Part I: Days Eighteen and Nineteen (Jeremiah Kipp)
The final days of principal photography are upon us. Godâs Land has been a long haul, exhausting but ultimately rewardingâit reminds me of when I used to run marathons. At a certain point in the middle of the run, the mind concentrates only on moving forward; as the finish line nears, thereâs a surge of renewed energy.
Preston and I enjoy our location scouting in New Jersey, where we stumble across the perfect location for our hotel scenes. The Kingâs Inn has an outside dĂ©cor that resembles a pyramid converted into a NASA space shuttle by way of 1950s Americana kitsch. In other words, we took one look at it and knew it was Prestonâs cup of tea. The hotel owners were reasonable and supportive of low budget independent cinema, though they did enjoy telling long anecdotes about how MTV shot there, and the abundance of trucks and lights and personnel. Preston smiles, acknowledges the grandeur, and tries to make it clear that our mom and pop operation is nothing like that. Weâre small potatoes!
The hotel shoot is an all-day affair. Shing Ka, who isnât in many scenes, spends most of the day taking pictures and making plans for the second unit photography he and Preston are going to do in Garland, Texas. Yes, the actual, real-life location where Teacher Chenâs cult had their 15 minutes of infamy. Theyâre excited about it, and when Shing is asked about why heâs taken on this extra level of responsibility, even paying for his own ticket to Garland, he responds that this project has become very personal for him. Heâs invested a lot into this character and project, and has brought so much passion to the work.
I have to laugh when I think back to his audition, believing Shing was more of an action movie guy. My exact words were, “If we need a hitman, letâs cast him!” As an actor, he has been typecast as a tough guy, since he exudes a kind of aloof strength. But watching him embody the role of Hou, it reminds me of the possibilities of what actors can bring, and the frustrating limitations of being typecast. Shing has had the opportunity to break out of the mold with this role, to do something different, more dramatic; itâs allowed him to paint with more colors than usual. And he and Preston have become friends along the way. Preston even has a saying that has become one of our on-set mantras: “Itâs good to be Shing!”
We shoot some scenes in the hotel lobby, and the staff is easy to work around. Itâs a slow weekday, and they let us know the hours when they have the least amount of customer service. We film scenes involving the Indian hotel owner (Ranjit Chowdhry, who has a recurring role on The Office and has appeared in such films as Mississippi Masala and Fire) and his pal Ostaro, who plays himself. Ostaro is an older gentleman who acts, directs, has celebrity friends, and offers life changing self-improvement through astrology. They watch the Asian cult press conference on television together while Ostaro bemoans, “What a load of bull!” and rambles on at great length about why this is a bunch of silly nonsense.
Ranjit is a pro, slightly testy and slightly curious about this low-budget shoot, since heâs used to working on much bigger projects. As an actor, he hits his marks and tries to offer subtle variations in his performance with each take. Heâs meticulous in asking rigorous questions of Preston, so even if he walks through a door, he wants some precise direction as to his motivation. While Prestonâs style of directing often feels more like heâs making a documentary and tapping into qualities within the real person heâs filming, heâs able to shift into Ranjitâs more “actorâs studio” temperament. It all works out fine, and Ranjit even brags about working with a crew of six later in the week when heâs on a bigger show. “What do we need all these people for?” he wonders aloud, and is reminded that Stanley Kubrick often used a crew of six when he was shooting certain scenes of Eyes Wide Shut.
On the other side of the solar system is Ostaro, who is more of a force of nature than an actor. His performance is incredibly funny, and heâs a good sport about munching on a bunch of potato chips as his character rambles on, but he relies heavily on the script in his lap when weâre filming his medium shots. When we switch to the wide shot coverage, Ostaro seems totally lost and unable to remember his lines, even after reciting them a dozen times. Ranjit is impatient to carry on with the scene, and sighs audibly. Heâs worked with Ostaro before, so they have an entire dog and pony show together. I say the hell with it and create GIGANTIC CUE CARDS on the fly, holding them up and saying, “Hey, Ostaro! Read this! Roll camera!” Ostaro is happy, Ranjit is happy, Preston is happyâand we roll.
