 1983, following a shrewdly conceived government initiative aimed at reviving the once-thriving Iranian film industry. By 1990, the program’s most notable successes—including Amir Naderi’s The Runner, Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger and Kiarostami’s own Where Is the Friend’s House?—had begun attracting serious international attention. All of these films lyrically, compassionately depict children in impoverished circumstances, a similarity that came to suggest a noble but confining stereotype: Iranian films, like some others from the Third World, it was said, were basically Italian Neorealism redux, full of radiant urchins and the glow of humanistic concern.

Close-Up, being essentially a Bicycle Thief in which the stolen “vehicle” is not a bicycle but a film director’s identity, instantly complicated that definition in the most useful possible manner. Suggesting a direct line from Rossellini to Godard to Kiarostami, it seemed to recombine the social concern of Neorealism with the French New Wave’s cerebral self-expression and formal idiosyncrasy, and to project the whole into the vitalizing context of a post-revolutionary Islamic culture. The film’s key innovations—the unorthodox mix of documentary and docudrama; the self-reflexive musing on cinema and its impact; the simultaneous exaltation and questioning of the auteur—were not entirely new to Iranian movies, but Close-Up presented them so forcefully as to establish a couple of new trademarks. Thereafter, Iranian cinema meant not just “films about poor children,” but also “films about film” and “films that explore the line between fact and fiction.”

If a movie’s importance is measured by its influence, Close-Up’s is there to be seen in numerous Iranian movies of the 90s, including several by the two directors at its center. Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (a 2000 release in the U.S.), and Makhmalbaf’s The Actor (1993), Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), Salam Cinema (1995) and A Moment of Innocence (1996) all foreground filmmakers and filmmaking, and creatively intermix reality and fabrication. Together these films comprise a uniquely poetic and staggeringly complex set of reflections on (and, in effect, inter-artist conversations about) the meanings and potentials of cinema. Beyond Iran, meanwhile, Close-Up seems to have anticipated a decade when “artistic” filmmaking increasingly equated with cinematic self-consciousness, the late-inning kind that sums up and deconstructs rather than inaugurates: if you look hard enough, you can see the Kiarostami film’s shadow stretching all the way down to American Movie and Being John Malkovich.

Yet Close-Up is never ironic or glib, as those films sometimes are. And it attains a kind of mastery, as they do not, by surpassing cleverness with profundity. Its deepest attractions in fact antedate anything that might be called fashionable. The theme of the imposter, for one, is old enough to give the film a constant hint of the uncanny; it evokes doppelgangers, twins, the supposed supernatural powers of mirrors, even the belief among Muslims that the figure crucified on Calvary was not Jesus but his double. Here we skirt the territory of Borges and Calvino, Jung and the brothers Grimm, where caution must be exercised. To suggest that the essentials of Close-Up’s story, including the fascination with film directors, are universal would be to miss half of the equation.

This occurred to me recently when I reread the transcript of an interview I did with Kiarostami in Iran about Close-Up. At one point, the translator interjects the comment (to me), “Only in Iran would you find someone like Sabzian.” Indeed, and here we glimpse the paradoxical alchemy that connects Close-Up to much great art: on the one hand, Sabzian is as universal as Quixote or The Little Tramp, while, on the other, he’s absolutely specific to Iran. Perhaps in other nations—though not many, surely—you will find eloquent, reflective paupers who are up on their Tolstoy, but where else is there one who is fixated on the artistry of his country’s film directors? This belongs to Iran alone, because only Iran effectively walled itself off from the world in 1979, thereby sealing under glass, as it were, a great ‘70s film culture, which it then revived, privileged and released back into the world in the 80s.

In 1996 Susan Sontag published a famous essay bemoaning the decline of cinephilia, meaning the cinephilia of her youth. I thought at the time, and still think: she should see Iran. There one finds cinephilia as perhaps existed in Paris in the mid-‘60s. People are movie mad. Filmmaking has the kind of cultural cachet once reserved for poetry and novels; directors are intellectual icons. TV is still a faint glow that no one pays much attention to (except when it shows old American movies like Shane) and cinephilia is very much tied to literacy; newsstands are festooned with film magazines of every description. In other words, the culture that produces a cinematic renaissance like the one including Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is the same culture that, almost ineluctably, will produce a Sabzian.

It should be added that when Close-Up was in the making—halfway between Iran’s 1979 Revolution and today—that culture was in a period of crucial flux. In July of 1988 the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, which had cost a million lives, ended in a bitter stalemate. The cessation of hostilities meant that many Iranians began to focus on the failure of the Revolution to achieve its high-flown goals, especially among the still-suffering urban poor—like Sabzian. It also prompted certain hardliners to shift their hostility from the Iraqis to the liberals who dominated the Islamic Republic’s cultural bureaucracy, including Minister of Culture (later President of Iran) Mohammad Khatami, whose ministry had effected the revival of Iran’s cinema. Then, in February of 1989, Iran’s culture wars went global when the Ayatollah Khomeini—who would die in June, ending Iran’s revolutionary decade—issued a death sentence against the author Salman Rushdie for alleged heresy against Islam.

