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Review: Heights

What primarily carries Chris Terrio’s film through its bumpy earnestness is its superb cast.

3.0

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Heights
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Extolling the virtues of passion to her theater students while slamming contemporary urbanites as “tepid voyeurs…tap water,” Glenn Close’s acclaimed actress Diana may as well be speaking about her own (and her photographer daughter Isabel’s) unhappy life in post-9/11 Manhattan. Presumably in an open marriage, Diana nonetheless seethes with anger, humiliation, and hurt over her husband’s escalating relationship with her understudy, though like Isabel’s (Elizabeth Banks) plan to marry lawyer-with-a-secret Jonathan (James Marsden) despite their growing communication problems, Diana is resigned to endure her less-than-ideal situation with an outwardly cheery demeanor. Chris Terrio’s Heights pursues Diana, Isabel, and Jonathan—as well as an aspiring actor named Alec (Jesse Bradford) who catches Diana’s fancy at an audition, and Peter (John Light), a writer whose work on the memoir of a famous photographer involves tracking down that celebrity’s innumerable ex-lovers—as they’re forced to confront their fears and failings during 24 hours in the city that never sleeps.

A Merchant Ivory production that eschews the company’s trademark period piece formula by situating its story (expanded from Amy Fox’s 30-minute play) in modern-day New York, Terrio’s directorial debut is nominally concerned with the emotional alienation of the city’s inhabitants (and the stultifying insularity of Upper West Side society), but its finest moments involve acute perceptions about the sticky relationship between art and love. Steeped in a cloistered creative community of egomaniacal painters, writers, and thespians who boast little knowledge of, or interest in, the real world—at a party thrown by Diana, a movie industry idiot is overhead declaring that a project should opt for CGI over real-life animals because “Pixar is reality”—Heights subtly presents a handful of characters unwittingly obsessed with pretending (professionally, sexually, and psychologically) to be something they’re not. In ways both understated (a sidelong glance from Jonathan) and unsubtle (a third-act tongue-lashing Isabel receives from a partygoer), Terrio elucidates how Diana, Isabel, and Jonathan’s denial of basic truths is itself a form of performance, and it is unvarnished truth-telling that his film eventually advocates as the cathartic (and only viable) means of effectively coexisting with one’s self and others.

Fox’s writing makes up for its occasional obviousness (especially with regards to its portrait of closeted gay men) with a rigorous interest in character and general avoidance of long-winded homilies. Still, what primarily carries the film through its bumpy earnestness is its superb cast, which varies from the serviceable (Banks, Bradford) to the surprisingly nuanced and cliché-free (Marsden) to the phenomenal (Close). As the grand dame Diana, Close is imposing yet fragile, simultaneously conveying the regal force of personality that’s made her iconic actress a star while also delicately filling in the nooks and crannies around her character’s seemingly bedrock confidence with traces of doubt and disappointment. Highlighted by a sidewalk-set scene—involving Isabel bristling at her mother’s passive-aggressive comments about Jonathan’s spousal suitability—in which Close effortlessly flashes the full range of maternal emotions (love, fear, compassion, altruism, selfishness, protectiveness) in a series of lightening-quick, barely perceptible facial gestures, her masterful performance ultimately stands as this solidly acted ensemble’s apex.

Cast: Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, John Light, Eric Bogosian, George Segal, Rufus Wainwright, Thomas Lennon, Matthew Davis, Isabella Rossellini Director: Chris Terrio Screenwriter: Amy Fox, Chris Terrio Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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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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Review: Fyre Is an Empathetic Look at an Epic Fail

Chris Smith’s documentary about the 2017 Fyre Festival implosion resists the urge to revel in cheap social media schadenfreude.

3.5

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Fyre
Photo: Netflix

The video ads for the Fyre Festival looked amazing when they first rippled through the Instagram feeds of influencer models like Bela Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski in late 2016. For a certain kind of status-seeker, marooned somewhere cold and just waiting for the next warm-climate EDM gathering, the marketing for the music festival promised a bro heaven populated only by models. The lavish images of white-sand beaches and Jet Skis cutting slashes across crystal-blue waters were interspersed with slow-mo laser-strobed nighttime concert footage and promises of “an immersive music festival” featuring “the best in food, art, music, and adventure” on a “remote and private island once owned by Pablo Escobar.” The implication was that of a more exclusive Coachella in the Caribbean.

What director Chris Smith’s incisive and infuriating Fyre reveals isn’t that the founders—the unlikely team of Manhattan VIP party promoter Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule—promised something audacious and failed to pull it off, but that it was a smoke-and-mirrors scam all along. As everyone knows, Fyre imploded spectacularly, with festivalgoers showing up in April 2017 to discover no restful bungalows, supermodels, or VIP dining, but rather a half-built concert stage and some rain-soaked tents. The same hot-take networks that emoji’d the hell out of the original announcements couldn’t wait to mock the attendees—many of whom had paid thousands of dollars—for their naïveté.

From American Movie to Jim & Andy, Smith has shown himself to be nothing if not an empathic filmmaker. So instead of indulging in an easy round of social media schadenfreude, he investigates who and what was behind it all. The result is closer to a Frontline episode on Bernie Madoff than something like Netflix’s shallow and irksome faux-documentary The American Meme. Working in collaboration with Vice Media, whose reporting seems to provide most of the grist for Fyre’s mill, Smith interviews various former employees of McFarland and Rule’s organization. Nearly all of them exhibit the sort of dazed disbelief registered by the victims of a Ponzi scheme. The story Smith extracts from them is part old-fashioned scam and part millennial suspension of disbelief.

The original and far less exciting concept for the Fyre Festival concocted by McFarland and Rule was to produce a category-killer app for booking talent. With the kind of hubris that comes from too many Manhattan nights spent behind velvet ropes swilling champagne, McFarland and Rule concocted the idea of a music festival that would essentially be a launch promotion for the app, “the Uber of booking talent.” They paid a platoon of supermodels to party in the Bahamas with McFarland and Rule while being filmed by a team of marketers who then cut the footage into a white-sand VIP fantasia.

Smith covers the known part of the fiasco in sharp detail, showing how an overwhelmed and inexperienced team worked like dogs over the course of four months to pull off the kind of festival that normally takes a good year of planning. The interviewees tell Smith it was readily apparent that there was no “there” there. (Nobody thought to book the music for a supposedly transformative music festival until almost the last minute, at which point the organizers managed to scrape up Blink-182 and Major Lazer.) But they soldiered on, nearly universally in thrall to the mystique of McFarland, a Steve Jobs-ian figure of limitless cheery chutzpah who had always pulled off the impossible before.

The film reaches an almost fever pitch as the festival’s opening approaches and the Fyre team’s moxie starts to dissolve in panic at the swirl of chaos engulfing them and their leader’s glassy refusal to admit defeat. Smith’s narrative threads are then knitted into a dark realization about the festival: Not only was the tail wagging the dog, but there may never have been a dog to start with. Stylistically, Fyre isn’t particularly unique. It doesn’t have the vérité grit of American Movie, the panicky paranoid atmospherics of Collapse, or the inside-out meta-narrative of Jim & Andy. In terms of format, this is straightforward cine-journalism with a clear point of view and a riveting story.

What Smith brings to the documentary isn’t just an assembling of footage along a narrative pathway. He invests the story with a humanity that nearly all the earlier news coverage of the debacle had missed. While chronicling McFarland’s misdeeds, Smith keeps a focus on the true victims. The most salient moments in Fyre admittedly aren’t the dramatic cascade of chaos leading up to the final collapse, or even the brazen scams McFarland continued to pull off afterward—once again, promising exclusive access to things that he couldn’t deliver but pocketing the cash anyway. Instead they come when Smith shows the infuriated Bahamian laborers who worked grueling schedules for weeks, or the tearful local businesswoman who lost her life savings. These are the black, working-class voices who never featured in all the ha-ha finger pointing after the festival’s implosion. They’re the ones who went unpaid so that a Manhattan grifter could, as he put it, “sell a pipe dream to the average loser.”

Director: Chris Smith Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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