The lobby scenes offer some technical challengesâwhite walls, glass partitions that reflect, and crappy lighting. Weâre happier to be shooting inside the hotel room, where a handful of family scenes take place. Prestonâs favorite one to shoot is of the familyâs first arrival in Garland, Texas, where Xiu (Jodi Lin) haughtily examines the new surroundings, kills a cockroach with her cigarette, and glares at her husband (who is resigned to being in the doghouse) while their son Ollie (Matthew Chiu) happily jumps up and down on the bed, having fun. The husband-wife tension in contrast to the oblivious, cheerfully gymnastic kid amuses Preston to no end.
Our final day of principal photography is a relatively easy one, shot in a controlled environment. Preston has set-decorated one of his bedrooms for the hotel owner and his wife, played by the delightful Geeta Citygirl (who appeared with Jodi Lin onstage in Chuck Meeâs Queens Boulevard). Geeta and Preston have a lively discussion about the character, and also about Geetaâs considerable efforts in supporting minority actors through her theater company, sponsoring events, and securing jobs for Indian actors. Itâs easy to see why sheâs so popular in the community; she has a buoyant personality, a winning smile, and determination in her eyes. She was involved in helping Preston cast Ranjit and Ostaro, and heâs profoundly grateful to her. Geeta remains modest about her considerable efforts, and on set sheâs as much a pro as Ranjit.
They blaze through their one scene together very quickly, and before you know it, weâre wrapped on principal photography!
Preston still has a few more pickup shots of various characters, but it amounts to less than a page of the script and the shooting days arenât even “days” but more like the thirty minutes it takes to bang out a shot. For example, he filmed actress Gloria Diaz working out on a treadmill, and it went very quickly. Preston is more or less self-sufficient from here on in, and my on-set production work is officially done on Godâs Land.
But now we move on to post-production, and as an executive producer once told me, “Now the real work begins!” Already, weâre discussing music rights and how to track them down. Preston has been diligently cutting the picture, and is about 45 minutes into his first assembly. He seems happy with the work weâve done, and when I catch a few glimpses of the opening of the picture, I can see the rough spots (the first assembly always feels a little rough), but also feel he has a compelling picture on his hands, with emotional impact and great acting. The shifts between comedy and drama keep the movie feeling loose and unpredictable; I have a feeling itâs going to be a pretty wild ride, because just when we are settling into amusement at the antics of the cult, Preston throws in a powerhouse scene, sometimes conveyed in a very simple shot, that shakes our complacency. They say a directorâs personality informs his films. Thatâs certainly true here. His style of filmmaking, a cross between documentary, absurdity and art-house, feels very present in the footage.
And there you have it. Itâs been enjoyable writing these production diaries throughout the making of Godâs Land, which provides a frame of reference for the joys and struggles of no-budget independent filmmaking. Iâm grateful to the cast and crew for their candor throughout, and their talent. But mostly, Iâm thankful to Preston Miller for bringing me aboard this wild, exhilarating ride. Heâs been a real brother, partner and friend. And finally, thank you for following our making-of anecdotes; we hope not to deceive you with the finished product. Watch for updates on screenings of Godâs Land in 2010. Happy trails.
Part II: Last Days (Preston Miller)
In and around the completion of principal photography, other shooting also commenced. Mainly there were what we call “the press conference scenes.” These are the eight or nine scenes of supporting, non-cult characters that appear in the film watching an on-going press conference before the main Hou family arrives in Garland. I thought that this was a nifty way to see how folks in the Garland community reacted to the groupâs existence and final proclamation. Some were worried or amused; others just ignored them altogether. We were able to broaden these characters a bit, perhaps to show different shades of them outside of their primary interaction with the religious group.
For these shoots, each lasting a couple of hours, I generally was the camera and boom operator. The actor(s) and myself would set the frame and I would set up the on-screen monitor connection with a DVD player or laptop playing a pre-recorded “press conference.” Generally, the players and I would look over the scenes as written and then improvise, sometimes completely altering the page. These were some of the most enjoyable, liberating experiences for me on the shoot. Similar to the working style on my previous film Jones, the ideas and sense of play were anxiety free, especially since the shooting didnât last long, there was no pressure to âmove on,â and our number only occasionally exceeded three.