You get distant hints of both of these currents in Close-Up: the fading of revolution’s glow perhaps prompted one poor man to transfer his allegiance to the figure of a film director, just as the chilling of the cultural climate may have increased Kiarostami’s tendency to speak metaphorically about the links between cinema and society in Iran. It was a time of growing divisions, including those represented by the two directors we see in Close-Up.

Kiarostami, who was nearing 50 when he made the film, had grown up in a comfortable middle-class family, studied art in college, and had made two features and a number of shorts prior to 1979. When the young intellectuals working under Khatami set about creating a cinema of quality for the Islamic Republic, he was one of a number of pre-revolutionary directors they entreated to begin working again.

Makhmalbaf, who was just over 30 at the time of Close-Up, was his opposite number in almost every respect. Self-educated, he had grown up devout and poor in Tehran’s lower-class southern district. At age 17 he participated in a terrorist action against the Shah’s police, was wounded and captured, then imprisoned under torture for four years. Released by the Revolution, he became a fundamentalist polemicist and playwright before turning to filmmaking. His first films were relatively crude exercises in post-revolutionary orthodoxy. But as his skill as a director increased, he also became more independent-minded, questioning his former certainties and scrutinizing the inequities of post-revolutionary society.

The three films he made in the mid-‘80s—The Peddlar, The Cyclist and Marriage of the Blessed—were works of stinging social criticism that propelled Makhmalbaf to the front ranks of Iranian filmmakers. They also made him an admired figure across a wide swath of Iranian society, as Close-Up shows. Sabzian’s deception begins when he is on a bus holding the screenplay of The Cyclist, a woman asks what he is reading, and he impulsively claims to be the book’s author. Behind that ruse, quite evidently, is an identification that borders on worship: for Sabzian, Kiarostami is a filmmaker, but Makhmalbaf is a hero of extraordinary proportions.

Our own cinephilia never approaches the extremity of emotion Sabzian gives voice to in Close-Up. “Unfortunately,” he says haltingly, “I have not been able to practice the Koranic injunction that says, ’Remembering God is the best consolation for a troubled heart.’ And whenever I am depressed or overwhelmed by troubles, I feel a strong need to cry out the anguish of my soul, the sad experiences of my life, which no one wants to hear about. And then I find a good man who shows my sufferings in his films and makes me want to see them over and over again. A man who dares to expose the people who trade on other people’s lives—the rich people who are heedless of the simple needs of the poor, which are basically economic needs.”

Although it goes against the film’s aura of good will to point this out, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf actively detest each other, and have through much of the last two decades. Close-Up marks a brief and curious respite in their mutual loathing. The hostility evidently began with Makhmalbaf, who spent part of the ‘80s vituperatively denouncing pre-revolutionary directors, including Kiarostami, as decadent, bourgeois remants of the old regime.

Then, after 1988’s Marriage of the Blessed, Makhmalbaf underwent another of his chameleon-like changes of mind and began making nice with his former adversaries, whose artistry, it seems, he had begun to admire. Kiarostami says that he met Makhmalbaf for the first time in a movie theater just prior to the genesis of Close-Up, when the younger director approached him and asked him to take a look at a script he had written.

What happened next is, appropriately, a matter of dispute. In the summer of 1997 I interviewed the two filmmakers separately and they gave me very different accounts about the origins of Close-Up. Both versions begin with the directors meeting in Kiarostami’s office. Where they diverge is over the issue of who had the crucial copy of Sorush magazine, and who first thought of making a movie about the strange case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator.

Makhmalbaf claims that he’d already had the idea to make the movie, and that he was holding an advance copy of Sorush, which had not yet hit the stands, rolled up in his fist as he talked with Kiarostami. After Kiarostami asked to see the magazine and scanned the article, Makhmalbaf says, he began enthusing, “This is fantastic, this is unbelievable,” and immediately started to argue that Makhmalbaf couldn’t be the one to film the story because he was part of it. Kiarostami, naturally, says that the initial concept was his.

In his version, the magazine is already out and a copy lies on his desk as he talks to Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami doesn’t think much of the script Makhmalbaf has shown him (one can imagine him nervous at Makhmalbaf’s presence), so he turns the subject to the Sorush article, and the idea for Close-Up sparks. Kiarostami then convinces Makhmalbaf to borrow a car with him so that they can make a little expedition to explore the idea. They go first to the police station where Sabzian is being held, and learn more details about his case. Then they drive to the Ahankhah house, where a droll scene unfolds.

