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Review: Grand Illusion

A deeply compassionate, never sentimentalized threnody for the European aristocracy rendered obsolete as the dodo bird by WWI’s catastrophic carnage.

4.0

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Grand Illusion
Photo: Rialto Pictures

A deeply compassionate, never sentimentalized threnody for the European aristocracy rendered obsolete as the dodo bird by WWI’s catastrophic carnage, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion now stands as a universally recognized masterpiece, consistently ranked near the top in annual polls and film critics’ lists. The situation wasn’t always so propitious. Not long after it premiered to general acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, declared the film “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1.” Nazi thugs seized and destroyed every print they could get their grubby hands on. More than objecting to any suspected slur directed at the German nation, Goebbels’s jackboot junta keyed into, and were properly dismayed by, Grand Illusion’s grandest theme: the absurdity, by its very nature, of bellicosity itself.

From parallel opening scenes that introduce French officers Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and German aviator von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) in their respective HQs, where the French and German watering holes even resemble each other, Grand Illusion takes pains to highlight the cultural and social bonds that unite these men, as well as the nationalistic and militaristic barriers that divide their nations. Renoir’s preferred discursive mode is ironic, registering little details like Boeldieu and Rauffenstein slipping into the lingua franca of English to cover their expressions of mutual admiration, or the sardonic juxtaposition of von Rauffenstein’s being billeted in Wintersborn’s chapel (bed under the crucifix, copy of Casanova’s confessions on the nightstand), and large, grim ones like Elsa’s (Dita Parlo’s) family portraits, showing off her husband and brothers who were killed in battles she mordantly describes (with real pathos) as “some of our nation’s greatest victories.”

Underneath the brittle surface of Renoir’s much vaunted “humanism” (never for a moment should it be mistaken for laissez-faire moralism), there lay a vast reservoir of indignation that had been brought to a fever pitch by the certainty that history was about to repeat itself as Europe fell under the shadow of totalitarianism. Renoir, though, was never one for tractates. Son to his famous painter father, Renoir sublimated this riot of roiling emotions into the precision of his compositions, which helps to explain the recurrence of a kind of paradigmatic shot that frequently punctuates Grand Illusion: a character (or group of characters) stands before a window. The camera traps them within the window frame like specimens beneath a bell jar, then moves beyond them to limn the open spaces just outside their reach, rendering palpable their yearning to escape from a certainly hopeless situation into one still hopefully uncertain. Thus the haunting final shot that tracks Gabin and Marcel Dalio, forging their way across wintry wastes toward the sanctuary of Swiss neutrality, remains one of the most elusively open-ended in all of film history.

By the same token, cinematographer Christian Matras and camera operator Claude Renoir contributed immeasurably to Grand Illusion’s still-vital visual scheme. Renoir’s restlessly mobile camera, subtly detailing the bonds and chasms between the prisoners by linking their routines and living spaces, owes much to his nephew’s camerawork, which he once described as “supple as an eel.” Matras would later bring his unerring eye for elegant lighting schemes to three of Max Ophüls’s most spectacular postwar films. Joseph Kosma’s score cannily uses a medley of popular songs that comment on the action in more or less obvious ways. The most recognizable instance occurs during the POWs cobbled-together variety show, when Maréchal busts in on the British soldiers’ performance of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (in drag, to boot) with a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise.” If the moment seems more than a little familiar, it’s probably because Michael Curtiz and company borrowed (liberated?) it for Casablanca. Here again, the remarkable thing about Renoir’s scene, what gives it its added punch, is the camera’s seeming ubiquity; it’s backstage, then it’s in the footlights, from there it’s at the very back of the hall as the men take to their feet, and, finally, it’s front and center, capturing the look of inspired patriotism on the rank and file faces. The constantly shifting camera placement and the unusual “frontal” presentation of that last shot, which resembles a recruiting poster, work to undercut the scene’s rah-rah factor, leaving it at once stirring and yet oddly distanced.

Another factor behind Grand Illusion’s lasting power is the strength of its ensemble cast. At the start of a long and prolific career, Gabin was already cementing his image as the brooding loner (captured to perfection in Marcel Carné’s powerful one-two punch of poetic realism Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Lève). Von Stroheim’s career as a director was long past, but he was still milking his trademark “Man You Love to Hate” persona, already a caricature that was further reduced to ridicule in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Dita Parlo, German by birth, was best known her role in Jean Vigo’s riverine reverie L’Atalante. Renoir seems to have intended Marcel Dalio’s character, scion to an arriviste Jewish family, as another slap in the face of reactionary forces like the ultra-nationalistic Action Française, in much the same way that his earlier film The Crime of Monsieur Lange can be seen as a revenge fantasy championing the Popular Front. Even the minor characters in Grand Illusion pack resonance. Julien Carette, the clownish Cartier, went on to be a pre-war Renoir regular. One of Boeldieu and Maréchal’s fellow POWs, the cadastral engineer, is played by Gaston Modot, the lead in Luis Buñuel’s excoriating L’Age d’Or.

Grand Illusion may not be the absolute pinnacle of Jean Renoir’s cinematic art. That particular laurel remains reserved for The Rules of the Game. But those two films, along with La Marseillaise (a rousing historic epic with more than a little contemporary resonance) and La Bête Humaine (a blackly disturbing adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel), open a window onto one of the world’s great filmmakers as he’s locked in deadly earnest struggle with the darkening world around him.

Cast: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Georges Péclet, Werner Florian, Jean Dasté, Sylvain Itkine Director: Jean Renoir Screenwriter: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak Distributor: Rialto Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 1937 Buy: Video

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Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty

M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

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Glass
Photo: Universal Pictures

What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.

Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.

In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.

That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.

Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.

There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.

A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.

It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.

Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie

The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.

2.5

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An Acceptable Loss
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.

The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.

But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.

Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class

Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.

3.0

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The Heiresses
Photo: Distrib Films US

In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.

But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.

Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.

In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.

This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.

At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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