Moments: Carrie Kiameshaâs luminosity while humming gospel riffs in the loft of our costume director, Sharon Spiak. Gloria Diaz working out on a gym treadmill with a bum knee, lost as to “ACTION” and “CUT!” Mrs. Ka, Shingâs mom, tsk-tsking the cult while sitting under a huge picture of herself and family from over 40 years ago. Nancy Eng breaking us up trying to do whatever it takes to get her off-screen husband to come downstairs and see the cult on the widescreen. All these add a texture that will realize something fuller in the performersâ interpretations.
The end of principal photography has come and gone and with it the warm glow of expectations surpassed tempers into the feeling of sitting in a big bowl of your own cold porridge. The idea that now itâs just you, the computer and hundreds of clips which need to be logged, sorted, judged, ordered and bent is not one that produces easy sleep. To me, this is part of the game, just as grueling as shooting but perhaps even more rewarding. At this point you are closer to completion, to moving on, to catching up on movies, to sleepâŠBut for some the sacrifice must continue, especially my family. They have been most tolerant and supportive of my folly and given up a great deal of their time to help see this through. Now I may not be out shooting, but, upstairs in full edit mode, Iâm just as inaccessible.
Then why me and not someone else? I have had offers from other folks to help with the edit, but I honestly feel too important to the process. I was there for every frame that was shot and didnât take but a handful of notes. Plus, editingânext to directingâis my favorite aspect of the process. With apologies to Tarkovsky, editing really does feel like âsculpting in time.â I have been editor for some time off and on since I was in college, so it comes somewhat naturally (when there is time).
If we use the tired metaphor that making a film is like having a baby, I hope lilâ GL is not born with the proverbial peanut-in-the-head. For me that peanut would be too much attention being foisted on its obvious budgetary modesty. “They did the best with what they hadâŠbless âem” is like saying that your kidâs pronounced limp will be an inspiration to othersâŠYes lilâ GL certainly has its own aesthetic benefits, many of which are intentional, but I tried the very best I could to not allow the lack of funds to be a limitation or a distraction. While I edit, I am not so enamored with lilâ GL that I canât see that some of the shots and scenes would score him in the lower percentile. I just hope that the strengths of other elements outshine the weaker ones. I think they do, but ultimately that is for the viewer to decide.
When I asked Jeremiah about a year and a half ago if he would read the script and be interested in producing, we sat at a bar table and had a defining exchange. He drew a big, fat ZERO on a pad and slowly pushed it in my direction and said, “This is how much money I can bring to the project.” I looked down and gently pushed the pad back and said “and this is how much I can pay youâŠ” From there we had an understanding that this project would be a labor of passion and that we were free to make a film that would contribute to our unspoken oath of âQuality Cinema.â I want to thank JK for coming along and being an invaluable partner, consigliore and encourager. He is unrelenting, honest and thorough. Simply put, Godâs Land wouldnât exist without him. His diary idea was genius. They were well written and well appreciated. I learned so much from them, maybe best of all that, if you are going to work with a producer, try to get someone who happens to be a great writer. Good luck with that!
A final word on the cast and crew: Weâve mentioned their respective talents in earlier entries, but Iâd like to add that this was the most big-hearted and generous group Iâve ever worked with. People stepped in effortlessly as casting agents, boom ops, chauffeurs, craft service, location scouts and crowd control (not to mention as look-outs and impostor department store employees!). Even the parents of our child actors, the Chiu and Suen families, had no reluctance when asked to perform in front of the camera. As we go through life, working on many more sets, with many more artists, growing professionally, getting paid (!), for me there will never be a more wonderful group of HUMAN BEINGS than those that worked on Godâs Land. I will never be this fortunate again. We were the right crew at the right time to take on an ambitious task that finally evolved into something that will exist longer than us.
This is our final diary entry for the production of Godâs Land. I want to thank Keith Uhlich for being so kind as to post these for the Houseâs thoughtful audience. A number of milestones have been achieved. By the time you read this we will have over 350 Facebook friends on the Godâs Land page (could always use more) and 1000 views for the sneak peak on YouTube. I promise, and will try to convince JK to assist when he can, to report back regarding screenings, festival news, cast and crew spottings and updates in general, but that will be a few months off. Until then, thanks for your support and look forward to an exalting 2010!
Preston Miller is the writer/director of Jones. His website is Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of on-set reports on Godâs Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didnât occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festivalâs planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine whoâs saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as âAn Aquarian Expositionâ to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, âlike visiting another world.â Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Monthsâ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as âeverybody we thought was coolâ: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravyâs Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed âsecurityâ and what Wavy defined as trying to âspread grooviness,â helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephronâs documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festivalâs harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farmâs thrown-together Sunday-morning âbreakfast in bedâ and âfreak-outâ tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose âweâ-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the filmâs starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleighâs more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBSâs American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgurâs farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrixâs squalling âStar-Spangled Bannerâ and Richie Havenâs raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms âthe worldâs greatest three-day freebie,â he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was âin deep shit.â
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concertâs place in the nationâs cultural history. But itâs refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern Californiaâs East Bay, where the organizersâ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August â69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hoggâs The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hoggâs The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of howâand how notâto make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcherâs England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and sheâs given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julieâs trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young womanâs path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julieâs certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hoggâs film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a cafĂ©, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julieâs film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that âitâs not enough to be sincere or authentic.â
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julieâs toughness doesnât equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julieâs strengthening relationshipâitself modeled off a fling in Hoggâs past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the coupleâs scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julieâs film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistenceâthe former posits a âWall of Jerichoâ made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bedâbut nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthonyâs case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that heâs frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julieâs trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthonyâs friends when heâs in the bathroom yields the startling revelationâcued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch anglesâthat Julieâs boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the filmâs early-â80s setting), but also from Anthonyâs frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julieâs more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premisesâthe doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualizationâwithout ever fully engaging one, which doesnât indicate an uncertainty on Hoggâs part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewersâ dismay, Julieâs story isnât one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that sheâs strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). Whatâs more, it canât be said that Anthonyâs influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthonyâs recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburgerâs work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julieâs privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hoggâs early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the directorâs own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isnât a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film thatâs beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchieâs live-action remake is content to trace the originalâs narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disneyâs animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchieâs Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the filmâs first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmineâs station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchieâs film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because thereâs no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmineâs flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewerâs preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafarâs viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because heâs been designated as the storyâs big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchieâs film to the original proves consistently stultifying, itâs the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of menâs affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the characterâs traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the filmâs characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the filmâs big new song, âSpeechless,â an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old womanâs botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they donât quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Riceâs original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williamsâs performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genieâs more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williamsâs memorable take on the character but without seeming as if heâs actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultanâs court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young manâs body in order to wow the Sultanâs court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdinâs flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this materialâto counter the originalâs problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke youâve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, itâs as if itâs been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, heâs from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlynâs laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yaroveskyâs Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandonâs creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a âtrust fallâ exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after sheâs forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn donât exactly push the link between Brandonâs pubescence and his growing self-awareness isnât the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its charactersâ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandonâs parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kidâs doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where heâs about to shove his hand into the lawn mowerâs spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that heâs nothing short of invincible.
More genre filmsâmore films, periodâcould stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, itâs as if itâs been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it canât be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creationâor rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If youâre a fan of Larry Cohenâs canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequenceânot exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kidâs killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that thatâs what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human lifeâa spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kentâs Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kentâs The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmakerâs much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studioâs official description of the film:
Clareâs husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as âThe Black War.â Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggersâs creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old âwickieâ with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where theyâre to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each otherâs nerves. Wake is a slave driver whoâs said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, whoâs on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madnessâwith flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggersâs willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrativeâs macabre horrorâas in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receivesâmakes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release thatâs favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoeâs surly former sea captain is a blowhard whoâs given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. Heâs also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoeâs old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnauâs stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harringtonâs 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinsonâs character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montageârealized through largely practical effectsâthat co-opts Harringtonâs hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Agerâs stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap â50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harringtonâs film, though, it doesnât register much affection for the forms itâs working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggersâs ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This yearâs selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isnât seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, itâs a vital supplement to itâa program that compresses many of the festival seasonâs essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Storyâs The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of âorganized spontaneity,â per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York Cityâs five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the countryâs most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their streetâs rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term âracismâ as âresentmentâ in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnsonâs Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someoneâs thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subjectâs response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film thatâs constantly âthinking,â and that thought isnât fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isnât setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsaâs Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk Peopleâs Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesnât so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, theyâre portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the filmâs bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, weâre repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scĂšne, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbassâs most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsaâs camera circles the action, the hecklerâs phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the manâs suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsaâs preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isnât intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognarâs American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue thatâs equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers donât appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognarâs documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attentionâa woman living in her relativeâs basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-workerâoften get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on Chinaâs pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the countryâs shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the filmâs occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isnât an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nearsâfluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosityâgives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If itâs any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but itâs a testament to the Maryland Film Festivalâs outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this yearâs selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8â12.
Downton Abbey Trailer Sees the Crawley Clan Prepping for a Royal Arrival
Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithinâs Day already? No, it ainât, dear. âTis Downtown Abbey Day.
Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithinâs Day already? No, it ainât, dear. âTis Downton Abbey Dayâthat is, the release of the official trailer for the Downton Abbey movie. Itâs been some three years since weâve gotten to sip tea with the Crawley clan and hang out downstairs with the servants making sure that the biscuits are placed just right on the proper fine bone china tea set. And from the looks of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, it would appear that nothing has changed at Downton Abbey since the seriesâs finale.
In the tradition of Mad Menâs episode-ending ânext week on AMC’s Mad Menâ teasers, it’s just a series of snappy snippets that suggest weâre in for more of the same, from Maggie Smithâs Dowager Countess of Grantham snarking up a storm to Robert James-Collierâs Thomas Barrow getting his gay on. And we are here for it. The cherry on top? The king and queen are coming to Downton! And as everything must be in tip-top shape for their arrival, the Crawleyâs must enlist the help of the one and only Charles Carson (Jim Carter), who is treated here with the reverence of a god, or a superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Downton Abbey is directed by Michael Engler and written by Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. And in addition to the aforementioned actors, the film stars Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, David Haig, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lesley Nicol, Kate Phillips, Imelda Staunton, and Penelope Wilton.
Watch the official trailer below:
Focus Features will release Downton Abbey on September 20.
Review: A Hidden Life Lyrically Attests to a Manâs Quest for Moral Purity
Terrence Malickâs film means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current.3
With A Hidden Life, the Christian God that Terrence Malick has ordained as omnipotent in so many of his films seems, for the first time, on the verge of defeat. To Malick, the hate and devastation of the Third Reich during World War II brought not only death to the mortal body, but threatened annihilating the moral soul. No less than this weighs on Franz JĂ€gerstĂ€tter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.
Malick makes Diehlâs conscientious objector the human center of A Hidden Life, and the bearer of its two colossal forms of internal torment: a waning fealty to country and the loss of faith in God. Franzâs path from forceful rejection of his nationâs shifting values to his questioning of the church isnât only A Hidden Lifeâs most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malickâs signature thematic fixations.
Franzâs crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register thatâs of a piece with Malickâs prior work. This is evident right away in the filmâs first section, set mostly in Radegund, a small Austrian village surrounded by rolling hills and flowing streams, and throughout which the camera lingers on scythes gliding through cornfields, braying farm animals, afternoon strolls down rough-trod dirt pathways, and silken blankets of fog over acres of forest.
The imagery is predictably gorgeous, but these sequences donât offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malickâs films often do. The Tree of Life spirits us through the birth of a family, its children coming of age, and a world-altering tragedy, all in its first moments. In A Hidden Life, we see, via flashback, how Franz met his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), with usual Malickian hushed and reverent narration accompanying the scene of the coupleâs first encounter and instant infatuation. Malick then launches into a string of scenes that show Franz and Franzi in the throes of domestic bliss, but the sweeping romance of these moments grows repetitive, and for maybe the first time, the directorâs form verges on the monotonous.
Malickâs working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach thatâs yielded profound rewards, as most of the films are set in contemporary times and depict a fast-paced world lacking in human contact. However, A Hidden Life, being Malickâs first historical epic in over a decade, could have greatly benefited from the longer gestation period that a film like The New World was allowed.
A Hidden Life eventually moves past its unhurried opening, as Franz is thrust from his home in the foothills of Radegund, first to a German military base after heâs drafted, and later to Berlin, where heâs imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film heâs made, which is one change that does at least open A Hidden Life up to some unexpectedly impactful dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the need to attend to matters of plot distracts Malick from summoning the sort of grace notes that typically accumulate with such phenomenal ease across his films.
A Hidden Life is a deeply interiorized movieâa war film about the battle between one manâs mind, heart, and soulâthat also functions on a more macro level. At various points, Malick cuts from the personal narrative to black-and-white archival footage, which features Berlin during the war, steam-powered trains, and Hitler in a promo reel playing with a child. Franz himself also facilitates broader implications about the world around him, and its inability to comprehend the damage caused by unmitigated hate and intolerance, through the reverberating effects of his oppression: As society ostracizes him, the intensity of his moral convictionâthe refusal to comply with the Germanâs Oath of the Leaderâis projected outward, imprinted on spaces he occupies, and on the people whom he influences.
Malick stresses this idea at various points in A Hidden Life, especially in a scene thatâs bound to cause controversy: Bruno Ganz, as a high-ranking Nazi officer, conducts a one-on-one meeting with the condemned Franz, trying to understand why he believes his cause is a just one. While thereâs nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reichâan earnest extension of Malickâs boundless commitment to humanismâthe scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.
The filmâs strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malickâs most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. Itâs also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franzâs struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germanyâs conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if heâs put to death. Malick renders Franzâs final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imageryâsuch as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyondâcarries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.
The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: âWe thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.â If Malickâs art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, itâs that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmakerâs work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isnât as sturdy as it used to be. But Malick still dares to push his moral inquiry further than he ever has before. A Hidden Life means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current. Itâs a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malickâs baseline faith in humanity becomes uncomfortable when it resonates on the faces of soldiers throughout a Nazi war camp. But Malick owns that hire-wire risk, and when his filmmaking matches that level of commitment, as it often does here, he reaps the reward.
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin NeuhaÌuser, Ulrich Matthes Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 174 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure
As a musical, Dexter Fletcherâs film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.2.5
Dexter Fletcherâs Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton Johnâs life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comebackâwith his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.
To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that weâre familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesnât abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonistâs family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Eltonâs most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the charactersâ submerged feelings (âI Want Loveâ), transition between Eltonâs childhood and adulthood (âSaturday Nightâs Alright for Fightingâ), link the performative decadence of mid-â70s glam rock to that of mid-â70s sex (âBennie and the Jets,â somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (âCrocodile Rockâ). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, weâre not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.
In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that heâs almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennonâimprovising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.
Rocketman makes clear that Reggieâs adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as heâll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, âKill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.â The irony of Johnâs public imageâthe mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performancesâis expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. Itâs a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.
At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. Thereâs an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duoâs âYour Songâ may have been an outgrowth of this tensionâor, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Eltonâs ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Eltonâs life. (The film concludes in the â80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)
Fletcherâs film is less squeamish about Eltonâs love lifeâincluding sexâthan a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years agoâor, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesnât fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.
There isnât much to Bernie and Eltonâs creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Eltonâs music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which âCrocodile Rockâ makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.
Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the filmâs embrace of Eltonâs loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scĂšne that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isnât Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, âYou write songs millions of people love, and thatâs whatâs important.â Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video
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