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Godfrey Cheshire on Close-Up

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

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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.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.

Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.

This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.

A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book

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Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

2.5

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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.

Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.

Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.

For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.

Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

4

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith

It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.

This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.

That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.

The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.

Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.

The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.

The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.

The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer

Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.

According to A24’s official description of the film:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation

Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.

In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.

The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.

Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.

Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.

Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.

Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

2

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer

Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.

A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob

Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.

1.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.

Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.

Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.

Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.

Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.

To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.

For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.

Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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