Kiarostami goes to the door and announces himself. The daughter of the family asks skeptically for some ID. They have just gotten rid of a fake Makhmalbaf, she says, they certainly don’t need a fake Kiarostami. Kiarostami doesn’t have an ID, but he says he has something just as good: Makhmalbaf, who is sitting in the car. He produces Makhmalbaf and the family—one can imagine their intitial befuddlement—admits the two filmmakers. Tea is served and the conversation runs late into the night. By the end of the evening, as Makhmalbaf tells it, Kiarostami has very adroitly bamboozled everyone concerned, including him, into playing roles in the film.

Bamboolzement of various sorts dominates the film’s legend from here on. Although Zeitgeist’s publicity surely won’t stress it, Close-Up, a film about a double, has its own double. The version of the film shown the first two times in New York (at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 1991 and the Walter Reade Theater in 1992) differs from the one currently in circulation. The earlier version was more chronological, beginning with the incident of Sabzian meeting the woman on the bus. Kiarostami changed the movie, he told me, after seeing it projected at a festival in Munich where the projectionist accidentally mixed up the reels. Rather than being offended, he decided he liked the scrambled chronology better and reedited the film accordingly. When I expressed surprise at this, he replied matter-of-factly that a movie is good or a movie is bad, and neither fact is affected by the order the reels are shown in. (Godard is one of the few filmmakers who would surely agree.)

If Sabzian is deceptive, Close-Up, it turns out, is even more so. Very few scenes in the film that appear to be documentary actually are. The trial scenes, in fact, are elaborate fakes (and the use of 16mm thus is one of the film’s stylistic tricks). Kiarostami himself orchestrated what happened in the courtroom, including the family’s forgiveness (they actually wanted Sabzian to be locked up). Kiarostami also scripted much of Sabzian’s testimony, although, as he carefully pointed out to me, it was all taken from things actually said by Sabzian, whose speech really is clogged with literary references, mystical aphorisms and cinephilic jargon. In fact, Kiarostami conducted much of that testimony; seated beside Sabzian, he asks most of the questions we hear coming from off-camera during the trial.

The film’s amazing conclusion depicts Sabzian’s actual release from prison, as I understand it, and his tears are genuine. But much that surrounds the incident is deceptive. Makhmalbaf’s appearance, of course, was arranged by Kiarostami. Kiarostami’s camera being “hidden” is an unnecessary device that slyly converts a documentary technique to dramatic purpose. And there is this: the “sound problems” caused by that bad mic on Makhmalbaf are also fake, applied to the soundtrack after the fact (Kiarostami does something similar in his documentary Homework). This little trick, it would seem, is crucial to the film’s final impact. After straining against the annoyance caused by the in-and-out sound, the viewer inevitably experiences an emotional surge when the beautiful theme of The Traveler suddenly overwhelms the mechanical dissonance.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the judge in this case was somehow bamboozled into turning the trial over, in effect, to Kiarostami. This alone is weighted with more symbolism than any non-Iranian can parse, yet one of its implications must be read as favorable to the Islamic Republic. Virtually every serious Iranian feature from before the Revolution, including Kiarostami’s, exudes a dark, cynical, fatalistic mood. Post-revolutionary features, even when strongly critical of certain aspects of society, are far more positive and bouyant. That Close-Up is easily one of the most exultant of all can’t help but testify to the society that produced it; in effect, the film shows the Revolution’s aim of a society transformed by faith being achieved, at least in one instance. The qualifying irony is that the real “just ruler” here—like Keats’ unacknowledged legislator—is an artist, and the transforming power is the belief that we invest in art’s beneficence.

Close-Up invites endless interpretation, but Kiarostami is clear about his reading of it. He says it is about the power of imagination, and of cinema as a vehicle of dreams. As he put it to me: “With the help of dreams you can escape from the worst prisons. Actually, you can only imprison the body but dreams flee the walls and without visas or dollars can travel anywhere. In dreams, you can sleep with anyone you want. Nobody can touch your dreams. In a way dreams exactly embody the concept of freedom. They free you of all constraints. I think God gave human beings this possibility to apologize for all the limitations he’s created for them.”

Kiarostami has also said, “We can never get close to the truth except through lying,” a prescription that can easily be misread. We might well place the emphasis on the lie, but Kiarostami places it on truth. Though truth is real, he implies, it is not a given but is created through will and the ethical sense—the intent—that links artist and viewer. In the end, Close-Up turns cinema’s mirror back on us, asking us to see that Sabzian’s escape and reconciliation are constructed of our own compassion.

Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic for Metro Magazine and the director of Moving Midway.

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from the December 29th, 1999 issue of New York Press. My thanks to the author for his permission. Close-Up is currently playing at Film Forum in Manhattan through Thursday, April 1st. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 22nd, 2010 by the Criterion Collection. A new essay by Godfrey will accompany the release.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:


Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.




I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.



Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.




Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.




At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.




Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.




Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.




The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.




The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.




Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading


Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.




The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading