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Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke

It hasn’t been easy for Mickey Rourke fans over the last 15 years. He’s given us much cause for complaint, and even despair.

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Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke
Photo: TriStar Pictures

It hasn’t been easy for Mickey Rourke fans over the last 15 years. He’s given us much cause for complaint, and even despair. He has forced us to defend the indefensible, and say things to our scornful friends along the lines of, “I think there’s a lot to like in Exit In Red.” I have grasped at straws, I have seen terrible straight-to-video movies and soft-core porn, I even suffered through the abysmal Another 9 1/2 Weeks which actually caused me pain because of how tired and defeated he seemed. I have stuck up for him in the face of dwindling evidence of his genius, but I am not a fair-weather fan. Fifteen years of badness is difficult to withstand. His early promise was such that it galvanized an entire generation of young actors, making them want to do better, push harder, take more risks, and then, it felt like overnight, he left us. Where did he go? The details are coming out now, and much was obvious at the time as well. He flamed out publicly. He got involved in a crazy-making tabloid-frenzy marriage. He hated acting, became bored with it, so went back to being a boxer (his first love). Then followed the strange (and tragic, to me) morphing of his face into something unrecognizable. He had multiple operations on his face due to his boxing, but I think there was a little lip-and-cheek-plumping action going on before that. Something happened to him in the early 90s, and you can see it unfold if you watch his films in chronological order. It made me really sad at the time.

The first Mickey Rourke film I saw was Angel Heart. I was in college, studying acting. His performance in that film riveted me, made me almost nervous, because I wondered if I could ever be that raw, that good, in my own work. This was not a singular experience. I have spoken with many of my actor friends and it was the same for them as well. This was a contemporary, blazing onto the scene, with work that rivaled the best I knew from the past: Brando, Cagney, Clift. The only equivalent I can think of is when Russell Crowe exploded onto the American scene with L.A. Confidential. I had been aware of Crowe for some time, having loved him in Proof and Romper Stomper, but it was like a meteor from outer space when he starred in L.A. Confidential. Obviously it wasn’t just actors who loved Crowe, and Rourke, but there was a special lightning-bolt of excitement in that community at the prospect of these new guys—doing exciting, powerful work—inspiring us. My friend David and I went out after seeing Angel Heart to Bickford’s, and sat up all night, ranting and raving about Mickey Rourke, especially the relentless last standoff between Rourke and De Niro when Rourke says “I know who I am” probably twenty times in a row. I kept thinking he would stop, that there were not further depths he could possibly plumb in the same line, but he kept proving me wrong. This was a man not only at the top of his own game, but the top of anyone else’s as well.

Turns out, I had seen Mickey Rourke before, I just didn’t know that it was him. It was in Body Heat, where he has one chilling star-making scene as the arsonist with a conscience. He dominates that scene with a sense of taut energy mixed with gentleness and relaxation (Mickey Rourke’s stock-in-trade) and he is one of the takeaways from that film. That was his breakthrough.

As far as I was concerned back then, he was “it.” He was the one I wanted to watch. New Mickey Rourke movies were anticipated like the release of the latest Harry Potter. And for a while there, it felt like he kept topping himself, he kept fulfilling on that promise first seen in Body Heat. It was an extraordinary run.

He was captivating in Diner, and the 50s seemed to me to be his proper milieu. There was something old-school about him. He belonged in diners at 3 a.m., with a cup of coffee and a crumpled newspaper and some floozy dame crying about him across town. He was not a modern man. He was unashamedly masculine, yet with that undercurrent of softness and vulnerability that all of the great old movie stars (Bogart, in particular) had. He would be completely at home in Only Angels Have Wings, or Dawn Patrol or The Big Sleep. His manliness was not a pose or anything ironic. It was not defensive or postured. It was authentic. He was a throwback, but it just goes to show you that that kind of energy is always in style, and it went a long way in describing his appeal. Crowe had it too in L.A. Confidential. A pre-“enlightened” man. Robert Mitchum is another actor Rourke reminds me of. Rourke had the same drawling easiness, the same tangible potential for danger and violence, but also the same sizzling sex appeal that turn women movie-goers into puddles in the aisle. Rourke’s sense of humor is wry, a little bit pained, he is always distant from events in some way, there is some long horizon he always seems to be looking at which keeps him from full involvement. Perhaps it is an awareness of death, of failure, of the foibles of mankind. His cards are held close to the chest. He is tough, but he is not dumb. You can see this at work in Rumble Fish, where he plays the mythical Motorcycle Boy, one of his loveliest performances. He belongs in black and white. Even his color films seem like they should have been in black and white.

It is interesting to me that Rourke so often played “stars,” meaning he played the person in the group of friends who had that extra something: smarts, pizazz, charisma. You can see it in Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish. Rourke was never really an ensemble player—he was too much of an individual for that, and his presence, even very early on before he was a star, tipped the balance of a movie. He was like a magnet, drawing all of the attention. He couldn’t help it. But he was lucky, then, because he played characters who were also like that, in their smaller scope of life. You don’t need to be a star, in the Hollywood sense, with a salary and an entourage, to be a star. We all know guys like that, guys who are not famous, but who have a glitter to them, something “extra.” It could be the security guard at the building where you work who throws out flirtatious comments as you walk by, and instead of being weird or offensive, it makes your day. Or it could be the old guy at the corner coffee shop, who sits there every day, doing the crossword, holding court, over-tipping the breakfast waitress just because he knows it’s the right thing to do, dispensing advice and opinions that everyone remembers.

These people are “stars.” Mickey Rourke played guys like that. Boogie, in Diner, is down on his luck, he’s a hairdresser, he’s wild, he’s kind of a loser, actually, in the surface of his life. But he is ’the one’ of that whole group. He is connected to something deeper, his own sense of truth perhaps, or an existential yearning for something more. He wonders if there is something “more” than the narrow circle he currently resides in. He has “it,” star quality, and all of his friends look to him for advice and support and validation. He has his own planetary forcefield. Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village is the same type of guy, a “pope” no less, someone who walks down the street, all dude-d up with his manicured nails and shiny spats. A man aware of the sensation he makes, just by walking into the room. Heads turn. “Do I know that guy?” Henry, in Barfly, although an alcoholic, fringe-dwelling mess, also pulls attention towards him, mostly negative attention, but it’s just the flip side of the same coin. Beneath the narcotic haze, his intelligence flickers, making him individual, funny, unexpectedly romantic, and still somehow sensitive. He also can take more punches than any other man and still remain standing. This gives him a certain cache in the sorry swirl of a world he resides in. He is notorious. He couldn’t be anonymous if he tried.

Rourke needed to play people like that. His star quality was so intense that it could not be submerged or ignored; it had to be utilized and acknowledged in whatever role he was playing. Marlon Brando had the same thing. It is difficult to cast these men properly. It is difficult to place them in a context. Their force of personality tends to take over the story, whether that is right for the project or not. Elia Kazan tells stories of how troubled he was during rehearsals for the Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire with Brando as Stanley and Jessica Tandy as Blanche. He knew that the audience sympathy should reside with Blanche, but Brando’s power made him undeniably the focus of the entire production, and audiences started to “side” with Stanley. They cheered when he raped Blanche. It upset Brando, too, because he felt that men like Stanley were why the world was such a horrible place, but he couldn’t help what he was doing up on that stage. He simply entered a scene, saying nothing, and couldn’t help but pull all of the attention his way. That kind of magnetism cannot be easily explained, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. It cannot be faked.

Rourke’s star-power ended up isolating him more and more, and you can see it in films like 9 1/2 Weeks, where that character floats in an unconnected world, alone, his only connection to humanity through the brief affair with the woman. Although that film was a giant hit and made him the sexiest man in the world for a brief season, it is a harbinger of things to come. No longer will Rourke sit across the diner table from a group of his friends, shooting the shit, living and listening, joking and advising. He will be alone. In the late-80s/early-90s, Rourke made, in succession, Wild Orchid, Desperate Hours and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and that, as they say, was that. Rourke did not recover.

Obviously, the desert that Rourke found himself in in the 90s was not just due to bad movie choices. He was notoriously difficult and combative. He was not well-liked. He was violent. He became un-insurable. He bad-talked other actors. He knew he had talent, he knew he was at the forefront of the new pack, but he could not reconcile the fact that this was also a business. He hated “suits” and authority figures. He didn’t give a shit who he pissed off. One of his major errors in judgment was bad-mouthing Sam Goldwyn Jr. after 1987’s IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying, blaming Goldwyn for the movie’s failure. Doors began to slam shut on Rourke, doors of opportunity and second chances, and he didn’t realize what was happening until there was no way out.

What a spectacular and self-inflicted fall from grace.

In the late-90s, Rourke started to appear again in movies that people could actually see, directed by people you had actually heard of. The newer batch of directors were less interested in his past shenanigans and terrible reputation. They remembered his tender and violent genius in the 80s and wanted him in their projects. Sean Penn put him in The Pledge, and Rourke’s five minutes onscreen in that film is as wrenching and shattering as any acting I have ever seen. It is nearly unwatchable. You want to look away to give that character some privacy in his grief. I remember the buzz in my group of actor-friends after The Pledge came out. “Did you see Mickey Rourke’s scene?” we asked each other, as excited as the tuxedoed waiters at Harmonia Gardens were at the prospect of Dolly Levi’s impending return. “Did you see Mickey Rourke? Did you see Mickey Rourke?”

As corny as it sounds, I never got over missing him. I never reconciled myself to the fact that he was no longer on the scene. He had elevated the art form, he had reminded us what we loved about good acting. Sean Penn, no slouch himself, tells of how, as a younger actor, he would sneak onto the sets of Mickey Rourke movies just to watch Rourke act. When Rourke stepped aside, he laid the playing-ground clear for other actors because, as long as he was there, he couldn’t help but dominate. It was his nature, his talent.

To contemplate the long-deferred dream, that Mickey Rourke might return, was exhilarating.

One night in 2000, I sat in a small movie theater in New York, part of a sparse, polite audience, to watch Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, starring Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong. A rather typical prison drama, with a nice performance by Defoe and a terrible amateur performance by Furlong, the entire thing comes alive every time Furlong goes back to his cell, because his character’s roommate is a cross-dressing queen with no teeth named Jan the Actress. Jan the Actress has a hard oiled body, but she dresses in frilly bras and cut-off vests. She reads celebrity magazines and pontificates on life in a friendly way from her bottom bunk. She has a long rambling monologue about how she wants to go to “Paris, France” and “sit in a motherfucking cherry tree on the Champs Elysees,” and while this character could have been a cliche, a stereotype she is not. She emerges as a living, interesting human being.

She has a moment when, in the distance, she can hear the slamming of a cell door, not even her own, and it is as though, for the first time in her life, she feels what it means to be behind bars. The character probably started off in juvenile hall as a teenager and graduated to more serious adult crimes. She is fully “institutionalized.” There are no lines to suggest this, but it is all in that moment, the brief flicker of panic and despair in her eyes at the sound of a cell door clanging shut in the distance. It is a terrific cameo. I missed that actor when he wasn’t onscreen. I was disappointed when Furlong’s character was moved to another cell block because that meant no more appearances of Jan the Actress, and so the movie, for me, never quite regains its balance after Jan the Actress exits the action. Jan is in the film for probably fifteen minutes all put together, but you feel, through the rest of the film, that something is missing. I stayed to watch the credits roll and when I saw that that vivacious flirty and logical-minded criminal (Furlong, in trouble, asks Jan what he should do. Jan replies, “’What are you gonna do’, sugarplum? You’re gonna get a fucking knife, that’s what you’re gonna do.”) was actually played by Mickey Rourke, I gasped out loud in the theater, frozen in my seat. That was Mickey Rourke?

Here he was, yet again dominating an entire movie, not just when he was in it, but when he was not in it as well.

Rourke is the reason to see that film.

Sin City was the beginning of what people are now calling “the comeback.” One of the things that is interesting about Rourke and the roles he is choosing in this second or third wave of his career is that directors and writers are openly utilizing the baggage Rourke brings to every part: the memory we all have of his arresting, almost fragile beauty, the years of obscurity, the wild-man persona. These things must be dealt with, they cannot be ignored. Rourke cannot now just slip back into an ensemble drama. He brings too much with him. The only way to handle such a situation is to deal with it head-on, and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City did just that. It was based on a graphic novel, so the pressure to achieve kitchen-sink realism was gone, something that worked in Rourke’s favor.

He could be grotesque, he could be campy, he could (as he used to do) allow us in the audience to project all kinds of things onto him. He was strong enough, he could take it. He growled and sneered, he mourned his lost love (a hooker he spent one night with, but even that would resonate for someone like Mickey Rourke, and he knows that we know that), he kicked major ass left and right, and in the end, it was near-impossible to kill him. He is run over repeatedly, he falls out of windows, he is shot at … but he keeps getting back up. Metaphor for Rourke the actor? Of course it is. Rourke is obviously just fulfilling the needs of this particular character here, but it’s never that simple. He cannot “disappear.” He never could. The charisma of his persona was too strong. Early on, when he was in projects worthy of him (Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart), the result was often powerful, riveting. But later on, when the ease of stardom was taken away from him, he just looked lazy, adrift, bored. He knew he didn’t have to work as hard as other actors to pull focus, so he just stood there, smoldering and whispering and it all began to look schticky and cheap. He was imitating himself. It was painful to watch.

In Sin City, Mickey Rourke fans from way back could watch him take that persona, that persona we missed so much, and pour it into this brilliantly high-camp venture. He didn’t have to carry the film—there were other leads—but, again, he dominates. I think everyone is good in that movie, but he is what I remember. It was a thrilling moment for diehard fans. It felt like … something was about to happen. Sin City wasn’t it, but it felt like a precursor, a deep breath before taking the plunge.

Over the last couple of months, the text messages and emails and phone calls have been flying back and forth amongst my group of friends. “Did you hear about Rourke in The Wrestler?” “When does it open again?” “I can’t wait!” “Is he back? Do you think he’s back?”

I saw an advance screening of The Wrestler a few weeks ago and there is a moment, early on in the film, when he staggers down the street, through a bleak New Jersey morning, a great hulk of a man, too big for his clothes. His face looks battered and puffy, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I got an acute and clear memory of his performance as the deformed criminal in 1989’s Johnny Handsome. In the opening shots of that film, “Johnny Handsome” skulks down the street; his face has a ballooning forehead, a bulbous nose, a cleft palate. We know it is Mickey Rourke because he is the star of the film, but we cannot tell it is him. The story of that film, of “Johnny Handsome” getting an operation on his face that leaves him looking like, well, a young and handsome Mickey Rourke, is the reverse of what we have seen happen in Mickey Rourke’s real life. It is one of those odd art-meeting-biography truths.

In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s actual face looks like the makeup-job he had done in that movie almost 20 years ago, and it’s a strange, tragic thing to contemplate. It is not my place to ponder why Mickey Rourke did what he did to his beautiful face. I have some theories. We’ve all got theories. They are, ultimately, irrelevant. What struck me, in watching his performance in The Wrestler, is how he consciously references us back to those old performances. He lets us remember him how he was. He is not trying to hide anymore, like he was in, say, Wild Orchid, where we, the audience, were supposed to look at his plumped-out cheeks and lips and not ask ourselves the question, “What the hell is he doing to his face?” Now he knows that we know. No more lying and smokescreens. It’s all out now. No need to hide or pretend anymore. He has set it up that way. The change in his face is an undeniable fact, and the film does not soft-pedal it. The ghost of the old Mickey Rourke does hover around him still, but in the context of The Wrestler, with its opening montage of newspaper clippings of his old wrestling triumphs, it is perfect. The baggage Mickey Rourke brings doesn’t just work, it is essential to the film. He owns it.

Down on his luck, Rourke’s character Randy “The Ram” Robinson takes a job working behind a deli counter in a local grocery store. He is nervous. He treats his first day almost like a wrestling match, getting pumped up to be with the public again. On the underside of this is, of course, his existential despair at what his life has come to. What about his dreams? What about who he used to be? What about the glory, the fame? But “The Ram” is a survivor, if nothing else. This guy doesn’t just act tough, he is tough. He stands behind the deli counter and the customers start coming. It is my favorite scene in the film, and tears flooded my eyes as I watched Mickey Rourke treat his service job like a Borscht Belt comedy club. He is peppy, humorous, he banters with customers, he makes sure that the person walking away from the counter has had a nice experience, something that might brighten their day. He is “on.” A small woman in her 70s comes up to place her order, and he jokes with her, “What you havin’ spring chicken?” There is pathos in the scene, because you can’t help but wonder what would have become of such a beautiful spirit if he had had a different life. But there is also joy because he is doing his best with the hand that he’s been dealt, and isn’t that what most of us are trying to do in life? Even in bad times?

It makes me realize that, yet again, even though Mickey Rourke is playing someone in The Wrestler who could be classified as a “loser,” this character is a “star,” not just because he was a once-famous wrestler, but because he has the personality for it. You either have it or you don’t. Even when his career as a wrestler is taken from him, due to having a heart attack, he finds a way to channel it elsewhere, meeting and greeting people on their level, unafraid to be corny or silly, wanting, above all else, to connect.

But make no mistake, this is no romantic Rocky tale. The joy of that scene is short-lived, and events begin to conspire to push “The Ram” out of all areas that might provide comfort, love, connection.

It is a great performance, one that I am still processing and thinking about. I am not sure where Mickey Rourke fits in now. He “fit in” when he was young because he made it to the Alpha-Dog position of male Hollywood stars, and was gorgeous and sexy. He can no longer rely on those things. He must rely on something else that is much more permanent: his talent. He needs to choose wisely, and the problem still remains that it is difficult to cast Rourke properly, even more so now.

David Thomson, in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes, in regards to Rourke:

“For Mickey Rourke has rather “gone away,” leaving us to marvel over what happened to this glorious, rebellious kid actor, so tempted by silly sexual show-off, by the idea of becoming a boxer, and just being difficult, out of reach. He could come again. The guy one sees in The Rainmaker could still be waiting for his right moment, the big role, the unequivocal revelation that he has always been in charge.”

Is that time now? We Mickey Rourke fans can only sit back and remain hopeful.

After all, we’re used to waiting. We can hang on a little bit longer.

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All of Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Ranked

On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatest—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-‘60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantino’s features. Sam C. Mac


Death Proof

10. Death Proof (2007)

With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile’s mixtape of the countless films he’s absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mike’s victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (“I’m okay!” one of them happily beams right after she’s almost been decimated by Mike’s muscle car) or Mike’s, is so casually flippant that we’re denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it’s a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp


Django Unchained

9. Django Unchained (2012)

With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this film’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in a QT film, they’re legion—mean something to viewers other than the fact that they’re referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantino’s films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima


The Hateful Eight

7. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenre’s tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fate’s hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu “court” is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

From a structural standpoint, Kill Bill’s two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. It’s a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantino’s greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, it’s reminiscent of Pynchon’s nine-page aside in Gravity’s Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movie’s two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and it’s in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Bill’s surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich

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Review: The Great Hack Is an Elusive Look at the Cambridge Analytica Scandal

It seems so invested in a rehabilitation of Brittany Kaiser’s image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

1.5

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The Great Hack
Photo: Netflix

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Great Hack opens with a sweeping and essentially meaningless drone shot. “Somewhere in Nevada” a sole title reads over the image of a city that sprawls across the desert in the shadow of a rather stubby mountain range. Tedium has already begun to set in as ominous strings fade in on the soundtrack and the film cuts to the opening of the Burning Man festival, where Brittany Kaiser—former business development director at notorious data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica—sets out to do whatever it is that privileged white people do at Burning Man.

The Great Hack turns an undeniably important series of political events into a two-hour look at a wealthy criminal lounging in pools and riding in Ubers. The doc fakes its viewers out, though, after its pointless Burning Man prologue, introducing us to Professor David Carroll, an expert in social media marketing whose interest in recovering the data profile Cambridge Analytica illegally compiled of him—as it did of most every American—is meant to form something like the film’s impetus. Carroll explains, in terms a tad too elementary for a digital-native audience, that he’s concerned with the effect that targeted misinformation campaigns directed at specific users are having on global democracy. Or, in his both too lofty and too simple words, “How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?”

One of the answers to Carroll’s question is that very specific people—people like Brittany Kaiser—decided to use the internet for precisely that purpose. In voiceover, Carroll explains what Cambridge Analytica was and, in broad strokes, how its methods of data collection and analysis helped sway both the British EU referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Carroll’s explanation is illustrated with animated visualizations more concerned with appearing complex and sensational than they are with clearly presenting information. The corporate structure of Cambridge Analytica is presented with a conspiratorial air, as if the web of profile photos that the The Great Hack pieces together represents something far more nefarious and mysterious than a company’s personnel page.

In its first act, the documentary makes ample use of such CG animations, including a rather repetitive motif in which photographed objects appear to pixelate and float up into the sky. We understand well before the fifth time we see this effect the metaphor that all that’s real is moving willy-nilly into the cloud. But after Carroll makes it to London to sue Cambridge Analytica for his data, Amer and Noujaim more or less abandons him and his pedagogical approach for Kaiser, whom the filmmakers track down in Thailand, sipping a Mai Thai poolside. Kaiser is despicable, but The Great Hack appears to never tire of watching her stare pseudo-pensively out of car and airplane windows, or inventing new ways to rationalize her work for Cambridge, even as she turns state’s witness in Britain.

The film spends so much time lingering on the mini-dramas of Kaiser’s jet-set life—and so little time detailing exactly what it was that Cambridge Analytica did, or investigating how we might stop it from happening again—that one can conclude that in Kaiser the filmmakers believed they had found some kind of key to understanding our ongoing digitally fueled social catastrophe. The Great Hack befuddlingly includes a sequence in which Kaiser panics because she thinks she’s lost her passport on her way to Heathrow, only to find it seconds later in her bag. Why include such an insignificant moment—or, for that matter, other sequences of Kaiser simply en route somewhere or waiting for something? What Amer and Noujaim see in Kaiser remains elusive. In fact, this meandering documentary seems so invested in a rehabilitation of her image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

Director: Karim Amer, Jehane Moujaim Screenwriter: Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.

2.5

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Skin
Photo: A24

In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.

A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.

In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.

To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.

Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

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Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

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Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get on set with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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